Acquaintance of the Earth

Teddy Roosevelt was the first national politician to care actively about what we now call the environment. The parks, refuges, monuments, and preserves he set aside in his terms in office have remained intact throughout the nation. And he acted not from political calculation, but from sheer love of the land. When McKinley died, the news reached him in the heart of the Adirondacks where he was busy climbing Mount Marcy, the Empire State’s highest peak.

So it is no small shame that conservatives have emerged as the great enemies of conservation and environmental work a century later. With a few notable exceptions like New York governor George Pataki, the Republican Party in the years since Richard Nixon launched the EPA has dedicated itself to blocking virtually every important environmental initiative: every effort to curb the Forest Service’s rapacious logging comes up against merciless conservative opposition; the heavily Republican Western congressional delegations protect mining and ranching interests against even modest reform, and do their best to block schemes, like the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, which would have gladdened TR’s heart. When Newt Gingrich first took power, one of his early mistakes was to take seriously a proposal to shut down numerous national parks. George Bush senior helped lose himself the presidency by taunting Al Gore as Ozone Man; one of Reagan’s cabinet ministers advised that we deal with the destruction of the stratosphere not by banning fluorocarbons but by wearing baseball caps; the Great Communicator himself apparently believed that trees were a major source of pollution.1

Against such a backdrop, Peter Huber’s “conservative manifesto” for the environment is welcome. With considerable courage, braving attacks from both the establishment right and the politically tone-deaf ideological purists of the various think tanks, Huber salutes Roosevelt for his true greatness as a federal conservationist. He announces straightforwardly that “great wide-open spaces are valuable because they are great and open,” and calls for government to protect more wilderness for its “aesthetic” value. That such remarks sound shocking coming from a self-described conservative says a good deal about the modern conservative movement. Still, as with the child watching the naked emperor strut by, it sometimes takes an honest innocent to say the most obvious things. There are deep problems in the rest of Huber’s book, but at least it opens a dialogue where none had existed, and for that he deserves credit.

He begins his manifesto by breaking environmentalists into two camps: “soft greens,” who chase after will-o’-the-wisp problems like climate change or pesticide exposure, and “hard greens” in the TR tradition, who care about scenic grandeur and will let the market solve other challenges. A genuine understanding of nature would concentrate on places that are, in his words, “awesome, fascinating, or simply beautiful.” That, he implies, was TR’s standard, and Huber’s symbol for the decline of standards in the intervening century is the kangaroo rat: Roosevelt would have supported an Endangered Species Act for bear, bison, and cougar, he writes, but would have been dismayed that it was written “quite broadly enough to protect kangaroo rats, too.” Ninety pages later, he indicts the soft modern green for being “not concerned with aesthetic sensibilities.” This sort of person, he says, “is offended—outraged—at the suggestion that a kangaroo rat, not being beautiful or demonstrably useful, may not matter so very much.”

This is to sell TR short. It is true that he saved many scenes of Western splendor with the stroke of his pen—but it is also true that one of the first refuges he created, entirely typical of the fifty-three established during his tenure, consisted of “all small islets, commonly called mud lumps, in or near the mouths of the Mississippi River.” He saved them to protect not game birds but herring gulls. This made sense. Roosevelt was a mighty hunter—I spent my freshman year at college dining under chandeliers made from the uncountable antlers he sent home from his various safaris—but he was also a devoted birdwatcher. His first publication was a list of birds of the Adirondacks, and one of his last official positions was president of the Long Island Bird Club. After leaving the White House, he published a dense 111-page article in the Bulletin of the Museum of Natural History on “Revealing and Concealing Coloration in Birds and Mammals,” which discussed antelopes, cougars, and giraffes, but also oystercatchers, wading birds, redstarts, blackburnian warblers, hummingbirds, ravens, red-winged blackbirds, skunks, gophers, chipmunks, and woodchucks.

