Environmentalism: The Triumph of Politics

The public discussion over conservation is being distorted by politics and pagan theology.


Doug Bandow is a Contributing Editor of The Freeman and a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.

There’s no doubt that the environment makes for good politics. Eight of ten Americans call themselves environmentalists. Overwhelming majorities say that gasoline should be less polluting, cars should be more efficient, trash should be recycled, and lifestyles should be changed.

This increasing sensitivity is reflected in business’ growing emphasis on environmental products. Such catalogues as Real Goods, Seventh Generation, and Earth Care Paper offer recycled paper, vegetable-based dishwashing liquid, battery chargers, and fluorescent light bulbs. Even many mainstream firms are labeling their products CFC-free, biodegradable, and environmentally friendly. While the environmental benefits of these activities are unclear, they apparently help sell products.

Increasing numbers of people are taking an interest in environmental issues, in part in response to their own concerns and in part in response to social pressure—including from their children. The schools have launched what for a less politically correct goal would be called indoctrination programs. And the campaign seems to be working: The New York Times ran one story about parents who were relieved when their children went off to camp so they could again use styrofoam cups and toss out used plastic.

The law is also playing a greater role in people’s lives. An unaccountable bureaucracy in southern California, for instance, proposed banning use of lighter fluid for barbecues and prohibiting drive-in facilities. Federal agencies have essentially seized control of millions of acres of land arbitrarily designated as wetlands. And the Washington, D.C., suburb of Takoma Park employs what it euphemistically calls “recycling coordinators” to comb through people’s trash and hand out tickets—with fines ranging up to $500—for not properly sorting garbage.

In the abstract, greater attention to environmental matters would seem to be a positive trend. After all, no one wants to breathe polluted air. No one wants to visit an Everglades that is dying or see Yellowstone’s Old Faithful replaced by condominiums. And who could not be concerned about the possibility of a warming environment, threatening ozone holes, and the specter of acid rain?

The problem, however, is that the environment has become a hostage to politics. Many environmental activists want more than a clean environment. Their commitment to conservation and political action is religious, and their goals are often far-reaching: to transform what they consider to be a sick, greedy, and wasteful consumer society. As a result, many otherwise well-meaning people have proved quite willing to use state power to force potentially draconian social changes irrespective of numerous important alternative values, including freedom, health, and prosperity.

The real political divide is not between right and left, conservative and liberal, or Republican and Democrat. Rather, it is between market process and central planning, the free market and command and control by the government. Most politicians believe in government solutions. They may not be consistent in the specific ways they want the state to intervene, but they like government involvement. Although liberal enthusiasm for state action is best known, conservatives, too, often want government to rearrange environmental outcomes arbitrarily. There are no more fervent supporters of irrigation projects that deliver below-cost water to farmers, subsidies to promote logging on public lands, and cut-rate range fees on federal grazing land for ranchers than Republican legislators. Conservative western senators have fervently opposed selling federal lands.


Where Do We Stand?

Much of today’s concern for new environmental restrictions comes from the perception that the sky is falling. In the view of Lester Brown of Worldwatch, for instance, we’re in a “battle to save the earth’s environmental support systems.” He worries about global warming, growing populations, disappearing species, expanding deserts, depleting topsoil, and so on. We face “the wholesale collapse of ecosystems,” he claims.

Yet somehow the world seems rather less bleak than he suggests. Between 1970 and 1986, for instance, the amount of particulates spewed into the air fell by 64 percent, carbon monoxide emissions dropped 38 percent, and releases of volatile organic compounds fell by 29 percent. Ocean dumping of industrial wastes was reduced 94 percent. There were 80 percent fewer cities without adequate sewage treatment plants. Rivers unfit for swimming dropped 44 percent. Hazardous waste sites such as Love Canal and Times Beach now appear far less dangerous than once thought. Cars built in 1988 produced 96 percent less carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons than those made in the early 1980s. Population continues to grow sharply in some Third World states, but these increases reflect lower infant mortality rates and longer life expectancies. Total recoverable world oil reserves grew by 400 billion barrels between 1985 and 1990. Global warming trends may lengthen growing seasons. And extensive product packaging, falsely derided as wasteful, makes Americans among the most efficient eaters on earth.

