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Book Review

Stale environmentalism

Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise, by Gaylord Nelson (with Susan Campbell and Paul Wozniak, and with a foreword by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.). Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002, 201 pp.

Martin W. Lewis

As a U.S. senator in the 1960s, Gaylord Nelson was clearly ahead of his time. His prescience is nicely illustrated in a letter (reprinted in Beyond Earth Day) that he sent to John F. Kennedy in 1963 offering the president advice for his planned "resources and conservation tour." The urgency of the environmental situation was so pronounced, Nelson informed Kennedy, that "we have only another 10 to 15 years in which to take steps to conserve what is left." By the end of the decade, such sentiments would be commonplace, but in 1963 they were exceptional. As a senator, Nelson pushed for far-reaching environmental reform. He is perhaps best known for spearheading the original Earth Day in 1970. The present book, written with the assistance of Susan Campbell and Paul Wozniak, asks how we might "fulfill the promise" of environmental restoration given on that day.

The results are uneven. Nelson offers a useful overview of environmental progress over the intervening decades--minimal though he considers it to be--as well as perennially important reminders of how serious the crisis still is. As Nelson demonstrates, although a number of relatively simply environmental problems have been adequately addressed, the more complicated and potentially disastrous ones, such as those posed by global warming, are more often disregarded. As in 1963, Nelson's take-home message is that we must act strongly and immediately or all might be lost. Many of his proposals for "achieving sustainability"--ranging from transitioning to solar power to the holding of comprehensive environmental hearings in Congress--are well considered and worthwhile.

But although Beyond Earth Day may contain a good measure of wisdom, it can hardly be cited for its originality. Little has changed in Nelson's thinking since 1963, and what appeared so fresh and iconoclastic then seems rather stale today. One can, after all, easily find dozens if not hundreds of books employing the same arguments, highlighting the same statistics, and offering the same prescriptions. The hectoring tone of such works, the endlessly repeated warning that now is the crucial time, with any delay in enacting massive reforms portending disaster, has lost its edge. Although we may need constant reminding of the severity of global environmental problems, one more book on the subject, even one by Gaylord Nelson, will make little difference.

The fact that such a pressing issue as global warming has been largely ignored in this country perhaps indicates that new approaches are needed. As Nelson himself shows, the U.S. public overwhelmingly supports environmental protection, but it also consistently prioritizes economic issues. Such polling data would lend support to an economically sophisticated environmentalism, one seeking as much synergy as possible (while not ignoring the intrinsic tradeoffs) between ecological protection and economic prosperity. Such a vision is not provided here. Nelson's only concession is to proclaim that "the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment"--a truism unhelpful for policy debates. His own outmoded economic theory is encapsulated in his view that "the whole economy" is nothing more than the natural resource base. Apparently, technology, knowledge, and human capital in general are to count for nothing. Not surprisingly, Nelson ignores the substantial body of work in environmental economics that has emerged during the past 30 years.

Intriguingly, however, Beyond Earth Day actually begins with some arrestingly fresh assertions about the relationship between environmental protection and economic policy. But these comments were penned not by Gaylord Nelson but by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., in the book's foreword. Kennedy argues that, contrary to public perception, federal environmental regulation actually "reimposes the free market" while simultaneously "protect[ing]...private property rights." He comes to such contrarian conclusions by focusing on how regulation forces polluters to internalize the negative externalities that they impose on unwilling neighbors and other rights holders. Although no doubt rather stretched, such thinking does have the potential to break through the dichotomy between environmental and economic values, as well as that between private and public goods, that so often stymies efforts at genuine environmental reform.