As for kangaroo rats, if you go to the Roosevelt collection on the fourth floor of Harvard’s Widener Library, it takes only a few minutes to find, among other arcana, his brief, admiring review in 1918 for Outlook magazine of Edward Nelson’s Wild Animals of North America. The finest parts of the book, writes Roosevelt, are “the descriptions of Mr. Nelson’s experiences with kangaroo rats and pocket mice [which] are among the best and most delightful of all such things that have ever been written.”

Huber, in any case, provides no good reason why our aesthetic impulse should be frozen at the turn of the century. One of the great pleasures of the last hundred years has been the spread of new enchantments with the natural world: the work, for instance, of Aldo Leopold, the great wildlife biologist who had his Damascus-road experience with a she-wolf in the New Mexico wilderness and began to help us under-stand the glory and necessity of predators; or that of Mary Austin and then Edward Abbey and then Terry Tempest Williams, who all made the desert come alive. Or Rachel Carson, whose magnificent works on the sea around us, in the 1950s, prepared the way for Jacques Cousteau, and for an entire new affinity with the underwater world. The appreciation of nature continues to grow around the world; people find themselves charmed by particular species, and also by the growing understanding of the ecological web of which those species are a part. TR would have found enormous pleasure in this evolving, growing understanding.

One thing that all these people—Leopold, Carson, Cousteau, even Pataki—have in common is an emerging understanding that you can’t simply identify beautiful spots, put a fence around them, and consider them protected. You need to worry about what’s going on outside their borders. Here Huber seems to disagree, and it is the major weakness of his book.

He devotes much space to ridiculing those scientists and bureaucrats who worry about ethyl dibromide or pseudo-estrogen or low-frequency electromagnetic radiation—the kinds of things that you need to model on computers to discern their impact. “Nothing is too small, too personal, too close to home” for this microenvironmentalism, which threatens to “fence” in “humanity itself.” That’s hyperbole—it’s a little much after the 1990s to complain that the economy is being endlessly hobbled by nitpicking regulation. It’s true that the Feds have wasted lots of money on politically popular but often low-priority causes. I agree with Huber that some Superfund clean-up sites should simply have been fenced off as monuments to our crudity, and the billions spent to semi-clean them should have been spent instead on protecting wild lands, expanding city parks, and protecting urban gardens. But in broader terms, it is hard to argue that we overregulate industry for environmental reasons. Look at biotechnology: in five years’ time, genetically modified corn and soybeans went from being ag-school experiments to covering a third of the cornfields of the United States, without even the rudimentary testing that would have raised serious questions about things like their toxicity to, say, monarch butterflies.

There is simply not some implacable army of bureaucrats ready to shut down free enterprise to save snail darters. There is, however, one overriding issue that, if dealt with, really will demand altering the habits of the entire world, and that is global warming. Serious environmental discussion in the first few decades of this century will center on climate change—nothing else approaches it in scale, danger, and complexity. It should be the test of seriousness for presidential candidates, and for those who write environmental manifestoes: if you can’t deal with the greenhouse effect, then your environmentalism is too shallow to matter.2

Unfortunately, Huber handles the topic in a kind of schizoid fashion. On the one hand, he pours on scorn. Scientists in the 1970s thought the earth would cool; so, he concludes, that must mean there’s nothing to the claim about greenhouse effect. The numbers are small: humans add “only” six billion metric tons of carbon per year to the atmosphere. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations go up and down all the time over the geologic record. And it’s all based on models anyway, and natural systems are “too inherently complex for theories about them to yield any practical green advice at all.”

A decade ago, such skepticism was still justifiable. But now scientists have done the work that contradicts it. The research efforts of the last ten years are unprecedented; proceeding in the dialectical tradition of their trade, scientists have broken down this enormous environmental issue into workable parts, studied it, and reached a consen-sus that embraces all but a small number of eccentric experts. Their work has been peer-reviewed and corroborated by the planet itself; in the last decade we’ve seen seven of the warmest years in recorded human history. And we’ve seen some other things too, in the unchallenged scientific record:

å? a 20 percent increase in the number of severe storms which dump two inches or more of precipitation in a twenty-four-hour period—which is just what you would expect, since warm air holds extra water vapor;

å? a dramatic change in seasonality, with spring coming seven days ear-lier, on average, across the Northern Hemisphere than it did just thirty years ago.

