No, the Sky Is Not Falling

Tuesday, January 30, 2001

The story is that Einstein was a late talker as a young boy. Naturally, his parents were worried. Then one evening he broke into speech with “The soup is too hot.“ His parents were greatly relieved but asked him why he had not spoken until that time. The answer came back, “Until now, everything was in order.”

Much of modern environmental discourse seems to proceed from similar premises. We’re told that the environment was in good order, until quite recently. Then—most probably in the early years of the Reagan administration—things began to go terribly wrong. So wrong that, among many other doleful trends, the planet itself is now growing too hot. And things will only get worse. Elaborate computer models—audacious enough to project forward a full century and more—inform us that the future is bleak. The details may not be entirely clear, but the larger direction of things sure is. By the year 2100, the global environment will be in much worse shape than it is today.

Or will it?

Back to the Future

Let’s rewind the clock. Let us hand these same elaborate computer models to Teddy Roosevelt, on September 14, 1901, the day he enters the White House. Let us picture him hunched in front of his PowerMac, with mainframes on the LAN behind, fully armed with our own powers of analysis and prediction. And let us now invite T. R. to predict the coming environmental century—the twentieth century—from where American society stands on the day he assumes office.

From the time of the Pilgrims until 1920, our human footprint on the continent steadily expanded while the forests and the wilderness steadily retreated. And then, some time around 1920, we reversed course. For the last 80 years or so, our footprint has been steadily shrinking.

What do our models tell T. R.? They tell him that the outlook is terrible. As bad as it is today? No, much worse.

In 1901, much of the energy economy is still centered in wood or what remains once the wood has been cleared—pasture. The continent has lost well over 100 million acres of forest since the first settlers arrived, and the forests are receding fast. Horses are the main source of motive power, and one-third of our agricultural land is devoted to feeding them. Directly or indirectly, forests—or the pastures they give way to—are the primary source of almost all our fuel, all our horsepower. (If this all sounds like ancient history, it is—for America. As it happens, however, this is pretty much what the present still looks like in much of the developing world today.)

Yes, in 1901 we also have the railroads, and they run on coal, not wood. But even here, there is a gargantuan appetite for wood for railroad ties. One of the main reasons T. R. advances in 1905 for expanding the national forests by 100 million acres is the need to ensure future supplies of wood for the building of more railroads.

Since 1920, the United States has returned a huge amount of land to forest–somewhere between 20 and 140 million acres.

And what do our climate models tell T. R.? Must he call for an immediate end to the internal combustion engine? He can’t. Henry Ford’s first Model T won’t even roll off the assembly line for another seven years. The “internal combustion” engine that T. R. must worry about is the second stomach of a horse. As a machine for converting forest to pasture to power, the horse performs very poorly, at least from the perspective of the forest. It requires a lot of pasture. And it emits huge quantities of methane, which (as it happens) is a greenhouse gas some 25 times worse than carbon dioxide.

Finally, if the quadrupeds don’t alarm T. R. enough, the bipeds will. The average American woman in 1901 gives birth to more than five children. In his save-the-planet moments, T. R. can take some comfort in the fact that infant mortality is still dreadfully high. But his models must inform him that, as the nation grows wealthier, many more children will survive to adulthood and have children of their own.

All in all, T. R. must therefore project for a century hence at least 600 million people on the North American continent, a continent utterly denuded of all its forests, and a planet perhaps 5ºC (or more) hotter.

An Environment Saved by Technology

But things didn’t work out quite that way. Beginning about 1920 and continuing to this day, we have witnessed instead a magnificent environmental renaissance—the massive reforestation of the Adirondacks and much of America’s northeastern forests. And with the return of the forests has come the return of bears, cougars, and moose.

What happened? Did we simply shift our logging to the forests of the Pacific Northwest? Some of it, yes. But the numbers for the country as a whole are very heartening, too. Since about 1920, the United States has returned a huge amount of land to forest—somewhere between 20 and 140 million acres. For purposes of comparison, all our cities, roads, suburbs, all the places where we actually live and work and drive, occupy about 60 million acres. For the last 80 years or so, now, our human footprint on the continent—the amount of wilderness we directly displace with our cities, farms, and coal mines—has been steadily shrinking.

There can be little serious doubt that many of the technologies that the modern green establishment criticizes most vehemently have in fact been critically important in saving the wilderness and reforesting the continent.

This represents a fundamental reversal of trends that prevailed for the prior three centuries. From the time of the Pilgrims until 1920, our human footprint on the continent steadily expanded while the forests and the wilderness steadily retreated. And then, some time around 1920, we reversed course.

