In July 1989 columnist Warren Brookes surveyed the nation’s Independence Day celebrations and noted that Americans were about to “engage willingly in activities that are thousands of times more dangerous than the ‘environmental risks'” President George H.W. Bush and the U.S. Congress were committing hundreds of millions of dollars to stamp out of existence. No, Brookes wasn’t arguing for more stringent fireworks regulation. Those taxpayer dollars, he wrote, were “trivial compared with the dangers to our liberties and our sanity from the risk-free agenda of the newest secular religionists, the ‘ecotheologians’…who are now busy shouting ‘death’ on a crowded planet.”
Eighteen years later, the nation’s Fourth of July holiday was spent immersed in the hype over Al Gore’s impending series of Live Earth concerts, where a few days later Jane Goodall would greet the crowd in chimpanzee squeals, then ask, “Up in the North the ice is melting, what will it take to melt the ice in the human heart?”; half-hearted purveyor of indifference anthemsJohn Mayer would liken environmental awareness to a vitamin — “You go to the bathroom and 99 percent of it is gone but you hope that you retained 1 percent”; and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. would call a disagreement on global warming “treason” and those who air such skepticisms “traitors.”
If Brookes hadn’t tragically passed away in 1992 at age 62, he would likely be Kennedy’s Public Enemy No. 1 today. Few understood the Green Scam quite so well or so early as Brookes did, and no one was more adept at eviscerating its sacred cows with sharpened facts, common sense — he spent 20 years in business before entering opinion journalism — and, yes, humor. (“When Columbus set sail for the New World, he was warned he would sail off the edge into an unknown abyss,” Brookes once quipped. “I am convinced that one of those at the dock trying to get him to change his mind was Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich’s ancestor Pablo.”) After his death the Wall Street Journal eulogized, “Few voices stand as Warren Brookes did, shouting facts into the gale of fashion.”
Brookes would not have been surprised by Gore’s hubristic (and apparently incorrect) guesstimation at Live Earth that “more than 2 billion of us have come together in more than 130 countries on all seven continents” to “demand action.” In 1989 Brookes watched Gore’s global warming presentation at the National Press Club — precursor to an Academy Award winning film, in case you haven’t heard — during which the preening Man Who Wouldn’t Be King warned near-biblical droughts were imminent.
“Since historically an average of one-sixth of the United States is in some kind of drought each year, and the natural Pacific current cycle now predicts warmer temperatures in 1991 to 1992,” Brookes, recognizing the self-serving convenience and lazy ease embodied in such sweeping statements, wrote, “Gore could well mobilize liberals away from Jesse Jackson to Mother Earth.” (Whether Gore could today entice them away from Mother Clinton is another issue, of course.)
Brookes had already tapped into the heart of an argument many of today’s skeptics still have not been able to get a handle on: The shifting goalposts. The ease with which any anomalous negative event is shoehorned into the doomsday theory du jour, while calm elsewhere is simply ignored; the bullying to shut up, to accept, to face contempt in polite company if you fail to dutifully bow before the latest green orthodoxy. The apocalypse now crowd has told us ad infinitum the debate on global warming is over. For Warren Brookes — as anyone acquainted with The Economy in Mind or Unconventional Wisdom is well aware — no debate was ever over.
BROOKES BALKED AT a U.S. Congress “determined to legislatively overturn…rational approach with regulatory absolutism that borders on the occult.” He mocked McDonald’s ill-advised switch from easily recyclable polystyrene containers to not-so-easily-recycled coated paperboard containers at the behest of a marauding Environmental Defense Fund as “not sound science but ill-informed yuppie-ism.” He coolly disassembled the widely accepted, yet “very largely counterproductive” insistence on paper recycling, pointing out paper was a “completely renewable resource whose production has been rising for the last 40 years,” commercially valuable, and “superb for the environment (consuming carbon dioxide, enriching — albeit acidifying — surface soils and preventing erosion),” and, thus, worthy of constant production. And in the late-eighties Brookes challenged “‘global warmers'” who in the early- to mid-seventies “were predicting an ice age because of sharp cooling since 1938, which was not explained by any global warming model,” and offered a slew of scientific evidence debunking other tenets of the new climate change faith.
Brookes was the ultimate bane of environmental extremists — a skeptic who could put threats in context. “The risk of an airplane falling on this hotel and killing you is about three in a million,” the columnist told one California crowd, before adding that such a freak accident was three times more likely to kill anyone in the room than the chemicals environmental groups were trying to ban via state referendum at the time. (The referendum, once polling two-to-one in favor, failed.) Government risk assessments, Brookes also revealed, were “not based on a rational appraisal of normal human exposure but of the ‘maximum exposed individual’ (MEI), who is assumed to be living directly at the point of highest pollutant exposure, outdoors, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, throughout a 70-year lifetime.”
As early as 1982, Brookes was elucidating the statist impulses of the environmental movement, using Charlie Brown’s Great Killer Watermelon as a stand-in for the modern anti-capitalist environmentalist — “dark green on the outside, red on the inside.” In The Economy in Mind, Brookes’s classic defense of free-markets, wrote of two editorials appearing in a liberal newspaper:
The first was a defense of more government regulation of the economy and of business. In summary it said: Our economy has now become so complex and so sophisticated, it is simply impossible to allow it to run by itself without a substantial degree of government regulation. Just six inches below was a fervent plea for environmental integrity, whose gist was: Our magnificent natural environment is simply far too complex and too delicate in its balance for mere mortals to go on interfering in “its naturally accommodative process.” Such human interference, no matter how well meaning, invariably produces chaos and distortion. So, on the one hand, our economy is so complex that it must be regulated, and on the other, our ecology is so complex that we shouldn’t attempt to interfere with it.
Indeed, Brookes believed, as he argued in a paper on the eve of his passing, “regulatory overkill is very likely to give us a worse environment, as well as a worse economy, because the effect of that regulatory overkill will be to slow this nation’s advance along the technological learning curve, a curve that I maintain is bright green.” In an earlier column, Brookes warned of Americans “being led in part by a dangerously shallow media to engage in the reckless regulatory pursuit of zero risk, and a flat-earth assault on science and technology” and a nation “more willing than ever to give up big benefits to control either imaginary or infinitesimal risks.”
“Just as the toddler on a tether is safer than the child running free,” Brookes continued, “a risk-free society is one on a very tight leash.”
These days, the nation seems to be half-heartedly dodging a collar two sizes too small which nanny staters in green aprons seem all too intent on cramming over our collective head. Then again, without The Economy in Mind and Brookes’s prodigious columns, perhaps we’d already be wearing it. It’s impossible to tell. One thing is certain, however: We are in desperate need of another indefatigable visionary like Warren Brookes today.