Old wine, old bottle

Unfortunately, one sees relatively little of such novel thinking in the book itself. Instead, one is fed a large serving of the standard green vision of moral simplicity, pitting virtuous and selfless environmentalists against selfish corporate interests and their benighted right-wing apologists. Although such a stark comparison is indeed often apt, it hardly captures the full scope of contemporary environmental debate. Nelson, for example, portrays "environmental extremism" as little more than a chimera invented by the opposition in order to mislead a gullible public; he is apparently unwilling to admit that Luddite extremists even exist, much less to acknowledge that their actions often play directly into the hands of anti-environmentalists. He is similarly loath to admit that working ranchers, farmers, and loggers sometimes have legitimate grievances against certain environmental regulations, much less that some ranchers are actually responsible stewards who effectively save land from subdivision. As a result, Nelson overlooks another new form of environmentalism that has arisen over the past 30 years, one that works with rather than against such stakeholders at the local level, seeking the conservation of land as well as livelihood.

Perhaps Nelson and his colleagues do not consider these complexities significant enough to merit consideration, or perhaps they simply do not want to alienate hard-core greens and other stalwarts of the left who are ever ready to denounce anything smelling of compromise or conciliation with "brown" forces. But on one issue, that of population growth in the United States, Nelson eagerly assails the political left and, by extension, a sizable component of the green movement itself. Population growth at current rates, fueled largely by immigration, will yield a country of over 500 million inhabitants within the next 70 years and up to one billion by sometime in the next century. Nelson is dismayed by these numbers, cogently arguing that they will place intolerable burdens on the nation's ecosystems. Support for high levels of immigration, he implies, comes largely from the multicultural left, a group that has effectively "silenced much-needed discussion of the issue" through "charges of 'nativism,' 'racism,' and the like." Even "the great American free press," Nelson warns, has been "frightened into silence" by rampant "political correctness."

Nelson's understanding of the political dynamics behind this country's population policy is far from complete--and oddly so. He does not even mention what is probably the most important reason why immigration rates remain so high: the fact that corporate leaders, a group that he is otherwise keen to excoriate, generally favor permeable borders. Business executives and mainstream conservatives tend to favor rapid immigration in order to reduce the cost of labor and to militate against unionism; labor organizers, by the same token, have historically been eager to constrain immigration. Nelson might have used this issue to make common cause with labor, a segment of the traditional left that has been estranged from the environmental movement. The opportunity, however, was not taken.

Nelson does deserve praise for highlighting the domestic population issue so insistently. Genuine debate on the topic is rare indeed, as both major political parties have apparently concluded (for different reasons) that current levels of immigration are in their, if not the country's, best interest. But even so, Nelson's stance is disconcertingly extreme, hostile to virtually all immigration. "Adding population," he blankly informs us, "hasn't improved American society [or] the economy"--oblivious to the gains realized from increasing cultural diversity and from the entrepreneurial strivings of newcomers. Similarly, his analysis of migration's push factors is so beclouded by green ideology as to be of little value. People flee from the Philippines to the United States, he tells us, because of "diminished croplands" at home, just as migrants leave India due to "ravaged" ecosystems. In actuality, there is no good evidence for cropland diminution in the Philippines, much less for it pushing people out of the country. And certainly most U.S.-bound Indian emigrants are middle-class urbanites seeking greater economic opportunity, often in the high-tech sector.

Gaylord Nelson's environmental message still bears repeating, familiar though it is. But the approach that it entails, focused on such endeavors as intensified environmental education, the inculcation of environmental ethics, the holding of congressional hearings, and the presidential delivery of an annual state of the environment address, could hardly prove adequate to the task. We have had a surfeit of eco-preaching during the past 30 years, yet when it comes to the truly serious environmental issues of the day we find ourselves thwarted. New, more inclusive approaches, aimed at a much broader audience, therefore seem necessary. Perhaps the best starting point would be to reduce the level of sanctimony in environmentalist discourse and to drop the habit of regarding critics of the green orthodoxy as corporate hirelings deserving only censure. Surely some of the criticisms leveled by such thoughtful authors as Bjorn Lomborg and Ronald Bailey merit careful consideration. Until the environmental community gains the maturity to engage its critics in serious and respectful debate, I doubt whether its promises can ever be fulfilled.


Martin W. Lewis (mwlewis@stanford.edu) is a visiting lecturer at Stanford University's Institute for International Studies.