The story—at least in my telling of it—gets even better. The prevailing winds blow west to east across North America. Today, on the continent itself, we burn enough fossil fuel to release some 1.6 billion metric tons of carbon into the air each year. Yet—as best we can measure these things directly—carbon dioxide levels drop as you move across the continent. They are lower in the mid-Atlantic than in the mid-Pacific.

So—to put the question again—what happened? Let me frame the answer as provocatively as possible: the wilderness was saved by the technologies and fuels that the modern green establishment is doing its utmost to tax, curtail, and ultimately abolish.

It comes down to this: what has changed since 1920 is that we transformed our economy from 40 acres and a mule to 4 acres and a fossil fuel. We moved from energy and construction materials derived from wood to modern counterparts extracted from deep in the earth. We moved from two-dimensional technologies that spread humanity out across the surface, across the wilderness, to three-dimensional technologies with which we extract most of our materials, energy, and wealth from the sterile depths. The most important single component of the change? We stopped growing our energy and instead learned to dig most of it out of the ground.

Today, our main remaining use of the surface is agriculture. We use six acres of farm and eight of range for every one acre of city, suburb, and highway. But those acres have been shrinking dramatically too—we cultivate about the same total amount of land as we did 100 years ago, even as we produce four times as much food. How?

Fossil fuels made possible rapid, long-distance transportation. This let us move our farms from comparatively bad soil and climate—near to where we live—to good soil and climate at a much greater distance. Our farmers didn’t trade one acre of Adirondacks for one acre of prairie, they traded five for one. For the wilderness as a whole, that was a very good trade.

Per-acre yields have also been substantially increased by the intelligent use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. There may be some adverse effects, but the raw numbers are beyond serious dispute. And there’s an excellent chance, again, that for the wilderness as a whole the overall exchange was very favorable indeed.

To illustrate the positive impact of technology on the environment, consider this example: T. R. gives a speech in 1905, explaining to Americans that they need to conserve national forests to ensure adequate supplies of wood for the future building of railroads. That same year, however, railroad companies begin coating their ties with creosote, stopping the termites. The chemical preservative triples the ties’ lifespans, which effectively slashes the demand for wood in that context by two-thirds. In the decades since, wood preservatives and termite eradication have done far more to save forests in America than, say, the recycling of newspapers.

We could trace a whole raft of comparable environmental impacts from pesticides, preservatives, food irradiation, plastic packaging, and (most recently) genetic engineering. They can all have comparable effects: they sharply reduce losses along the food chain, from farmer’s field to dining room table, with commensurate reductions in agricultural sprawl. When horses and grasshoppers eat less of our food, we use fewer acres to grow it.

None of this means we should use pesticides recklessly. It does mean that we have to think very hard about acres and how they get saved—or risk condemning the very technologies most instrumental in saving them. And at the end of day, there can be little serious doubt that many of the technologies that the modern green establishment criticizes most vehemently have in fact been critically important in saving the wilderness and reforesting the continent.

The most efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Halt deforestation. The best way to halt deforestation? Improve agricultural efficiency by applying modern technology, which would allow us to grow more food on less land and leave more land for reforestation.

Once one grasps what has been happening to land use and forest cover on the continent, it is much less surprising to come across direct measurements that suggest that North America is sinking more carbon than it emits. It’s not too hard to guess where all that carbon is going—into new trees, new underbrush, new soil, and new carbon-rich landfill. It is going back into the earth. One soda can’s worth of carbon, back into every square yard of surface, every year. Enough, apparently, to sink back into the ground all the carbon we mine and drill out of it.

Can carbon sinking continue forever? Of course not. Nothing continues forever. But the massive deforestation brought about by our grandparents and great-grandparents has left enormous amounts of room for reforesting. Another doubling and redoubling of our agricultural productivity—readily imaginable with the power of genetic engineering now at hand—could free up a great deal more space for forest and wilderness. In the Third World, which is still deforesting, the opportunities are even larger. Simply halt the deforestation, and we’d cut greenhouse emissions by almost 30 percent. Reverse it—begin reforesting—and for a good long time you can stop net greenhouse emissions completely.

The Wealth-Growth Paradox

Until quite recently, humanity’s advance meant retreat for the wilderness. The surface—land, river, and shallow coastal waters—supplied all our food, building materials, and fuel. The more we grew, the more land we seized. And the more the wilderness retreated.

