All Commentary
Monday, January 1, 1996

The True State of the Planet

A Terrific Primer for the Man-on-the-Street Advocate of Free Markets

Mr. Carolan is Executive Editor of National Review.

Those who have studied logic or critical thinking are probably familiar with the informal fallacy of the “false dilemma,” a kind of pseudo-argument in which a speaker pushes you into agreeing with him, or accepting an unwanted alternative. For example: if we don’t raise taxes to save this program, then (fill in the blank) will be “devastated.” This kind of thinking, so common today, also arrogantly sweeps aside any mediating role for the rest of humanity, as the speaker implies that only he or she “cares” enough to “help.”

According to recent polls, the public has for the most part bought this fallacy when it is applied to environmental regulation, displaying a remarkable willingness to trade freedom for “a clean environment.” This is due perhaps to anecdotal experience with human selfishness, or dead fish. But, this is also due, no doubt, to general ignorance about the way property rights and the free market work to mediate dilemmas affecting the public good. What’s more, as we have seen in Congress of late, environmental issues are so complex that even a good number of limited-government advocates have difficulty explaining exactly how the market can protect the environment.

The True State of the Planet makes two major contributions toward greater articulation. First, it makes a common body of evidence available to the reader, to make reasonable environmental judgments and predictions possible. Second, in straightforward language, based on that evidence, the book conveys a remarkable alternative vision of the role property rights and free markets have played, and can play, in enhancing the quality of the planet.

In a series of ten essays, prologue, epilogue, appendix, and tables of environmental standards or “benchmarks,” from a variety of scholars, this book reports what is for the most part wonderful, exciting news about dear old Gaia. For example, Nicholas Eberstadt shows, contra Malthus, that population growth has led to an explosion of human productivity and resources. His point is complemented by Dennis Avery’s educational survey of the phenomenal success of the Green Revolution. Indur Goklany shows, counterintuitively, that air quality has been steadily improving thanks to technological innovation. Stephen Moore, delving into metaphysics, argues that we must take stock of the non-material or spiritual side of our success with resources, which only suggests unlimited potential for growth. Meanwhile Fred Smith’s epilogue provides an excellent wrap-up by explaining how differing worldviews shape the environmental debate. These are but a few of the fine essays.

While there are the occasional speed bumps of technical jargon along the way, and even some dry prose in spots, this book is nevertheless a terrific primer for the man-on-the-street advocate of free markets, who, I suspect, is like me—lacking in intellectual ammunition in this area more than most others. Here, population growth, air and water quality, food, energy, and resource supply, species extinction, and environmental carcinogens, are all discussed, with numerous photos and charts to assist in understanding. Once you give this book some concerted study, it may turn you into what Fred Smith calls a “cornucopian.” A suitable philosophy for those who believe there are a wealth more people around to “care” than government bureaucrats.