Taking green lessons where you find them | Bleader

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Taking green lessons where you find them

Posted By on 02.22.07 at 06:48 AM

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Fellow Chicago blogger and frequent commenter Paul Botts of dot-org relays GOP pollster Frank Luntz's explanation for why public support for environmentalism has translated into few victories: "Environmental non-profits behave as professional scolds, communicating a vibe that 'anyone who doesn't believe what they believe is not only wrong but evil." (Botts draws an analogy to feminism, many of whose tenets are embraced by people who shun the label.)

I discovered this in the 80s, when I wrote two stories for the downstate weekly Illinois Times about Julian Simon, a marketing prof then at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who pointed out a number of fallacies in green orthodoxy, including the notion that we're running out of raw materials. Since he'd published an article in Science magazine (June 27, 1980) and later a book, The Ultimate Resource, I figured environmentalists would take his valid criticisms to heart and pay more attention to economic ways of thinking.

Wrong. So I went back to the well in 1994 in the Reader (behind the pay wall):

"About 15 years ago I met an economist with a bald head, a crooked smile, and some of the most outrageous ideas I'd ever heard. Our air and water are cleaner than they've been for decades, he said. There's more food per capita in the world every year. Supposedly scarce energy and mineral resources have been getting cheaper over the decades, not more expensive. Population growth is good because it adds to the number of active, inquiring, innovative human minds--the ultimate resource of civilization.

"His name was Julian Simon, and he wasn't a biologist. He taught economics at the U. of I. in Champaign, and he'd just written a book on running a mail-order business. What did he know about the fate of the earth? But I was a writer and he was a story, and many of his claims were well documented. Besides, I knew that expertise is where you find it, having just written a series of articles lauding the ability of blue-collar grandmothers to learn enough about toxicology to attack landfill siting on technical grounds.

"It was Simon's most outre claim that left the longest-lasting impression on me. There's no real oil shortage, he said. When prognosticators warn that there are only 20 or 35 or 50 years' supply left, they mean at current prices, extracted with current technology. Once the price goes up significantly, it becomes worth someone's while to look for oil farther away, deeper down, or in more diluted form. If the price of oil goes high enough, it'll become worth someone's while to perfect alternatives: cars powered by electricity or hydrogen, for instance, that aren't competitive when gas is cheap. After all, he pointed out, we don't care about oil for its black shiny self. All we need are the services it provides. Over time, innovation and substitution have made them cheaper."

In his less plausible ventures, Simon also denied the significance and magnitude of species extinctions, on which I think he's been proven empirically wrong (and philosophically questionable).  He was equally skeptical of the case for climate change, which was still a defensible position given the state of climate science in the mid-90s. He tended to deemphasize the role of government regulation in creating environmental improvement -- but then environmentalists themselves talked poor until Gregg Easterbrook's 1995 A Moment on the Earth forced them to admit they'd won some big battles.

The environmentalists who took notice of Simon picked his most extreme-sounding statements and were satisfied with refuting them -- they ignored the lessons he had to offer. Most culpable were Herman Daly and John Cobb, Jr., the lauded authors of For the Common Good (1989), whose treatment of Simon's thinking was intellectually dishonest. (If you prefer more up-to-the-minute links in this vein, Tom Yulsman at Environmental Journalism Now just excoriated Ellen Goodman for comparing climate-change deniers to Holocaust deniers.)

A movement that can't learn from its critics is, by definition, a movement in trouble.

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