For much of this century, however, that process has been reversed. That is the fundamental paradox of growth and wealth. With the past century’s hard technologies, economic growth has not ended up consuming more land, it has ended up consuming less. If all wealth came from the surface, this would have been impossible: expanding the economy would inevitably mean shrinking the wilderness. But wealth doesn’t have to come from the surface, and for most of this century, it hasn’t—not in America. Hard technology has severed the link between wealth and land. Poorer countries, by contrast, remain horrible at conservation because they don’t have, and can’t afford, the technology that has allowed us to escape our dependence on the surface.

Something even more profound went wrong with the population models we set before T. R. in 1901. We don’t have 600 million people in the United States. And we aren’t likely to, unless they arrive from other countries. Putting aside the effects of immigration—a zero-sum game—the total fertility rate (roughly, the average number of children born per woman, per lifetime) in more developed regions (like ours) has fallen to 1.6 today—almost 25 percent below the replacement rate.

The direction of things is now the same in developing countries as they grow wealthier. The fertility rate in India today is lower than the American rate in the 1950s. Fertility rates in most sub-Saharan African nations are falling steadily. If the trajectories of rising global affluence and falling fertility stay on their present courses, world population—about 6 billion today—will peak at about 10 billion in 2050, then will start shrinking.

Wealth, in short, seems to be very effective in curtailing fecundity. Nobody knows exactly why, but the correlation is much too strong to question. The poor reproduce as Malthus said they would—as fast as they can—and pay a fearful price in the high mortality and dismal prospects of their offspring. They are “inefficient” here, if such a cold-hearted word can be used to describe child mortality. The rich secure their genetic posterity through quality, not quantity.

Wealth, then, is the best answer to the sprawl of the human genome. Green is what people become when they feel personally secure, when their own appetites have been satisfied, when they do not fear for the future or for their own survival or their children’s. It is wealth that gives ordinary families the confidence to be generous to the world beyond. It is the rich who can afford poverty, so to speak. It is they who can declare enough, enough, I need no more; it is now time for me to grow things other than myself. It is the rich who can be thin because they know they will always have plenty to eat. It is the rich who can cherish the wilderness because they no longer have to choose between their own survival and nature’s.

Conservative Environmentalism: Teddy Roosevelt’s Legacy

That was certainly T. R.’s view of things. He was a wonderfully intuitive and spontaneous politician, of course, but his environmentalism was clearly anchored in an abiding (if patrician) love for unspoiled nature. He loved hunting, loved the outdoors. He recognized that private ownership wasn’t conserving the wilderness spaces he cherished. So he set about addressing the problem with boundless enthusiasm and energy. And the fact is, a hundred years later, the conservation movement probably owes more to this maverick Republican than to any other president before or since.

T. R.’s “environmentalism” was mainly about land, wilderness, and the great outdoors. The modern green establishment, in contrast, is preoccupied with microscopic and long-term, diffuse effects on large populations and their quantification by means of large computer models. It is T. R.’s political legacy that conservatives should be reclaiming today, for purely practical political reasons, to begin with. The wilderness-centered environmentalism that T. R. stood for is more popular than ever, especially in the politically critical West.

But conservatives can get beyond that kind of cynical calculation and should. The logic for a government role in wilderness conservation is easy to square with a political perspective that strongly favors free market forces in other arenas. Private conservation is important. But at some point the vastness of the Adirondacks, the Everglades, of river archipelagos and coral reefs—the sheer scope and scale of the most ambitious conservation objectives—requires a reach to match.

More fundamentally, wilderness is perhaps the most unusual “good” one can imagine in economic discourse: wilderness is, by definition, what’s out there before the economists arrive, before the property lines are drawn and the fences erected. Markets can’t produce what we value because it’s not packaged, traded, bought, or sold, because it’s spontaneous, open, and free.

This is also one area where conservatives can allay some of our deepest fears about the ineptitude of “big government.” The central objective of wilderness conservation, after all, is to ensure that in some places, nothing much is done at all. Nothing is the one thing that big government is capable of doing quite well. Even conservatives can believe in government’s ability to do that. T. R. certainly did.

Finally, conservatives can perhaps comfortably affirm that a place like Yellowstone National Park helps define what it is to be an American citizen. I’m quite sure that by any standard ecological metric that naturalists might come up with, Disney could run Yellowstone better than the National Park Service does. I suppose Disney could give us a better flag and a better national anthem, too. But still, it wouldn’t be the same, and I think conservatives should be comfortable saying that.

But the question then arises: How much political space do such views then leave between the new T. R. (whoever he may turn out to be) and, say, the old Al Gore? The answer, as I have attempted to show, is quite a bit. There remain strong, indeed fundamental, differences about how concrete, practical policies and technologies are likely to advance the kind of environmentalism that T. R.—equipped only with a monocle, not a PowerMac—so clearly understood and so passionately embraced.