The Public Policy

The Truths Shall Set You Free

Though liberal environmentalists might find them a tad inconvenient.

By 4.22.08

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About a year ago, I became convinced that the global warming debate was going the way of other environmental issues during the past 40 years. Dissenting voices were being silenced as America hurtled toward more laws, regulations, and bureaucratic control -- which, "informed" opinion makers insist, are the only solutions allowed to any problems global warming might bring.

Sadly, this pattern has repeated time and again on a wide array of environmental issues since the 1960s, when the lawyers of the nascent Environmental Defense Fund began lobbying for local, then national, and then international bans on the pesticide DDT. The results in virtually every case have been disastrous: significant losses of both liberty and prosperity and, in some cases, environmental and humanitarian catastrophe.

That's why I wrote my book, The Really Inconvenient Truths: Seven Environmental Catastrophes Liberals Don't Want You to Know About -- Because They Helped Cause Them. I wanted to show how the preferred response of command-and-control is precisely the wrong way to address environmental problems. In a very literal sense, the truths can set you free.

I wanted to warn people about the disastrous effects of biofuel policies around the world, and now events have justified my concern far more than I ever imagined. For years, biofuels were a bit player in the farm subsidies game, a losing proposition that politicians kept going to curry favor with the farm lobby.

Then, as concern over global warming began to heat up, biofuels came to be seen as an easy solution to loud calls on the political left to decarbonize the nation's energy supply. Left-liberal politicians did an about-face. Once seen as a political sweetheart deal, government mandating use of ethanol in gasoline and subsidizing its production became a vital component in the fight against global warming.

Yet all the world's various biofuels laws have done is to force industries to burn food as fuel. This has precipitated food shortages and massive increases in food prices around the world. There have been food riots in Indonesia, Mexico, Egypt, and most recently, Haiti -- where the poor have been reduced to eating cakes made with bleach and are on the verge of bringing the government down. Even in America, some grocery stores have begun to institute a form of rationing.

Meanwhile, massive tracts of rainforest are being cleared in Indonesia to produce biodiesel, threatening the orangutan and other magnificent animals with extinction. In Brazil, the growth of sugar cultivation for ethanol is forcing food producers into the Amazon. Little of this would have happened without the demands for less carbon-intensive energy from the environmental movement. Now they've let the genie out of the bottle.

THIS RESULT WAS inevitable given the model, which was first used in the campaign to ban DDT. There certainly was a minor problem with egg shell thinning in large predatory birds caused by mass agricultural use of DDT.

But in response, Rachel Carson, whom Al Gore cites as an inspiration, wrote a treatise, Silent Spring, which was the 1962 equivalent of a Michael Moore documentary -- loose with the facts and strong on hyperbole. While she didn't call for an outright ban on DDT, her followers demonized the product so much that the resulting ban can be attributed to Carson's book.

There were several effects in the U.S., not least the loss of the noble American elm tree, which was saved from Dutch Elm Disease only by DDT; its replacements simply weren't up to the job.

Internationally, the consequences have been much worse. Millions of Africans have perished from malaria, a disease that could have been well nigh eradicated long ago given judicious use of DDT. If you want to hear a true silent spring, go to the playground of a Ugandan orphanage in April.

The list goes on.

In the United States, restrictive forest management laws have led to a wildfire crisis. While Yellowstone National Park was being reduced to ash in 1988, park rangers and forest service officials were debating whether a fire caused by lightning striking a transmission line was natural or man-made, so as to decide whether they could put it out or not. Recent fires in California and throughout the West have been exacerbated by similarly absurd policies.

Then there's the Endangered Species Act, an approach so fundamentally wrong-headed to protecting rare animals and plants that it makes the value of a landowner's property go down when a rare species is discovered on it because the federal government then restricts the land's use.

Guess what the result is? A practice grimly known as "shoot, shovel, and shut up" is now common among landowners fearing loss of the use of their land. (The ESA was mercilessly parodied on The Simpsons as the "Rollback of Freedoms Act.")

YET LIBERALS DON'T always demand coercive regulations in the name of environmental protection, if it doesn't suit them. For example, today, synthetic estrogen is adversely affecting river and lake fish populations.

Synthetic estrogen comes from birth control pills in vast amounts, yet is ignored by activists who instead call for controls on chemicals present in much smaller amounts that have much less effect. Why? One environmental activist called it a "personal freedom issue" -- as if liberals never call for restrictions on those.

These days, many liberals prefer to call themselves "progressives." Yet, ironically -- or possibly fittingly -- a potential solution to many of America's environmental problems was derailed during the Progressive era. By closing off the avenue of property rights and common law in favor of common ownership and government control, the progressives stopped -- deliberately in some cases -- proven methods of redress for environmental damage.

The Cuyahoga river fire of 1967, for instance, could have been prevented if a paper company that sued to get the river cleaned up in the 1930s had been allowed to proceed with its action. Instead, the City of Cleveland claimed a prescriptive right to allow pollution and the State of Ohio went on to issue licenses to pollute. Capitalism didn't set the Cuyahoga on fire, progressivism did!

There are many more examples, too many to cite here. Yet as I show in the book, environmentalism has become the economic and even spiritual justification for much of left-liberal policy.

It is important to break that bond and show that the environment is actually best served by conservative policies that combine free-market and time-tested traditional approaches. More than anything else, confining command-and-control regulations to the trashcan of history will help prevent future ecological and humanitarian disasters.

I'd even toast with a small glass of ethanol to celebrate that event.

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About the Author

Iain Murray is Vice-President for Strategy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.