Green Delusions: An Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism

An Important Call for Ecological Sanity


George Bush wanted to be the environmental president, but even his heavy-handed regulatory policies did not satisfy the environmental lobby. Now we have the environmental vice president, for whom conservation seems to be a religious duty, and a bevy of left-wing Clinton appointees, for whom cost appears to be no object. The result is likely to be a concerted attack not only on business, but on the entire market system.

Indeed, what makes future prospects so frightening is the fact that an important segment of the environmental movement is fundamentally antagonistic to modern society. These eco-radicals, as Martin Lewis, a professor at George Washington University, calls them, “concur in one central proposition: that human society, as it is now constituted, is utterly unsustainable and must be reconstructed according to an entirely different socioeconomic logic.”

Lewis, a mainstream environmentalist, doesn’t much like “anti-environmentalists” like Julian Simon and Dixy Lee Ray, who “present a comforting vision to those who shudder at the thought of the sacrifices that will be necessary to ensure the ecological health of the planet.” But he also recognizes the existence of “a much less visible ideological threat at work as well, one that masquerades under the mantle of environmentalism itself.” Thus, Lewis devotes Green Delusions to explaining and debunking several important strains of radical environmentalism.

There are, for instance, the Deep Ecologists. The “moderates” merely want to radically downsize human activity; the true radicals, whom Lewis calls “primitivists,” are characterized by “blatant misanthropy and glorification of violence.” A bit more positive towards humanity are quasi-classical leftists—the eco-anarchists and eco-Marxists. They differ from traditional Marxists in believing that economic growth cannot continue forever even under Communism, but still focus more on economic than environmental issues. Then there are the eco-feminists, many of whom, writes Lewis, “are actively reviving the goddess-centered cults that they believe once allowed humans to live in harmony with nature.” Despite the presence of Marxists, many members of this odd amalgam are neither left nor right, but instead are simple authoritarians who are not just unconcerned about human freedom, but actively oppose it.

Lewis ably dissects the logical fallacies behind all of these philosophies. The radical position that primal peoples exemplified the proper harmony with nature, Lewis writes, is “so exaggerated as to verge on intellectual fraud.” Moreover, he argues, small can be ugly as well as beautiful. Even more important, he recognizes the virtues of free choice. For instance, although he doesn’t care for urban living, he acknowledges that “there is nothing intrinsically wrong with such a personal decision.”

Similarly, Lewis is no technophobe, pointing out that scientific advances can help better protect the environment. Nor does he see population growth in the Third World as an unmitigated disaster. And he dismisses environmentalist tirades against capitalism by pointing to the environmental devastation in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. “As is now abundantly clear, Marxism’s record is dismal on almost every score, be it economic, social, or environmental. These failures cannot be dismissed as errant quirks; Marxian regimes have come to power in numerous countries, and everywhere the results have been disheartening.”

For all of the strength of Lewis’ analysis, he remains committed to an activist state to combat what he believes to be very serious environmental problems. What he wants is “guided capitalism,” where “a new alliance of moderates from both the left and the right” press for “the environmental reforms necessary to ensure planetary survival.” Of course, government’s past guidance has seldom proved to be fiscally or environmentally sound.

Still, Green Delusions offers an important call for ecological sanity. And Lewis, coming from the moderate left, has more credibility than, say, Julian Simon in debunking the nostrums of the eco-radicals. Given the threat to liberty posed by the current administration and the more extreme environmentalists, people like Lewis could end up proving to be important allies of those who believe in individual liberty and fiscal responsibility as well as environmental protection. []

Doug Bandow, a contributing editor of The Freeman and a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, is the editor of Protecting the Environment: A Free Market Strategy (Heritage Foundation).


January 1994



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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