All Commentary
Tuesday, January 1, 1991

Ben Bolch

Yale University Press, 92A Yale Station, New Haven, CT 06520 1989 * 292 pages * $40.00 doth; $16-95 paper

Anna Bramwell’s Ecology in the 20th Century: A History is the single most enlightening, and frightening, thing that I have yet to read about the radical environmentalist movement. It is a book that can be recommended without reservation to anyone who has become concerned with the excesses of this movement.

Bramwell points out that while environmentalists are now on the extreme left of the political spectrum, the movement apparently began in late 19th century Germany as a science-based antidemocratic crusade which found its first coherent political expression in Nazi Germany. In fact, she notes, the Third Reich was the first government to be dominated by extreme environmentalists.

Bramwell documents the rise in power of the Greens. This movement, of course, does not derive from any actual environmental difficulty, but rather from a gathering of a whole host of the discontented, including anti-nuclear pacifists, anti-Semites, anti-Christians, sun-worshippers, and simple haters of technology and the market process. It is a movement which cloaks itself in scientific rhetoric, a kind of public relations rationality which masks deep-seated irrationality: in “Green-science,” for example, conclusions (such as global warming) are announced before the research is done.

But even more fundamental to the Green movement is the paradox of mankind’s being at the same time one with nature and the destroyer of nature. The Green movement’s muddy thinking extends to the presumed capability of mankind to care for nature only when coerced from above by massive government programs. This stance ignores a clear history which shows that government-controlled economies such as those in Eastern Europe have been more ecologically harmful than have those with greater market orientation.

Bramwell points out that the shift from right to left, or from Nazi to currently respectable brands of socialism, was necessitated by the outcome of World War II. Such a seemingly bizarre switch is surprising only to those who remain ignorant of F. A. Hayek’s admonition concerning the correspondence of all forms of totalitarianism. Bramwell notes that the witch cult of PAN (Pagans Against Nukes) continues to worship at the same standing stones as were revered by the pagans of the Third Reich and that the tree fetish of today serves to remind us of the tree-planting obsession of the Nazis (a large part of conquered Poland was devoted to tree planting, and the oak leaf was the symbol of the SS). In historical context, the growing violent streak in the Green movement as exhibited by such organizations as Earth First! is quite easy to understand.

Technology and the marketplace are showcased by the Greens as the major culprits of man’s fall from natural grace. Interestingly enough, Brainwell points out, technology is more acceptable if applied in a rural rather than an urban setting, but the complaint against the marketplace is absolute: any trade at all is a symptom of “lack of balance.” If, it is argued, we were balanced and self-sufficient, no trade would be necessary. What we must do, say the Greens, is to define balanced geographic zones where trade is allowed solely within each zone. Who is to establish these zones of autarky is, of course, never specified.

Brainwell correctly concludes that much of this new nature worship is nothing less than a death wish. One cannot help but be reminded of ancient stone carvings such as those of the Maya which show the blood of human sacrifice pouring upon the ground to nurture the soil, or, for that matter, of the “Blood and Soil” aphorism of the Third Reich. Mankind is expendable, which is why little or no thought is given to the ability of five billion or so people to live on this planet in the absence .of continuing high levels of technology, trade, and economic growth. The human sacrifice of ancient nature cults, or of Nazi Germany itself, pale in comparison with what can be contemplated here.

A recent poll by the National Association of Business Economists found that a large fraction of its membership is highly concerned over the increased stringency of environmental regulations, restrictions which as often as not make no sense from either the environmental or the economic point of view. Economists need to understand that the Green movement will not go away. On the contrary it will surely grow in size not because of worsening environmental problems (especially in the U.S.) but because the movement appears to be almost infinitely flexible in accommodating the discontented of all points of the political spectrum. It is to Bramwell’s credit that she points out to us that those who profess a superior concern over nature are not necessarily morally better than those of us who are less fanatical. We need not continue to bestow upon this group the kind of mind less political homage that it has enjoyed in the recent past. A renewed insistence upon economic rationality is long overdue. 

Ben Bolch is Professor of Economics at Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennessee.