Environment: The Manufactured Crisis | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Environment: The Manufactured Crisis

In theory, environmentalism is based on science In practice, it's more like a religion.


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About 15 years ago I met an economist with a bald head, a crooked smile, and some of the most outrageous ideas I'd ever heard. Our air and water are cleaner than they've been for decades, he said. There's more food per capita in the world every year. Supposedly scarce energy and mineral resources have been getting cheaper over the decades, not more expensive. Population growth is good because it adds to the number of active, inquiring, innovative human minds--the ultimate resource of civilization.

His name was Julian Simon, and he wasn't a biologist. He taught economics at the U. of I. in Champaign, and he'd just written a book on running a mail-order business. What did he know about the fate of the earth? But I was a writer and he was a story, and many of his claims were well documented. Besides, I knew that expertise is where you find it, having just written a series of articles lauding the ability of blue-collar grandmothers to learn enough about toxicology to attack landfill siting on technical grounds.

It was Simon's most outre claim that left the longest-lasting impression on me. There's no real oil shortage, he said. When prognosticators warn that there are only 20 or 35 or 50 years' supply left, they mean at current prices, extracted with current technology. Once the price goes up significantly, it becomes worth someone's while to look for oil farther away, deeper down, or in more diluted form. If the price of oil goes high enough, it'll become worth someone's while to perfect alternatives: cars powered by electricity or hydrogen, for instance, that aren't competitive when gas is cheap. After all, he pointed out, we don't care about oil for its black shiny self. All we need are the services it provides. Over time, innovation and substitution have made them cheaper.

The figures do show that most raw materials are less expensive now than they were a century or two ago. And make no mistake about it, long-term price trends are a good measure of scarcity or plenty. The people who make a living selling timber, iron ore, and hemp are many things, but stupid isn't one of them. They aren't likely to be repeatedly and systematically selling resources at significantly lower prices than they could command.

Of course you can always shore up your belief that resources are limited as I did 15 years ago--concede that Simon is right about the past, but insist that our time is different. We're in a new era, right? Besides, how could anyone hope to prove that the right kind of technological innovation will take place? Maybe nobody will figure out how to find more oil even if gas hits $10 a gallon. Maybe nobody will be smart enough to find a substitute.

But this is a drastic assumption to make when you consider that we only need one successful entrepreneur to make up for 10,000 failures. And it concedes a key point: the seemingly self-evident notion that planet earth has a fixed "carrying capacity" for people--the way a forest has a fixed carrying capacity for deer--isn't self-evident at all. Deer don't figure out ways to make two edible twigs grow where only one grew before, nor do they design apartment houses and the social structures that make them livable.

Then again, maybe there are plenty of resources and ingenuity--but our ceaseless exploitation of them is ruining the earth and causing an environmental crisis. What good is plenty of oil when there's a shortage of clean air?

That's what I used to think. But the evidence suggests otherwise:

Since 1970 in the U.S. air pollutants are down from 192 million metric tons per year to 127 million, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

U.S. wooded acreage has increased 20 percent in the last 20 years (Journal of Forestry, November 1990).

Illinois enjoys "relatively low" soil-erosion rates, and they declined in 96 of 102 counties between 1982 and 1987 (Illinois Natural History Survey Reports, July/August 1994).

Concentrations of PCBs, DDT, and metals in U.S. mussels and sediments are declining (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Status and Trends Program).

Even believers in a global-warming catastrophe acknowledge that the signal of such a change cannot be distinguished from the "noise" of natural climate variation (Scientific American, February 1994).

It's still not clear whether stratospheric ozone depletion is causing skin-damaging ultraviolet-B radiation to increase at ground level (Science, February 12, 1988, and November 12, 1993).

Tropical deforestation is at less than 1 percent per year of total tropical forest acreage (UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 1992), and there's some evidence that the clearing of virgin forests and rain forests is an even smaller percentage.

World population is still increasing, but the rate of increase is declining and expected to hit zero in about 100 years. That's the consensus of the World Bank, the U.S. Census Bureau, the United Nations, and the Population Reference Bureau, though you won't find it in the 12-page special report on population in the July/August Audubon.

None of these findings is conclusive of course--and I for one could happily make do with less air pollution than 127 million metric tons per year--but they hardly look like indicators of a large flock of chickens coming home to roost. They look like a bunch of environmental problems, not an all-pervasive crisis.