The point is not that there are no environmental problems. But claims of imminent disaster are simply not supported by the facts. To the contrary, they reflect the politicization of the environment, because only claims of imminent disaster can galvanize popular support for the sort of exceedingly harsh policy changes advocated by many people for ideological—or even religious—reasons. Some environmental apocalyptics have admitted as much.

Politics has infected environmental policymaking in two different ways. The first is to create real environmental problems. The second is to generate unfounded hysteria.


Poor Environmental Stewardship

For all of the enthusiasm of environmentalists for government programs, the government has proved to be a remarkably poor resource steward. Consider Uncle Sam’s 191 million acres of forestland. The Wilderness Society estimates that losses on federal timberland amounted to $400 million annually during the 1980s, while losses on Alaska’s Tsongass rain forest have hit 99 cents on the dollar. The problem is that the government both undertakes expensive investments, such as road-building in mountainous wilderness terrain, and underprices the timber that is produced. Washington’s reason for doing so is to “create” a few jobs. The cost, however, is both needless environmental destruction and the squandering of taxpayers’ money.

Federal water projects and management of rangeland have consistently led to similar results. The government has expended billions of dollars to subsidize such influential groups as farmers and ranchers, all the while leaving environmental despoliation in its wake. In fact, the greatest threat to wetlands across the country is not private development, but federal efforts like the $1.2 billion Garrison Diversion project, which destroyed some 70,000 acres of wetlands to benefit a few thousand farmers.

Nearly 90 percent of all federal water in the west is sold at heavily subsidized prices to heavily subsidized farmers. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, for instance, irrigation projects typically cost $300-$500 an acre foot, yet the water is marketed to farmers for less than a tenth that much even as Los Angeles and other parts of the state until recently were suffering from severe water shortages. Only the government would subsidize the production of a water-intensive crop like rice in a desert.

The federal government similarly mismanages its 307 million acres of rangeland. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has typically charged ranchers half of what it costs the government to administer its land, and one-tenth the rental price for comparable private lands. The BLM also spent millions of dollars “chaining” land—ripping out trees to create more rangeland on which it would lose more money. Not surprisingly, federal lands are generally in poor condition and continue to generate a flood of red ink.

It is not just Uncle Sam who is to blame. Local governments have distorted the trash market, leading to pressure for a federal garbage law. Many localities have essentially socialized trash collection and disposal, barring any private competition which increases efficiency and innovation. Moreover, few cities charge citizens based upon how much garbage they generate, providing no incentive for people either to recycle or to change their buying habits. (Localities that have implemented fees for each can or bag have made people more environmentally conscious without a trash Gestapo.) Political restrictions on the placement of new landfills and construction of incinerators, both of which are quite safe with new technologies, have exacerbated the problem.

But the U.S. government is the most culpable party. World Bank loans, underwritten by American taxpayers, have financed the destruction of Brazilian rain forests; federally subsidized flood insurance has encouraged uneconomic construction on the environmentally sensitive Barrier Islands. Years of energy price controls inflamed demand and discouraged conservation.

This sort of special-interest driven environmental abuse is not new, and the only solution is to eliminate political malfeasance. Unfortunately, as public choice economists have so effectively pointed out, the political process tends to be biased toward taxpayer exploitation and against sound policy.


Unfounded Hysteria

The second form of environmental politicization is more recent. That is the manufacture of false crises and the exaggeration of more limited problems to achieve other ideological ends, such as banning chemicals, closing incineration plants, and eliminating chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Unfortunately, examples of this sort of problem now abound.

