All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 2007

Freedom Is the Environment’s Best Friend

Environmentalist Ignorance Obstructs Science and Progress

John Semmens is a transportation policy analyst at the Laissez Faire Institute in Arizona.

Every April 22 celebrations of Earth Day take place around the world. This can serve as a reminder to reflect on the status of our planet. Some believe the earth is in great peril and that stringent measures to restrain economic development and technology are necessary to avoid a horrible fate. These measures are guided by three key concepts.

One concept is “sustainable development.” The idea here is to minimize the use of nonrenewable natural resources so there will be more left for future generations. While the idea sounds good, there are some problems with trying to enforce it through government restrictions.

There is no such thing as a “natural resource.” Nature doesn’t determine what is a resource. Human wants and ingenuity determine this. In this sense, all resources are manmade. Nonsense, you say. Man didn’t make the petroleum in the ground. Nature did.

It isn’t the substance of petroleum that makes it a resource. It is the use to which it can be put that makes it so. Time was when finding oil on your property was a bad thing. It could poison livestock and ruin prime cropland. Between then and now, human brainpower has figured out how to put this substance to good use as a fuel for motor vehicles and an ingredient in plastics, among other things. So today petroleum is a resource.

Whether petroleum will be as crucial in the future as it is now is unknown. It is likely that it will not be. The history of technology indicates that new methods continually replace old methods. For tens of thousands of years humans traveled on foot. For thousands of years humans used animals to ride or to pull vehicles. For the last 100 years humans have ridden in gasoline-powered vehicles. The efficiency with which this gasoline has been used has continuously increased, netting more person-miles and ton-miles to the gallon.

Alternatives to gasoline-powered vehicles are being developed. At some point, gasoline may go the way of the horse and drop out of contention as the main transportation power source. So saving petroleum or other substances that may be critical resources now in anticipation that they will be needed in the future may be unwarranted.

Conserving resources for the future may impose unnecessary constraints on progress. The long-term trend since the Industrial Revolution some 200 years ago has been one of increasing prosperity. Succeeding generations have been wealthier than preceding generations. Chances appear pretty good that later generations will be able to afford a higher standard of living than we now enjoy.

Consequently, requiring the poorer current generation to save more so that wealthier following generations will have more seems inequitable. The inequity is especially egregious when it comes to those currently living in poverty. “Sustaining” subsistence is far less tolerable than sustaining a life lived in the relative comfort of your typical American environmental activist. Many inhabitants of Third World countries depend on selling raw materials like petroleum. They depend on affordable fuel to help grow their economies. Measures that reduce the availability or increase the price of resources will be a lot harder on these poor people than on the affluent in the West.

A second key concept of environmental alarmists is the so-called “precautionary principle.” The idea here is that anything that entails any amount of risk is to be shunned or prevented from happening. According to this way of thinking, only when it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be safe should such a product or activity be permitted.

An example of the precautionary principle in action is the environmental alarmists’ protest against genetically modified foods. Scientists can now use gene-splicing to engineer more favorable traits into food. “Golden rice” is one of the products developed by this technique. This genetically modified rice incorporates more vitamin A into the plant. The benefit of this is that it enables people whose diets are over-dependent on rice (as is the case in many Third World countries) to obtain sufficient amounts of this vitamin to ward off blindness. This is not to say that everyone who eats plain rice will go blind. However, a distressingly large portion of the children in Third World countries do go blind from insufficient quantities of vitamin A in their diets.

Despite the beneficial attributes of golden rice, it is still a genetically modified “Frankenfood” to many environmental alarmists. The gene-splicing necessary to create golden rice is unnatural. It could have unforeseen consequences. It would be better, argue advocates of the precautionary principle, to wait until it can be proven to be totally safe before its widespread introduction into the food supply.

It is easy for the affluent and well fed, who can supplement abundant food supplies with vitamins, minerals, and herbal nutrients, to be cautious about new, untried, genetically modified foods. No one is saying these people must eat these innovations. But it is not so easy for people living in constant danger of malnutrition to wait for more evidence that genetically modified foods are perfectly safe.

Further, the notion that genetically modified foods are a recent innovation ignores the thousands of years of human genetic “tampering” with nature that has produced many agricultural products we take for granted. There was never a time when the type of cows that produce our milk ran free and wild. Modern milk cows are the outcome of thousands of years of selective breeding that has modified the genetic make up of these creatures.

