Environmentalist, Heal Thyself

HEALING THE PLANET: STRATEGIES FOR RESOLVING THE ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS By Paul R. Erlich and Anne H. Erlich, Addison-Wesley, 366 pp., [...]

May 1 1992 by Ronald Bailey

HEALING THE PLANET: STRATEGIES FOR RESOLVING THE ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS By Paul R. Erlich and Anne H. Erlich, Addison-Wesley, 366 pp., $22.95.

FREE MARKET ENVIRONMENTALISM By Terry L. Anderson and Donald R. Leal, Westview Press, 192 pp., S33.50.

Paul Ehrlich has been forecasting doom for nearly a quarter of a century-yet the end never gets any nearer. In his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, he predicted: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines-hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” At the same time he painted lurid scenarios of future doom, predicting that by 1980 the oceans would die and U.S. life expectancy would plummet to a mere 42 years due to pesticide poisoning.

Furthermore, he predicted that hundreds of thousands of Americans would choke to death during “smoke disasters” in New York and Los Angeles by 1973, and that a “Great Die-Off” would leave the U.S. with a population of only 35 million by 1990. He prophesied that the “Green Revolution” in Third World agriculture would be a massive failure. And finally, he claimed we were running out of nonrenewable resources.

Of course, none of these gloomy predictions came true. Yet, with each year, Ehrlich garners ever more respect from policy makers, intellectuals, and the press. It is as if astrologer Jeanne Dixon were to be elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences on the basis of her horoscopes. The conventional wisdom of doom never goes out of style, and its peddlers are handsomely rewarded by an ever more fearful society.

Now comes Ehrlich’s most recent addition to his already lengthy corpus of apocalyptic environmentalism (coauthored with his wife), Healing the Planet. Connoisseurs will immediately recognize the familiar Ehrlich style, complete with new predictions of impending doom based on the thinnest of scientific data. The predictions, of course, are followed by massive global programs for social and economic reform. Ehrlich never tires of menacing the world with famine. In Healing, he sings the old familiar refrain again-”a billion more people could starve in the first few decades of the next century.” The apocalypse has been delayed, without acknowledgement, from the 1970s to, say, the 2020s. But notice that past predictive failures have caused Ehrlich to become more cautious: He no longer forthrightly declares that billions will starve, but instead shifts to the conditional tense, billions could starve.

Always on the cutting edge, Ehrlich incorporates the doom du jour into his latest prognostications. But not even Ehrlich is totally impervious to evidence. He now churlishly admits that “there are no serious limitations on fossil-fuel supplies now or in the immediate future” and that he was wrong about pesticides killing the oceans. In Healing, he still worries about “overpopulation,” but also embraces the latest fads, including acid rain, ozone depletion, freshwater shortages, topsoil erosion, deforestation, and the granddaddy of all environmental dooms, global warming.

Is he right this time? Probably not. As birth rates slow around the world, food production continues easily to outstrip population growth, says Hudson Institute agriculture expert Dennis Avery. World population should top out at 10-11 billion in the next century.

Moreover, in 1990, the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program completed a 10-year $600 million scientific study that concluded acid rain has caused no discernible damage to forests, crops, and lakes.

Global ozone has apparently declined to levels similar to those found in the 1960s, which harmed no one. Paradoxically, harmful ultraviolet radiation, which ozone screens out, has declined by as much as 10 percent over the past century. The Antarctic ozone “hole” has not significantly harmed the ecosystem there, nor will it grow to engulf the planet.

“The beginning of the end” is the way Ehrlich styles “global warming.” Computer models predict the globe’s average temperature will increase by 2� F to 9� F due to heat trapped by higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide liberated by burning fossil fuels. Even global warming propagandist Stephen Schneider admits there is no evidence yet for enhanced “greenhouse warming.” Distinguished MIT meteorologist Richard Lindzen dismisses predictions of catastrophic warming and says the world may experience “a virtually undetectable rise of a few tenths of a degree” over the next century. Ehrlich offers a number of draconian solutions to the “human predicament,” such as confiscatory carbon taxes, subsidies for alternative energy programs, massive wealth and technology transfers to the developing world, and reduction of living standards in industrialized countries. He asks everyone to “tithe” by devoting 10 percent of their time to environmentalism.

But perhaps an environmental counterrevolution is in the offing. Think tanks like the Political Economy Research Center (PERC) and the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE) are beginning to lay the intellectual and policy foundations of a new free-market environmentalism. PERC economist Terry Anderson and statistician Donald Leal explain how free markets protect the environment in their superb book Free Market Environmentalism. (This new free-market approach should not to be confused with the ponderings of free-market opponents like the infamous ecological economist Herman Daly.)

“At the heart of free market environmentalism is a system of well-specified property rights to natural resources,” write the authors. Much of their analysis is built on the powerful insight that people take care of the things they own. They reject the conventional argument that environmental degradation results from “market failure,” which only government can solve through regulation. Political resource managers-like market managers-impose externalities on others. According to Anderson and Leal, “Just as pollution externalities [from industry] can generate too much dirty air, political externalities can generate too much water storage, clear-cutting, wilderness, and water quality.”

For example, the U.S. Forest Service loses up to 98 cents for every dollar it spends on timber auctions in Alaska‘s Tongass National Forest. Also, exorbitant irrigation subsidies in the West lead to projects that damage nature. Some of the more grievous offenders: economically inefficient dams on world rivers, soil salinization, and fish killed because of the loss of instream flows. Direct agricultural subsidies led farmers to drain wetlands environmentalists are now anxious to save.

Political managers and the interest groups they serve simply cannot take into account all of the information needed to manage resources properly. Markets are superb at cheaply marshaling relevant information for managing all categories of resources.

Property rights are not static; they evolve over time. For example, the invention of barbed wire enabled ranchers to prevent overgrazing because they could stake out enforceable property rights out on the range. So too, will new environmental entrepreneurs delineate new property rights. Among the most important may be those involving clean air, the lumber industry, and ocean fishing grounds, the value of which can be established by market, instead of political, transactions.

The authors provide examples of how strong property rights and markets have protected everything from British rivers and Western range land to Chesapeake Bay oyster beds.

Will free-market environmentalism be given a chance? Sadly, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seems likely to become the largest central planning bureaucracy in the world, now that the Pentagon (never renowned for its efficiency) is winding down and communism has been chucked into the dustbin of history. For the Earth’s wellbeing, let’s hope environmental activists will soon scorn Ehrlich and his ilk and heed Anderson and Leal’s free-market message.

Ronald Bailey, currently at the Cato Institute, is writing a book on apocalyptic environmentalism for St. Martin’s Press.