For instance, in 1989 the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) used a public relations agency to launch a campaign against the chemical Alar, a pesticide used on some 15 percent of apples in the United States. The charges received wide attention and demand for apples dropped dramatically—prices fell almost in half, ruining some farmers. Yet the furor was based on one 1973 study, where mice were fed very high levels of Alar. Two recent reviews, by Great Britain’s Advisory Committee on Pesticides and the California Department of Food and Agriculture, concluded that the risk of ingesting Alar was minimal. As Dr. Joseph Rosen of Rutgers University explained, “There was never any legitimate scientific study to justify the Alar scare.”

But skillful manipulation of the media to inflame people’s fears—and the enlistment of such knowledgeable environmental experts as Hollywood’s Meryl Streep—enabled one activist group to create a crisis. The NRDC’s public relations agent later circulated a memo to other organizations describing his efforts.

Indeed, pesticides have long been subject to counterfactual demagogic attacks. Natural pesticides—nature’s way of protecting plants—may cause cancer, and they occur in far higher quantities in at least 57 food varieties than do man-made pesticides. A National Center for Policy Analysis study estimates that the risk of getting cancer from chloroform in tap water is greater than that of getting it from pesticides in food. A person is more than three times as likely to be killed by lightning than to contract cancer from pesticides. The risk of cancer from all pesticides in the food consumed by the average person in one day is one-twentieth of the risk from the natural carcinogens in a single cup of coffee.

Another apocalyptic vision emerged from the EPA, which in 1980 claimed that acid rain, caused by sulfur dioxide emissions, had increased the average acidity of northeast lakes one hundredfold over the last 40 years and was killing fish and trees alike. A year later the National Research Council predicted that the number of acidified lakes would double by 1990. So Congress included stringent provisions to cut SO2 emissions (already down 50 percent from the 1970s) at a cost of billions of dollars annually when it re-authorized the Clean Air Act three years ago.

Yet in 1987 EPA research raised doubts about the destructiveness of acid rain: A congressional firestorm forced the study’s director to quit. Then came the most complete study of acid rain ever conducted, the half billion dollar National Acid Precipitation Assessment Project (NAPAP), which concluded that the allegedly horrific effects of acid rain were largely a myth. Among other things, the study found that lakes were on average no more acidic than before the industrial era; just 240 of 7,000 northeast lakes, most with little recreational value, were critically acidic, or “dead”; most of the acidic water was in Florida, where the rain is only one-third as acidic; there was only very limited damage to trees, far less than that evident elsewhere in the world where SO2 emissions are minimal; half of the Adirondack lakes were acidified due to natural organic acids; and crops remained undamaged at acidic levels ten times present levels. In the end, NAPAP’s scientists figured that applying lime to the few lakes that were acidic would solve the problem at a mere fraction of the cost of the Clean Air Act’s acid rain provisions.

Perhaps the most famous form of the” sky is falling” claim today is global warming—the so-called “Greenhouse Effect.” The U.N.’s 1992 Rio summit focused on this issue. The fear is that pollution, particularly such “greenhouse gases” as carbon dioxide, will stay within the atmosphere, leading to a rise in the earth’s temperature, which will create deserts, melt the polar icecaps, and flood coastal nations.

In fact, warnings of global warming are not new: The theory was first advanced in the 1890s and re-emerged in the 1950s. But soon thereafter a new theory gained sway—that we were entering a new Ice Age. In 1974 the U.S. National Science Board stated that “during the last 20 to 30 years, world temperature has fallen, irregularly at first but more sharply over the last decade.” In the same year, Time magazine opined that “the atmosphere has been growing gradually cooler for the past three decades. The trend shows no indication of reversing.” Similarly, observed Dr. Murray Mitchell of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1976, “Since about 1940 there has been a distinct drop in average global temperature. It’s fallen about half a degree Fahrenheit.”

Five years later Fred Hoyle’s Ice: The Ultimate Human Catastrophe appeared, warning that a new Ice Age was long overdue, and “when the ice comes, most of northern America, Britain, and northern Europe will disappear under the glaciers . . . . The right conditions can arise within a single decade.” He advocated warming the oceans to forestall this “ultimate human catastrophe.” Another two years passed and Rolling Stone magazine declared that: “For years now, climatologists have foreseen a trend toward colder weather long range, to be sure, but a trend as inevitable as death . . . . According to [one] theory, all it would take is a single cold summer to plunge the earth into a sudden apocalypse of ice.”

