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Bruce S. Thornton - Contributor

Bruce Thornton is a professor of Classics at Cal State Fresno and co-author of Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age and author of Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization (Encounter Books). His most recent book is Searching for Joaquin: Myth, Murieta, and History in California (Encounter Books). [go to Thornton index]

THE RIGHT BOOKS: Equipping the California Conservative
Poverty Pollutes
A Right Books Review:The Real Environmental Crisis by Jack M. Hollander
[Bruce S. Thornton] 11/1/03

The Real Environmental Crisis. Why Poverty, Not Affluence, Is the Environment's Number One Enemy
by Jack M. Hollander [University of California Press]
[251 pages April 2003]

Of all the issues affecting California and the country, the management of the environment is one of the most important, despite its lack of immediate drama. Indeed, how we Californians balance the needs of our increasing population and the resources these people depend on and impact is arguably in the long term our most important issue. Increased growth, both demographic and economic, necessarily affects air quality, water availability, and a whole host of other concerns that require the most reliable scientific information possible, as well as a clear recognition of short and long term benefits and risks.

Unfortunately, much of the public discussion of the environment is clouded by various romantic myths about nature and our relationship to it. Idealizations of nature as our true home, a superior realm of peace, harmony, freedom and simplicity destroyed by civilization and technology, are as old as the Greeks and their myth of the Golden Age. Yet such myths are a luxury for those whom technology has liberated from the drudgery of wresting sustenance from an indifferent natural world, and freed from disease, drought, famine, predators, malnutrition, and the other natural evils afflicting our ancestors and those today living in the Third World. This myth of a benign nature permeates much of the environmental writing that also offers policy solutions presumably based on science and fact.

Another source of confusion in discussions of the environment comes from a hidden Marxist agenda that links the degradation of the environment to free market capitalism and economic globalization. Having failed in political and economic terms, Marxism has insinuated itself into environmentalism as a way of wielding influence and recruiting adherents from among those dissatisfied with modern life and itching for revolutionary authenticity. Issues such as pollution or species extinction are thus explained as the consequences of an evil capitalist empire that oppresses the international proletariat and the natural world alike. That's why at most protests of the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank the banners of the various European communist parties can be seen alongside of those of Greenpeace.

Finally, a media addicted to sensationalism and unwilling or incapable of understanding and presenting complex scientific arguments and information contributes to a distortion of the issues involved. Imminent disaster from our abuse of the environment is simply more glamorous than documenting the incredible improvement that has been achieved over the last few decades. A predominantly liberal media, moreover, are typically adverse to business, and so are eager to believe the worst about corporate greed destroying the environment or poisoning our resources for short-term gain.

These impediments to rational assessment combine with our modern expectation that we can eat our cake and have it-- that we can enjoy the levels of material prosperity and comfort we take for granted without impacting the natural world-- and the difficulties of having a rational, sensible discussion of environmental issues multiply. That is why we need books like The Real Environmental Crisis. Why Poverty, Not Affluence, Is the Environment's Number One Enemy, by Jack M. Hollander (University of California Press). Hollander, a professor emeritus of energy and resources at UC Berkeley, brings a long career of research and writing on energy and the environment to this sane and sensible discussion of our various environmental issues and problems.

As Hollander's subtitle shows, an important point that needs to be emphasized is that the best thing for the environment is political freedom, economic development, and increased affluence in the Third World, not noble-savage idealizations of less developed societies presumably more in tune with a nature that callously watches them starve and die. Those who don't have enough to eat and are subject to chronic disease first care about survival and health, whatever the impact on the environment of their efforts to secure both. Once material comfort is assured, people then have the capital, both economic and psychic, to spend on improving their environment.

With increased affluence and open societies that allow and reward intellectual innovation and political freedom, developing nations will follow the pattern of the industrialized nations and begin to find ways to sustain economic growth and living standards while minimizing the human impact on the environment. As Hollander writes, "People who have the means to support investments in a healthy environment, and the freedom to do so, can be trusted to make wise environmental choices provided they are honestly informed about the costs and benefits of available options in relation to other social choices that they constantly make."

