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Earth Day’s Subtle Pollution – Article by Edward Hudgins

Earth Day’s Subtle Pollution – Article by Edward Hudgins

The New Renaissance HatEdward Hudgins

On the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, my high school class traveled to the Mall in D.C. to mark the occasion. Me? I skipped the trip. Instead, I stayed home to watch the crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft return to Earth. My classmates and I had different values. And in the years since, I’ve watched as some of the sub-rosa values of Earth Day have spread to pollute our culture.

save-the-planet-kill-yourselfEarth Day as soft indoctrination

To get the obvious out of the way, it is valid to be concerned about the measurable adverse effects on human health of raw sewage, or toxic waste dumped into rivers, or poisonous factory fumes pumped out to choking lungs. But that concern has metastasized into a cultural hypochondria, a fear that everything created by humans is dangerous and, worse, is dangerous to an abstraction called “the environment” rather than to humans. What happened? For four and a half decades Earth Day has spread a form of soft indoctrination. Every year, school kids cut out little paper trees and leaves, visit recycling plants, watch Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance, and are generally asked by teachers, “What are you doing to help the environment?” Local news reporters visit the Earth Day Greenpeace booths at the town park and interview local politicos or business folks about how they are conserving the planet.

All value is for humans

What’s missing from this picture? Humans! Certainly the messages are mixed. Certainly there is talk about our kids living healthier lives if they are not exposed to carcinogens and the like. But the subtle shift fostered by this annual April ritual is from the material world being of value to humans to the material world being of value in and of itself.

Forests are of value to humans because we can use their trees for lumber for our houses—good for our material well-being—or walk through them to enjoy their beauty—good for our spiritual well-being. But they are not of value in and of themselves. Yet Earth Day has conditioned two generations to anthropomorphize forests, rivers, oceans, and “the environment” as entities with rights apart from us, the conscious valuers. And these two generations are now susceptible to the appeals of the environmental extremists who argue, in essence, that humans are trespassers on the planet. Thus, we see arguments for public policies that would demonstrably harm humans, especially those in less developed countries.

The value of technology and achievement

Worse, an unthinking regard for the environment blinds many to real future challenges and their only solutions. As poorer countries develop higher living standards, they will not be able to consume resources at the rate Western countries did when they were industrializing. New technologies that allow for more efficient and, as a result, less polluting ways to use resources will be essential. Technology is what created cities, skyscrapers, factories, trains, planes, cars, rockets, and most things that radical environmentalists want to curtail. Technologies are achievements of the human mind that, in turn, empower us to achieve more in our lives and in the world.

31st_centuryThis vision of the future is already grating on those who have been poisoned by the subtle extremist message of Earth Day. But the achievements in recent decades in information technology and the emerging achievements in nanotech, biotech, and artificial intelligence are causing many young people especially to shake off the destructive Earth Day ideology. These individuals understand not only that technology will help us meet true challenges to human well-being. They also appreciate that human well-being is the standard of value.

Let’s hope that in the future Earth Day is superseded by Human Achievement Day!

Dr. Edward Hudgins directs advocacy and is a senior scholar for The Atlas Society, the center for Objectivism in Washington, D.C.

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Oil Prices Too Low? – Article by Randal O’Toole

Oil Prices Too Low? – Article by Randal O’Toole

The New Renaissance HatRandal O’Toole

Remember peak oil? Remember when oil prices were $140 a barrel and Goldman Sachs predicted they would soon reach $200? Now, the latest news is that oil prices have gone up all the way to $34 a barrel. Last fall, Goldman Sachs predicted prices would fall to $20 a barrel, which other analysts argued was “no better than its prior predictions,” but in fact they came a lot closer to that than to $200.

Low oil prices generate huge economic benefits. Low prices mean increased mobility, which means increased economic productivity. The end result, says Bank of America analyst Francisco Blanch, is “one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history” as $3 trillion remain in consumers’ pockets rather than going to the oil companies. I wouldn’t call this a “wealth transfer” so much as a reduction in income inequality, but either way, it is a good thing.

Naturally, some people hate the idea of increased mobility from lower fuel prices. “Cheap gas raises fears of urban sprawl,” warns NPR. Since “urban sprawl” is a made-up problem, I’d have to rewrite this as, “Cheap gas raises hopes of urban sprawl.” The only real “fear” is on the part of city officials who want everyone to pay taxes to them so they can build stadiums, light-rail lines, and other useless urban monuments.

A more cogent argument is made by UC Berkeley sustainability professor Maximilian Auffhammer, who argues that “gas is too cheap” because current prices fail to cover all of the external costs of driving. He cites what he calls a “classic paper” that calculates the external costs of driving to be $2.28 per gallon. If that were true, then one approach would be to tax gasoline $2.28 a gallon and use the revenues to pay those external costs.

The only problem is that most of the so-called external costs aren’t external at all but are paid by highway users. The largest share of calculated costs, estimated at $1.05 a gallon, is the cost of congestion. This is really a cost of bad planning, not gasoline. Either way, the cost is almost entirely paid by people in traffic consuming that gasoline.

The next largest cost, at 63 cents a gallon, is the cost of accidents. Again, this is partly a cost of bad planning: remember how fatality rates dropped nearly 20 percent between 2007 and 2009, largely due to the reduction in congestion caused by the recession? This decline could have taken place years before if cities had been serious about relieving congestion rather than ignoring it. In any case, most of the cost of accidents, like the other costs of congestion, are largely internalized by the auto drivers through insurance.