These changes, only a sample of dozens like them, can’t just be ignored. Climate change is not some distant phenomenon, a figment of some modeler’s imagination, but the most pressing political issue of the new century, one that is crashing down upon us with unimaginable rapidity and power. In 1998, the warmest year to date on record, 300 million people were made refugees for a week, for a season, or forever by the weather, especially the devastating floods that drowned so much of Asia and Latin America. Insurers paid out $98 billion in damages, 60 percent above the previous record set two years before, and far more in real terms than in all the 1980s.3 And the data just keeps coming. In December 1999, for instance, we learned that Arctic ice is 40 percent thinner than four decades before—and entirely sober researchers are contemplating seriously the implications of that diffusion of fresh water for the continued flow of the Gulf Stream.

To reach this point and still be scorning the idea of global warming as some unproven semi-fantasy is a journalistic failure. Forget the impact on humans—the submerged islands, the drowned cropland, the refugees, the spread of disease. Let’s confine the argument to the aesthetic questions that would interest, say, Theodore Roosevelt. For conservatives, Huber writes, “conservation happens in well-defined places, places you can see and draw on a map. Yellowstone and Yosemite start here and end there.” Not anymore they don’t—and this is the crux of the issue. Bears don’t live in Yellowstone because they understand that they are helpful to the local tourist economy. They live there because their food is there. Recent studies, for instance, showed that the nuts of the whitebark pine provide 40 percent of the fat layer on Yellowstone grizzlies as they prepare to den for the winter. (They take the nuts from caches hidden by red squirrels, the kangaroo rats of the Rockies.) But a warmer, moister climate in the region is helping spread a blister rust which may soon decimate the trees.

In other words, driving your car in Chicago and running your power plant in China add CO2 to the atmosphere, raising the temperature and damaging the flora, which in turn puts stress on the fauna; and before you know it Yellowstone is just a place with some geysers. Its bears will want to move a few hundred miles further north. And they will not get there, because in between lie ranches, interstate highways, cities. If you raise the sea level a meter, right in line with the consensus prediction for the next hundred years, TR’s Mississippi mud lumps will be under water. The central understanding of ecology as it developed in the twentieth century is: everything’s connected. You can’t repeal this rule and still write coherently about conservation.

But I have said there is something a little schizoid in Huber’s take on global warming. In the end, one senses that he does take it seriously—indeed, he devotes much of the second half of his text to explaining his solution to the problem of getting carbon dioxide out of the air. He begins by citing a single study purporting to show that forests are growing so vigorously in the United States that they are sucking up more carbon than our power plants and cars produce. To use his language, “if green-house gas is a problem at all, the rest of the world is the problem. America is the solution.”

It is true that trees soak up CO2, and that we should plant them everywhere we can—but it is also true that most estimates show that throughout the world we could sop up about a fifth of the excess carbon by reforestation. So Huber’s argument is a debater’s point at best. Even if our regrowing forests soaked up all that carbon, it would hardly excuse us for emitting many times per capita what the rest of the world emits. But in any event his entire point is based on a single study reported in Science in October 1998, and Huber fails to report that the three studies that have followed have disputed it. The most recent and elaborate, also published in Science (July 23, 1999), demonstrates that forest growth, fire suppression efforts, and abandonment of cropland have offset only 10 to 30 percent of US fossil fuel emissions.

