Environmentalism

It isn't economically easy to be green

Issue: "A vacation from PC," June 3, 2000

As some Americans take to the roads this summer to see the historical sights described in our cover story, others will be headed into the countryside to see America's natural beauty. I first began to comprehend the size and loveliness of the United States in the summer of 1971 while bicycling across the country, Massachusetts to Oregon, rolling through fruited plains and feeling in my legs and lungs the majesty of purple mountains.

I recommend slow travel of that kind, but such a trip is not in everyone's comfort zone; it's not even in mine anymore, as I hit 50 this month. Minivans and SUVs are the way to go for millions of Americans. Growing affluence enables many families to go farther and see more than would otherwise be practical for them-but some essentially say that we should travel slowly and uncomfortably, or not at all.

General affluence, we are told, leads Americans to pollute more, endanger more wildlife, and use much more than our share of the world's resources. The books of Paul Ehrlich and other ecological fatalists are still on high school and college reading lists. Even though predictions of worldwide famine and resource scarcity have been as inaccurate as the dire Y2K prophecies, mistaken environmentalist doomsayers are still on media call lists.

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But slowly, a new understanding is developing. I'd summarize it this way: It isn't economically easy to be green. The natural tendency of people is to pollute. For example, primitive biomass fuels like wood and dung are the typical first choices for cooking and heating, and they pollute the air. Cutting down trees, apart from careful planning and replanting, depletes resources. Affluent cultures move past reliance on wood, but that takes time and money.

The new paradigm acknowledges that we are environmentally wasteful in many ways, but argues that affluence gives us the opportunity to be less so. Affluence allows us to produce more of the goods and services that help to improve the human condition, and also to alleviate the negative effects of much past pollution. Technological innovation and the growth of human capital lead to improvements in both the environment and the economy.

I don't know enough to judge firmly whether the "affluence is environmentally good" theory makes more sense than the "affluence is environmentally bad" conventional wisdom. But, if it does, the conventional green tendency to oppose economic progress in the name of environmental stewardship is sadly self-defeating.

I do know, given man's sinfulness, that better things often do not make for better living. Advances in agriculture, industry, and commerce help to minimize pollution and transform waste products into efficiently used resources, if people have spiritual and economic incentives to be stewards. The Soviet economic and environmental disaster shows what can happen when biblical and free market incentives are missing.

And I know absolutely what the Bible teaches: that human beings are created in God's image and are thus the most valuable resource on earth. Blessed is a country whose quiver is full. Full of people. Full of flora and fauna. Full of life. People made in God's image have some creative power. As gardeners we can add to the earth's abundance, not merely live off the land.

The Bible teaches that human beings have an obligation to be stewards and gardeners in a way that benefits other men and women and also other creatures. We're not supposed to leave oxen and donkeys in the ditch, even if those animals are owned by enemies. We're not supposed to cut down fruit trees even in times of war, when cutting down an enemy's trees might be to our military advantage.

The Bible teaches that the affluent, while not necessarily their brothers' keepers, should certainly be their brothers' helpers. Those who own fields are to allow the hungry to glean in them. Those with political power should not use it to impede the poor by denying them the opportunity to move out of poverty.

Do we move perilously close to denying opportunity when we try to impose the environmental standards of the affluent on people in other nations who are desperately trying to break out of poverty? Do we despise the poor when we put more emphasis (as was the case in Austin several years ago) on an endangered species of cave spiders than on safety for people in the poorer part of the city who are endangered by crime-ridden streets? If we embrace environmental romanticism, believing that "nature knows best," are we losing the opportunity to develop and use innovations that could help millions of the earth's inhabitants, human and animal?

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