The next-largest cost, pegged at 42 cents per gallon, is “local pollution.” While that is truly an external cost, it is also rapidly declining as shown in figure 1 of the paper. According to EPA data, total vehicle emissions of most pollutants have declined by more than 50 percent since the numbers used in this 2006 report. Thus, the 42 cents per gallon is more like 20 cents per gallon and falling fast.

At 12 cents a gallon, the next-largest cost is “oil dependency,” which the paper defines as exposing “the economy to energy price volatility and price manipulation” that “may compromise national security and foreign policy interests.” That problem, which was questionable in the first place, seems to have gone away thanks to the resurgence of oil production within the United States, which has made other oil producers, such as Saudi Arabia, more dependent on us than we are on them.

Finally, at a mere 6 cents per gallon, is the cost of greenhouse gas emissions. If you believe this is a cost, it will decline when measured as a cost per mile as cars get more fuel efficient under the current CAFE standards. But it should remain fixed as a cost per gallon as burning a gallon of gasoline will always produce a fixed amount of greenhouse gases.

In short, rather than $2.38 per gallon, the external cost of driving is closer to around 26 cents per gallon. Twenty cents of this cost is steadily declining as cars get cleaner and all of it is declining when measured per mile as cars get more fuel-efficient.

It’s worth noting that, though we are seeing an increase in driving due to low fuel prices, the amount of driving we do isn’t all that sensitive to fuel prices. Real gasoline prices doubled between 2000 and 2009, yet per capita driving continued to grow until the recession began. Prices have fallen by 50 percent in the last six months or so, yet the 3 or 4 percent increase in driving may be as much due to increased employment as to more affordable fuel.

This means that, though there may be some externalities from driving, raising gas taxes and creating government slush funds with the revenues is not the best way of dealing with those externalities. I’d feel differently if I felt any assurance that government would use those revenues to actually fix the externalities, but that seems unlikely. I actually like the idea of tradable permits best, but short of that the current system of ever-tightening pollution controls seems to be working well at little cost to consumers and without threatening the economic benefits of increased mobility.

Randal O’Toole is a Cato Institute Senior Fellow working on urban growth, public land, and transportation issues. O’Toole’s research on national forest management, culminating in his 1988 book, Reforming the Forest Service, has had a major influence on Forest Service policy and on-the-ground management. His analysis of urban land-use and transportation issues, brought together in his 2001 book, The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths, has influenced decisions in cities across the country. In his book The Best-Laid Plans, O’Toole calls for repealing federal, state, and local planning laws and proposes reforms that can help solve social and environmental problems without heavy-handed government regulation. O’Toole’s latest book is American Nightmare: How Government Undermines The Dream of Homeownership. O’Toole is the author of numerous Cato papers. He has also written for Regulation magazine as well as op-eds and articles for numerous other national journals and newspapers. O’Toole travels extensively and has spoken about free-market environmental issues in dozens of cities. An Oregon native, O’Toole was educated in forestry at Oregon State University and in economics at the University of Oregon.  

Illiberal Belief #11: The Environment Is Steadily Deteriorating – Article by Bradley Doucet

Illiberal Belief #11: The Environment Is Steadily Deteriorating – Article by Bradley Doucet

The New Renaissance Hat
Bradley Doucet
May 13, 2012

There are plenty of potential sources of concern when it comes to the environment. We are polluting the air we breathe and the water we drink; we are depleting the oceans of fish; we are punching holes in the ozone layer; we are warming the climate to dangerous levels—and all of these problems, we are given to believe, are only getting worse.

Taken together, these worries, along with the ones discussed in more detail above, make up what Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg referred to as The Litany in his controversial(1) 2001 book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. Lomborg plumbs the available data and the environmentalists’ arguments on each of these issues and discovers, to his surprise, that things are not as bad as they are made out to be. Like forest cover, air and water quality are generally improving in the developed world, and have been for decades. The ozone problem had a fairly simple and affordable solution which has been implemented. As for the climate issue, even setting aside the serious uncertainties contained in computer models, it will be much easier for us to adapt to future warming than to try, largely in vain, to prevent it. Our trillions of dollars, Lomborg emphasizes, would be far better spent dealing with more pressing problems like poverty in the developing world—and, he adds, helping the world’s poor climb out of poverty would have the additional benefit of allowing them the relative luxury of caring about and improving the state of their forests and the quality of their air.

We need not choose between improving the environment and alleviating world poverty, for the two categories of problems stem from the same kinds of causes. It is inadequately secure property rights and protectionist trade policies that keep the world’s poor from improving their lot; it is the absence of adequate property rights that threatens the ocean’s fisheries; it is irrational government policies that give polluters the right to pollute and forbid those whose property is polluted from seeking damages; it is government subsidies that lead to the wasteful use of water and other resources. We don’t often hear it in the media, but the solution to global poverty and to the environmental problems that do exist is one and the same: greater economic freedom.

1. Readers who are curious about this controversy are invited to visit to see the debate between Lomborg and Scientific American, and decide for themselves which party is trying to clarify the issues and which is trying to muddy the waters.

Bradley Doucet is Le Quebecois Libré‘s English Editor. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also writes for The New Individualist, an Objectivist magazine published by The Atlas Society, and sings.