Nevertheless, many people now believe that the only way to preserve "nature" is an immediate total transformation of how human beings live, work, and breed. They aren't winning all the legislative battles, but they are shaping the way we talk and think. Even people who've never heard of E.F. Schumacher or the Club of Rome perk up when you mention environmental-crisis buzzwords like "limits to growth," "small is beautiful," or "everything is connected to everything else."

Simon didn't convert me to his way of thinking. His opponents did. At that time, the end of the Carter era, I thought he mixed into his good points a lot of half-truths and special pleading. He didn't appreciate nonsubstitutable resources like endangered species, and he seemed awfully complacent.

Meanwhile, he moved on to the University of Maryland and wrote a book with Herman Kahn in which they blew President Carter's gloom-and-doom Global 2000 Report out of the water. Stewart Brand was so impressed that in 1985 he gave their book a full-page article in his Whole Earth Review magazine and challenged environmentalists to pay attention.

The only ones who did were Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb) and two colleagues. In his book The Ultimate Resource, Simon had challenged environmental doomsayers: "If you are prepared to pay me now the current market price for $1,000 or $100 worth of any mineral you name (or other raw material including grain and fossil fuels) that is not government controlled, I will agree to pay you the market price of the same amount of that raw material on any future date you now specify." In other words, find a raw material you believe is getting scarcer. If you're right, it will get more expensive, and you can make his theory look bad and make a profit at the same time.

In the fall of 1980 Ehrlich bet Simon that copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten would cost more in 1990. He lost. Each one got cheaper. In constant dollars, $1,000 worth of an equal mix of those five minerals in 1980 cost only $618 in 1990. Even in inflated dollars, the price fell.

Ehrlich paid off the bet. But speaking to reporter John Tierney in the New York Times Magazine, he "explained" his loss in words that under the circumstances seemed both mean spirited and unscientific: "The bet doesn't mean anything. Julian Simon is like the guy who jumps off the Empire State Building and says how great things are going so far, as he passes the 10th floor."

That could of course be true. But when a real scientist's experiment goes awry, that scientist normally feels some obligation to figure out what went wrong. The shame doesn't lie in making a mistake--it lies in not learning from it.

Few people in the movement--let alone the media--noticed that their worldview had failed a significant test. In recent years "limited resources" has been the gospel, presented at the 1993 Parliament of World's Religions and on Chicago public radio. The Neighborhood Works, published by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, publishes a regular column by an unrepentant coauthor of the dubious but famous 1972 study The Limits to Growth. I recently ran into an old friend with a doctorate and a job teaching college students how to think about the environment: he'd never heard of Simon or his arguments.

What about the movement's deep thinkers? In 1989 economist Herman Daly and theologian John Cobb wrote a big book on how to move toward a no-growth "sustainable" economy (For the Common Good). Obviously this would be a silly project if Simon were correct that our current economy is already sustainable, as long as materials and ideas are traded freely, keeping resources cheap and plentiful. Daly didn't ignore Simon. He did something worse: in less than a page, he summarized Simon's work in a transparently dishonest way, quoting not his argument but one of his outlandish illustrative metaphors.

Without really wanting to, I began to see the same kind of willful ignorance on other environmental issues. Reading climatologist Robert Balling's The Heated Debate, I was surprised at how flimsy the case for a global-warming catastrophe is. I saw the environmental movement in effect deep-six the ten-year, $500-million National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program when its conclusions failed to confirm fears of acid-rain apocalypse for northeastern forests and crops. I saw those who question the movement's strategy and tactics--Patricia Poore of Garbage magazine and Keith Schneider of the New York Times, for two--treated not as mistaken friends to be reasoned with, but as heretics and corporate pawns.

E magazine associate editor Will Nixon has tried to turn these false prophecies into a joke. In the November/December 1993 issue he acknowledged that "Ehrlich foresaw killer smogs smothering Los Angeles and New York City in 1973, famine spreading around the globe by 1975, and World War III opening on October 13, 1979. Lester Brown [coauthor of the State of the World series] has predicted major dropoffs in world grain production--in 1967, 1974 and 1989." Nixon's conclusion: these errors gave him "a good chuckle" and movement critics shouldn't take the errors so seriously!

