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Religion & Liberty: Volume 7, Number 2

Free Markets Best Protect the Environment

    R&L: Now that communism has been defeated and discredited, many see radical environmentalism as the next great threat to freedom. Do you agree with this analysis?

    Hodel: Yes, and I define radical environmentalism as a mechanism for permitting the collectivist mentality to feed its impulse to control society. In other words, there are very valid environmental concerns we all care about; I've never run into anybody who isn't an environmentalist. No one wants dirty air and water or wants to pass on that condition to his or her grandchildren. But radical environmentalism seeks to alter the form of government and in the name of the environment imposes on individuals the kinds of controls we fought against in the name of economics, such as the collectivism of communism.

    R&L: But people are afraid that allowing the market a freer reign will endanger the environment. What is the role of the market with regard to environmental issues?

    Hodel: Human behavior affects the environment, whether under collectivism or freedom. The impact of communism on the environment is now proven to be demonstrably worse than anything we have seen in this country in at least fifty years. On the other hand, capitalist countries--the United States, Western Europe, and developing countries outside the communist bloc--reached a stage where quality of life became enough of a concern that people took steps to protect or to improve their environment.

    In one sense it is a problem of the commons; if nobody owns something, nobody takes care of it. In fact, there is a school of thought that is well-documented and quite scholarly that says the best way to protect the future of national parks, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas is to convey the ownership of them to groups that are dedicated to the operation and protection of those kinds of properties.

    R&L: Can you cite some other examples of how private property protects the environment?

    Hodel: A good example is the Audubon Society's Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary. On this refuge the Audubon Society has permitted drilling for and production of natural gas in a way that is absolutely compatible with the management of a good refuge. It has generated revenues that have helped the Audubon Society not only operate that refuge but also do many other positive things.

    There are other ways private property protects the environment. One way to protect an endangered animal is to allow it to be hunted. The hunters will protect it and see that it increases in number. Ranchers who own rangeland are always trying to enhance it. If rangeland isn't owned by anyone, it isn't in anyone's interest to spend money to improve or protect it.

    Timber owners are the same way; if they own forestland, they want it replanted so they can harvest the timber again in the future. People who provide wilderness experiences in parks and wildlife refuges--fishing and hiking trips, backpacking, and horseback riding--are in a practical sense among the most concerned environmentalists I've ever encountered. They don't want people to trash wilderness areas because they're their livelihood. They care about them.

    R&L: So it's less ideological and more personal.

    Hodel: Absolutely. It's based on a real human response that recognizes that their personal benefit is tied to the maintenance of a quality experience that will bring back next year's customers.

    R&L: What are some examples in which government intervention has actually harmed the environment?

    Hodel: Perhaps one of the most serious examples right now is that there are indications that some of these clean-burning automobile fuels--gasolines that have been touted for the purpose of reducing carbon monoxide emissions--may have carcinogenic effects. If it's true, it's a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences. You seek to solve one problem here, and you create a different and perhaps more serious one over there.

    Another one I experienced personally while I was Secretary of the Interior was when Yellowstone Park burned. That fire was partly the result of a longtime policy of the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service to fight man-caused fires but not naturally caused fires, and also not to do anything in the park that altered the natural windfall, loss of limbs, and so forth, from trees. The result was that over the decades the park had a forest that was getting older and older, trees were dying and becoming standing snags waiting to be ignited by something. When this combined with long dry spells and high winds, the resulting fires ultimately burned over half that park.

    R&L: Do I recall that they allowed it to burn?

    Hodel: The initial response was to follow the original policy: Fight the man-caused fires and only observe and monitor the natural ones. The park service very quickly realized that this was a very serious situation and decided to fight all the fires. We ended up spending a hundred million dollars, had nine thousand men on the fire lines and almost four hundred fire engines in the park, and, as I say, ultimately more than half the park burned. There was one day when the fire jumped fifteen miles. There were situations where the fire was starting half of a mile in front of the flames. We couldn't put fire fighters in front of it for fear they would be engulfed by the flames and killed. There is an argument to be made that the government's policy helped create this situation.

    Another totally different example: The United States has imposed strong environmental restrictions on things like oil refineries, pipelines, and exploration for oil and gas on United States soil. By intervening in this fashion and looking only at the effect in the United States, we are forcing these activities to go overseas. If we really care about the environment, we would look at the consequences of shutting down a refinery in the United States, where the restrictions on the operation are very stringent, and permitting it to be built someplace in the world where the restrictions are nominal. The net result to the world environment is much more pollution than if we allowed the refinery to be maintained in this country under our rigid rules.

    Oil tankers are probably one of the more hazardous activities because occasionally a tanker will stray, run aground, and break up--and we know about the large spills that creates. Statistically, drilling for oil is vastly less likely to cause a spill and damage the environment. So theoretically, if we were, in fact, concerned about the environment rather than serving some other purpose, we would produce oil from domestic wells rather than increasing our dependence on imports and requiring more tankers. But our policy is one hundred and eighty degrees in the opposite direction. It's crazy.

