All Commentary
Thursday, February 1, 2001

Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists: A Conservative Manifesto by Peter Huber

Huber Debunks Antimarket Environmentalism but Fails to Advocate Free-Market Solutions

Basic Books • 2000 • 288 pages • $25.00 hardcover; $15.00 paperback

Peter Huber’s new book will delight as well as infuriate people who seek a consistent free-market approach to environmental issues. He delivers a devastating blow to the views of environmentalists who are antitechnology and antimarket, and does so with great vigor and wit. But “Hard Green,” the new paradigm Huber erects in its place, is hardly the “conservative manifesto” he promises.

First, Huber performs an invaluable service by untangling and then debunking the six main themes in antimarket environmentalist thinking: the Malthusian’s fear of scarcity, the Luddite’s fear of complexity, the socialist’s contempt for property, the communist’s belief in central planning, the ascetic’s love of frugality, and the New Ager’s search for a secular religion. In each case, Huber’s analysis is deadly to the underpinnings of environmentalist belief.

Human creativity trumps natural resource depletion, according to Huber, and history proves this to be so. “Behind every human mouth there cogitates a brain,” and those brains, when allowed to operate in an environment of free markets, fuel the prosperity that thwarts Malthusian predictions.

How can complexity be “brittle” when it is the result of human design and technology, Huber asks, yet be stable when it is the result of blind evolutionary processes taking place over millions of years? Isn’t human progress, like nature itself, more like honey than a sand pile, slowly and easily accommodating change?

Huber ridicules the environmental movement’s leaders for trusting government to protect the environment despite gruesome evidence of human rights abuses and ecological devastation in the provinces of the former Soviet Union. Communists “despoiled the environment with gross, arrogant, blundering, callous, stupid savagery almost unimaginable to us capitalists.”

So far so good. But when Huber turns from his attack on the environmentalists to the creation of his own environmental approach, the book deteriorates.

Hard Green is the name Huber gives his new conservationism to distinguish it from Amory Lovins’s “Soft Green” philosophy. It champions human ingenuity against the ideology of limits; privatizing pollution; limiting government power; expanding public and private protection of forests, lakes, and shores; and increasing reliance on technologies like nuclear power and genetic engineering.

There is much to like in the Hard Green approach. Huber understands and explains persuasively how rising wealth leads to greater environmental protection, how markets and property rights are essential to creating wealth, and how government has often failed when given the job of protecting the environment. This is, indeed, a paradigm for an environmentalism that is pro-freedom and pro-human at the same time as it is pro-wolf, pro-wilderness, and pro-clean air.

But Hard Green is not free-market environmentalism. At various points in his book Huber distances himself from libertarians who challenge the existence of “public” goods or believe everything, even Yellowstone, should be privatized. Huber has vague doubts about the efficacy of markets, and he looks to government to scratch his itch: “Proper protection of the environment requires more of something or other: more regulator, tax collector, or licensing authority, perhaps?” Given what we know and Huber himself has written about government, it makes little sense to look for that “something” there.

Huber recommends controlling air pollution by having government create artificial markets for emission permits, something Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute derisively but correctly calls “market socialism.” When writing about conserving wilderness areas, Huber seems more concerned about winning over “the man in the Winnebago” than following free-market ideas to their logical conclusion. He grants wilderness preservation an exemption from the general rules of economics, going so far as to create a new category of assets—“uneconomic resources”—that he claims governments are able to manage effectively.

Huber makes a sort of second-best argument for his position: “It is by affirming the legitimate government role in the truly public sphere that we can be all the more determined to exclude government more strictly from the private.” Yet this sort of trade has never been honored by the other side in the past. Giving government a role beyond the very limited functions of protecting life, liberty, and property has invariably cost us more than we have benefited, and not infrequently put us on a slippery road to serfdom.

One hopes that readers who find Huber’s critique of mainstream environmentalism convincing will go on to read the works of true free-market environmentalists such as Terry Anderson, John Baden, Jane Shaw, Fred Smith, and Bruce Yandle. Unfortunately, none of those names appears anywhere in the book.

Joseph Bast is president of The Heartland Institute and author of Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism (Madison Books, second edition 1995).