All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 2007

Cool on the Idea of Cooling Global Warming

Blind Environmentalists Don't Understand the Value of Capitalism

Donald Boudreaux is chairman of the economics department at George Mason University.

Here’s some self-promotion: the December 21, 2006, issue of The New York Review of Books published this letter of mine—a letter saturated with the obvious influence of FEE’s founder, Leonard Read:

I’ve read few passages in your pages that are as mistaken as Bill McKibben’s assertion that “the technology we need most badly is the technology of community—the knowledge about how to cooperate to get things done. . . . We Americans haven’t needed our neighbors for anything important. . . .” (“How Close to Catastrophe?,” NYR, November 16.)

Each of us cooperates daily with countless others—neighbors, fellow citizens, foreigners—to ensure not only our prosperity but our very existence. My mind boggles at the number of people who cooperated to make available to me, for example, the shirt on my back. Cotton growers in Egypt; fashion designers in Italy; textile workers in Malaysia; merchant marines from around the globe; investment bankers in Manhattan; insurers in Hartford; truck drivers along the East Coast; department store executives in Seattle; security guards and retail clerks in Virginia—these people and millions of others cooperated so that I might wear an ordinary shirt. Ditto for my house, my food, my subscription to The New York Review of Books.

For McKibben to say that “cheap fossil fuel has allowed us all to become extremely individualized, even hyperindividualized” is to be blind to the amazing and vast system of cooperation that today spans the globe. Clearly, we have, in spades, “knowledge about how to cooperate to get things done.”

Bill McKibben responded:

Donald J. Boudreaux’s response proves precisely the point I was trying to make—and it says something about the blinders that too many economists have strapped on. We do cooperate, unconsciously, to promote our individual self-interest; Chairman Boudreaux’s slightly less elegant restatement of Adam Smith’s remarks about the butcher and the baker are [sic], as far as I can tell, not in serious dispute. What is in dispute is whether this cooperation carries over into more crucial matters—like keeping the planet from overheating in the next decade. Since my article came out, the British government has released a report estimating that the economic cost of global warming will exceed the combined impact of both world wars and the Great Depression of the 1930s. So far, there is precious little sign of our communities coming together to meet this challenge—politically, economically, culturally. Which doesn’t prove Smith—or even Boudreaux—wrong. Just incomplete.

I wonder if Mr. McKibben really believes that keeping the planet from overheating in the next decade is “more crucial” than is cooperation within markets. If he truly holds this belief, then he doesn’t begin to appreciate how marvelous are the everyday achievements of markets and how utterly dependent we all are on the continuation of this cooperation. Put simply, without this cooperation, billions of us would soon die. Without the food, clothing, shelter, sanitation, and medications that this global cooperation produces daily, only a tiny fraction of those of us now breathing would still be breathing three or four years from now. And none of us, even those who manage to stay alive, would live as comfortably, as cleanly, and as securely as we live today. This fact is true regardless of how important it is to save the planet from “overheating” between now and 2017.

Even if we assume that global warming will cause massive damage—even if we accept as inevitable the National Resources Defense Council’s “worst-case scenario” that “global warming could make large areas of the world uninhabitable and cause massive food and water shortages, sparking widespread migrations and war”—saving the world from global warming clearly is not more crucial than maintaining the vast division of labor and market-inspired cooperation that spans the globe.

McKibben’s and many other environmentalists’ failure to understand that markets bring us not only prettier trinkets and more convenient appliances but also the means with which we maintain our very lives leads these persons to discount the market’s importance to humanity. They see only capitalism’s (real or imagined) costs and are blind to its indispensability. This blindness, in turn, causes many environmentalists to endorse policies that, in fact, would likely kill and impoverish many more people than would be killed and impoverished by global warming or other (real or imagined) threats to the natural environment.

This blindness of environmentalists—often borne of a mindless, romantic adoration of nature—underpins the reluctance of those of us who recognize the true significance of capitalism to yield power to governments to tackle global warming. We worry that this power will kill the goose that’s laying our golden eggs.

Exaggerated Worry?

If you think that such a worry is exaggerated, recall that it’s not only globe-trotting anti-commerce intellectuals such as Bill McKibben who want capitalism to be severely reined in. In his book Earth in the Balance, former U.S. Senator and Vice President Al Gore asserted that we are suffering an “environmental crisis” that can be avoided only if we “drastically change our civilization and our way of thinking.”

“Drastically change our civilization”?! Scary stuff. Gore wants us to scale back significantly our reliance on markets, trade, and industrial activities in order to lessen our “footprint” on the earth. We can, no doubt, make our environmental footprint much smaller, but how great a benefit will this achievement be if it returns us to the ages-old condition of high mortality and high morbidity?

Undoubtedly, most people who seek government action to fight global warming are not Rousseauian romantics in the mold of Bill McKibben or posturing politicians such as Al Gore. Most people are “reasonable.” They envision no drastic changes to our civilization, just a marginal tempering of industrial activity that results in marginal improvements in the natural environment’s future prospects. And I concede that cost-effective steps to reduce global warming might, in principle, be possible at the margin. But I’m sure that it’s also true that most of the “reasonable” people who demand action against global warming are unaware of just how critical is the role that capitalism plays in improving the lives of ordinary men and women.

I also worry that when “reasonable” people empower government to “solve” the global-warming problem, the risk is high that anti-commerce environmentalists will form an alliance with politicians and bureaucrats who welcome excuses to boost their power. Such an unholy alliance will consistently exaggerate the magnitude of the problem and understate the costs of “solving” it.

Given the widespread ignorance of the benefits of capitalism along with political realities and the hysterical language used by the likes of Al Gore—who, let’s be clear, is not on the fringes of the U.S. power structure—it’s a perfectly legitimate stance for truly reasonable people to conclude that the best policy regarding global warming is to neglect it and to let capitalism continue its uninterrupted history of making us healthier and wealthier.

  • Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a Mercatus Center Board Member, and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University.