Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Beauty By Contract

Summer 2000

Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists. A Conservative Manifesto by Peter Huber (Basic Books, 1999, xxxi + 223 pgs).

Peter Huber's valuable book relies in part on a questionable premise, but this very dependence makes possible its key contribution. Like the Soft Greens whom it is his principal aim to combat, Mr. Huber believes that the government must defend the environment by restricting freedom. But, he maintains, Soft Greens such as Paul Ehrlich and Al Gore go about the necessary task in the wrong way.

Against these modern worthies, Mr. Huber avows himself a disciple of Teddy Roosevelt. Nature, untouched by human hands, is a Good Thing. Accordingly, both he and Roosevelt hold, it must be preserved. The value of untouched nature, one gathers, is largely aesthetic. It is not the sort of thing that you can defend through argument; rather, our author aims to evoke feelings of the required kind in his readers.

Not trusting altogether to his unaided ability to do so, he cites at some length the purple prose of his mentor: "There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness . . . when the wanderer sees the awful glory of sunrise and sunset in the wide waste spaces of the earth, unworn of man, and changed only by the slow change of the ages through time everlasting" (frontispiece, unnumbered). Your aesthetic sensibilities suitably aroused by these winged words, you will no doubt agree with Mr. Huber that the government must act. Vast spaces must be sequestered by the state, lest the forces of free enterprise spoil the wilderness by violating it-or, what is worse, developing it.

But is the case of Roosevelt and Huber altogether conclusive? I cannot think so. For one thing, why do aesthetic values suffice to justify coercion by the state? If you own a Rembrandt or a Rubens, may the state take it from you should you lock your painting away in a closet rather than expose it to the eyes of the multitude? If not, why may your wetland (formally swamp) be expropriated because you wish to drain it and develop it? Is it enough to defend expropriation to say, as Mr. Huber does, that many people share his aesthetic tastes? 

Further, let us for the moment accept the aesthetic justification for intervention that our author offers. What about the aesthetic values manifested in industrial development? Must these not be set against the "hidden spirit of the wilderness" so beloved of Theodore Roosevelt? Could not someone match Huber's passage from Roosevelt with an equally mawkish tribute to the skyscraper by Ayn Rand? Exactly what wilderness-preserving intervention does an aesthetic politics justify? Huber does not tell us.

We can, though, leave the aesthetic entirely in the hands of our author yet still recognize that his case for state intervention fails. Why cannot those who share Mr. Huber's delight in conservation buy land in order to keep it free from developers? Our author himself concedes some weight to this point: "All in all, private conservation is, by a wide margin, the most important form of conservation we have. A great deal of conservation occurs on entirely private ranches and estates, private lands, shores, and lakes. Private land trusts are by far the most important and fast growing factor in the conservation movement today, particularly in the West and Southwest" (p. 91).

Why, then, should conservationists rally to the state? Even if you share Mr. Huber's aesthetic views, why not allow the free market to achieve conservationist aims without coercive intervention? Surely state intervention is not an end in itself, and, in his criticism of the Soft Greens, our author shows himself aware of the evils of which the state is capable. Why play with fire if you can avoid it?

Alas, the free market is not good enough for Mr. Huber. Although "Hard Greens will never call for federal management where private, local, or state initiative will do . . . an incontrovertible fact remains. Some things depend on doing things on a scope and scale that is inescapably public" (p. 91).

In sum, those who support conservation will, under a free market, succeed in withdrawing land from development. Their preferences, if backed by money, count in the market just as much as those of avid developers do. But the conservation they secure does not meet the wishes of Mr. Huber, let alone Theodore Roosevelt. Only the state can save us. 

Our author's willingness to use the state extends far and wide. Thus, he praises President Clinton for designating "as a national monument a vast stretch of land in Utah.It was a controversial call: The area includes the Kaiparowits Plateau, where a Dutch-owned concern was slated to begin mining massive coal formations. Roosevelt would have understood the controversy . . . and approved, not just the decision to conserve, but the in-your-face political courage it required" (p. xxvii).

