All Commentary
Wednesday, March 1, 1995

No Turning Back: Dismantling the Fantasies of Environmental Thinking

Fresh Insights About Environmentalism, Scientific Ecology, and Property Rights

Wallace Kaufman courageously challenges the environmentalist establishment in his compelling and persuasive book, No Turning Back. Kaufman’s credibility in taking on that establishment is founded on his having worked for 30 years for that very establishment, as president of two state-level environmental groups and lobbyist for the Wilderness Society.

The principal virtue of No Turning Back is the way in which it organizes and presents its arguments. It is what I would call an effective “outreach book” that will appeal to and inspire non-ideological men and women in business who are generally too busy going about the day-to-day task of producing goods and services to focus on why they are the target of environmental activists. Moreover, these same people feel vaguely guilty that what they are doing is somehow wrong. No Turning Back gives them the intellectual ammunition to shed the guilt, and leaves them with hope that the inevitable march of science and technology will eventually triumph over the Luddites of the nineties.

While No Turning Back is primarily a restatement of free market applications to environmental issues, its discussion of the roots of environmentalism and the emergence of scientific ecology and the property rights movement does provide some fresh insights.

The idea that nature is sacred was a reaction to the ability of science to reveal the secrets of nature and strip away its mystery and power over mankind. Most prominent among the Enlightenment reactionaries was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who claimed that primitive peoples always led the happiest lives.

Rousseau’s vision of “paradise lost” found its way to America by way of England through the English Romantics. From this foundation emerged Henry David Thoreau, who became the godfather of the American environmental movement, calling for a return to communal harmony, as if such a thing ever existed. Fortunately, his ideas were not taken up on a large scale in nineteenth-century America, with its drive to settle a continent and create a level of prosperity unimaginable to previous generations.

That was to change in the twentieth century, when the traumatic events of World War I and the Great Depression planted the seeds of command-and-control economics, which took root and eventually found their most fertile soil in the environmental movement of the sixties.

However, in culture, as in physics, every action has a reaction. Kaufman points out that the reaction to “command and control” environmentalism is manifesting itself with the emergence of scientific ecology and the property rights movement. Scientific ecology challenges the most cherished assumption of environmentalists: that nature exists in perfect balance except when upset by man’s intervention. On the contrary, the new ecologists say that nature’s preference is not for balance, but for change.

All of nature’s creatures have been living on a planet where changes are unpredictable, swift, and devastating. The challenge, then, is not whether to protect or destroy the environment, but rather how to protect the environment and achieve economic growth. Critical to meeting this challenge is understanding and accepting the premise of ecologists that changing the environment for man’s use does not entail environmental disaster. On the contrary, it recognizes man as a responsible steward. While this perspective has been extensively researched and chronicled in the scientific literature, rarely has it been brought forth in popular writings. Kaufman is to be applauded for doing so in No Turning Back.

Finally, Kaufman provides a fresh discussion of the nascent property rights movement. One of the most cherished ideals in American society is the right to own and use property. When the Endangered Species Act prevents, for example, an owner from selling 38 acres of land because a pair of bald eagles have nested on it, it is not surprising that landowners rise up to say enough is enough. Now, at long last, the courts are beginning to recognize these rights, and have begun enforcing the takings clause of the Constitution, which requires government to compensate landowners for property where their laws prohibit development.

Kaufman envisions a future where property rights are recognized, scientific principles are applied to public policy, and technological advances address the dual societal requirements of environmental stewardship and economic growth. If such a confluence of changes were to occur, it would relegate today’s environmental movement to the dustbin of history. I just hope I live long enough to see it. []

Mr. Lamberton is the Public Affairs Director for a cable operator in Texas, and the former Deputy Director of the White House Office of Policy Information under President Reagan.

  • Lance Lamberton is the president and founder of the Cobb Taxpayers Association, based outside of Atlanta, Georgia. He served as the Deputy Director of the White House Office of Policy Information under President Reagan, and holds a Master of Arts in history from New York University.