A decade later we have passed into a new crisis. Climatologists like Stephen Schneider, who two decades ago was warning of a cooling trend that looked like “one akin to the Little Ice Age,” now berates the media for covering scientists who are skeptical of claims that global warming is occurring. He is, at least, refreshingly honest, admitting that “to avert the risk we need to get some broad-based support, to capture public imagination . . . . So we have to offer up some scary scenarios, make some simplified dramatic statements and little mention of any doubts one might have.”

And he does this precisely because the doubts about global warming are serious, so serious that both The Washington Post and Newsweek recently ran stories debunking the apocalyptic predictions of everyone from Vice President Gore to Greenpeace. Observed The Post:


Scientists generally agree that it has been getting warmer over the last hundred years, but the average rate of change is no greater than in centuries past, and there is no consensus that human activity is the cause. And while there is no doubt that continued emissions of “greenhouse gases” tend to aid warming, it is not clear that cutting back on emissions could do much to stop a natural trend, if that is what is happening.


Indeed, a survey by Greenpeace, one of the most radical environmental organizations, of scientists involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that only 13 percent of them believed there was probably a point-of-no-return in the future leading to a runaway greenhouse effect. Just 17 percent of climatologists in a broader Gallup poll believed that human-induced warming had occurred at all, while 53 percent did not.

The problems with the theory are many. First, there is no reason to assume that any change in temperature is undesirable. In fact, peoples living in colder climates would benefit from small increases; higher temperatures at night also would likely have a positive impact.

Second, the evidence does not support the contention that human activity is raising temperatures. We have seen slight warming over the last century, but 90 percent of it occurred before 1940, when greenhouse gas emissions started rising dramatically. The assumptions suggest that daytime temperatures should rise in the northern hemisphere, but most of the limited warming so far observed has occurred at night in the southern hemisphere. The ice caps have been growing, not shrinking. And so on. Even those predicting a much hotter future have had to lower their forecasts over the last decade. In the end, it is obvious both that mankind, which produces just a couple percent of total CO2, has only a limited impact on the earth’s climate, and that the globe has a dramatic ability to adjust. For instance, increased pollution may help shield the earth from sunlight, counteracting any temperature increase. Higher temperatures at the poles actually allow more precipitation. Since serious warming could cause serious damage, there is cause to monitor changes in climate, but not yet to implement the sort of draconian changes demanded by the greenhouse crowd.

The ozone issue has been similarly politicized. The fear is that chlorofluorocarbons are thinning atmospheric ozone, allowing in more ultraviolet (UV) rays. In January 1992 a Harvard University chemist, James Anderson, held a press conference warning of a “hole” in the ozone in the so-called polar vortex, the upper atmosphere over New England and Canada. His claims were based on the initial findings from a scientific expedition monitoring atmospheric conditions and received wide attention. Yet four months later he was forced to admit that “the dreaded ozone hole never materialized.”

A decade ago apocalyptic environmentalists were warning of a reduction of 18 percent in ozone levels. Today the predictions are down to two to four percent. Even if these forecasts are borne out, the impact may not be dramatic: It would be like moving roughly 60 miles south, from Palm Beach to Miami in Florida. And, oddly, UV radiation levels have dropped over the last decade, even as the ozone layer was supposedly thinning. Moreover, there is some question as to whether CFC’s—inexpensive, safe chemicals that have no obvious replacement—are really villainous destroyers of ozone after other factors are taken into account. Such things as ocean salt spray may help counteract increasing CFC levels. Explains Dr. Melvyn Shapiro of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in making their claims even many atmospheric chemists “have little regard for the impact of atmospheric variability on chemical processes.” In fact, the higher levels of chlorine monoxide detected in January did not create an ozone hole because temperatures were higher than expected.

Population growth has been cited as an impending disaster for nearly two centuries. Recent apocalyptics include Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, who predicted mass famine and death in the 1970s, and former World Bank President Robert McNamara, who went so far as to compare the threat of population pressure to that of nuclear war.