In theory, environmentalism is based on science. In practice, it's more like a religion. This is not necessarily the case with other public issues. As Charles Rubin points out in The Green Crusade, "Opponents and proponents of gun control do try to refute each other's readings of the meaning of the constitutional 'right to bear arms.' Those who are 'pro-life' and those who are 'pro-choice' do take explicit issue with each other over such things as a constitutional right to privacy, or when life or personhood begins."

But similar debates about environmentalism are rare. "Environmental popularizers tend to assume that critical disagreement springs either from ignorance [to be cured by another recitation of horror stories] or from a desire to protect well-entrenched, narrow interests [cured by pointing them out]," writes Rubin. "In neither case is it [thought] necessary to meet or refute the arguments on their own terms."

So what do you do if you find yourself respecting nature more than its most visible advocates? You could write a book piling up the evidence that many environmental crises (and remedies) are bogus, and hope someone notices. That's what Chicago writers Joseph Bast, Peter Hill, and Richard Rue have done in Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism. They're not the first to try to debunk claims of world-threatening crises caused by cancer, global warming, ozone depletion, acid rain, deforestation, pesticides, nuclear power, automobiles, resource depletion, plastic, electromagnetic fields, oil spills, and toxic chemicals. But compared to their predecessors in the genre (especially the ranting Dixie Lee Ray), they're more careful about their research and more temperate in their tone of voice. Bast and company regard scare tactics and regulatory solutions as holdovers from the environmental movement's adolescence. But they don't deny the movement's achievements, and they want to do more about what they consider real problems, such as federally subsidized timber sales and nonpoint pollution of air and water.

I read and commented on an early draft of this book, and the authors made some changes in response. But I'm still not sure they have everything right. They're more optimistic about pesticides and landfills than I am. They cite a six-year-old research report that ultraviolet-B is not increasing, and fail to mention a November 1993 report that it is. But they acknowledge that they're "laymen who have conducted a survey of available research" intending to inspire debate, not close it out. And they deliberately focus on provocative research findings that don't usually make it into the media: proven world oil reserves are now estimated at 991 billion barrels compared to 648 billion in 1978; satellite measurements do not show global temperatures increasing; and the electromagnetic field of an electric shaver is between 2.5 and 150 times stronger than that of an (allegedly carcinogenic) overhead power line.

Some debunking attempts are more persuasive than others. It's harder to defend nuclear power than to defend cars against vice president Al Gore's hysterical claim that they pose "a mortal threat to the security of every nation that is more deadly than that of any military enemy." Still, the overall points made by Bast et al hold: First, we face environmental problems, not a single overarching environmental crisis. And second, there are no free solutions. Contrary to environmentalist orthodoxy, we have to balance costs and benefits in order to spend environmental-protection dollars most effectively. The authors present a table of estimates, according to which diphtheria immunizations in Gambia cost $87 per death averted, while a U.S. ban on land disposal of hazardous waste would cost $4.2 billion per death averted. The specific figures may be debatable, but the point is not: a dollar spent on hypothetical hazards will not be spent on real ones.

Bast, Hill, and Rue are all associated with the Heartland Institute, a Palatine-based, market-oriented think tank. But they make their secondary case--that incentives to clean up usually work faster and cheaper than regulations--on environmental, not economic, grounds. Recycling is their easiest case. Instead of mandatory recycling of newspapers, cans, or plastic, they point out how much simpler it would be to charge for garbage disposal by the bag--so that households pay in proportion to the landfill space they use and have a dependably selfish reason to recycle or to create less waste in the first place. (When landfill space is really scarce, each additional bag could be priced higher than the one before.)

Some local environmental advocates have come around to this way of thinking, but mainstream environmentalism is still more comfortable with legally required recycling than it is with pricing garbage disposal at its true cost and then letting people make up their own minds. Where is the national pay-by-the-bag campaign?

Hard-core conservatives are quick to conclude that environmentalists must be "watermelon socialists"--green on the outside, red on the inside--who deliberately invent crises and then call for command-and-control solutions. The authors of Eco-Sanity refrain from any such inflammatory rhetoric. But a question does linger in the mind: if the environmental movement lurches from one unproven crisis to another, and if it shies away from efficient remedies to real problems, then what is going on?

