Commentary Magazine


The Green Crusade, by Charles T. Rubin

Doomsayers

The Green Crusade: Rethinking the Roots of Environmentalism.
by Charles T. Rubin.
Free Press. 312 pp. $22.95.

Charles T. Rubin grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where in the early 1960’s chimneys belched black smoke into the air, waste pipes discharged raw sewage into a “dying” Lake Erie, and the murky Cuyahoga River actually caught fire. In the fifth grade, Miss Spere, “one of the best teachers I ever had,” introduced Rubin to the fledgling science of ecology. Not surprisingly, Rubin became a junior environmentalist, more eager to celebrate a friend’s birthday by touring a local sewage plant than by going to a bowling party.

Three decades later, as an associate professor of political science at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Rubin, having dropped out of the green movement, has become one of its toughest critics. In The Green Crusade, he offers an analysis of the movement’s continuing public appeal and astonishing political success.

That success is owed in part, he argues, to a handful of gifted popularizers—Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, and Paul Ehrlich among them—who have peddled their exaggerated accounts of an imperiled environment as scientific fact, and achieved celebrity in the process. Then, too, outbreaks of ecological hysteria, such as those surrounding the unnecessary evacuations of Love Canal and Times Beach, have been fostered and exploited by environmentalists in their campaign for an ever-enlarging system of governmental regulations; that system has by now become so complex and far-reaching that even lawyers for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concede that compliance with it is impossible. Finally, as atmospheric pollution and other hazards have receded, green activists and the expanding cadre of bureaucrats aligned with them have discovered new but largely hypothetical dangers, like the greenhouse effect, to sustain the sense of crisis and impending environmental doom.

Rachel Carson pioneered environmentalism’s successful promotional techniques in her best-selling Silent Spring (1962). Her “fanatical attacks on DDT and modern chemical technology,” Rubin writes, were the genesis of today’s widespread phobia about man-made chemicals. According to Silent Spring, the broad application of synthetic chemicals threatens the supposedly delicate “balance of nature” because natural recovery mechanisms are too slow to cope with man-made changes. This argument remains a centerpiece of environmental rhetoric today, even though it is flawed on at least two grounds.

For one thing, Carson fortified her impassioned attack on chemicals with misleading citations from the scientific literature. Indeed, comparing the original research with Carson’s account of it, Rubin finds a pattern of distortion and misinterpretation that consistently magnifies the negative effects of pesticides and ignores their widespread benefits. For another thing, it is glaringly obvious, as Rubin points out, that common natural phenomena such as volcanoes, earthquakes, and fires are more intensely and speedily destructive than virtually any human activity short of nuclear war.

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Another prominent ecologist with a talent for mixing dubious science and catchy phrasemaking is Barry Commoner, who ran for President on the Citizens’ party ticket in 1980. In his book, The Closing Circle (1971), he argued that man was destroying nature by violating the so-called Four Laws of Ecology: “Everything is connected to everything else”; “everything must go somewhere”; “nature knows best”; and “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” When pressed, Commoner admitted that the term “laws” for these pronouncements did not meet the rigor normally expected of science. In The Poverty of Power (1976), a tract written during the energy crisis of the 1970’s, Commoner drew upon thermodynamics in a similarly loose way to “demonstrate” that profit-blinded businessmen would inevitably favor inefficient energy sources over cleaner and cheaper but less profitable technologies like solar power, thereby precipitating Karl Marx’s final crisis of capitalism.

Given his suspicion of the profit motive, it should come as no surprise that Commoner still believes the ultimate solution to environmental problems lies in a marriage of advanced technology and central planning, presided over by an elite corps of experts. As Rubin observes, the flip side of this faith in elites is the belief—universal among green crusaders—that ordinary people left to their own devices are unable to determine their best interests.

The latter-day Malthusian Paul Ehrlich is another who subscribes to this belief. Ehrlich has for decades been decrying the tendency of human beings to reproduce themselves in numbers that exceed the level he deems desirable. In The Population Bomb (1968), he argued that the world was already overpopulated, a state of affairs that nature would inevitably correct in the near future by famine, disease, and war unless drastic steps were immediately taken to reduce population growth. Unfortunately for Ehrlich, he has had to revise his book several times since it was first published because mortality rates have dropped significantly in the very locations where he warned that disaster was most imminent.

Despite his career of false prophecy, Ehrlich continues to advocate a program of intensive propaganda to persuade all right-thinking Americans to “stop at two.” Other alarmists dissected in Rubin’s book are less inhibited about expressing their preference for more authoritarian methods. Garret Hardin, for example, author of the famous and frequently anthologized essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968), concludes that the only moral solution to soaring birth rates and overpopulation is “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon,” a concept which Rubin appropriately characterizes as “politically terrifying.”

The environmentalists’ disdain for the intelligence and, indeed, the worth of ordinary human beings is taken to its highest pitch by the so-called “deep ecologists.” Ascribing no greater value to human beings than to any other life form on earth, deep ecologists—or those inspired by them—have been known to carry out acts of eco-terrorism like sinking metal spikes into tree trunks so that unwary lumberjacks face injury or death when their chainsaws disintegrate.

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For Rubin, the extremes reached by the deep ecologists serve to illuminate the true wellspring of environmentalism, which is not love of nature but fear, or perhaps even hatred, of human nature. So inspired, the green crusaders would remake and regulate every single aspect of our economic and social lives, from the amount of garbage we throw out to the number of children we produce.

To anyone familiar with 20th-century history, it is depressing but perhaps not altogether surprising that utopian schemes involving massive expansions of state power should continue to capture the imagination of large sectors of the intellectual and political classes. Things being as they are, it is perhaps also not surprising that the current Vice President of the United States should be a spokesman (however ineffective) for the radical environmental Left. As green utopianism continues to score victories in the political arena, Rubin worries that we will all find ourselves increasingly threatened by the specter of massive coercion in the pursuit of its objectives.

One hopes that he is wrong, and that environmental extremism will eventually succumb to the contradictions and outright prevarications upon which it rests—and which he has so skillfully exposed. But his examination of the roots of environmentalism suggests otherwise, pointing as it does to a more troubling phenomenon still: the continuing refusal of America’s intellectual and policy elites to accept that the world cannot be reshaped at will to meet their specifications. This particular delusion seems impervious to refutation—not by books, however good they are, and not even by experience.

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