All Commentary
Wednesday, March 1, 1995

Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism

The Standard Against Which Environmentalist Claims Should Be Measured

Many good books have appeared on the environment and the environmental movement in recent years. Ronald Bailey, Michael Fumento, Lou Guzzo, and Dixy Lee Ray, among others, have produced devastating studies of environmental foolishness. Thoughtful environmentalists like Wallace Kaufman and Martin Lewis have written sharp critiques of the dishonesty and radicalism of movement activists. But if you want the one book that concisely explains both the real ecological state of the world and offers sensible, market-oriented solutions to environmental problems, it is Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism. Written by a trio of free market analysts and outdoorsmen, Eco-Sanity should provide the standard against which future environmentalist claims are measured.

Such a book is long overdue. It was another book, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, that helped create the modern environmental movement three decades ago. Carson was completely wrong in her warning that chemicals were going to create a “silent spring,” but that didn’t matter to many readers. As the authors of Eco-Sanity observe: “Though the language of Silent Spring has more in common with Night of the Living Dead and Frankenstein than it does with a scientific treatise, the book was presented to the public as objective science.” Unfortunately, Carson’s apocalyptic fear-mongering has been widely imitated by the likes of Lester Brown, Paul Ehrlich, and many others over the years.

Eco-Sanity comes at a propitious moment. During the 1960s and 1970s the environmental movement was able to generate substantial political support for what was in truth a radical regulatory agenda. Although better environmental protection was achievable at far less cost, “it is unlikely that calls for more research or cost-benefit analysis would have captured the attention of the nation’s policy makers,” observe the authors. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, popular resistance to environmental extremism stiffened as the cost of making ever smaller ecological advances soared. Yet the environmental movement “has been slow to change its tactics in response to these changing realities,” contends Eco-Sanity. “Environmentalists continue to issue demands without acknowledging their real costs and effects on others. They cling to the obsolete notions of villains and crusaders, blinding them to the contributions of science and economics and making them easy prey for alarmists and media hype.” Eco-Sanity should help change this.

The authors begin by reviewing the actual state of the world. If one listens to the prophets of doom, one would think that life on the planet was deteriorating at an alarming rate. Indeed, you could be forgiven for believing that there are few aspects of our lives not getting worse: the globe is warming, population is growing, ozone is dissipating, trash is piling up, deserts are expanding, forests are disappearing, toxic wastes are flowing, and more. Yet, in the main these claims are false. Genuine environmental problems exist, of course, but the world is not in crisis. To the contrary, reports Eco-Sanity: (1) “Most Americans today live in an environment that is cleaner than it was at any time in the past half-century,” and (2) “The environment in the U.S. today is safer than it has been at any time in recorded history.”

The bulk of the book is dedicated to proving the truth of these two propositions. For instance, various major air pollutants fell between 24 percent and 94 percent from 1975 to 1990. Total emissions of these pollutants were 12.6 percent lower in 1990 than in 1940. Similarly, water in America has become cleaner over the last two decades. U.S. rivers like the Mississippi are less polluted than major waterways in Britain, France, and Germany. Food supplies are safe and abundant. Timber growth has exceeded harvests every year since 1952; today’s annual increase is treble the level of 1920. Waste disposal technologies are safe and potential landfill capacity is vast. Global oil reserves are climbing. In short, there’s a lot of good news to celebrate.

Not that the authors are Pollyannas. There is still work to do—particularly to combat perverse government policies, such as below-cost sales of timber from federal land. But, as Eco-Sanity demonstrates, Americans’ “hard work and major investments of tax dollars have purchased a cleaner environment for them and their children.”

Despite the obvious good news about these more traditional areas of environmental concern, however, people still face a raft of frightening predictions involving new issues. Eco-Sanity patiently debunks the multitude of impending disasters with which we are supposedly threatened. This section alone makes the book worth reading, since it demonstrates how radical environmentalists have regularly twisted data and made wild extrapolations to demonstrate that the world is about to end . . . unless the government is immediately invested with huge new powers to regulate, tax, and spend.

Eco-Sanity performs critiques of a number of issues: global warming, ozone depletion, acid rain, deforestation, pesticides, resource depletion, population, electromagnetic fields, toxic wastes, and more. The authors’ discussions are always concise, objective, persuasive, and readable, and should do much to help educate a public that has until now proved far too vulnerable to shameless scare-mongering.

After debunking the worst of environmentalist propaganda, the authors offer a primer on clear thinking about the environment and a detailed “common-sense agenda” for dealing with the major environmental problems that continue to face us. Were their ideas turned into law we would be likely to see far better environmental protection at far less cost. For this reason, their thoughtful approach should appeal to any environmentalist who does not put ideology before conservation, who is committed to achieving a reasonable balance between economic prosperity, individual liberty, and environmental protection.

Eco-sanity means applying reason, sound science, and a respect for the rights of others to environmental issues,” write Joseph Bast, P.J. Hill, and Richard Rue. Unfortunately, reason, sound science, and respect have long been lacking in the environmental debate. But Eco-Sanity may be the book to help transform the national debate. It is a critically important work and deserves the sort of attention heretofore reserved for the latest alarmist screed.

Mr. Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology (Transaction Publishers).

  • 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.
  • Peter J. Hill is George F. Bennett Professor of Economics at Wheaton College (Illinois) and a Senior Associate of the Political Economy Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Montana.