That's the question Charles Rubin, a professor of political science at Duquesne University, sets out to answer in The Green Crusade: Rethinking the Roots of Environmentalism, the best book I've seen on the movement. He puts environmentalism in context as the "heir to the antislavery and temperance movements and thus a part of the ongoing saga of evangelical reform that has characterized American history." Then he goes back to its chief popularizers--Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, Paul Ehrlich, Garrett Hardin, the authors of The Limits to Growth, E.F. Schumacher, and biocentric "deep ecologists" Arne Naess, William Devall, and George Sessions. Several of the classics Rubin rereads are two or three decades old. It doesn't matter. Silent Spring, The Closing Circle, and Small Is Beautiful may lack the latest jargon (now it's "sustainability" instead of "limits to growth"), but they have set the tone and the terms for environmental thinking ever since.

With finesse and good humor, Rubin tracks down these writers' errors of fact and judgment: Carson's systematic misquotation of her scientific sources and her dubious concept of a delicate, static "balance of nature"; Commoner's superficial understanding of the socialism he advocates; Ehrlich's addiction to false prophecies; The Limits to Growth authors' practice of "science by press release" that helped them avoid serious discussion of the merits of their study.

But this is just the pregame. Even though these errors are serious, Rubin is tracking a more elusive quarry: where do environmental ideas come from? "How do 'we all know' that the earth is in danger, that everything is connected to everything else, that too many people live here, that smaller is better?"

It seems like common sense. According to former EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus, "Most people do not need a scientific panel to tell them that air is not supposed to be brown, that streams are not supposed to ignite and stink, that beaches are not supposed to be covered with raw sewage."

But common sense changes. "Most people did not need the temperance movement to tell them they did not like being accosted by drunks, but that didn't tell them what was to be done about the problem," Rubin writes. "Not all that long ago, the stink of raw sewage was simply a fact of life, and within the memory of my generation the belching smokestack was a symbol of progress and power." So what was the key to the shift in attitude? "Changing the public perception of such things required not only that they come to be seen first and foremost as 'pollution.' It also required adoption of a perspective from which brown air and smelly streams were all part of the same problem."

Rubin faithfully follows every twist and turn of his subjects' writings without falling into rhetoric and without forgetting where he's going. Reading him is like watching a master cabinetmaker turn rough-sawed wood into an elegant table. Almost offhandedly he explains why the limits-to-growth idea has had such tremendous staying power among environmentalists, despite its feeble grounding in science or economics: it plugged a crucial hole. If we have messed up some part of nature and aren't sure of the right way to fix it, then it would seem to make sense to take some time to figure out what's wrong. But if instead humanity is about to run out of oil, or land, or clean air, then we have to act now and change totally to save ourselves. It becomes the "conservative" option to avert every proposed new crisis before it can be verified; those who count the cost reveal themselves as the enemy.

Carson, Ehrlich, Commoner, and the rest "have made the price of failing to change our ways nothing less than the destruction of human life--perhaps most life--on earth," Rubin writes. "The scope of the means must be total, to match the scope and urgency of the end. Hence we see global schemes of economic and political control, sweeping revisions of value structures, vast increases in the powers of government. Building a sewage treatment plant is not nearly as interesting."

It's not just that we should have fewer children--we must be compelled to do so (Ehrlich and Hardin). It's not just that chlorine should be banned--it's that centralized planning must control what is produced and how it is used (Commoner). And, out on the fringe, it's not just that we should learn to value nature more--we should embrace the "fully realized ecological self" of the idealized forest-dwelling primitive Sasquatch and begin the "unmaking of civilization" (the deep ecologists).

In a crisis, time is of the essence and freedom must be sacrificed. "Ecological considerations must guide economic and political ones," Commoner wrote in The Closing Circle. What Rubin finds at the heart of these otherwise very different environmental thinkers is the desire to reorganize society around a single guiding idea of what is right. And the correct word for such a desire is "totalitarian."

Of course, most of us who recycle, ride the el, plant trees, and take wildflower walks and canoe trips aren't thinking this way. We don't have time, and it's not what we signed up for anyway. Rubin recognizes this. His point is that we can't resist the utopian, totalitarian push in environmentalism if we don't know it's there.

He suspects that the concept of "the environment" itself may be part of the problem. The textbook definition--"the combination of all things and factors external to the individual or population of organisms in question"--excludes nothing. "The environment" refers to everything. No wonder "those who attempt to deal with 'the environment' find themselves so consistently drawn to totalitarian schemes. For the environment is the totality; to solve environmental problems requires that we try to solve all problems at once. It assumes, because everything is connected to everything else, that the diversity of the world is ultimately reducible to a unitary "environment" that can be dealt with as such.

