Book Synopsis




by Peter Huber
Basic Books (Perseus Books), 1999

In HARD GREEN, SAVING THE ENVIRONMENT FROM THE ENVIRONMENTALISTS, A CONSERVATIVE MANIFESTO, Peter Huber divides the environmentalists into the good guys and the bad guys. The good guys are the hard greens, the bad guys are the soft greens. The hard greens are the conservatives, the soft greens are the liberals, democratic presidental frontrunner Al Gore being the ultimate soft green. Republican Teddy Roosevelt is the ultimate hard green.

Soft greens construct questionable doomsday environmental models in order to justify the regulation of miniscule concentrations of industrial pollutants, called "externals" in this book. The soft greens like regulating insignificant things that have vague effects because it's so hard for the public to tell if the army of regulators is actually doing any good. Hard green conservationists prefer to limit government control to clearly definable reserves such as wilderness areas and limit direct protection to big things that we can easily see like pumas and bison and the peaks at Yosemite rather than less significant things like crayfish and snail darters and halogenated hydrocarbons.

Soft greens seek to reduce energy use through increased government regulation of everything from your car's tailpipe to your refrigerator to the power plant's smokestack, in other words, Soviet style central planning. Hard greens would rather issue pollution permits which industries could sell and trade on the open market, assuming that once a value (and therefore a cost) is attatched to the right to pollute, market pressure will cause industry to find its own ways of decreasing pollution.

Softs have a romanticized, unrealistic view that low tech is better for the environment. Hard greens prefer high tech, big ticket items on the grounds of increased efficiency associated with wholesale energy production. For example, if you shut down your town's nuclear power station and try to heat the same number of homes with wood stoves, you denude your forests in a red hot hurry.

As global population grows, soft greens are forever projecting shortages which they plan to solve with rationing and regulation of resources and a consequent expansion of government. Computer models of huge systems on a planetary scale can't possibly project reliable predictions far into the future, yet soft greens do just that. Hard greens believe that technology has always saved us in the past and will continue to do so. New strains of domesticated plants, new techniques of animal husbandry and yet unimagined advances in genetics will result in the production of more food on less land. Therefore more land can be left wild.

Soft greens want to remove every speck of pollution, no matter how much it costs. Hard greens point to examples like the Exxon Valdez cleanup in which parts of Prince William Sound which were not cleaned up recovered more quickly than beaches whose rocks were steam cleaned. Hard greens claim such cleanups serve only to give soft greens the satisfaction of punishing polluters and that if left alone, mother nature will clean up the mess herself.

Hard greens say that soft green science is very soft indeed. Climatic models are a dime a dozen and the most alarmist ones are the ones that the soft greens embrace. In the last quarter century or so, soft green experts were unanimous in their claim that the wholesale burning of fossil fuels would lead to global cooling. More recently they have become unanimous in their agreement that the wholesale burning of fossil fuels will lead to global warming.

Hard greens say that mandated recycling is misguided and that some day when there really are shortages of some material or other it might make economic sense to mine a landfill in order to get at it. Until then, let our plastic soda bottles and disposable diapers (all made from petroleum) act as our civilization's way of locking away greenhouse gases.

Soft greens are very fond of the genetic diversity represented by the uncontrolled DNA whirlpool of the rainforest. Given that, the hard greens don't understand their objection to genetic engineering experiments, which are controlled and isolated. Soft greens, says Huber, are trying to have it both ways. They trumpet the resilience of a diverse and complex rainforest, but in the same breath say that it is the very complexity of a nuclear reactor that makes it more likely to fail.

True, Chernobyl was a bummer, but Chernobyl melted down because the Soviet system was corrupt and Soviet science was inferior, and by the way the Soviet designs were simpler than ours, not more complex. Collective ownership is in general a very anit-green hoax. If everybody owns the factory then nobody has any incentive to make it more efficient. "Leaks in some [Russian] oil well pipelines spilled as much as ten percent of the nation's production. No money-grubbing capitalist would ever have allowed that to happen."

The latest soft green catastrophe model adopted by Al Gore is the "sandpile model." Imagine the sand piling up in the bottom half of the hour glass. The pile does not build smoothly, but experiences periodic crises, shifts and collapses. According to Huber, bad guy Al Gore buys into this model as a valid metaphor for environmental disruption. Huber asks why we should assume this model instead of one that more closely resembles, for instance, smoothly pouring honey.

The softs say they've made great strides in improving the efficiency of our consumption, but their organic lifestyle is terribly inefficient. To get a volume of milk organically you have to clear more land and raise more cows, each of which will fart greenhouse gases. Therefore, industrial farming makes not only better economic sense, but also better environmental sense.