Their argument is simple: More people mean the use of more resources and more waste. The end result is lower incomes and disaster.

This apocalyptic scenario ignores the fact that some part of the population “explosion” is short term, since infant mortality rates have fallen more swiftly than have fertility rates. Moreover, people normally produce more than they consume--otherwise, even one person would be too many. Further, fears of population growth assume a static view of the world, that economics is a zero- sum game. Yet the market naturally adjusts as the number of people and demand for goods and services increase; technological innovation and behavioral changes work together to allow better and more efficient resource use.

In practice we see no adverse relationship between population or population density and economic growth. Population density is very high in such places as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, yet their economies have grown faster. The population of the Netherlands is 50 percent denser than that of India, Great Britain’s is twice as dense as that of Thailand, and South Korea possesses less territory but twice the population of North Korea. In all of these cases the more populated states have achieved much higher levels of development.

The issue of population growth, then, is a red herring. The central issue is economic growth. The most important means of adaptation is the marketplace: If governments prevent people from freely producing goods and services, charging prices that reflect changing resource values, and responding to diverse human needs, then worsening poverty will result. Third World countries are impoverished not because they are populous, but because their governments have enforced anti-capitalistic economic policies.

Related to the supposed problem of too many people is that of too few resources. Such reports as the Club of Rome’s 1972 Limits to Growth and the Carter Administration’s 1980 Global 2000 predicted that we would soon run out of key resources. Indeed, much of the Carter energy program was predicated on the assumption that we would soon run out of fossil fuels. (Since oil was first discovered in the United States 130 years ago people have been predicting that reserves would soon be depleted.)

The Club of Rome, which imagined the imminent exhaustion of such resources as gold, lead, and zinc, has already been proved wrong. Even more significant, however, is the fact that real resource prices fell consistently throughout the 1980s. According to Stephen Moore, in a study for the Institute for Policy Innovation, “of 38 natural resources examined in this study, 34 declined in real price” between 1980 and 1990. Prices for two remained constant, while only the cost of manganese and zinc rose. Moore found that American and international prices of food, energy, timber, and minerals, for instance, all fell.

Again, the doomsayers have ignored the powerful adjustment process that occurs through the marketplace. As goods become scarcer, prices rise, encouraging entrepreneurs to locate new supplies, manufacture synthetic equivalents, find substitutes, use products more efficiently, and reduce consumption. As long as prices can rise freely, the market will ensure that shortages will not occur. The fact that real resource prices fell during the 1980s indicates that relative scarcity has not increased but decreased.

Apocalyptic predictions regarding a number of other issues, such as toxic wastes and desertification, have proved to be equally flawed. The point is not that there are no environmental problems, but rather that environmental issues tend to be quite complex and that one should not make long-run predictions based on short-term trends. Unfortunately, many activists are willing to distort the facts because they have either political or religious reasons for proclaiming that disaster is imminent.


The New Theology

The environment has become as much a spiritual as a political issue for some people. Many churches now recycle products, install solar power, and pray for endangered animal species. Moreover, religious leaders who once busily promoted social and economic “justice” are now turning to ecological concerns. Global warming “is a spiritual issue, not just a technical problem,” explained Bruce McLeod, president of the Canadian Council of Churches, after his organization endorsed the U.N.’s World Climate Convention last year.

Indeed, a variety of religious environmental organizations have formed the North American Coalition on Religion and Ecology (NACRE), Religion and Science for the Environment, and the Presbyterian Eco-Justice Task Force, for instance. The 1990 NACRE Intercontinental Conference on Caring for Creation presented a Liturgy for the Earth, in which “Mother Earth” spoke to her “children.”

Much church activism is based on false scientific theories, such as global warming. More significant, however, is the theological contamination from much of the new conservation ethic. Christianity and Judaism hold man to be a steward of the earth, which King David declared to be “the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). Because man thereby “subdues” or exercises dominion over the planet (Genesis 1:28), many environmentalists view these faiths as largely responsible for the plight of the earth today. Historian Lynn White, for one, has criticized Christianity for being “the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen.” He further argued that “since the roots of our [environmental] trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious.” Many other environmentalists have made similar charges.

