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There is No Environmental Crisis

by Robert Stokes
Wheat Life, October 2004

Environmentalists don't use pitches like "the house of cards"
and "the canary in the mine" to inform action. They use them to stop action.

There is no environmental crisis. Today's environmental issues are just our generation's share of problems and solutions that have always faced mankind.

Ancient people learned to build sewers and enforce rudimentary sanitation soon after they built cities. Additional sanitary measures followed discoveries by 18th and 19th century scientists of how filth and polluted water spread disease.

Scientific fish and wildlife management evolved after uncontrolled harvest depleted wildlife around the world, particularly in North America.

The first energy crisis occurred early in the 19th century. In those days, whale oil fueled European and American lamps. Decimation of the world's whales increased the price of whale oil and triggered a search for alternative fuels. Sound familiar? In 1859, that search created the petroleum industry.

Exaggeration is the inevitable companion of reform. Changes usually occur in capitalist democracies when someone decides money, votes or fame can be gained by promoting them. Real problems may be large or small, but personal rewards grow with public perception of their magnitude. Ask an insurance or burglar alarm salesman to explainˆ…or a politician.

Today's professional environmentalists understand the huckster's rule that "Nothing sells like fear." Some examples follow.

The fragile web
Ecological science teaches that everything in an ecosystem is related to everything else. It also teaches that change is the only ecological constant and that survival (of individual organisms or species) is achieved through adaptation.

Responsible ecologists tell the whole story of relatedness, change and adaptation. Environmentalists misrepresent ecosystems as fragile houses of cards, changing little in nature and capable of falling apart at the slightest human touch.

The canary in the mine We humans are part of the ecosystems in which we live, work and play. The canary in the mine theory means we are in peril if spotted owls can't survive in Oregon forests, sockeye salmon vanish from the Snake River or pygmy rabbits perish in the Columbia Basin.

No kidding! Let's charitably assume such statements refer to politics rather than nature. Just as the car that can't stop for a cat may be unable to stop for a child, the political system that can't save animals may be unable to control environmental threats to humans. Or something like that.

I don't trust the wisdom or benevolence of human institutions any more than many environmentalists do. But I have more confidence in Mother Nature's ability to take our worst hitsˆ…and come back swinging.

Forests and meadows again occupy European battlefields where tons of explosives and chemicals created moonscapes during two World Wars. During the early and mid-20th century, the largest herds of moose, elk and other big game animals to ever populate North America were nourished by young forests that replaced the virgin timber harvested by cut-and-run loggers. Today, those young trees are the "old growth" timber that environmentalists speak of with reverence.

Nature has even coped with nuclear disaster. Wildlife populations increased near the Chernobyl nuclear reactor after the 1986 accident. The evacuation of people from their habitat helped wild animals more than radiation hurt them.

Environmentalists don't use pitches like "the house of cards" and "the canary in the mine" to inform action. They use them to stop action. Rejecting such scare tactics reopens the common sense path of learning what is possible beforehand, then learning the rest by doing.

Is global warming the exception?
Accepting the global warming hypothesis means accepting the inevitability of some kind of disaster. If environmentalists are right and we ignore their warning, we cook. If we heed their warnings, we also suffer, whether they are right or wrong. First we must discard much of the world's capital stock now invested in hydrocarbon production and consumption. Then there will be other economic changes and sacrifices. These are currently unknown, except for the certainty that they will dwarf burdens imposed by other recently adopted environmental measures.

Environmentalists and their friends in science have cried wolf so many times that skepticism is in order. I am open to evidence and argument. But, for now, I will trust history's lesson over today's shrill voices.

That lesson is that Mother Nature will not be shy about showing us the error of our ways. She will annoy and inconvenience us. She may injure or kill some of us. But she will not kill all of us, at least not at the same time, or for the same mistake. If that was her motive, she has already missed more chances than we will ever know.

Robert Stokes is a retired natural-resource economist who lives in Spokane. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Washington, where he taught in the Institute for Marine Studies from 1974 to 1994.
There is No Environmental Crisis
Wheat Life - October 2004

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