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Back to the 1970s: Let’s Get Small!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Whatever the new problem, environmentalists always end up back at the same old ‘solutions.’ No matter how many times green gloom is discredited, lapsing into the old eco-fundamentalism is just too irresistible.

Environmentalists have labored mightily to give up the 1970s-era millstone of being anti-growth zealots resistant to economic reasoning, as exemplified in David Brower’s famous full-page ad in the New York Times with the headline “Economics is a form of brain damage.” (Brower was actually quoting environmental activist Hazel Henderson, who told a gathering at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that, come the eco-revolution, economists would be rounded up in re-education camps.) “We’re not against growth (or at least ‘sustainable’ growth),” environmentalists now say, usually adding that new regulatory regimes won’t hold back economic growth at all, or, better still, will create gobs of growth through “green jobs”!

But like a recovering alcoholic halfway through a 12-step program who succumbs to the warm glow of the corner tavern, environmentalists just can’t help themselves, and always go on a bender of barrel-aged, 150-proof Malthusian moonshine. The problem is that while environmentalists get the high, the rest of us get stuck with the economic hangover.

Like a recovering alcoholic halfway through a 12-step program who succumbs to the warm glow of the corner tavern, environmentalists just can’t help themselves, and always go on a bender of barrel-aged, 150-proof Malthusian moonshine.

Whatever the new problem—resource depletion, air pollution, acid rain, the ozone hole, or global warming—we always end up back at the same old “solutions”: stop population growth, stop economic growth, stop consuming things, redistribute wealth, go back to small village living, and we’ll all sing Kumbaya. No matter how many times green gloom is discredited (i.e., the Simon-Ehrlich wager), lapsing into the old eco-fundamentalism is just too irresistible.

Take this column by economics professor Ann Lee, for example. Lee has found still another reason we have to stop growing: We’ve put ourselves into too much debt by instituting the very kind of welfare state policies the anti-capitalists have been promoting all along! Capitalism in the United States has “stopped working because of the creation of an entitlement mentality that seems to pervade public sector and private sector workers and consumers.”

And what’s the solution? You guessed it: Stop trying for economic growth, stop consuming things, and redistribute even more wealth! “The U.S. needs to get religion in the form of a new economic ideology to realign our priorities. Instead of tracking growth statistics and other economic data, we can start by figuring out a way to measure and report such things as human dignity, creativity, and degrees of freedom, and reward behavior that enhances those values we cherish,” Lee writes.

What kind of calipers do you use to measure human dignity, anyhow?

You might think that if environmentalists took their own rhetoric seriously, they would organize their global village gatherings by videoconference and conserve gobs of resources. But you’d be missing the main imperative of all world-saving enterprises: thou shalt always agree to have more posh meetings.

Meanwhile, in a seeming parody of Karl Marx’s aphorism that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce, the hypocrisy of anti-growth environmentalism no longer produces even superficial embarrassment. Witness the second international “degrowth” conference just concluded a few days ago. That’s right: “Degrowth.” The folks behind degrowth are open about the need to shrink the human horizon through a—wait for it—“paradigm shift” that “involves degrowth in wealthy parts of the world.” The first degrowth conference was held in 2008 in Paris; the latest was held in Barcelona.

Not to be outdone by the degrowth conference, the Global Footprint Network—folks who think we’re using up waaayyy too many natural resources and want us all to use much less—have got a deal for you. You are invited to join them at their next international conference this summer in Siena, Italy. (Registration deals start at $995; not clear if it includes discounts on carbon offsets.)

You might think that if environmentalists took their own rhetoric seriously, they would organize their global village gatherings by videoconference and conserve gobs of resources. But you’d be missing the main imperative of all world-saving enterprises: thou shalt always agree to have more posh meetings. Here’s a suggestion: next time the anti-growth crowd wants to study seriously the idea of negative economic growth, they should hold their conferences in nations that take limits to growth seriously, such as Zimbabwe or North Korea.

“Let’s get small” was funny as a Steve Martin comedy routine in the 1970s, just as resource depletion seemed plausible in the age of inflation. Like all good comics, Martin had the sense not to run his gag into the ground and moved on. Environmentalists should do the same.

Kenneth Green is a resident scholar and Steven Hayward is the F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Green recently explained how creationist tag-alongs were “Creating a Problem for Climate Scientists” and the basics of the Climategate scandal in “The Meaning of Motley CRU.” He detailed “Data Dredging for Dollars, EPA Style” and said “Green Energy Jobs? Not from Obama’s Big Government Meddling.” Hayward discussed how temperature monitoring problems were “Unsettling the Settled Science,” highlighted “The EPA’s Power Grab,” and condemned “Scientists Behaving Badly.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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