TCS Daily

Our Fatal Conceit

By Pete Geddes - November 20, 2002 12:00 AM

Montana Governor Judy Martz blamed this summer's fires on Green groups, accusing them of "environmental terrorism." But let's be clear: drought, combined with hot, windy weather, was the chief culprit behind this season's fires. The West has a history of sporadic big fires and it always will.

While a few environmental groups do engage in terrorism (e.g., the Earth Liberation Front), in general this claim is preposterous. It equals a statement by enviro gadfly Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: "large-scale hog producers are a greater threat to... U.S. democracy than Osama bin Laden."

In the 1960s and 1970s, when environmental issues rose to prominence they generated bipartisan support. For example, Ronald Reagan declared "the absolute necessity of waging all-out war against the debauching of the environment"; Barry Goldwater was a member of the Sierra Club; and President Nixon signed many of our most important environmental laws (e.g., the Endangered Species Act and NEPA).

Since then America has grown wealthier and better educated. Along the way our environment has become ever cleaner. This is no accident. Well-educated people not only seek environmental quality for themselves, but they generally consider environmental quality an essential ingredient of a responsible culture. A cursory global survey confirms the links among education, wealth, and a clean environment.

Why, then, has the environment become a bitter partisan political issue? A recent essay from the American Enterprise Institute by Steve Hayward and Christopher DeMuth offers an explanation.

They divide environmentalism into two categories: the practical and the romantic. Practical environmentalists understand two things. First, nearly all environmental problems are scientifically complex. This means subtle links between cause and effect are hard to discern. The most effective methods to control a given pollutant are seldom immediately apparent.

Second, environmental quality is only one of several important competing values. In a world of limited resources, choices must be made. Just as people on fixed budgets must choose between buying a new television or a new sofa, societies must choose among competing goods and values (e.g., more health care, safer roads, or more funding for education). These trade-offs are inescapable. It is irresponsible to pretend they don't exist.

As a result, practical environmentalism is about learning, negotiation, and compromise. Contending interest groups value things differently, and favor different methods for achieving environmental progress. Some are wedded to regulations while others favor incentives and competition.

In contrast, romantic environmentalism holds that environmental values should trump all other values. This is fundamentally a religious position. Economic arguments are discounted or ignored. Romantic environmentalists frequently urge others to renounce modernity and opt for "voluntary simplicity." Their mantra is "Live in harmony with the earth."

Following Al Gore, they urge us to make environmentalism "the central organizing principle" of modern civilization. Kentucky farmer, lawyer, professor, and writer Wendell Berry is an eloquent spokesman for this vision. However, this view has serious flaws.

Hayward and DeMuth explain that if we make environmentalism our "central organizing principle" we must seriously inquire how to make this ethic work in practice. We must first consider mankind's place in the natural world. Then move to practical questions of law, politics, and institutional design. "In the hands of environmental activists, a theoretical environmental constitution often comes to sight as slapdash socialism."

Those advocating romantic environmentalism ignore a key lesson from history. Namely, coercive, authoritarian political movements normally generate horrid results. Castro, Franco, Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin are but extreme examples. The reality is that no society has learned how to identify Platonic despots, i.e., people who will wisely and disinterestedly safeguard the public good.

The intellectual arguments pointing out the ethical and practical problems inherent to this approach are illustrated in a 60-year-old book, The Road to Serfdom, by Nobel Prize winner F.A. Hayek. He noted planners can only plan for society by imposing their wishes and desires upon millions of individuals. Hayek explained how totalitarianism, despite the best of intentions to provide for the greater good, ends up enslaving humanity.

If we are to make progress returning the environment to its bipartisan roots and continue protecting and improving it, we must recognize the danger of romantic environmentalism for what it may become - tyranny cloaked in a Green shroud.

Pete Geddes is Program Director of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE) and Gallatin Writers. Both are based in Bozeman, Montana.

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