There is, in other words, no magic escape hatch, no way to avoid dealing with the essential problem, which is that we need to use dramatically less fossil fuel. By most estimates, we need a 60 to 80 percent immediate reduction in the use of global fossil fuel simply to stabilize climate at current levels of disruption. We need, in other words, to move quickly away from oil and coal, and soon after that from natural gas. Figuring out how best to do so shifts the ground of the debate away from science and toward economics. Here Huber has ingenious arguments, making a pair of contentions that are each plausible on their face. They are both aimed at Amory Lovins, the Colorado-based energy researcher who since the mid-1970s has been the chief proponent of a “soft energy path,” arguing that energy efficiency and renewable energy sources like solar power are the best way out of our energy dilemmas.

The first argument concerns efficiency. Huber insists that as you make an appliance more efficient, people will happily take the savings from their electric bill and invest them in a larger appliance that uses more power. A refrigerator that uses less power provides the cash that enables people to “buy bigger ones, and that is exactly what they do.” His analogy is to food—the same decades that saw the rise of Nutrasweet, Snackwells, and olestra also saw Americans becoming fatter. “The diet Coke tastes even better with a double-fudge brownie,” he writes, “and that’s how most dieters drink it.”

Similarly, though we have by general agreement built vastly better appliances in the last three decades, American energy usage has continued to increase, going from 71 quadrillion BTUs of energy in 1975 to 91 quadrillion two decades later. Some of that increase comes from our growing population, but some comes as well from the growing average size of our homes and automobiles. In the 1990s, despite promises from presidents Bush and Clinton to hold our fossil fuel use level, we actually increased our emissions of carbon dioxide by 10 percent.

As it happens, Lovins has just written a new book of his own, with his Rocky Mountain Institute colleague and cousin Hunter Lovins and the entrepreneur-turned-environmental-thinker Paul Hawken. Natural Capitalism is exceedingly useful, a landmark of sorts, but also by nature a bit of a compromise—Hawken’s eloquence, most recently on display in his book The Ecology of Commerce, tends to vanish beneath the weight of data unleashed by the more technocratic Lovinses. The authors look forward relentlessly—Natural Capitalism is not greatly interested in the past few decades. It argues in passing that efficiency improvements have in fact saved a great deal of energy. If you go back to 1975, when Lovins first came to public notice, and look at government projections of the future, Americans were supposed to be burning something like 150 quads this year, not the 91 quadrillion we will in fact consume. In that light, all those efficient refrigerators look a little better.

Lovins and his coauthors admit that progress toward efficiency spurred by the oil shock of the 1970s stalled after 1985, but now they foresee a rapid revolution toward ultra-efficient technologies that will reduce energy demand by a factor of four to ten in the very near future. Governments, they write, could speed things up by removing the various subsidies that, say, help underwrite the cost of oil exploration, but the various technologies now coming to the fore are so spectacular that even with low oil prices they will persuade any rational businessman or consumer to make use of them. To prove his point, Lovins built the headquarters of his Rocky Mountain Institute at 7,100 feet, near Aspen; nonetheless its “superinsulation, superwindows, and 92 percent efficient heat-recovering ventilators” allow its occupants to raise bananas despite the lack of a furnace. The examples multiply as the book goes on—perhaps most famously, the authors predict the imminent arrival of “hypercars,” with their carbon-fiber bodies and hydrogen fuel cell propulsion, which the authors believe will soon function as power plants on wheels, actually providing electricity to the dwellings outside which they park.4

This debate about whether efficiency has worked in the past and will work in the future, far from being abstruse, lies at the center of current administration policy about climate change. After Congress rejected his early and feeble attempts to raise the gas tax, President Clinton stopped trying to make much policy that might affect fuel use. He—and Al Gore—have pinned most of their hopes on the new technologies, which could lower carbon emissions without asking any sacrifice of anyone. Clinton has publicly praised Natural Capitalism, and he drew several examples from it in his recent State of the Union address, and on the eve of Earth Day Al Gore called for an end to the internal combustion engine by 2017. The new technologies do represent, I think, the most politically palatable, and therefore best, chance that we have to rapidly reduce the vast amount of carbon flowing into the air, especially if they are quickly shared with the rest of the world. But I doubt they will come as magically as the authors of Natural Capitalism sometimes imply. Inertia, if nothing else, stalls technologies short of their full potential. When, for instance, was the last time you cleaned the coils under your refrigerator, which is crucial for keeping it operating correctly? And Huber is certainly right to point out that per capita efficiency increases don’t help the planet—what we need are actual reductions in energy use.