Our author must here resolve a difficulty. He acknowledges, nay stresses, the inefficiency of the state. "The Softs have led us down Friedrich Hayek's `Road to Serfdom,' from good intention to gross bureaucracy, from grand principle to raw power" (p. xxix). How then can he rely on the state to do what he and Roosevelt wish?

Yes, Mr. Huber answers, the state is inefficient: it cannot do anything right. But precisely this fact allows the state to conserve effectively. Just the point of conservation is to withdraw resources from use. The state does not have to do anything: by conserving, it simply prevents anyone from using the wilderness. And this task even an inefficient state can adequately carry out. 

I cannot think Mr. Huber's transparent sophism copes with the anti-statist argument. Why does he think that the state, given the power to confiscate land for aesthetic reasons, will confine itself to the tasks our author mandates? Is not the lesson of Mises and Hayek that the state, unless rigidly restricted by fixed rules, will quickly spread its deadly inefficiencies far and wide? Our author's invocation of Theodore Roosevelt's shade seems hardly sufficient to stand in the way of a tyrannical state.

Hard Green, then, rests on what to my mind is a manifestly false premise: the need for state-mandated conservation based on aesthetic grounds. But his false premise serves Mr. Huber well. Because of it, he is able to mount a devastating criticism of the contemporary environmentalist movement.

More consistent defenders of the free market might be satisfied with a curt dismissal of environmentalism for its violation of property rights. Huber cannot adopt this strategy, since it would prove too much. It would undermine his own brand of environmentalism together with that of the Soft Greens he condemns.

Instead, he challenges contemporary environmentalists in a way reminiscent of Mises's critique of interventionism. Just as Mises says to his anti-capitalist foes, "Your schemes will not get you what you want," so does Huber confront the Soft Greens.

If you want conservation, he says, then withdraw land from use! What could be simpler? But Soft Greens neglect this direct route to their goal. Instead, they build speculative models that show how minute events might have drastic consequences. Al Gore, following the Danish physicist Per Bak, constantly appeals as an example to grains of sand that can trigger an avalanche.

In like manner, the Soft Greens allege, small traces of pesticides can, under certain assumptions, lead to devastation of the environment. Must not the beneficent hand of the state intervene to prevent this dire outcome? 

Mr. Huber thinks not. These models assume technology to be fixed; they cannot allow for innovation, of its nature unpredictable. But of course technology is not fixed. The originator of computer modeled Doomsday scenarios for the environment, Jay Forrester, "was not smart enough to model the future ingenuity of intellects like Ken Olsen, a protégé of Forrester himself. . . . Worse still for Limits modelers like Forrester, a new generation of wildly creative young Olsens, of equally unlimited talent and ingenuity, had enrolled at MIT" (p. 10).

Our author's argument is a simple one. If you want to preserve the wilderness, act directly: do not rely upon speculative models that often prove to be much ado about nothing. But I think that a Soft Green might reply to Mr. Huber as follows: "Why can't we have both your Teddy Roosevelt style conservation and the micromanagement that I favor? True, my models depend on conjecture; but so does your skepticism about them." To reply one must appeal to property rights: The government has no right to interfere with your use of your property because footloose speculations allege danger. But Mr. Huber lacks the robust notion of property rights required to mount this defense. Were he to accept strong property rights, he would also have blocked the sort of intervention he wants.

Hard Green contains many stimulating ideas, e.g., its defense of "inefficient" energy production in large plants. Further, our author turns the tables on environmentalists who cite James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis. As Huber sees matter, the Gaia hypothesis "leads toward stability, not avalanche" (p. 42). The earth can usually adjust to changes of its own accord. No doubt the point holds ad hominem against Soft Greens who cite Lovelock; but since the Gaia hypothesis is speculative it lends little direct support to Huber's own position that micromanagement is not needed. By failing to embed his critique of the Soft Greens in the firm ground of Lovelock property rights, Huber weakens his indictment of them.

 

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