Projects proposed by soft greens are misguided. They love electric trains which require the acquisition of land and the distant conversion of fossil fuels into electricity while the hard greens would save an energy step and convert the diesel fuel to electric right on the locomotive. Even better, they would fly a plane, which doesn't require land-hungry tracks, or drive a full minivan, which is more fuel efficient per passenger than a half-full train.

The frugality of the soft greens gets us nowhere, Huber asserts. The rise in consumption of energy has been steady pretty much the whole century. Money you save with your energy-efficient fridge will be spent on a ski trip to Aspen along with the energy required to get you there in the same way that dietary calories saved with a diet soda will be made up with a fudge brownie. The only thing that really works in the green sense is long green. Wealth. Environmentalism is a luxury. The poor third world farmer has to slash and burn the rain forest to make a field so he can earn a living. The mountain gorillas and elephants were on their way out until the fat Americans showed up with their tourist dollars. And by the way, it's in the poor third world countries that you see people recycling voluntarily and enthusiastically, picking through dumps for usable scraps. Wealth is green. Frugality is not.

Takings by government are anathema to hard greens. The idea that a spotted owl should stand in the way of lumberman making a living is against the biblical imperative when God gave Noah dominion over nature at the end of the flood. Any species that doesn't make it because of humanity's development is simply less fit (in the Darwinian sense of "survival of the fittest"), and this is simply proof of the superiority of our species; and the current wave of mass extinctions should be viewed not as an ecological disaster, but as validation of our right to rule.

Living off the land, as the soft greens would have us do, requires that we draw resources from the surface (like firewood) rather than from beneath it (like coal). The hard greens say that using fossil fuels effectively places the environmental damage harmlessly underground. And as for the crybabies who holler that we're releasing dangerous amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, remind them that the CO2 levels over the ocean on the west coast of North America are actually higher than the CO2 levels over the ocean on the east coast of North America. Apparently North America is absorbing more greenhouse gases than it's emitting.

So there.

Your Host comments:

The Prologue contains long passages that read like this.

"Normal politicians certainly know how to waste money, but only so much. It may or may not make sense to mine coal on the Kaiparowits Plateau, but we surely get some real benefit from choosing not to. And unlikely as it may sound in these cynical times, the political resolve behind the decision not to may help enrich us, too. Disney would operate Yellowstone just fine, but designating it a national park helped define a nation Americans could call great. Nothing equivalent happens with our micro-environmental resolutions, because there are no resolutions, none ordinary Americans can latch onto; there are just programs, staffs, offices, and legions of lawyers. The only thing ordinary Americans may dimly realize is that somewhere deep in the EPA it has been deemed wise to spend more digging up an industrial park in New Jersey than ever was spent conserving a forest in the Adirondacks."

After reading these impenetrable strings of unrelated sentences. The reader becomes frustrated and turns to the last chapter to read the author's conclusions. In the opening paragraph he reads, "The hurried reader who has skipped directly to this chapter need not in fact plow through all the others."

I can think of only one reason a writer might tell me not to read the first ten chapters of his book. It's all garbage and the author knows it and is ashamed of it. He's afraid somebody like me will come along, actually READ the whole thing, and blow the whistle on the fact that, as attractive as his conclusions might be, they are pretty much unsupported by the first 200 pages.

If you do read this book in its entirety you'll be subjected to every cheap rhetorical trick yet devised to try to jam a point of view down a reader's throat. You'll see the xenophobic argument, the nationalist appeal, the demonization of the opposition, the biblical argument, the ad hominem attack, the misrepresentation of your opponent's point of view, the straw man, the selective example, semantic sleight-of-hand and loads and loads of grad-school vocabulary and gymnastic syntax designed to baffle rather than clarify.

Here are a couple of examples:

AD HOMINEM ATTACK: Rather than limit his discussion to a contest of ideas, Huber simply insults people who disagree with him. From page 193: "Some Soft Greens who have made cameo appearances in this book recycle their wives as readily as they recycle their glass bottles."

XENOPHOBIC ARGUMENT: Page 175 implies that soft green policies will lead to Washington taking orders from foreign powers. "What they really meant [by 'think globally - act locally'] was think through the big computer model, act through the big regulatory agency, enlist the federal government, coopt the United Nations, convene in Kyoto, prescribe from the top down...."

DEMONIZATION OF THE OPPONENT: Page 173. "Stalin and Hitler had their sweeping future-history facts, and even a vaguely proto-green vocabulary ('racial purity,' 'lebensraum') to go with them."

MISREPRESENTING THE OPPOSING POINT OF VIEW: On page 164 Huber is discussing Al Gore's statement that life has "inherent value" and as such deserves to be preserved. Huber interprets this to mean that Gore believes any animal's life to be the moral equivalent of any human life. Huber writes, "Al Gore doesn't get into any very fine balancing here; he doesn't openly say we might on some specific occasion trade the life of a child for the life of a kangaroo rat. But that is the direction of things. What else can 'inherent value' mean?"