Still, new evidence implies that the vision of the Lovinses and Hawken may be appearing on the horizon—the Department of Energy reported last fall that energy use barely grew in 1998 despite the booming economy. Among other things, new generations of computer controls seem to be reducing industrial energy use. One year does not a trend make, especially when a warm winter depressed heating oil use. And Huber raises the important caution that federal statistics may be missing the private generating plants that many big companies are starting to build as backup and supplementary power sources. So it’s impossible to say yet that Huber is wrong in his pessimism; but we need to hope so. Even gradual efficiency gains are a long way from the 60 to 80 percent reduction in fossil fuel use that scientists say ameliorating global warming will require. But before you can turn a ship around you have to bring it to a stop, and that may finally be happening.

We are left, anyway, with the second argument, about how we will generate whatever power we do need. Huber is equally ingenious here, writing that the standard green vision—wind farms and solar panels—will be environmentally devastating because it takes so much land. “The more energy we needed, the more surface we would cover. The effects would be about as benign for the environment as stripmining the continent and paving it with asphalt.” Instead of “living off the surface,” he recommends, we should burrow deep for our energy needs. We should, among other things, mine uranium, producing nuclear power which gives off no carbon. “We are troglodytes,” Huber announces happily, perhaps the first conservative ever to do so, and therefore the real environmentalists, conserving scarce “wilderness, untouched forest, lake, river, shore, and ocean.”

It’s such a tempting idea that one can almost not bear to dispute it. And it has a certain truth. I admit blanching when the Department of Energy said some years ago that we could supply the nation’s electric needs from the windpower of “just” Texas and the Dakotas. But in fact, energy planners like the Lovinses and Hawken don’t foresee vast fields of solar collectors. It makes a lot more sense to place most of them on roofs and walls of existing buildings. You can’t heat a skyscraper that way—as Huber has pointed out, powering New York might require a land area four times the city’s size. But New York is uniquely dense—most Americans live in subdivisions. And though early versions of wind farms killed migrating birds by the thousands, they are not industrial facilities—cattle can graze and crops can grow between the windmills, just as cattle can graze and crops can grow among the oil derricks pumping slowly up and down on the Oklahoma range.

In the best outcome, we’re not going to have vast amounts of renewable power anytime soon. The consensus among environmental planners is that we should continue moving in the direction economics already suggests: relatively small and versatile gas-fired power plants, which produce about half as much CO2 as coal-fired stations. Nuclear power doesn’t provide a realistic alternative—to replace the power plants now burning fossil fuels, you’d have to be opening atomic plants at an unheard-of clip, one every few days for years to come. Even without adding in the costs of eventual waste disposal, that’s simply too expensive a proposition for any utility executive to entertain. Some of that expense comes from the safety requirements, which Huber thinks may be overblown. But odd as it may seem, people will insist on maximum safety protection if you put some-thing in their general neighborhood that is capable of melting down. The fatal nuclear accident last October in Japan—the most organized, safety-conscious, industrially advanced, procedurally careful nation on earth—provides an example. It was not surprising to see in the papers a few weeks later the news that Japanese were suddenly forming anti-nuclear groups by the score.

All the talk about technology hides one other possibility, which is that we could live in slightly different ways that made more ecological sense. As Huber points out, this hasn’t happened yet, and is unlikely to, and yet it is not impossible. I’ve spent much of the last decade looking at a few places where people really have succeeded in living more lightly on the earth—Hawken and the Lovinses describe one of the most interesting of these places, the city of Curitiba in southern Brazil. Its three million inhabitants enjoy, among other things, the best bus system on earth. It’s a hard place to drive a car, but it’s an easy place to take the bus, and so everyone does—and as a result they use 25 percent less fuel per capita in that city than elsewhere in Brazil. Twenty-five percent is a pretty big number; it may be large enough to encourage other people to make the same kind of choices they made in Curitiba.

