Green market

Conservative Peter Huber says capitalism can save the environment, but he's fudging the bottom line.

Published March 9, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Pity the poor environmentalist. He's stuck between negotiating wilderness-protecting conservationists on the one hand and global-warming apocalyptics on the other. If he consorts with the former, he's forced into uneasy engagements with the conservationists' ulterior rightist motives; if he panders to the latter, he's an extremist with a creepy constituency, a Malthusian in waiting, who, given the chance, would purge Africa of its humans and repopulate it with porcupines.

Sheesh. Saving the world hasn't been this hard since Noah assembled his bestiary, and it just got a lot harder with the publication of Peter Huber's "Hard Green," a dreadfully irresponsible, though wildly engaging polemic that accuses the so-called "soft green" approach to environmental protection with doing much more harm than good. Were it not for the fact that we're talking about the fate of the planet, Huber's all-too-clever gutter-sniping and groan-inducing riffs would come off as mere trifles from the litterbug fringes of latter-day market Darwinism.

As it is, impatient capitalists and heads of industry, eager for a voice from the Teddy Roosevelt wilderness, are flocking to Huber like moths to a dim bulb. William F. Buckley says Huber's manifesto is the "richest contribution ever made to the political mind"; former Citicorp chairman Walter Wriston claims that Huber's goal, to "save the environment from the environmentalists," is the only way to color the planet "truly green." They, and for that matter, Huber's publishers at Basic Books, should be ashamed of themselves for getting suckered into this Manichaean sump of bad faith and Potemkin science.

Huber's recommended approach to most current, small-scale or localized environmental disasters is to do nothing. Too much money has been wasted, he says, on "trans-science"-- "the study of phenomena too large, diffuse, rare or long-term to be resolved by scientific means." There aren't enough lab rats in the world to properly test it, so, he says, let sleeping dioxins lie. According to Huber, we don't really know if toxic-waste dumping causes cancer, so we should just forget about it. We made the mess, let nature deal with it.

Huber calls for a harking back to the days of Teddy Roosevelt, insisting that the only way we'll save the planet -- not that it's in particular need of saving, he reminds us -- is by refocusing our efforts on preserving and protecting national parks and other majestic tracts of land. Technology-fearing, scarcity crazed "soft greens," he says, have been so wrong in the past about everything from global warming to solar power to the benefits of free-range chickens that we shouldn't trust them on anything. Disasters like the Exxon Valdez spill and Love Canal are the exception. Most of the time, Huber argues, technology doesn't blow up in our faces, so trust it, and trust it wholly -- from bionic cows to nuclear veggies.

And he's in your face about it; they say "scarcity," he says "abundance." They say organic tomatoes, he says supersize it. The markets will sift the good from the bad, and our wealth will save the forests: "It is the rich, not the poor, who pour their wealth into green. The richer we get, the farther the footprint of our wealth extends ... to our lands, shores, rivers, lakes and oceans. Wealth solves the problem of scarcity with abundance." It's all nice and neat -- way, way too neat.

Rather than dither about in the nether world of trans-science with the softs, Huber says, we should instead renew our faith in the conservation movement founded by Teddy Roosevelt around the turn of the last century. Glassy-eyed with awe at the God-given joys of the natural world, he asks that we soar like eagles with him over to the marketplace, offering it as the ultimate arbiter and salvation for the environment. Markets are inexact, chaotic; so is nature. Ipso facto ... you get the reductionist point.

Unfortunately for Huber's argument, the so-called softs never lost their faith in conservationism; they've been fighting the eco-war on two fronts for years. It is very easy to talk the conservationist talk, and Huber does it well, but the hike is a much more difficult proposition.

Sure, the self-righteous eco-lovers of the left certainly are not without their excesses. But Huber willfully and disdainfully ignores the progress the softs have made in the area of land conservation. Environmental groups have long been pushing that agenda in the rough-riding corridors of state and local legislatures and at the Environmental Protection Agency, locking horns with loggers, snowmobilers, hunters, farmers, snow boarders, ranchers, campers and squirrels -- all scrambling for their share of the outdoors.

