Environmentalism and liberalism shouldn’t be joined at the hip.
A couple of quick prefatory remarks — several readers interpreted my earlier posting as an attack on liberalism. That was not my intent at all: While I am not a liberal, as the saying goes, “Some/most of my best friends are liberals.” The only goal of the previous posting, and the one that follows, is to suggest the harm that comes from automatically coupling liberalism with environmentalism.
In my previous post, I discussed our movement’s international problems. But back in America, we’re not doing much better. When the American environmental movement began, Lake Erie was on fire, the bald eagle was on the verge of extinction, and L.A. was choking on its own smog. When environmental regulations seemed to reduce these problems, the public was all for them. But as regulations multiplied, environmentalism became associated in many minds with costly regulatory expenditures, failed Superfund clean-ups, and lots of bureaucratic red tape. Big government enviroliberalism took over a grassroots movement.
Why should liberalism be the Siamese twin of environmentalism? If I am pro-life, against affirmative action, or for private accounts in Social Security, does that mean I don’t care about protecting forest ecosystems or saving blue whales?
What would our movement look like if there were real attempts to bring in pro-environment conservatives or libertarians — if we put them on our organizing committees or in our policy groups? In general, our movement’s far-left viewpoint has pushed us out of the mainstream and away from our own traditions and history. In World War II, significant numbers of Sierra Club leaders utilized their backcountry experience to join the Army’s elite 10th Mountain Division. It’s hard to imagine too many Sierra Clubbers joining today’s 10th Mountain Division to search for Bin Laden in Tora Bora.
How might our movement change if we had a real dialogue with those who care about the environment but have different policy prescriptions or worldviews than ours? As regards alliances, the environmental community should practice the principal rule of statecraft: “No friends or enemies, only interests.”
I like many things about the much-discussed Apollo Alliance, but fundamentally it’s the same tired collection of Democratic Party fronts — civil rights groups, unions, and other liberal organizations. How does that help us advance legislation during an era of Republican dominance? When you are talking about spending $300 billion, you ought to be able to line up a lot of businesses behind your vision. But the current, publicly announced business and Republican backing for the Apollo Alliance is very thin.
I’d be the last person to deny the real environmental shortcomings of this administration, but we certainly haven’t been very good at finding areas to meet them halfway. We immediately dismiss reform of New Source Review (NSR), though Harvard environmental economist Robert Stavins and Howard Gruenspecht of Resources for the Future recently wrote that NSR currently “retards environmental progress and wastes resources.” And we rake Bush over the coals on Kyoto, even though we wouldn’t have ratified it under Gore/Kerry either. Despite the difficult operating environment, there is much we could have done. As the saying goes, we never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Meanwhile, many environmentalists’ contempt for economics is exceeded only by their ignorance thereof. Hostility to cost-benefit analyses of our policy proposals makes many non-environmentalist policymakers wonder what our ultimate goals are.
Some regulations on hazardous waste disposal, for example, are estimated to cost billions of dollars per life saved — hardly a good use of society’s limited resources. It is true that cost-benefit analysis is an inexact science, but so is climatology — and I don’t see too many environmentalists saying we shouldn’t pay attention to global warming science because the numbers aren’t perfect.
Our supreme self-confidence in our own righteousness is particularly unfortunate given that our past record is far from spotless. Prominent environmentalists were wrong on world starvation, wrong on resource prices, wrong when they said oceans would be fished out by the early 1980s, wrong to link socialism with cleaner environments, and wrong on global cooling fears in the 1970s.
And now we’re fighting sensible Endangered Species Act reform, and dangerously simplistic on the complex issues like genetically modified foods. We’ve pushed Kyoto and mercilessly attacked its opponents despite the private acknowledgement of many environmentalists and policy analysts that Kyoto itself is not going to do us much good. At the same time, if someone says nuclear or “clean coal” (the latter being probably the most important “alternative energy” investment we could make), we start sharpening our knives.
I don’t think that’s the best strategy for environmentalism to win hearts and minds.