Hybrid Corn

A similar story can be told about the corn-on-the-cob we chow down on at picnics. American Indians nurtured this hybrid through cross-fertilization of carefully selected weeds. Or how about that pet Chihuahua at the end of your leash? Ever see a pack of them run down prey on one of those nature shows?

The fact is, people have been genetically modifying other living creatures for thousands of years. It’s just that earlier methods were less predictable and more time-consuming than modern gene-splicing methods. We are doing what we have always done—change the world to make it more to our liking.

If the precautionary-principle zealots had walked among our cave-dwelling ancestors, they probably would have tried to prevent the use of fire. It’s dangerous and polluting. It has killed far more people than nuclear energy—a modern substitute in many uses. Yet, even today, environmental alarmists oppose replacing coal-fired electricity with nuclear-generated electricity.

The precautionary principle takes a healthy skepticism about the new and untried (after all, most new ideas are a flop; only a minority ultimately succeed) and turns it into a stultifying phobia. Progress requires that we take calculated risks in the effort to make things better. The track record of science and technology in this regard should be a source of confidence. The human mind is an amazing tool. It ought not to be tied down by irrational fears.

A third key concept of the environmental lobby is that there must be “stakeholder participation” in important decisions. Transactions between buyers and sellers are deemed insufficiently participatory. Third parties would like to butt in and dictate different terms for the transactions.

In the marketplace buyers and sellers find each other and voluntarily enter into agreements to trade money for products or services. No one forces either party to trade. Either is free to refuse or back out of a transaction before it is consummated. Often buyers can return merchandise and get their money back if they are dissatisfied.

While it is legitimate to insist that the voluntary participants in market transactions not leave a mess for others to clean up (for example, smoke from the coal-fired power plant that sells electricity to business and residential customers), it does not necessarily follow that these others be given an equal or dominant voice in the terms of the transaction.

Consider the case of the pesticide DDT. There are many places in the Third World where DDT could save lives if it were used to combat malaria-carrying mosquitoes. An estimated two million deaths per year are attributed to malaria. Public-health workers in these afflicted areas are willing to buy DDT. There are companies willing to manufacture it. However, “stakeholders” from the environmental quarter have prevailed on governments to ban the trade in this product.

DDT was banned on the basis of its suspected contribution to thinning eggshells among wild birds. The forecast was for massive die-offs among birds leading to what the originator of this concern—Rachel Carson—said would be a “silent spring.” There is no evidence that DDT is harmful to humans.

Saving wild birds is a worthy goal. If it can be done without endangering people, few would object. Saving wild birds at the cost of human lives, though, is much less defensible. From the security of an America that is largely safe from the ravages of malaria, the risk/reward trade-off from banning DDT might look acceptable. The trade-off is far less acceptable in regions where malaria is a major killer. The people living in these regions ought to be free to use DDT to save their lives. The intervention of the environmental “stakeholders” interferes with this freedom. (Fortunately, some attitudes have changed and the World Health Organization now sanctions some uses of DDT.)

Getting It Backwards

The environmental alarmists have it backwards. If anything imperils the earth it is ignorant obstruction of science and progress. People living on the edge of subsistence cannot afford to conserve the environment. Their energies must go into surviving. People who are prosperous can afford to think about conserving the environment. So to the extent that the measures demanded by environmental alarmists retard progress, they also endanger the environment.

That technology provides the best option for serving human wants and conserving the environment should be evident in the progress made in environmental improvement in the United States. Virtually every measure shows that pollution is headed downward and that nature is making a comeback.

A few years ago I visited the historical site of “the shot heard round the world”—Lexington, Concord, and Battle Road in Massachusetts. The area is lush with trees and greenery. Park Rangers explain that in 1775 the area was void of this greenery. The trees were chopped down to make way for farming. In those days farming was so much less efficient than today that 80 percent of the population had to engage in it to provide enough food to feed the nation. Vast swaths of countryside had to be leveled for the low-yielding crops of that era.

Technology has changed all that. Pesticides and genetically modified crops have allowed more of the fruits and vegetables to escape being eaten by insects. Better transportation has enabled more food to get to market before spoiling. Refrigeration has allowed food to stay edible longer. As a result, the portion of the workforce needed for agriculture has dropped to 2 percent. Massachusetts farmland has been allowed to revert to forest.

This is the model for saving the rest of the planet: let freedom to think and trade make use of the genius of humanity for a better world.

  • John Semmens is a research fellow at the Independent Institute and research project manager in the Arizona Department of Transportation Research Center.