In his book, however, Huber finds it hard to go in that direction, because it would mean questioning the efficiency of markets. In the essay on ethics that comes near the end of his book he posits a world in danger of sliding into a kind of relativist paganism. Soft Greens, he says, would probably agree with Al Gore that nature has “inherent value,” and would therefore advocate preserving “the kangaroo rat not because it is useful to people, but because nature as a whole is, in some sense, on a spiritual par with man.” And this will lead to a kind of ethical free-for-all, where we are unable or unwilling to distinguish between cougars and children, and end up condoning the actions of lunatics like Ted Kaczynski.

This is unlikely. A quick glance around contemporary American culture should suffice to demolish the notion that we are relegating human beings to some inferior spot in our cosmology. If you were looking for the hottest moral danger spot, I think you’d have to locate it instead in the incredible hyperindividualism of the most advanced consumer society on earth. We are, to coin a phrase, I-dolatrous. And we have been told by three generations of laissez-faire economists that this is how we should be, that by our endless pursuit of our own desires we will enrich the world.

In some ways they have clearly been correct. President Clinton, stealing the thunder of the free-market right, could claim with certain justice this January that the state of the union has never been better. And that prosperity makes it easier to advance certain environmental goals—we’re burning more fossil fuels but creating less smog. But all that success may, as some conservatives are starting to suggest, have come at a certain spiritual price. And it is raising the temperature of the planet as well. That is the dilemma the author of the next conservative reflection on the environment should consider.

  1. 1

    Such folly is not, of course, confined to the Republicans. Senators of both parties have rallied in opposition to the Kyoto treaty on climate change. Even Al Gore, as Charles Lewis makes clear in his The Buying of the President 2000 (Morrow, 1999), has let political calculation cloud his vision: on the same day that he was warning one audience of the “terrifying prospect” of climate change, he was pulling the strings that reopened oil drilling on the Teapot Dome lands, a concession eventually leased by his longtime financial supporters at Occidental Petroleum.

  2. 2

    As “Earth Day” approached in late April, the official committee made climate change its chief focus. Its chairman, Denis Hayes, published The Official Earth Day Guide to Planet Repair (Island Press, 2000), which bids to become the next Fifty Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. It is strongest on possible solutions to warming problems. For a more thorough explanation of the problem, readers can turn to Gale E. Christianson’s Greenhouse: The 200-Year Story of Global Warming (Walker, 1999) or Beating the Heat: How and Why We Must Combat Global Warming, by John J. Berger (Berkeley Hills Books, 2000), each of which provides a concise, clear-headed account of where the science stands and where the politics might go. Those who want a comprehensive picture of the small minority view that global warming either doesn’t exist or won’t be much of a problem should turn to The Satanic Gases, by Patrick J. Michaels and Robert C. Balling Jr. (Cato Institute, 2000).

  3. 3

    As the veteran Greenpeace campaigner Jeremy K. Leggett makes clear in his vivid book, The Carbon War: Dispatches from the End of the Oil Century (London: Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, 1999), more and more insurance executives have come to understand what their premium data is telling them—i.e., that the historical world on which their actuarial tables depend is not the world that now exists.

  4. 4

    Those interested in clean cars—and considering buying the newly available gas-electric hybrids which can get seventy miles to the gallon straight off the showroom floor—should read Jim Motavalli’s recent book Forward Drive: The Race to Build ‘Clean’ Cars for the Future (Sierra Club, 2000). Those trying to pick stocks of companies particularly advanced in their energy-saving efforts might consider Joseph J. Romm’s Cool Companies: How the Best Businesses Boost Profits and Productivity by Cutting Greenhouse Gas Emissions (Island Press, 1999).