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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Book Review: Conservative Environmentalism

Conservative Environmentalism: Reassessing the Means, Redefining the Ends

Authors: James R. Dunn and John E. Kinney

Although I’ve been focusing on anthropogenic global warming and climate change in my last reviews, this book is far more general. Published in 1996, AGW wasn’t the big panic it is today.

The entire book is actually available online to Questia members. You can find the entire contents list and the first few pages here.

First, the basics of the book, with a look at who the two authors are. James R. Dunn is (was?) a geologic consultant to Behre Dolbear, New York City and a former professor of geology/environmental geology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He’s also a former President of the American Institute of Professional Geologists. From their website, I see that he served as their VP in 1969, and president in 1980. I’ve tried searching for him online but, other than listings at Greenwood Publishing Group, I can’t even find if he’s still alive. :-/ At the time of publication, Dr. Dunn has over 140 publications to his credit.

John E. Kinney is listed as a Registered Professional Environmental Engineering Consultant, and a Diplomate, American Academy of Environmental Engineers. Water and natural resources around the world seem to be a specialty of his, and he’s been a consultant on those regards for the US government. Greenwood has a short blurb on him as well. He has over 200 publications to his credit, plus presentations, and has acted as a consultant to many others besides the US government. Like Dr. Dunn, I’m not finding much about him online, other than papers and books he has published.

The next step for me before reading the book was to check out the references. The book had only a “selected bibliography” in the back. They make a point of listing books from both sides of environmental philosophy, as they define it (more on that later). It took me a while of back flipping to realize why I didn’t find a more extensive list. Every chapter ends with its own list of references and footnotes, some several pages long. They were very thorough.

In the Preface, the authors are very clear on where they stand. They are environmentalists. They count themselves among the “environmentally concerned” that they dedicate the book to. “… the people who, to the best of their ability, strive to leave a better world for their children.” They then make a quick run-through on how, throughout our history, humans have caused a great deal of environmental damage over the millennia. They then go on to claim that, as humans and nations become freer, wealthier and more industrial, we have taken the initiative to repair our damage and improve on our environment to an extent never before achieved.

The authors break environmentalists into two camps. One is the left-leaning “liability culture,” while the other tends to be the more conservative “asset culture.” From the beginning, they state that they don’t have to room to delve too far into certain aspects, and leave it to their readers to inform themselves to make their own decisions. They also clearly describe their views as being “primarily anthropocentric.” That is, they “… view the world first in terms of human needs.” This position immediately sets them apart from many environmental leaders, who openly state that they view humans as a disease, and that human needs should be secondary to the needs of the planet. The authors, however, proceed to demonstrate in the book that meeting the needs of humans will also meet the needs of the planet, while proposals to restrict or devolve human activity will damage the environment. They describe their focus as two things. “…(1) the impact of humans on the natural environment, including forests, wildlife, water quality (as related to human bodily wastes) and quantity, and soil; and (2) the impact of nature and humans on human health.” They then state, “We relate all data to wealth and the wealth-creating process.”

They are also clear on their stand. “While we see the environmental benefit industry brings to our world, we are critical of some activities of industry. Similarly, while we find no fault with some ideals expressed by environmental leaders, we are critical of much of the current direction of environmentalism.” Their purpose has been to investigate the claims by many environmentalists that we in the First World, through our use of industry and resources, are damaging the earth, and that we should turn away from these practices to live in a more “sustainable” way, and demonstrate if these claims are true or not.

The layout of the book is very logical and precise – which seems totally in keeping with their particular backgrounds. ;-) The book is divided into 4 parts: The Natural and Human Environments, Wealth and Resources, Politics and the Environment, and finally, Toward a Better Environment. Each part begins with its conclusions listed. The following chapters then demonstrate how and why they reached those conclusions.

Now, on to reviewing the book itself.

The authors proceed to demonstrate how humans have long been responsible for the degradation of our environment. Such actions have primarily been the result of trying to survive - we've been trying to protect ourselves from the environment, not the environment from us. They point out the flaws in our tendency to romanticize simpler times and earlier cultures. One example is how many paint North America’s First Nations as being ecologically wise and living in harmony with nature, when in reality, they actively controlled and modified their environment, primarily through the use of fire. The prairies, it turns out, were created and maintained for about 5000 years with fire by those who wanted to encourage the large herds they depended on. Reforestation didn’t (unintentionally) begin to occur until Europeans arrived and completely disrupted the pattern. Many other examples are given, in the process reminding us that every habitat exists at the expense of another.