Strangely, some churchmen seem to agree. James Nash, Executive Director of the Churches’ Center for Theology and Public Policy, writes that “without doubt, Christian traditions bear some responsibility for propagating” destructive environmental perspectives. Thus, “for the Christian churches,” he argues, “the ecological crisis is more than a biophysical challenge. It is also a theological-ethical challenge.” The obvious solution, then, is to make Christianity “green.” We now have a similarly minded ecologian in the White House. “Both conservative and liberal theologians have every reason, scriptural as well as ideological, to define their spiritual mission in a way that prominently includes the defense of God’s creation,” argues Vice President Gore in his apocalyptic book, Earth in the Balance.

But some environmentalists go further, turning ecology into a separate religion by mixing ancient and modern forms of pantheism. John Muir and a host of other early environmentalists experimented with different forms of Earth and nature worship. More recently, environmentalism has joined New Age thinking to produce a vibrant Neo-Pagan movement, including such practices as witchcraft, which has always had a heavy ecological emphasis, and goddess (Earth) worship. Moreover, explains Lesly Phillips, “the growing awareness of the urgent need to honor and heal Mother Earth has drawn many Unitarian Universalists to a contemporary pagan approach to religion.”

Another religious strand is deep ecology, which treats the planet as sacred. Philosophy professors Bill Devall and George Sessions advocate “the revival of Earth-bonding rituals.” Some deep ecologists even support the use of violence to protect their “god.” Dave Foreman, co- founder of Earth First! and later convicted of attempting to blow up power pylons for an Arizona nuclear plant, explains that so-called eco-terrorism is “a form of worship toward the earth.” He has also advocated allowing the poor in third world countries to starve, “to just let nature seek its own balance.”

The new eco-spiritualism does more than threaten traditional faiths, which are being pressed to accept doctrines contrary their basic tenets. More broadly, treating the earth as sacred distorts public policy. Our objective should be to balance environmental preservation with economic growth and personal freedom, and to rely on market forces to make any environmental controls as efficient and as flexible as possible. Unfortunately, however, treating the environment as a goddess has caused environmental activists to advance the most frightening theories, irrespective of the evidence, and demand the most draconian controls possible, irrespective of the cost.


The Reds and the Greens

Many other environmentalists have radical philosophical rather than theological agendas. Most of the activists are implicitly anti-capitalist, anti-profit, and, frankly, anti-freedom, since it is people acting freely that leads, in some conservationists’ views, to consumerism, greed, pollution, and waste. In fact, it has been jokingly said that the only remaining socialists in the world are in the environmental movement, since they are promoting a centrally planned system based on government command-and-control regulation. The Reds have been replaced by the Greens.

The problem is not so much the motives of such activists, but the fact that their ideological biases lead them to ignore evidence questioning the genuineness of alleged environmental problems and to refuse to make compromises in drafting solutions to real concerns. While a doctrinal environmentalist might be happy with the policy result for religious or philosophical reasons, it is foolish for the rest of us to waste resources on non-problems and on unnecessarily inefficient clean-up strategies.

Environmental protection is important, and good people can disagree on the best policies to adopt. But today the public discussion over conservation is being distorted by politics and pagan theology, making the American public poorer and less free and the environment dirtier.

We need to look for private strategies to protect the environment. Privatizing federal timber and rangeland, for instance, would end subsidized development, since no private individual or company would willingly turn a dollar investment into a few cents in revenue. Establishing full private property rights in water would help conserve this precious resource in the western United States. We need to develop equally creative solutions for such “common pool” problems as air and water pollution. In short, we need to depoliticize the environment, making the issue one of balancing competing interests rather than imposing ideological or religious dogmas. If we succeed in doing so, we will end up with not only a cleaner society, but also a wealthier and freer one.


September 1993



Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.

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December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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