TCS Daily

Saving the environment from environmentalists

By James Freeman - April 3, 2000 12:00 AM

The smartest guy I know has just written a great book. So the first chance you get, buy a copy of Peter Huber's Hard Green. The subject, "a conservative manifesto for the environment," may sound a little dry, but it's an excellent read. Huber explains with clear logic what so many of us have felt in our guts.

Huber, a former MIT engineering professor, shows why burning oil and smashing atoms are good for the environment. And why encouraging solar power would lead to environmental disaster. In trashing another cherished urban myth, Huber explains why biotechnology is saving the environment, while trendy "organic" farming destroys wilderness.

Here's the basic idea - if you want to save the planet, you have to use the efficiencies that come from technology.

Most environmental debates today involve claims of unseen chemical threats or predictions of doom at some unknowable future date. Huber moves beyond theories of environmental harm to focus on the things we can actually measure. Like the amount of wilderness in the United States. And he shows that modern environmentalism destroys wilderness areas, because it forces us to use more land.

Take the energy needs of New York City as an example. Every day, New Yorkers consume 55 watts per square meter of land, averaged over 24 hours. Since the best solar panels can collect only 20 watts per square meter averaged over a typical day, you'd have a hard time lighting the place with solar energy. Yes, you could cover a lot of rooftops with solar panels. But even if you covered every square inch of the place - every sidewalk, every street, all of Central Park -- with photo-voltaic cells, you'd still need to clear a wilderness area almost twice the size of the city to deliver the necessary energy.

Well, you might say, solar panels will become more efficient in the future. Maybe, but keep in mind that the sun only sends us 180 watts of energy per square meter. You can't turn up the volume on the sun. And even if you could collect and store all of that energy with 100% efficiency (highly unlikely, as 20% is usually considered outstanding), you'd still have to clear-cut huge areas of wilderness to meet our energy needs.

That's because right now a coal mine yields 5,000 watts per square meter, and an oil field yields close to 10,000. By digging down into the ground, by using the stored, concentrated solar energy of fossil fuels, we avoid clearing the land. We save wilderness. Nuclear power, extracting enormous amounts of energy from tiny uranium atoms, is the most environmentally-friendly resource of all.

The story is the same for high-tech farming. Outlaw pesticides, restrict the use of new technologies, and you deprive farmers of the tools they use to become more efficient. That means they'll get less food from the same area of land. That means they need to clear more land to feed us. Low-tech organic farming may be popular, but it destroys wilderness.

Some critics will say that if we didn't have so many people on this planet, we wouldn't have this problem. We wouldn't need to use dangerous technologies to grow more crops or heat our homes. I think the burden of proof is on the critics. As the population has increased and technology has advanced, we've grown richer, healthier and longer-lived. And there's no limit to growth in sight. Even today, all of our homes, buildings and roads occupy less than three percent of the land in the lower 48 states.

Other critics will say that burning fossil fuels may save wilderness areas, but it also dumps CO2 into the atmosphere and causes global warming. If you believe the theory, here's the good news: thanks to efficient use of land, we have lots of trees in the US, so we actually consume more CO2 than we produce. Scientists call the US a "carbon sink." You don't hear too much about it because it makes it hard to blame us for global warming.

After reading Huber's Hard Green, you'll find it hard not to agree with him.

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