Meanwhile, the stonewalling Darwinists of big industrial capitalism have been fighting against any environmental regulations since, well, forever, flaunting their toxic output with such surreal vulgarities as "pollution rights" -- a notion Huber heartily embraces. Of course he does: He trusts them to do the right thing by nature, if only those useless softs would stop interfering.

It's too bad for Huber that his adversary isn't the monolith he makes it out to be. When he's not goofily and imprecisely mocking most environmentalists with dumb references to "Marx and Lennon ('imagine no possessions')" -- I kid you not -- he's strongly implying that they've spent the past 20 years gorging on Not-Dogs in their eco-fascist bunkers and poring over dioxin data like it was the last will and testament of the Weather Underground.

His precise definition of a "soft green" is basically anyone he disagrees with, and that's everyone from Phish-lovin' granola-boys to the regulators at the EPA, from Al Gore to the co-opted editorial writers of the New York Times, who made the mistake of waxing on about Ted Kaczynski in a vaguely pro-Luddite manner during the Unabomber's 15 minutes.

Huber is pigheaded in his refusal to acknowledge that you can be against bionic cows and for forest preservation, and that fighting the former doesn't make you a sellout on the latter. The same conservationist environmentalists in New York who've been fighting to free up more land in the vast Adirondack Park are also concerned about PCBs in the Hudson, acid rain and community gardens; to Huber, that's enough to put their "agenda" at hard odds with his.

But he should get his troops in line: T.R.-lovin' Gov. George Pataki of New York hasn't scorned the praise heaped on his conservationist efforts even though it came from those same recalcitrant, tofu-snorting softies Huber is so congenitally disposed to dismiss as eco-frauds.

Everyone who cares about saving the world knows full well the paradoxes and occasional zero-sum choices even the most devoted environmentalist must make on both the local and global level. But Huber offers no quarter: You're a hypocrite if you criticize Exxon for the Valdez disaster and still drive a car.

Furthermore, contrary to Huber's assertions, no "soft green" is saying that we should burn wood instead of oil as some kind of global back-to-the-garden strategy. No one is demanding that we rip that Big Mac out of the hands of the blue-collar burger-and-fries masses and force-feed them Fakin' Bacon. That's all a matter of personal choice, and the markets, Huber's precious markets, have responded to consumers' desires with healthier products.

McDonald's didn't start selling its McVeggie burger because some long-hair came to a board meeting threatening global chaos if they didn't. You can beat on environmentalists with your baloney-stick for guilting McDonald's into using paper over Styrofoam packaging, and you can even argue about which is better for Gaia in the long run -- but does Huber distrust the instincts of McDonald's? Mr. Leave It to the Wise Markets and Marketers?

And let's put a little context to his up-with-Teddy sloganeering. In Roosevelt's day, many dozens of species that now simply no longer exist crawled, crept and soared about this country. That was all pre-sprawl and pre-brownfield; the buffalo roamed (OK, barely), the Colorado River roared and uranium's secrets were as-yet-undiscovered. It is an undeniable fact that the world was a simpler, less crowded place in Roosevelt's time -- and that his conservationist motives were pretty self-serving.

Roosevelt's main objective in conserving nature was to arrange it so that he and a fellow privileged few could enjoy the scenery as they blew holes in as many wolves, bison and cougars as they could find. Now, Huber takes up the call, aims straight and declares, "Today, free-roaming game is an asset; the hunter pays dearly to capture it, and entire habitats are saved as a result. Put a trophy price on elephants or bighorn sheep, and animals on the brink of extinction are soon multiplying like Frank Perdue's chickens."

And if you've got a problem with that notion, for whatever reason -- logic, morality or whatever -- watch out. "Affirming and protecting our liberties is a civic duty, and an armed citizenry can play a role there." So, nature-boy: Head to the hills with your crates of soy-bombs and green-algae camouflage face paint -- the meat-eatin' militiamen are comin' to get you!

