By GEORGE MELLOAN
Too Much of a Good Thing Can Be Bad
October 4, 2005; Page A27
A theory usually attributed to the late British astronomer Fred Hoyle holds that modern "environmentalism" got its start in the 1960s when earthlings were first able to view a photograph of their planet taken from outer space. In the minds of many millions, it registered that this beautiful blue orb is our home, the only one we have. So let's take care of it.
The Hoyle theory may be a bit too pat. Certainly there were conservationists and naturists before the space age. But it indeed seems likely that the first pictures of a little earth had a profound impact. Who could quarrel with the idea that our only habitat must be protected and preserved? It was the nearest we could ever get to an unchallengeable principle.
But a principle on which almost everyone agrees is a powerful thing in the hands of mere mortals. It can be put to all sorts of uses and whether the results are good or bad depends on individual interpretations of how best to save the planet, or, for that matter, the degree to which the planet is in need of saving. One must suspect that some of the contenders who fly the banner of environmentalism have a more personal agenda not always defensible on its own merits.
In the half century since the first Sputnik roared into space, activists flying the banner of "environmentalism" have run roughshod over other important values, such as property rights, job creation or the elevation of the living standards of the world's poorest peoples. Political actors who claim their concern for the "environment" overrides all other considerations need to be subjected to frequent challenges, lest their religiosity become a costly liability to society as a whole.
Quite possibly, such challenges are beginning to get some traction. One burden activist environmentalists carry is that their "solutions" usually involve awarding more power to the state. Where there is power to be had, you usually find supranational organizations on the prowl as well. The United Nations Secretariat -- and particularly its shadowy promoter of "global governance," Maurice Strong, saw the possibilities of environmentalism long ago. The U.N.-sponsored Kyoto Treaty was a masterpiece of employing an invented "threat to the planet," global warming, to enhance U.N. influence over national policies.
Ralph Nader, the vengeful scourge of private business corporations, also caught on early to the political usefulness of environmentalism. When he was fashioning his network of youthful acolytes it was unfashionable to argue that the "means of production" should be in the hands of the state, mainly because of the hash places like Moscow had made of central economic management. But he could attract a loyal following of young people when he railed at private corporations for polluting the air and water and exploiting natural resources in careless, profit-maximizing ways.
It worked partly because it was sometimes true, and the quality of life in the U.S. could indeed be improved by regulation of waste emissions by privately owned industry -- and for that matter by the public sector, in such cases as the discharge of municipal wastes into rivers. The environmental movement can claim genuine victories in reducing air and water pollution.
But the excesses of environmentalist zeal are becoming more and more apparent and are sometimes backfiring on the zealots themselves. Mr. Nader fizzled in his bid for the U.S. presidency last November, stirring the ire of Democrats for taking votes that might have elected John Kerry. Kyoto, which was mainly the political equivalent of playing to the cheap seats, is dead in the water and the scandal-ridden U.N. doesn't look capable of pulling off another such deception any time soon. The German Greens, who once advocated shutting down all nuclear power plants, didn't have a good election last month.
Most damaging of all, at least in the U.S., is the dawning awareness of the role environmental zealotry has played in the sharp rise in energy costs. Environmentalist lawsuits and political interventions that caused long construction delays for nuclear power plants, making bridge-financing costs prohibitive, have effectively blocked nuclear expansion for a quarter-century, a period when France, for one, built enough plants to furnish most of its electricity, cleanly and safely.
Fossil-fuel energy hasn't fared much better than nuclear in the face of environmental activism. When Hurricane Katrina battered Gulf Coast refineries and drilling rigs last month, Congress wanted to know why the oil and gas industry had concentrated so much of its infrastructure in a region well-known for storm devastation. Red Cavaney, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, gladly provided the answer in a letter to Congress: "Government policies have largely limited offshore exploration and production to the Central and Western Gulf… Unfortunately, offshore oil and natural gas development has been barred elsewhere -- including the eastern half of the Gulf and the entire Atlantic and Pacific coasts."
In short, the message to the politicians is that if consumers are complaining about high energy prices, they should blame Congress -- and the environmental lobby, of course -- not the oil industry. Mr. Cavaney could have gone into much greater detail about the many ways oil refining has been fettered, including the requirement to produce "boutique" varieties of gasoline blends to meet the strict emissions requirements of certain states and metropolitan regions that have fallen under heavy influence of the enviro lobby.
Congress, of course, usually responds to public complaints not by fixing what is wrong -- excessive regulation -- but by shifting into demagogue mode, blaming the producers. "Price gouging" charges are leveled. Threats of applying price controls or windfall-profits taxes fly through the air. It's unbelievable after the economic wreckage those same policies produced in the 1970s that they can still be trumpeted. But politicians have short memories and the enviros have only one objective, to shift all blame away from themselves.
As it happens, our blue orb may look small from distant space, but is actually quite large and not as fragile as it has been painted. Energy resources, given sound management, are virtually unlimited. It might be time to worry less about the planet and more about its inhabitants.
George Melloan is the Journal's Deputy Editor, International. He began writing "Global View" in 1990, when he took over responsibilities for the overseas pages after 17 years as deputy editor in New York. During the first five years of his present assignment he was based in Brussels, traveling extensively from there to write about such events as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the break-up of the Soviet empire and the collapse of the Japan's stock market and real estate bubble. He returned to New York in 1994. Mr. Melloan invites comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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