The First Post-environmentalism Book?

Published October 1, 1999

Hoodwinking the Nation Julian Simon New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers 1999

Why do reporters so often give front-page coverage to the latest sensational claims by the doom-and-gloom lobby? Why are the most reckless alarmists in the environmental movement so often biologists or journalists? And why do responsible scientists not participate more often in the public debate?

These questions have been picked up and set down by various writers over the years (most notably by Aaron Wildavsky, Elizabeth Whelan, and Max Singer), but until now they have not been subjected to a careful and extended study. Hoodwinking the Nation makes this contribution to the debate, though it is unlikely to be the final word on the subject.

Julian Simon’s untimely death in 1998 silenced one of the nation’s great thinkers on population growth, energy, and sustainable development. He left behind a series of influential books, notably Population Matters (1990), The State of Humanity (1995), and The Ultimate Resource II (1996). Now comes the first of what one hopes will be several posthumously published titles.

In contrast to his previous books, Hoodwinking the Nation is brief; even wide margins and a large font size can stretch it to only 140 pages. (The Ultimate Resource II, by comparison, weighed in at 734 pages.) There are no tables, figures, or graphs, and barely a dozen footnotes.

Despite these differences, Hoodwinking is vintage Simon, full of brilliant insights, colorful anecdotes, irritability toward critics, and declamatory statements that brook no dissent. It is combative, but in a style that welcomes rather than repels the reader by revealing something of the character and experiences of the author. Disagree with him if you like, but you’ll find it difficult not to sympathize with him.

Simon surveys opinion poll data that document the huge disconnect between what people believe about the environment–that it is getting less safe and dirtier over time–and what is actually the case, that “almost every long-run trend in material human welfare points in a positive direction.” He identifies key concepts which, if understood, would steer people away from unfounded fears. And he dissects the training and methodologies of biologists and journalists to explain why they are most prone to being duped by health and environment scares.

Hoodwinking is a valuable book in several ways. It can serve as an introduction to Simon’s more technical work to a wide public audience. It can help activists anticipate the blind spots and confusions of the alarmists who unfortunately dominate the leadership of the nation’s environmental movement. It may even awaken some alarmists to the illogic of their positions, though their behavior is unlikely to change so long as incentive structures stay as they are.

Hoodwinking, finally, is important because it is one of the first post-environmentalism books, books by authors who no longer need to critique the science or economics of the radical environmentalist movement since most readers understand that these pillars have been reduced to rubble. Such books can focus on the psychology, tactics, and public relations tricks of this fast-fading cult’s leaders and its members.

Just as few people would read a book critiquing David Koresh’s peculiar theology, but books and movies about the cult’s demise in Waco still sell briskly, so too is the market demanding retrospectives on why so many people were so easily duped by so silly a movement as radical environmentalism.

Joseph L. Bast is coauthor of Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism and president of The Heartland Institute.