As we approach the 42nd Earth Day, environmental data accumulates and wisdom grows, however unevenly. Most measures of America’s environmental quality show major improvement, notably air and water pollution. The increasing plenty of natural resources is also something to celebrate.
Environmentalism has become many people’s preferred religion. It’s unseemly to criticize people’s faith but this change is a mixed blessing. While green is a Christian liturgical color for much of the year, the moral ballast of the Green world view guides and stabilizes only a small portion of social behavior.
Here’s my disclosure on environmentalism. I’ve been a serious conservationist for many decades. I started a conservation club in my little country school, was active in the first Earth Day, and still support environmental causes. Ten years ago Ramona and I placed our ranch in a conservation easement. Budget allocations of time, attention, and funds offer good tests of sincerity.
With this background, here’s my argument. The period surrounding the first Earth Day in 1970 was marked by vociferous, at times hysteric, assertions regarding population and economic growth. In brief, both population and economic growth must halt and then decline. This was the proclaimed path to a sustainable, more meaningful and rewarding future.
If people were not sufficiently responsible to take the actions required to accomplish the related goals of zero population growth (ZPG) and zero economic growth (ZEG), then catastrophe would soon engulf us. This belief licensed two complementary positions.
First, government should have an important role in promoting these visions via regulation and taxation. The paired problems of population and economic growth justified the elites imposition of their Green values on less worthy others. They, of course, were exempt. This is a posture Al Gore exemplifies when jetting from his 20-plus room main mansion to one of his other homes always keeping “Earth in the Balance” through the purchase of off-set credits from his company.
We really do need regulations to constrain and monitor pollution and to manage common pools including migratory fish, mammals, and birds. And taxes are required to provide defense, support basic research, protect property rights, and maintain a system of courts to help adjudicate conflicts. Civil societies are free only in libertarian delusions.
Second, citizens who don’t accept the Green orthodoxy merit dismissal; they are some combination of evil, venal, and stupid. This is most clear today in the dogmatic criticism of “deniers,” the people not alarmed and stampeded to simplistic, shortsighted policies by fear of climate change.
Those who know the greater truth, that mankind is imperiled by CO2, may lie, cheat, steal, and censor to advance their cause and protect humanity from its self destruction. These folks are dismayed by the masses’ indifference to the warming plight they feel so strongly. Attentive citizens, however, have seen this movie twice before, once with ZPG and again with ZEG. They aren’t anxious for a rerun.
The goal of ZPG has been achieved and usually surpassed in much of the developed world. Aside from the U.S., every highly developed nation is below, and usually far below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. Concurrently, most of these same nations have stagnant economies.
Ironically, now that the Green goals have been achieved, catastrophe followed. Here’s why: the advocates of ZPG and ZEG didn’t ask, “And then what?”
Greens didn’t explore the predictable, logical consequences of their proposed policies. What are the demographic and economic results of achieving zero then negative population growth? What happens to the basket of entitlements promised to those anticipating retirement? Who will provide personal care for the aged and infirm?
All of these problems are magnified when economies stagnate. As the ecologists taught us on the first Earth Day, it’s impossible to do only one thing in complex systems. Everything is linked to other things. I hope the Greens remember this when advocating policies to reduce CO2.