Any rational human being understands that poisoning our environment is short-sighted, stupid, and potentially suicidal.
(Note: I try to avoid using the solecism “the environment.” There's not, in any practical sense, a single environment on Earth. The environments in which various species of fish thrive are different from the environments of penguins which, in turn, are different from the environments of elephants, and so on. Indeed, there isn’t a single environment for human beings either. Residents of Phoenix live in a different environment than residents of Brasilia, Beijing, or even Prescott, Arizona, not to mention the vastly different rural areas around the globe.)
It may be difficult for some of us to imagine today, but for millennia, humans were ignorant and unthinking in their disposal of waste—both human and industrial. As wealth production exploded in the 19th and 20th centuries, so did pollution. Humans’ bad environmental habits—spewing and dumping pollutants into or onto air, water, and land—befouled our environment and brought us to the brink of environmental catastrophe.
Faced with an existential threat, there was an awakening. Millions of Americans realized that environmentally destructive habits had to be curbed. For generations, there had been visionary Americans who realized the importance of conserving natural resources and protecting our environment from ruination, but most conservationist efforts were concentrated in remote, largely unpopulated areas (think national parks, game preserves, and the like). However, by the 1960s, the pollution in heavily populated areas had become dangerous and impossible to ignore, so Americans demanded and procured sweeping reforms.
A multitude of laws and regulations were implemented. Some mandated the remediation of existing pollution; others, reductions in new pollution. Many of the improvements have been remarkable. There could have been even more progress, but then an unfortunate complication gummed up the process: the rise of environmentalism. This -ism—this political ideology and movement—often promotes practices and policies that are harmful both to human beings and our natural environment.
Another defect of environmentalism is that many environmentalists shun economic rationality by disregarding costs. This, too, has been going on for decades. I can recall in the ’90s an environmentalist being asked the perfectly sensible question, “Can we afford to restore wetlands?” The reply: “We can’t afford not to.”
You may regard the response as clever or cute, but it was an evasive cop-out. Even in a country as wealthy as ours, we can’t afford to do everything that we might like to do, and so we have to economize—that is, to set priorities.
Here's an economic truth that it makes no sense to ignore: We can’t prevent or remediate pollution for free; if we could, all pollution would have been eliminated by now, because nobody really likes pollution. But in the real world, combating pollution costs something—often a lot. The only rational, responsible approach, then, is to assess those costs and decide how much we can afford.
This collective decision-making process is complicated by the fact that those who are expected to bear the costs of anti-pollution measures (e.g., private companies and their customers) face different incentives than those (usually government bureaucrats) who oversee those measures and don’t have to bear the costs. Bureaucrats can afford to be absolutist in their approach. For them, since pollution is bad, the more we eliminate, the better. But if the costs are too high, they can shut down important industries.
Here’s a specific example from the late ’70s: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) commissioned consulting engineers to estimate the steel industry’s costs of complying with air-pollution regulations. The engineers estimated that removing 90 percent of the pollutants in producing carbon steel would cost $0.26 per kilogram; removing 97 percent would cost $4.98, and eliminating 99 percent would cost $32.20. The EPA—tasked with reducing pollution, but not having to pay for it—was inclined to impose the most stringent anti-pollution standard, and so they tried to keep the study secret. However, Pennsylvania’s two senators succeeded in making that information public.
- Many of the greens who wail about CO2 emissions are adamantly opposed to nuclear energy, which emits no CO2.
- Corn-based ethanol, a profitable boondoggle for those who produce it, requires the tilling of millions of acres of land, increases atmospheric ozone, and has a host of other negative environmental effects.
- The desire to preserve the spotted owl 30 years ago (which largely failed, not because of anything humans did, but because a larger species of owl moved in and wiped out its spotted cousins) not only caused many loggers to lose their livelihood, but also led to preventing sound forest management—a short-sighted policy that has come back to haunt the Pacific Northwest today with unnecessarily large conflagrations.
- The “paper instead of plastic” initiative (and I’ll be the first to acknowledge that we have to do a better job of disposing of plastics properly) requires, at the production stage, greater energy consumption while causing significantly more air and water pollution.
- And then there’s the environmentalist obsession with “renewable energy”—things such as windmills that kill far more birds and bats than fossil fuel producers, that require elements the mining of which causes horrible pollution, and that are nightmares to dispose of when their all-too-short usable life is over (see Michael Moore’s “Planet of the Humans” video).
We can all agree that the battle against pollution is necessary and must continue. While we should be grateful for progress already achieved and that pollution trends in the United States are moving in the right direction, the only responsible course is to maintain our commitment to a cleaner environment. This is a hugely important task—one far too important to trust to environmentalists.
As long as environmentalists cling to their anti-human, anti-economic ideology, they will impede caring for our environment in a helpful, rational way.