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Eco-Sanity

The authors of Eco-Sanity have addressed a formidable challenge in bringing empirical analysis to the religious subject of environmentalism. By looking at a wide array of issues, they give readers a solid sense of the diversity of environmental problems as well as the recurrent similarities. They have done a commendable job, and I admire their efforts.

However, I encourage the authors and sympathetic readers to defer optimism about the impact of this book's important perspective. We should carefully separate our hopes from our expectations when dealing with the prospect of environmental reforms. Even solid analysis, compelling recommendations, and substantively important payoffs do not guarantee useful reforms.

Existing laws, regulations, and perspectives are seldom accidents, but rather are the result of cultural, political, economic and ecological evolution. They resist dramatic changes. Thus while many of my friends and colleagues have advanced substantial reforms that promise improvements in social equality, economic efficiency and ecological sustainability, none have been realized. The academic and semi-popular literature is replete with arguments for reform that would seem to leave nearly everybody better off, yet these reforms are rarely if ever advanced by the politicians and policy activists whose support is required for implementation.

None of these caveats are meant to detract from this excellent book. Rather, I hope to forestall frustration and disenchantment by emphasizing the political economy of environmental policy. The book's nine chapters begin with a brief fable of an otherwise pleasant town inflicted with environmental paranoia. The real tragedy in this town is that none of the fears that cause suffering and economic hardships have any scientific basis. The authors believe that to varying degrees, the paranoia of the fable is common in America. In the authors' words:

Americans continue to pay a heavy price for their irrational fear of chemicals. Billions of dollars are being wasted on attempts to reduce toxic and other emissions to levels far below those shown to have any negative effect on human health or wildlife. People have lost their jobs because environmental regulations were imposed without regard to costs or consequences. In 1989, when an environmental group and compliant national media frightened fruit buyers with the Alar scare, orchard owners across the country lost hundreds of millions of dollars in sales.

This example illustrates an important factor responsible for much of the eco-insanity that this book seeks to address. Namely, the selective pressures within the environmental industry have generated a class of “crisis entrepreneurs” who create, exaggerate or amplify problems in order to generate revenues for the $600-$800 million environmental activist industry. This minority group among environmentalists contains predators who prey upon citizens' good intentions. In the Alar case, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), together with a professional public relations firm, utilized the slimmest of scientific reeds to construct a monumental public relations crisis. This crisis did, in fact, generate short-term support for NRDC.

The point of this is not that “greenies” are “baddies.” In fact, several national organizations (Environmental Defense Fund, Defenders of Wildlife) as well as hundreds of local and regional groups are initiating efforts identical or complementary with the proposals advocated by Eco-Sanity. Rather, a subset of scavengers has developed that has a vested interest in generating fears and inspiring guilt, and then providing avenues down which well-meaning citizens can parade their good intentions by writing checks and signing membership forms. Elected politicians are the parasitic hosts for these groups.

In addition to providing brief but reasonably complete treatments of the various “crisis of the month-club” events, Eco-Sanity helps unmask the attorneys, MBAs and “scientists” who posture as selfless defenders of the public interest. These opportunists use the perceived importance and legitimacy of their mission as a cloak to conceal the pursuit of personal gain. Decency and the canons of science are ignored as laws and politics are twisted for private ends.

Eco-Sanity also hints at reasons for optimism. As the authors explain, environmental concern and ability to address that concern increase with income and education. Although poorly designed environmental policies are clearly retarding economic progress, especially of our poorer citizens, so far technology is trumping political pathologies. The stifling effect that many regulations have on innovation is being offset by new products and processes that lie outside the control of cumbersome centralized bureaucracies. The information revolution fosters this process.

As we become more wealthy and as scientific understanding improves, we may become more sophisticated in expressing our environmentalism. At some point, opinion leaders are likely to understand that economies are like ecosystems, and that economic tools and concepts such as risk assessment, marginal analysis and opportunity costs provide the most effective and just means for addressing environmental problems.

I strongly recommend Eco-Sanity as an excellent primer for the intelligent non-specialist who is interested in the environment and puzzled by the pervasive irrationality, inconsistency and occasional duplicity of many environmentalists. It makes a constructive contribution to the foundations of a new environmentalism, an environmentalism predicated on solid science and political economy. For this the authors deserve our gratitude and respect.