"If we simply purged 'environment' and its cognates from our vocabulary, we would have to talk about specific problems all the time: sulfur dioxide pollution in urban areas, or the decline of desert tortoise populations in Nevada. Such instances would no longer be icons of something bigger. They would be in themselves the focus of attention. We would then have to know something about what we are talking about; Gary Snyder is correct that "environmental concern' however heartfelt gets us nowhere."

Unfortunately, a world-class diagnosis like Rubin's rarely makes the patient feel better. For that comfort we can turn to a beautifully written book that transcends its genre, Second Nature: A Gardener's Education. Author Michael Pollan, executive editor of Harper's, does what Rubin suggests. As a gardener he faces specific problems--from a perfectionistic grandfather to a gluttonous woodchuck--not global challenges. He sees gardening as a symbol of how people can usefully and productively relate to nature: "The green thumb is the gardener who can nimbly walk the line between the dangers of over- and undercultivation, between pushing nature too far and giving her too much ground. . . . To occupy such a middle ground is not easy--the temptation is always to either take complete control or relinquish it altogether, to invoke your own considerable (but in the end overrated) power or to bend to nature's. The first way is that of the developer, the second that of the "nature lover.' The green thumb, who will be neither heroic nor romantic, avoids both extremes."

With its calmness, clarity, and humor, Second Nature is the exact opposite of the confused, overheated melodrama in Bill McKibben's The End of Nature--without being Pollyannaish. Pollan's viewpoint has its local activist counterpart in the Nature Conservancy's Volunteer Stewardship Network, whose members "garden" publicly and privately owned land to resemble presettlement prairies and savannas.

Pollan doesn't do battle directly with the predictors of doom or the bearers of utopian flags. He's grappling with the romantic idea that underlies both--the view of nature as wilderness, something profoundly opposed to human culture. And that puts him up against a real heavyweight, Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau, Pollan writes, was "the last important American writer on nature to have anything to say about gardening. He planted a bean field at Walden and devoted a chapter to his experiences in it. But the bean field . . . got Thoreau into all sorts of trouble. His romance of wild nature left him feeling guilty about discriminating against weeds . . . and he couldn't see why he was any more entitled to the harvest of his garden than the resident woodchucks and birds. Badly tangled up in contradictions between his needs and nature's prerogatives, Thoreau had to forsake the bean field, eventually declaring that he would prefer the most dismal swamp to any garden."

Thoreau has been dead for 132 years, but the perverse consequences of his way of thinking persist. Pollan describes the dilemma his New England town faced when a 1989 tornado blew down a treasured two-century-old 42-acre stand of pines on its common. What to do with a place that people tended to think of as a piece of wilderness? "Leaving it to nature" Thoreau-style is no answer, explains Pollan, because the pines had been old but not "natural," and "nature" might well grow Norway maples or a brush tangle of Japanese honeysuckle in their place. "Forest succession," Pollan discovered on talking to experts, "is only a theory, a metaphor of our making, and almost as often as not nature makes a fool of it." Nevertheless, the decision was to leave the pines where they fell, though a 50-foot-wide firebreak perimeter was cleared--a "grotesque" result in Pollan's view. But it was the logical outcome of a "wilderness ethic" that considers it just as bad for people to select which trees should grow there as it would be for people to build condominiums.

"Thanks to exactly this kind of either/or thinking"--which Rubin would no doubt note is totalitarian in its way--"Americans have done an admirable job of drawing lines around certain sacred areas (we did invent the wilderness area) and a terrible job of managing the rest of our land. The reason is not hard to find: the only environmental ethic we have has nothing useful to say about those areas outside the line. Once a landscape is no longer 'virgin' it is typically written off as fallen, lost to nature, irredeemable."

This abstract, romantic way of thinking about nature only makes for confusion. It leads us into temptation, encouraging us to treat apocalyptic theories as fact and to lust after totalistic solutions. It made Thoreau give up his garden and go over to the Emersons' to eat food someone else had grown (probably in more objectionable ways than he had grown his beans). In the interest of both intellectual honesty and "the environment," let us cultivate our garden.

The Green Crusade: Rethinking the Roots of Environmentalism by Charles Rubin, Free Press, $22.95

Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism by Joseph Bast, Peter Hill, and Richard Rue, Madison Books, $22.95

Second Nature: A Gardener's Education by Michael Pollan, Dell, $10.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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