If Huber won't drop his weapon and admit that the left environmental movement is already hot on the conservation trail, he also fails to acknowledge that science itself is an evolutionary process and that we sometimes get a bit ahead of ourselves. It's a simple point, but one that bears stating: We're dumb. We really don't know jack about how badly we're screwing up the environment with global warming because there's no model to compare it with, and if there are hints in our flooded past, they're vague and compromised.

There's no handbook that says, "When your society reaches the point where you can simultaneously cook a chicken, wash your clothes, communicate with relatives on another continent and watch 'The Sopranos,' here's what you do to keep the party going."

So we try, we humans, to figure this out, and when we're wrong, we learn from our mistakes. It's messy, but that's how science works. The technology advances, and we realize, hey, it's not global cooling (the rage in the '70s, as Huber points out), but global warming that menaces the Earth. Oops, back to the drawing board. It's not the end of the world -- yet.

But bad-faith Huber assumes all the money that's gone into researching toxins and acid rains, mutated frogs and asthma rates in the Bronx, is really going to a purpose "dressed up as science, but it is irreducibly political ... a system perfectly designed to fund and grow the critical establishment, the legions of academics and bureaucrats whose occupation it is to imagine, worry and prescribe."

And for all his Winnebago-lovin' family-values talk (Robert Mapplethorpe, gangsta rap and the "river of filth" on television are bigger environmental problems than dioxin, PCBs and BGH), Huber is blatantly and unapologetically concerned more with saving the present than with worrying about the future. Leave it to the markets, he advises, they'll sort it all out: That which doesn't kill me might kill my kids, but never mind, Junior, check out the view!

Further on, Huber points to God's instructions to Noah to "subdue" nature, declaring the Judeo-Christian imperative that humanity shall ride herd over all species. When he invokes Darwin in the next breath, Huber's relativistic moral universe allows him to have his creator and eat him too! (Yum. For us pagans, there are always those evil organic vegetables.)

Huber should consider the possibility, advanced by Art Bell and Whitley Strieber, that the Bible's just a big hubris-driven gloss on an event that may have wiped out the proto-civilizations of earth some 8,000 years ago. At any rate, that's the argument in their recent book "The Coming Global Superstorm," an updated "Chariots of the Gods" that takes the Martian goo-ga out of the equation and instead credits early human civilizations with being far, far smarter than Leonard Nimoy has ever suspected.

While Huber is busily stomping out organic farms, choking free-range chicken and building mile-high skyscrapers whence he shoots trophy game with his buddies, Strieber and Bell confront global-warming and say, in effect, that we're risking a storm of biblical proportion if we don't get our greenhouse gases in order. And Huber? "If it is semantically ridiculous to say that 'trees pollute,' that is simply because 'pollution' ... has been defined to refer to humanity alone." (And ketchup is a genetically enhanced vegetable.)

But what if -- what if -- that wishy-washy "trans-science" and Strieber and Bell are right and we've set ourselves up for a two-week-long mother of a storm that will leave a sheet of ice over the entire Northern Hemisphere, wiping out Western civilization in the process and proving once and for all that Mother Nature is one unforgiving battle ax? What then for Huber and his slap-happy hard greens, awash in e-cash and Wall Street go-go bucks? Boy will they look stupid. Frozen, and stupid. Given the possibility of a snowstorm to end all snowstorms, what's wrong with a little precaution, not to mention a little humility?

I'll freely admit that there's a part of me that prays for the global superstorm, that wishes a thousand "Magnolia" frogs would come splatting down from the heavens, bouncing off of Huber's suburban home, ruining his lunch and shattering his opinions. You can call me a Travis Bickle (with a hammer and sickle, no less) itching for that big rain that'll cleanse the planet of the scum and scourge of the hard greens. I'll take the rap. And if this baby goes out with the bath water, so be it. If that day of reckoning ever comes, I'd rather die hugging a tree than humping a stump.

By Tom Gogola

Tom Gogola is News Editor at the North Bay Bohemian. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including New York and the Nation.

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