Informative Book on Plant Life Encourages Further Inquiry

Published March 15, 2012

Review of How the Government Got in Your Backyard, by Jeff Gillman and Eric Heberlig (Timber Press, 2011), 248 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1604690019

Two university professors have teamed up to write a book explaining the nexus of environment and politics as it applies to plant life. The book, How the Government Got in Your Backyard, is an interesting and informative read that has few if any competitors among books currently in print. Although the authors reveal subtle liberal biases in their writing and analysis, they attempt to present unbiased analysis and largely succeed.

Jeff Gillman is an associate professor of plant science at the University of Minnesota, and Eric Heberlig is an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina. The two professors have combined forces to investigate how government policy might, should, can, or does control things that live in our environment. No one has ever attempted to explain the nexus of environment and politics as it applies to things that grow. 

Recognizing that this book could be a colossal bore, Gillman and Heberlig chose an eye-catching title that could not be more off the mark. It should instead be titled, “How and Why the Government Regulates Things that Grow.”

Scientific Errors, Useful Facts

The authors claim to be neutral politically rather than liberal or conservative, but try as they may their liberal bent comes through. That is not a significant detriment to their work, because they do present both sides of every issue. It is an amazing and unique book from which I, who have worked in the realm of agriculture for more than half a century, learned a great deal from the political science point of view while being somewhat frustrated by some of the erroneous science presented as fact in the book. Even that can be excused to some degree, however, by the authors’ efforts to present so much information.

We are all raised to despise lobbyists as if it were a dirty word, but the authors explain lobbyists are people whose profession it is to gather information on their clients’ public policy preferences, gain access to government officials, and explain why proposed policies would be good or bad. Surprisingly, lobbyists have a strong incentive to play it straight; otherwise, they lose credibility and access.

In a chapter on organic food, the authors summarize and explain the issues in a fair and objective manner. They question why the government ever got involved in organic food issues and designations, which is something that should be left entirely to the discretion of consumers and groups with particular interest in organic foods. In this discussion the authors clearly explain that no manufactured pesticides used in conventional agriculture have ever created human health harms.

Thorough Explanations

The authors tackle every plant-related controversy in the garden and farm including fertilizers, ethanol, biotechnology, plant patents, invasive plants, illegal plants, local restrictions, and global warming. They reach the wrong conclusions sometimes, but they do so in a totally transparent way that always presents objective opinions from different sides of the political spectrum.

In each chapter, Gillman and Heberlig explain what they understand the science to say and how it is viewed from both the political right and left. They do a particularly good job explaining the pros and cons of ethanol production and the potential overuse of fertilizer in crop production.

Turning to illegal plants, the authors provide a thoughtful explanation and summary of the problem of invasive plants. Although many invasive plants were introduced into the North American ecosystem accidentally, others were introduced deliberately through good intentions or carelessness. Containing invasive species is a difficult problem with unique challenges for each type of invasive plant. 

A marvelous chapter deals with the restrictions state and local governments place on what you grow in your backyard and how people tend to their lawns and gardens. The authors present the advantages and disadvantages of different levels of intervention and make the case for voluntary homeowner associations. They present the example of Kelo v. City of New London, in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld far-reaching eminent domain powers, as a particularly troublesome use of government power.

Encouraging Objective Inquiry

When Gillman and Heberlig address global warming, they offer all sides of the argument fairly objectively for those who do not really have the facts. As is the case in other sections of the book, the authors present a variety of proposed policies and discuss how they are viewed on both the right and the left.

There has not ever been a book like this written on the environment. It could be an excellent college textbook, as it is far more balanced than most used today. The authors’ ultimate point is that most so-called information on environmental issues regarding plant life is designed to induce people to draw one conclusion or another. 

Gillman and Heberlig encourage readers to research the topics themselves. They indeed go even further, encouraging readers to distrust the facts they present in their book, and to research the topics themselves. They argue everyone should be skeptical of asserted facts and arguments until they verify them for themselves. This book is a good first step on the road to objective inquiry. 

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.