Long ago and far away, as the 1970s dawned at the University of Illinois, I came of political age as the environmental movement began to flower.
This limited-government conservative started college as the anti-war movement, youth culture and leftist politics exploded across the land. It was a disorienting time, especially because it produced violence on campuses. Coming of age is often difficult, but especially so in such chaotic times.
But I ended my freshman year neat and clean for Gene McCarthy. Seeking something wholesome and humane, not as dumb as socialism, and not as incendiary as anti-war politics. It all seemed so remarkable and unique to me at the time, albeit normal for guys approaching majority.
Then I shared an apartment with John, the genius who organized student environmentalists, farmers and railroads into an effective coalition against the damming of rivers throughout the Midwest, especially the upper Mississippi. Soon, I was leading the fight against the university airport expansion, battling the statewide supplemental freeways project, promoting bikeways and undergrounding power and telephone lines in our community, etc.
The apogee came when I founded the consumer-environmental opposition to the power company’s proposed nuclear plants and rate hikes. And thereby became a founding member of the statewide Naderite-Alinskyite umbrella group.
At that group’s founding convention, my youthful, academic idealism learned what most real politics is about. My partner Rudi and I made a presentation based on sophisticated economic theory that supported both environmental and consumer goals in ratemaking, including low-cost “lifeline” electric rates for the first 350 kilowatt-hours a month.
“I don’t know what these guys are talking about, but I say we give everybody 1,000 a month free! Stick it to the bosses and capitalists!” That, from another founder who was a union activist, showed politics often is not about analysis, but instead intellectual prostitution and demagoguery.
I’d already begun to think seriously about what produced sound public policy because I’d learned where consumer and environmentalist goals diverged. This insight led me over the next few years to read, study and think deeply about the public interest.
That matter was the root of much of my expert testimony in regulation, legislation and courts for the next few years and of my graduate and law-school studies. I concluded the lodestar for public policy is maximizing aggregate human wellbeing and fairness. And individual liberty and economic freedom are the means to get there.
I remained an environmentalist because I had yet to understand that environmental goals are not the same as the public interest, but often predatory upon it. What attracted me to environmentalism was that there were important values not being considered in public policy. The idea was to include those matters and find the balance points that serve the public interest. This seemed a wholesome and noble calling that couldn’t be corrupted.
But from the start I noticed some fellow enviros have a different view. “Deep environmentalists” hold a religious belief that primitive and “natural” are sacred and man a despoiler. They subjugate human liberty and economic freedom, even aggregate human wellbeing and fairness, to controlling everybody and everything. Their idiosyncratic absolutes are contrary to the public interest.
Many others are looking for a powerful cause to motivate them and give their lives meaning. Save the whales! Save the river! Ultimately, save the world!!! They don’t need an understanding of science and economics and subtleties of balance. They need certainty this is good, that is bad, and particular beliefs and actions are imperative. There lies their redemption.
Ultimately, continued study led me to the wisdom of Nobel economist Ronald Coase in graduate school at Stanford. Grappling for two years with his work revealed that environmentalism is the problem, not the solution. Including all relevant considerations and finding their balance points maximizes human wellbeing and fairness. It doesn’t lead to primitivism, etc.
But to the overwhelming number of enviros today and the vast majority of their leaders, that’s all academic. Saving the world motivates many people, raises money and makes news. And justifies their existence.
If you want to know how superficial and wrong these people are, ask them to explain how climate models show electric cars will save the world.