    R&L: Another major theme of environmentalism is that the human population is growing past the capacity of the earth's resources to support it. Population control--birth control and abortion--is therefore called for. Do you think this is a legitimate concern, and to what extent does biblical faith support or refute it?

    Hodel: The concern about overpopulation is an old, old impulse. In a way it is supremely arrogant for someone to say that because he is unable to imagine how the world will cope with greater energy, population, and food demands, then the ability to meet those demands does not exist.

    For example, the Club of Rome produced a report in the late 1970s that argued we were running out of everything from clean air and water to energy resources. The fact is that analyses done more recently have shown that since the Club of Rome's report essentially all the significant resources it identified as supposedly running out have increased. There is known to be more oil in the world, more natural gas, much more coal, and there is definitely more clean water and air in the United States than there was twenty years ago.

    In other words, all the trend lines, in fact, have not run the direction they were predicted. It's like the classic story about the head of the U.S. patent office who in the 1890s said that we would soon be able to shut down the patent office because essentially everything that could be invented and patented had been. That was before they had issued one million patents; the last time I checked there were over four million.

    R&L: What about the spiritual component in environmentalism? Many environmentalists speak of their cause in religious terms. To what extent is radical environmentalist spirituality compatible with orthodox historical Christianity?

    Hodel: It's fundamentally incompatible. As I understand it, spiritual environmentalism is, in Christian terms, idolatry.

    I have testified before Congress on several occasions. On one particular occasion I was testifying with regard to how the Department of the Interior had managed its wilderness areas. I found that under both Republican and Democratic secretaries the total number of improper intrusions into the wilderness areas of the United States totaled something like five hundred. Of those, only one was serious enough actually to mar the area, and that one had been restored so that no one would be able to know it had been marred.

    I thought, Well, I'm in great shape for this hearing. I went to the hearing, and the reaction to my testimony was incredible. It turned out that going to that hearing and saying “Look, we have repaired the only serious intrusion, and the others haven't been serious” was like telling an orthodox Jew that someone treading on the site of the Holy of Holies was inconsequential because it had left no footprint. That wilderness area turned out to be sacred ground in the eyes of the chairman and some of the other questioners, and it had been desecrated by entry that was not authorized. When I finally realized that, from there on I cast all my responses at that and future hearings with the recognition that I was dealing with people for whom this had become their idol.

    The appeal of pantheism and nature worship is that because it is a human construct, God becomes whatever humankind says God is. If a person constructs his god, then his god will do and say and be what he wants him to be. I think it's an age-old desire to be God or to control God, and quite contrary to the Judeo-Christian God of Scripture.

    R&L: Would you say it's an accurate characterization of some of the more radical environmentalists to say they presuppose the only unnatural thing on the planet is man?

    Hodel: Yes, I would. Their vision of the world is that it was perfect until man came. This stands in contrast to the Judeo-Christian teaching that the creation of man was the completion of the creation of the world.

    R&L: Man's stewardship of creation is a primary biblical theme. How can we faithfully observe this mandate from both an orthodox Christian and free-market perspective?

    Hodel: The Judeo-Christian tradition does impose stewardship obligations on us, both as individuals and as nations. The stewardship obligation is that we are not placed in charge of the environment to destroy it but to be stewards of it. It is such that if I follow the mandates of my faith, I will be a good steward of the environment. Furthermore, I am better able to be responsive to my God and His teachings in a free society than if I am in a controlled society where somebody else who may not share my stewardship view is in charge. The government may not want anything to do with the concerns of stewardship, but people in a free market can band together to protect property.

    I love to point out to people that the national park system in this country was not only begun by, but has enormously benefited from, private individuals who either bought land and donated it to the park system or contributed money to purchase property. The national parks initially were largely the result of philanthropic people who saw great natural areas they felt should be enjoyed by existing generations and passed on for the enjoyment of future generations.

    Now, by the way, with the changing environmental ethic and the worship of nature rather than the appreciation of nature, there is a significant constituency who believe that only the elite should be allowed to visit a national park. They want to reduce and restrict access unless one happens to be very wealthy and can take advantage of some of the high-cost options for entry. To my way of thinking, that is a total distortion of the original and proper intent of the national park system.

    R&L: There is a great deal of activity in different churches calling for involvement in environmental issues. What is the appropriate role of the Church with regard to environmentalist activism?

    Hodel: It is an appropriate role for individual Christians, but it is not an appropriate role for the Church. The Church's role is to worship God and to evangelize. The movement to involve the churches is, in my opinion, coming from people who are world population-control advocates. In a sense, this is the modern serpent. We should be very concerned about the view that man is a cancer and the world would be better off if man were eradicated.

    God tells us something very different in Scripture--that we're created in His image. He also imposes on us the obligation of stewardship, although we have often failed to discharge it. For the Church to become involved in environmentalism is to turn the Church into a political organization in cahoots with people who are supporting the worship of something other than the God of Scripture.

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