Nietzsche’s comment that “the enemy of truth is not lies but convictions” comes to mind while reading An Environmental Agenda for the Future, a collection of statements by leaders of major environmental organizers. In a book of scatter-shot propositions, a few hits are inevitable: the contributors are surely right to criticize misuse of resources and to recommend that some pristine land should be set aside for parks. But deciding what constitutes misuse and how much land should be allocated for parks is actually much harder than these self-righteous environmentalists seem to realize.
Occasionally environmentalist convictions verge on absurdity. For example, one contributor sees “no inevitable significant conflict . . . between economic strength and environmental protection.” If our economy were entirely a matter of hairdressers and beauticians and we had no smokestack industries, this might be a plausible assertion. But Japan’s best efforts have not yet produced that reality. Environmental controls are a cost of manufacturing and industry. The justifications for this cost should not obscure the economic realities. Some people may choose to pay the costs for a cleaner environment but let no one tell us that pollution control is free.
The authors do little more to win our credence when they turn from assessing the hazards of oil spills to debating the prospects of nuclear holocaust. They naively accept the “nuclear winter” hypothesis of Carl Sagan, Paul Ehrlich, et al., oblivious to recent scientific experiments at Los Alamos which have cast doubts upon this icy scenario. In this matter, as in so many others covered in this book, a discernible political agenda takes priority over dispassionate analysis. For all their professions of objectivity, the authors are advocates armed with indignation.
Perhaps the contributors’ ideological commitment is most transparent on the population issue. The authors contend that 4.8 billion people “are overtaxing the capacities of some of the world’s biological systems to support them, and are in fact reducing the earth’s productive resource base at the very time when still more resources will be required to take care of the growing population,” How then does one explain the continual reduction in the price of minerals per man-hour of labor? How does one explain similar trends for all major food commodities? How does one explain the rise of middle-class nations on the Asian rim at the same time these populations have increased enormously in the post-World War II era? The authors make the common error of misinterpreting the way in which wealth is created. Inert minerals in the ground create no wealth. Raw materials constitute but a precondition for wealth production. Wealth is generated by capital, labor, the application of technology, and—most important of all—by human ingenuity. Sand has no intrinsic value, but it can be converted into silicon crystals, then into glass fibers, and finally applied within a fiber-optics communication system.
If we are running out of resources, as the authors maintain, the market system will generate financial incentives for alternatives. The present oil glut is due in no small part to conservation steps taken during the 1970’s when the price of oil escalated dramatically. As Justice Hand once argued, “Every accident is in search of a rescue.” Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. The problem is that some people, particularly those who believe they have a monopoly on solutions, ignore the miracles wrought by market pressure and urge the adoption of new government regulations and programs. As strategies in the Energy Department in the 1970’s indicated, markets are smarter than Washington bureaucrats.
It would be easier to excuse the environmentalists for their ignorance of history if they better understood the present. But their defective analysis is too fragile to survive collision with any number of facts: that the amount of potable water has increased by one third since 1960; that damage to the earth’s ozone layer caused by fluorocarbons is reversed by the nitrogen oxide emissions from jet planes; that we produce more food than ever before at lower prices and with fewer farmers and with one-third of all farmland in this country intentionally kept idle; that there is more than enough food to feed the world’s starving people if we could only resolve distribution and political problems. It comes as no surprise that the bibliography excludes the works of Julian Simon, Edith Efron, Herman Kahn, Vassily Leontief, and others who might mention such unpleasantly encouraging facts. Only in the environmentalist movement—where ignorance masquerades as “concerned sensibility” and counterarguments are treated like toxic waste—could a book like this get written or purchased.
[An Environmental Agenda for the Future, edited by Robert Cahn; Agenda Press: Washington, DC]