All Commentary
Wednesday, October 1, 1980

A Reviewers Notebook: The War Against Progress


In the old days we used to start things and clean up afterwards. Now, for fear that there might be something unforeseen to clean up, we argue interminably. It is coming to take ten or more years to get “yes” on a project, and even then the possibilities of court action are not exhausted. Herbert E. Meyer calls it The War Against Progress in a book of that title (Storm Publishers, Inc., 4 East Main St., Box 252, Middletown, N.Y. 10940, 195 pp., $11.95). He can’t quite bring himself to recommend going back to the old ways, but he does think a happy medium could be struck.

The difficulty of reaching a happy medium is that the war against progress consists of hundreds of battles that seem unconnected. As Mr. Meyer says, no single battle is especially dangerous by itself. But when the battles are all added up, the wallop is significant. Mr. Meyer likens it to a bleeding that comes from a thousand tiny cuts. It could kill a man.

Mr. Meyer describes some of the single battles. There is a fierce one now raging in Alaska. Since Alaska is relatively unpopulated, its citizens don’t have much argumentative clout. The federal government owns most of the land, and the rules can be made by a distant landlord. Environmentalists in the lower forty-eight states who will never visit Alaska can set the tone in Washington, D.C. So we have a bill that would set aside 125 million acres of Alaska territory for parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, scenic rivers and plain “wilderness.” This latter is a special category that would prohibit the building of roads of access, so not even the hardiest outdoorsman would have much of a chance to taste a bit of wilderness life.

What the enthusiasts of caribou and grizzly bears do not see is the connection between maintaining 100 percent environmental purity in Alaska and the future spread of urban slums in the lower forty-eight states. Geologists think there might be billions of barrels of oil under the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There could be trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. Mining companies have already discovered a multi- bil-lion-dollar deposit of copper, lead and zinc in wilderness territory in the western Brooks Range. The oil of Prudhoe Bay, which the environmentalists kept us from getting for ten years, could be a mere foretaste of what Alaska might contribute to the health and prosperity of the western world. Without new energy sources and industrial raw materials, wars and depressions loom. And urban slums grow in depression climates.

You could forget the need for Alaskan oil and gas if atomic plants were on the increase and coal technology had an unimpeded run. But the “separate battle” against the use of atomic energy has resulted in a temporary victory for the No More Nukes forces. As for coal, there is enough of it in the United States to run our power plants for hundreds of years and to provide a life-sustaining surplus for western Europe. Moreover, coal can be turned into gas and a methanol that could run automobiles. Everything on the coal front lags, however, as worries about sulfur in the atmosphere and the possible warming effects of a “greenhouse” condition are debated. Wyoming and Montana cattlemen don’t like the idea of a new Pittsburgh being built on the rich reserves of local coal that can be easily strip-mined. And in Colorado, skiers and forest rangers take a jaundiced view of a new molybdenum mine that will, if and when it gets going, solve many of the alloying problems of American industry.

A Suggested Strategy

Politicians who are kept in power by local interests find it safer to reflect local prejudices about the building of a new refinery or opening up a new strip mine in the neighborhood. The sum total of a lot of local “noes” make it difficult for a national “yes” ever to prevail. Mr. Meyer has no magic formula for changing this. He thinks the tide of the separate battles won’t be reversed until there is a coalition of businessmen and labor leaders willing to volunteer as the natural leaders of a still unformed army. He sympathizes with executives and union officials who have been loath to stand up in the past—“no one,” he says, relishes being “mowed down by the guns of an advancing army.” We have been living through a time when reticence has been the better part of valor. But the time has arrived, he says, “to climb out of the trenches and to lead a forward charge.” It is now or never.

If nobody can say “yes” in the United States, what will happen to the rest of the world? The Cold War will swing toward a victory for the Russians. This will not help the Third World: Communism has nothing worthwhile to export. Other nations—France, Japan—may be saying “yes” to nuclear plants making use of breeder reactor fuel, but the Free World needs a strong United States to lead it.

For one thing, says Mr. Meyer, the U.S. is the linchpin of the world’s communication system. The International Tele-communications Satellite Consortium, which has established communication links to parts of Asia, Africa and South America that could have been opened up in no other way, is a product of the U.S. space program. The domestic communications of Canada and Indonesia depend on hooking up with U.S. produced satellites.

A Call for Leadership

“There is not the slightest possibility,” says Mr. Meyer, “that any of our country’s allies could fill the various gaps—military, economic, communications, cultural—that would be created by the destruction of the U.S. All of our allies put together have less military firepower than we have. All of their economies put together are weaker than our own. All of them combined lack the satellite-communications technology that we have. All of them combined do not equal a culture as dynamic, productive and creative as our own . . . We and we alone have the power. We have the broadest shoulders.”

If the U.S. were to succumb in the “war against progress,” it will trigger destruction everywhere. Brazil’s newest industries would collapse without our computer technologies. Nigeria and Mexico need us as a market for their oil. A major part of Canadian industry would go bankrupt if there is a bad U.S. tailspin. Meanwhile, some of our allies are having troubles of their own with the anti-progress termites. It took the Japanese twelve years to open up their new international airport outside Tokyo at Narita.

Mr. Meyer’s book deserves a wide reading. It makes a few mistakes: Samuel Slater did not build an engine factory, as Mr. Meyer says on page 27, he built textile mills from his memory of Arkwright models. But flyspecks are minor. The impact of the book could be devastating if it could only be circulated among those industrialists and labor leaders who have been elected by Mr. Meyer to change the no-growth climate that has afflicted us now for almost a generation.


  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.