The authors also demonstrate how, especially in the last 70 (now 80) years, First World nations have been able to greatly improve our environment as our industry and technology increase - improvements to an extent we were not capable of previously. These claims are amply demonstrated with charts showing how we’ve been able to increase food production while decreasing land used for agriculture, and how reduction in air, water and land pollution were made only when our society became stable and wealthy enough that we could divert our attention away from the basics of survival, to cleaning, improving and restoring the natural world around us. They then compare our achievements with Second and Third World nations, and how poverty and illness has lead to increased environmental devastation. Simply put, people don’t care about the environment when their lives are focused on surviving from one day to the next. Perhaps most damning of all, they clearly demonstrate how First World environmentalists actively increase human misery and environmental damage by preventing Third World nations from using the very tools we used to improve our own lives and our local environments. They expose the fallacy behind trying to impose First World regulations and ideals on Second and Third World people. They argue that only through industrialization, wealth creation (particularly through free market systems) and individual freedoms (namely, democracy) can those in the Third World improve their lot to the point where they can also improve their environment. They also argue that, having already gone through the painful learning curve of industrialization that first lead to massive pollution before we improved our technology and became wealthy enough to clean it back up again, we can help Second and Third World nations reduce or avoid many aspects of that stage.

The authors are especially blunt when it comes to describing the damage caused by leaders in the environmental movement, and demonstrate how their real motives cannot possibly be the actual improvement of the environment, when they actively pursue actions that cause more, not less, damage. They provide evidence to show that some of these leaders are more interested in destroying western style democracy and the reduction, if not elimination, of the human population. They “credit” much of this damage to Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, the claims in which they demonstrate as having been completely false. Silent Spring claimed that pesticides were killing off bird populations at a time when these populations had been increasing dramatically – in some cases (robins), by over 1000%! They lay the blame to much earlier than Silent Spring, but single Carson’s book out as having galvanized people into taking actions that have since led to the misery and deaths of millions of people, virtually all in Third World nations, which they also demonstrate as being completely in keeping with the goals of certain environmentalist leaders.

They go on to demonstrate the flaws behind the notion of “sustainability” and show how First World nations have been able to multiply resources. They also remind us that the assumption behind “sustainable” behavior is that our current needs will stay the same. This is demonstrate-ably false. Many materials we use today, we didn’t even know about 100 years ago. Items we use today, we couldn’t have imagined only 50 years ago. Even since the time this book was published, our resource needs have changed, while improving on the efficiency of materials we’ve been using for many years. Technology and the materials it depends on, is changing at staggering speeds. As a speaker in a business seminar I went to some months ago said, 10 years from now we won’t be able to live without things that haven’t yet been invented today.

The last part of the book deals with a look to the future - what we can do to improve, and how. I noticed a significant difference between their assessment of the future, and those in books like AIT and The Idiot's Guide to Global Warming. The suggestions in these other books were short and tepid, to say the least - recycle, switch to CFL bulbs, take public transportation, etc., while leaving the reader with a decidedly negative, almost hopeless, frame of mind. The authors of Conservative Environmentalism view things much more optimistically, and their much meatier suggestions will actually make real, positive differences in peoples lives; our own and those in Third World nations, who would suffer the most under a world dominated by the "liability culture." In the process of improving our lives, they assert, we will also improve our environment.

In reading the book, I found myself catching some knee-jerk reactions towards many of their claims and statements. After all, I grew up being told that industry is causing massive environmental damage; that we are using up our resources at ever increasing rates, and that things are getting constantly worse, unless we put a stop to greedy, rich capitalists and giant corporations that take advantage of the poor and downtrodden. Even as the years passed and I began to see for myself that much of this is false, I still found myself internally jumping at some of their statements and conclusions. It’s hard to justify such reactions when 1) I’ve seen otherwise for myself and 2) all their claims are promptly backed up with proof.

In conclusion, I found this book to be an enlightening read, even with the older information. I’ve already seen from other sources that many of the trends they describe have continued. This is especially true in increases in forestation in both Canada and the US, and their subsequent increases in wildlife. While the authors are blunt in their negative assessments of today’s environmental leaders, they are clear in stating that most people are just trying to do the right thing, to the best of their knowledge and ability. This book would be, in my opinion, the most difficult for these people to read. The consequences of actions taken by various groups, has lead to incredible hardship, damage and loss of life. To find out one has played a part in supporting those actions, even in a nominal way, would be very difficult. I believe this book amply proves that this is exactly what has happened, and I know it continues to happen today.

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