Intellectuals' Ecological Niche

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Intellectuals' Ecological Niche

By: John A. Baden, Ph.D.
Posted on April 23, 2014 FREE Insights Topics:

Greens often condemn Americans for their allegedly prodigal treatment of natural resources and the environment. This is a common theme in the environmental literature. Ed Abbey, author of The Monkey Wrench Gang, was one of the inspirations of Earth First!  His statement, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell”, suggests the spirit motivating that defunct Green activist movement. 

However, it is easy to empathize with their feelings though not their actions.   America in the 1800 and 1900s was, in retrospect, highly rapacious toward nature.   This may reflect an ethical failure.  It is, however, a predictable consequence of the then prevailing concrete circumstances of life. 

By standards of today, Americans in the post Civil War period were terrible managers of natural resources and destroyers of ecological systems.  Part of this is explained by ignorance; the term and perspective on ecology was only developed in 1869.[i]  Ecology refers to the scientific study of interrelationships between organisms and their environment. Like economics, it is derived from the Greek oikos, which means household.

But of course people living on the land understood basic ecological functions; their survival depended on it.  Two of the best books ever written on political economy explicitly recognize the vast and un-specifiable amount of knowledge embedded in agricultural living. (These books are: Thomas Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions, Basic Books, 1980, and James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed, Yale Univ. Press, 1998.)  

The systematic study of man's interactions with nature followed practical understanding.  It was part of the enlightenment of the late 1700s.  Thomas Jefferson's agricultural experiments and written observations exemplify this application of science to utilizing nature's bounty.  

Poverty is far more important than ignorance in explaining the apparent environmental pathologies of 19th and early 20th century America.   America in 1900 was relatively wealthy.  Our per capita income was on par with Britain, twice that of France, and four times Japan.  Still, by today's standards we lived in poverty, about the same as an average Mexican today. Using today's standards, Nobel Prize economist James Tobin estimated a 67% poverty rate in 1896 and a 63% poverty rate in 1918.  Even in 1900, about two-thirds of Americans lived in poverty. 

In 1900 only three percent of American homes had electricity.  Only about a third of American homes had running water and 15% had flush toilets. Life expectancy at birth was 47 years, and infant mortality rates were high; every 1000 babies born, 140 died in their first year. 10% of the American population was illiterate and the average adult had an 8th grade education. Only 7% of students completed high school. The typical workweek was 60 hours over six days. Pensions were rare; men generally worked as long as physically able, two-thirds of men over 65 had fulltime jobs.

From the birth of Christ until about 1776, there was little if any increase in per capita wealth. Only in recent times has poverty become something other than the normal, unchangeable background condition.  But when they become educated and escape poverty, people re-order priorities. 

In these new conditions, ecology becomes salient.  Controlling for age, generally the wealthy, well-educated people are environmentalists.  Alas, few understand the contributions of wealth to the Greening of America.  Intellectuals are especially prone to this oversight.  Many of them blame the wealth creating institutions, property rights and the market process, for the remaining environmental problems. 

In this case in particular, they are wrong.  Consider the various alarming predictions; running out of energy (and everything else), exploding populations, ozone depletion, and acid rain among others.   From their perspectives, it's the crisis of the vanishing crisis.   No wonder people are skeptical about the dangers of climate change.

Historian Paul Johnson argued that in 20th-century history that intellectuals have championed innumerable disastrous public policies.  He wrote:  "[B]eware intellectuals. Not merely should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice." Journalist Tom Wolfe, a Yale Ph.D. in American Studies, described an intellectual as "a person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others." 

There are, of course a great many serious environmental and natural resource problems.  The "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico is one--and it is created and amplified by government mandates and subsidies.

The great majority of our environmental problems are the result of a few conditions; common pools such as open access ocean fisheries, poorly defined and enforced property rights, political rent seeking, and market distortions via crony capitalism. 

In principle, these can be corrected or improved by public policy reform.  One of FREE's goals is to foster such reforms.  We welcome your help.

[i] The term was coined by the German biologist Ernst Heinrich Haeckel in 1869.


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