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An Un-Earthly Point of View


Edited by Ronald Bailey. The Free Press, 472 pp., 815.

Are you one of those recalcitrant types who never made the switch from convenient spray to goopy roll-on deodorant? Do you dine regularly on allegedly carcinogenic hot dogs? Resist recycling your newspapers? Been known to smuggle half-empty paint tins into your household garbage instead of obediently making the annual pilgrimage to your town’s dump on Toxic Waste Day? If so, then “The True State of the Planet” is the (groan!) breath of fresh air you’ve been waiting for.

In this major challenge to the environmental movement, 10 premier scholars including Berkeley’s Bruce Ames and Harvard’s Nicholas Eberstadt shatter what they see as the myths of overpopulation, food shortages, global warming, and pesticides, while redirecting concern to far more urgent-and far less fashionable-problems such as fisheries, fresh water, and Third World pollution.

Since the first Earth Day in 1970, the environmental movement has scored some undeniable successes. In the Western world at least, air and water are much cleaner. But the movement also has been spectacularly wrong, the authors conclude. They offer the following assessments:

  • Cancer: Contrary to advertisement, synthetic chemicals are not causing a cancer epidemic. Cancer death rates have been declining for decades. The exception: lung cancer, primarily caused by smoking. Long live Oscar Mayer.
  • Global warming: Global temperature records do show an increase-0.54 of a degree since 1881. But some 70 percent of that warming took place before 1930 and any buildup of greenhouse gases. Since 1979, the atmosphere actually has cooled by 0.13 degrees.
  • Hunger: Despite highly been cheaper or more plentiful. In the Third World, food production is increasing at more than twice the rate of population growth. And the 5 percent of the world’s people who are at risk of famine are in that situation because of war or authoritarian government policies, not drought.
  • Forests: No, buying the Sunday New York Times does not make you an accomplice in the decimation of our forests. America‘s forests have been expanding, not receding, since 1920. Some 4 million seedlings are planted daily in America.

You get the idea.

The authors trace the early errors of the environmental movement to its Malthusianism: the pessimistic and, they believe, wrong assumption that humanity tends to reproduce faster than the food supply. The corollary-that past behavior would continue unless changed by direct orders from above-has shaped what they call the “first wave solutions”: the top-down imposition of laws and regulations. These paradoxically impair people’s capacity to change behavior and priorities on their own.

Specifically, the authors claim, the environmental movement’s bias against a market-feedback mechanism inhibits technological and institutional advances that make it possible for society to address shortages effectively. That’s because communal institutions find it difficult to create the incentives needed to mobilize the knowledge dispersed among their members.

It is no coincidence that over the past decades, private property-based market economies advanced both economic and ecological objectives more effectively than did centrally planned economies. For example: The former East Germany consumed 40 percent more energy per person and more than 350 percent more energy per person per GNP dollar than West Germany.

A further problem with top-down regulation: Perhaps in no other sphere of public life is the good held hostage to the perfect as wastefully as in environmental policy. The law of diminishing returns means that economic resources are being poured into areas that pose little threat, while other, more critical problems receive relatively little attention. Thus, Superfund is, at the cost of billions of dollars, forcing the cleanup of waste sites that some scientists say pose no real risks.

Of course, the case for free market environmentalism is clearest where property rights are best-defined. Other problems, such as acid rain, are more difficult. But the underlying principle-voluntary action-remains, even if technology lags.

The authors call for a “second wave” environmentalism in which environmental values are afforded the same protection as economic assets. After all, because ownership promotes stewardship, there is a strong affinity between property rights and environmental protection. As Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which sponsored the book, concludes: “We cannot deny the existence of the house of humanity. Our goal instead must be to integrate the house of humanity with the house of nature.”

Of course, that’s much easier said than done.

Margaret Laws is director of the Political Club for Growth in New York and a widely published business and political writer.


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