SEMANTIC SLEIGHT OF HAND: On page 183, "We should revere life on Earth not because we fear catastrophic failure but because life is a good that requires no further justification." This is exactly the same as saying that life has "inherent value," which in the above example he twisted into something sinister.

AD HOMINEM ATTACK: Several times Huber calls Al Gore a "wonk." It's a disparaging term for either an effeminate man or a bookworm, depending on whether you live in Australia or the U. S. I spent $26 on this book to examine the reasoning behind the conservative environmental policy, thinking I would get the benefit of the author's MIT education. He writes that Gore is a wonk. This kind of childish name-calling should be beneath the dignity of anybody purporting to write a "manifesto." I don't think Jefferson used the word "doofus" even once in the Declaration of Independence.

I CAN'T BELIEVE WHAT I'M READING: Page 79. Huber writes that we can adapt to a world without an ozone layer. "As for the geophysical environment, our bodies undoubtedly are adapted to the conditions in which our ancestors evolved. But those same ancestors adapted to the Rift Valley and the Himalayas, to sub-Saharan Africa and the Arctic, too, which is to say, to a wide range of background radiation, ultraviolet light, oxygen, and ozone. And here, too, technology improves on nature, readily shielding us from environmental variation and excursion, as it has since man mastered fire. The idea enrages the Softs, but not the Hards: People can indeed wear dark glasses and suntan lotion if they must. They already do."

THE STRAW MAN: Page 63. Huber posits the cow as the model of natural perfection for the soft greens and then proves that cows are not ecologically green at all due to the large amounts of grazing land cleared to graze them and the enormous clouds of greenhouse gases which they poot. And with that he proves that soft greens are addle pated. Trouble is it's Huber, not the granola-heads who decided that the cow was the model for the soft greens. In this way the author can attack an easy target whether it belongs to the opposition or not.

GETTING IT WRONG: Page 53. Huber doubts that living systems behave in the stop and start way of a collapsing sandpile. He finds the metaphor arbitrary. There is, however, plenty of scientific evidence that living systems do go through long periods of apparent stability until environmental pressures build up and cause a sudden shift to another relatively stable situation. When I was in college we called the phenomenon "punctuated equilibrium." It's in any textbook that deals with evolution. Not hard to find at all.

GETTING IT WRONG: Page 105. Huber suggests preferentially exploiting fossil energy resources in the deserts and tundra rather than in the swamps and forests, reasoning that since there was less environment in desert and tundra, there would be less environmental damage. I imagine that oil will be extracted from pretty much wherever it's found, regardless of the terrain. In any case, desert and tundra, because they grow so slowly, are actually more fragile and slower to recover from ecological disturbances than forest or swamp.

I CAN'T BELIEVE WHAT I'M READING: Page 49. Speaking of nuclear reactors and the probability of accidents in complex versus simple designs: "Complexity, it turns out, can hide good news as easily as it hides bad. It is true that what we don't know may kill us. But what we don't know may save our lives, too.... Alarms and containment systems can perform unexpectedly badly, and sometimes do. They can also perform unexpectedly well and often do.... There is simply no law, no engineering principle, no rule of thumb that requires all surprises to be bad ones." He seems to be saying that trusting our luck is as good a way as any to deal with the possibility of catastrophic failure of a nuclear power plant.

BIBLICAL AUTHORITY: Page 80. "After the flood, God directs Noah to 'subdue' creation, to take 'dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.' Today, we can think of nature as benign only because we have obeyed that one command so very faithfully. We have no more practical reason to conserve nature than we have to conserve cows. We can subdue at will and replenish at will too, with transgenic mice and cloned sheep. The fear of us, the dread of us, is upon every living creature that dwells on Earth." No comment necessary.

TRYING TO HAVE IT BOTH WAYS: Huber distrusts big government, but recommends putting more wilderness land under government control.

Believe it or not, Huber does put forward a good idea here and there, but it's hard to sort them out of the faulty reasoning and inflammatory rhetoric. There are three editors named in the acknowledgements, but I have a hard time believing this book was in any way edited. Doubtless nobody was ever actually expected to read the book cover to cover.

Look, it's an election year. Al Gore has thus far pretty successfully painted himself as the one and only environmentalist candidate. HARD GREEN strikes me as a cynical attempt to come up with an impressively credentialled writer to take some pot shots at Gore and try to let some of the air out of his campaign balloon. With this work, the author assumes the role of party line parrot. HARD GREEN not to be taken as a serious attempt to develop a sensible environmental policy.


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