Unfortunately, this information is hard to hear above the "cacophony of pessimism and fear mongering emanating from some environmental groups and the media." Hollander sets out to correct this distorted picture by surveying several major sites of environmental concern. Examining issues such as overpopulation, inadequate food supplies, global warming, water availability, air pollution, and the use of fossil fuels, Hollander cuts through the media hysteria and provides a sober assessment of these various problems, acknowledging where improvement is still necessary as well as the great strides that have been made in the last several decades.

For example, in the United States, emissions of the six major pollutants have declined 31% since 1970, all the while that population increased by a third, vehicle miles traveled went up 140%, and the use of coal tripled. This improvement, rarely noted in the media, took place because Americans had the political will to pass the Clean Air Act in 1963 and to spend the billions necessary to reduce pollution. But the critical point is that our affluence allowed us to expend this capital because it was not needed for mere survival. Thus we are breathing cleaner air while residents of Beijing and Mexico City are exposed to astronomical levels of pollution and respiratory illnesses.

Hollander's most valuable discussion focuses on global warming, one of the most misunderstood, politicized, and sensationalized environmental issues. Despite the media's assumption that recent warming can be attributed to increased amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere resulting from the burning of fossil fuels, Holland points out that "empirical science has not established an unambiguous connection between the carbon dioxide increase and the observed global warming."

Moreover, global patterns of climate change are incredibly complex and not yet completely understood. Cycles of warming and cooling have characterized the planet for hundreds of thousands of years, suggesting that recent warming could be a consequence of larger patterns. The air at the earth's surface has been warming since 186o about 0.6 degrees Centigrade, but this increase correlates imperfectly with increases in the burning of fossil fuels. In addition, temperatures in the earth's atmosphere do not agree with temperatures from the surface. In short, the heating and cooling of the earth, as in the advance and retreat of ice sheets, happens for reasons not yet fully understood, nor has the role of carbon dioxide been scientifically demonstrated as causing recent warming.

Yet based on this "flimsy" evidence attributing these imperfectly understood fluctuations in temperature to carbon dioxide caused by fossil fuels, the Kyoto treaty presented in 1997 would have required the United States to cut back on carbon dioxide emissions by over 30% to reach the targeted reduction by 2010, all the while exempting developing countries, some of the worst polluters because they rely on coal burned in old-fashioned plants that lack the pollution-reduction technology of plants in the developed countries.

President Bush was chastised as callously "unilateralist" for pulling out of the Kyoto agreement, but Hollander points out the flaws in the treaty that justify Bush's action. In addition to exempting some of the worst polluters, the treaty ignored the costs of implementing the treaty, particularly the impact on the economy. Sound environmental policy should always take into account the costs and risks that people will have to bear, and make sure the benefits are worth the costs. In fact, these potential serious costs of implementing the Kyoto treaty--as much as $2.3 trillion in one estimate-- would not result in a significant benefit: according to one estimate, full implementation of the Kyoto agreement would reduce global warming by only 0.06%.

However, whipped up by politically slanted "science" and a media hungry for apocalyptic drama, many people today continue to obsess over global warming and indict a greedy gluttonous America for not subjecting its economic well-being to actions based on uncertain knowledge generated by computer simulations: "In view of the many shortcomings of current climate models," Hollander warns, " it would be prudent for policy makers to exercise considerable caution about using them as quantitative indicators of future global warming."

Hollander's book is filled with just this sort of common sense and sober reasoning, both of which provide an antidote to the media hysteria and politically driven scenarios characterizing much of the public discourse on the environment. His conclusion is quite simple: the best thing for nature and humans alike is a prosperity made possible by free markets and political freedom. What we don't need are Disneyesque mythic idealizations of the natural world that may gratify our fantasies and emotions, but do nothing to help us calculate and identify the risks and benefits of our policies and actions.

copyright 2003 Bruce S. Thornton

Searching for Joaquin
by Bruce S. Thornton

Greek Ways
by Bruce S. Thornton

Bonfire of the Humanities
by Victor Davis Hanson, John Heath, Bruce S. Thornton

Plagues of the Mind
by Bruce S. Thornton

Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality

by Bruce S. Thornton






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