Five years ago, a senior executive of a major trade association in Washington D.C. told me, in almost reverential tones, that Peter Huber was writing a book that would do for the debate over environmental policy what his 1988 tome, Liability, did for the tort reform debate: redefine key concepts and terms, devastate the positions of the Left, and advance a new paradigm for advocates of free enterprise and limited government. Huber delivered on his promise, though this reviewer found the book a disappointment in some ways.
Dismantling Radical Environmentalism
Huber is brilliant as dismantling radical environmentalism. Like the late Julian Simon, Huber believes human creativity trumps natural resource depletion and that history proves this to be so. Jay Forrester, whose computer models drive the Limits to Growth school of thought, “counted mouths, but behind every human mouth there cogitates a brain.” (10)
Huber exposes the contradictory claims by environmentalists that complexity is “brittle” when it is the result of human design and technology, yet stable when it is the result of blind evolutionary processes taking place over millions of years. Why is it, he asks, that “everything about genetic diversity that is good in the canopies of the rain forest is bad in the laboratory beakers of Monstanto and Genentech”? (43)
Environmentalists, writes Huber, believe capitalism cannot control pollution because the solution — to “privatize” pollution by issuing tradeable permits to create emissions — requires expanding the embrace of private property rights, taboo according to the movement’s Marxist intellectuals. Yet privatizing pollution, correctly done, “neither expand[s] the private sector’s right to pollute nor expand[s] the public sector’s power to regulate. The upshot is less private pollution and a diminished public sector, too.” (123)
Environmentalists believe being frugal in one’s lifestyle “trickles up” to fewer natural resources used, fewer mines worked or wells pumped, and therefore less impact on the natural world. But Huber points out that in the real world, being frugal has no net effect on natural resource consumption because others will use what the ascetic leaves untouched. Be frugal if you like, Huber says, but don’t kid yourself that your self-sacrifice is saving the environment.
The “Hard Green” Alternative
Huber’s new conservationism, which he calls “Hard Green,” champions human ingenuity against the ideology of limits; privatizing pollution; limiting government power; expanding public and private protection of wilderness areas; and increasing reliance on technologies such as nuclear power and genetic engineering that reduce the human impact on the planet’s surface.
As we grow richer, according to Huber, our aesthetic sense grows finer and we tolerate less pollution and place a higher value on preserving open space. Since markets are by far the best way to create wealth, it follows that markets are green, too. All that is necessary for the future to be both wealthy and green, according to Huber, is “to keep things heading toward property, not away from it, to keep moving from public toward private, from collective prescription toward private control, from government mandate toward market exchange.” (136-7)
Huber departs occasionally from a school of thought that emphasizes sound science and free-market approaches to environmental protection created by a group of thinkers that includes the late Julian Simon, Richard Stroup, John Baden, Randal O’Toole, Lynn Scarlett, and Terry Anderson. That school of thought, called free-market environmentalism or New Era environmentalism, has earned a place in debates over the future of the environmental movement and, more gradually, in current political debates.
The Wilderness Exception
Huber’s biggest deviation concerns the provision of public goods. He makes sweeping admissions about the market’s failure to “attach proper value to public goods: wolf and forest, eagle and ozone layer, whale and ocean.” (18) On these subjects Soft Greens “are simply right. They have here an unanswerable case for government intervention of some kind.” (18)
The intervention Huber seems to favor is the government “buying up green spaces, river banks, watersheds, and forests” and “setting it aside forever,” (132) but perhaps only for large areas or areas, such as Yellowstone, that he thinks are symbols of nationhood. (90-91, 157) He would prohibit all economic activities other than recreation on such land. (93) He implies that this won’t interfere with economic growth or individual freedom since only “uneconomic” resources would be set aside. (99)
Huber’s “wilderness exception” is based on flawed reasoning. He gives us no clue as to how big must a piece of land must be before it requires government ownership, and his appeal to some sort of economy of scale in forestry is never made explicit or defended.
Just because wilderness is preserved for aesthetic reasons rather than economic utility doesn’t mean markets can’t deliver the optimum amount of preservation. If for-profit organizations won’t do the job, nonprofit groups can and often do step in. And isn’t the notion of an “uneconomic” resource an oxymoron? Of course it is.
Forestry experts such as Alston Chase, Karl Hesse Jr., and Randal O’Toole, along with millions of acres of burned and insect-infested forests on public lands, have shown conclusively that government is not good at choosing what lands to conserve or what forestry techniques to use. Huber is flippant: “doing nothing is the paramount objective of conservation” and “nothing is the one thing that big government is capable of doing quite well. . . .” (xxiv)
Millions of people live and work in close proximity to nature, and apparently a large part of the about-to-retire Baby Boom generation plans to retire to homes in rural areas. Telling these people that they can make a living by digging deep or flying high won’t ease the pain or erase the injustice of their eviction, a prescription Huber avoids making outright but which many readers will understand to be justified by his reasoning.
The Little Hard Green Tent
Who will be attracted to the Hard Green creed? Not ranchers, farmers, miners, loggers, well-diggers, and others who currently make up an important part of the movement for free-market environmentalism. Crops and farms, he says, “are ‘green’ only in the most superficial and misleading possible way.” (106) Ranchers, loggers, and well-diggers must be expelled from public lands because “it is much easier [for whom?] and politically far more stable [for whom?] to designate particular places for conservation alone.”(93)
People of faith won’t want to become “Hard Green” because doing so means they must become Darwinists (79). The Left won’t appreciate having their most cherished values and goals reduced to the aesthetic judgement of the least sophisticated observer, or being called “completely, laughably, ridiculously, preposterously wrong.” (62) And worse. (193) Even economists won’t much appreciate Huber’s references to “simple-minded economic theory” and “the omniscient, cost-internalizing economist-in-the-sky.” (22)
In conclusion, there is much in this book that is original, important, and persuasive. The author’s colorful writing style and quick wit, while they make for entertaining reading, are sure to offend readers who might otherwise be drawn into the sound science/free-market camp. Huber’s wilderness exception and other deviations from free-market environmentalism seem unnecessary and indefensible to this reviewer.
Rather than attract the broad and ideologically diverse audience he seeks, Huber’s lapses from sound science and common sense are likely to alienate important parts of the movement that already is trying to “save the environment from the environmentalists.”
Joseph Bast is president of The Heartland Institute and coauthor of Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism (Madison Books, 1993, second edition 1995).