Dogmatic environmentalists (I’m referring here to hardcore leftist ideologues, not your average American who accepts the incontestable truth that humans, as a matter of rational self-interest, need to respect and protect the environment that sustains us) tend to be economically obtuse. By that I simply mean: They often seem oblivious to the most elementary economic facts of life.
Economics is about choices and trade-offs. When applied to environmental issues and public policy, the economic question usually, if not always, boils down to the simple question: Will the benefits of this policy be greater than its costs?
Ideological environmentalists, like socialists and other leftists, generally turn a blind eye to costs. The perennially recurring quintessential example of this blind spot is when someone asks, “Can we afford to adopt this particular policy?” and the environmentalist tries to terminate the conversation by asserting, “We can’t afford not to.” What a cop-out! Such an answer ignores the inescapable reality that in this world of ours, wealth is finite. We literally don’t have the assets, time, technologies, etc., to do everything we would like to do, whether in regard to environmental issues or anything else, and so we must choose from among the various possibilities.
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The difficulty here is that while the “benefit should be greater than the cost” principle is easy to state, in practice it can be extremely difficult to make those calculations. That is because costs and benefits are often highly subjective and uncertain. For example, shortly after the Obama presidency began, new Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar revoked 77 oil and gas leases, citing, in one case at least, that the tip of an oil derrick would mar the view of anyone who happened to be standing near the edge of a national park. How much is that view worth? What is its marginal utility, given the abundance of totally natural views that would still be available for those visiting the park?
Thankfully, not every calculation of costs versus benefits is so problematical. One clear trade-off is the one between whether land should be agriculturally developed to provide food for human beings versus whether it should be left as undisturbed wildlife habitat. In an online article in The Christian Science Monitor Daily earlier this month, ecologist David Tilman stated, “We’re eating species’ habitat by the foods we eat, and indirectly causing that habitat to be destroyed.” This is true. Land can’t be both in a natural (i.e., not humanly modified) state and in a cultivated state at the same time. Again, we have the economic imperative: It’s either one or the other, and we must choose.
Personally, if it’s a choice between humans starving or wildlife habitats being brought into cultivation, I’ll choose cultivation. But as an economist who also happens to care about both wildlife and efficiency, I favor agricultural practices that minimize the destruction of wildlife habitation. That means I am not an advocate of organic farming. That does not mean that I favor banning organic farming; my belief in private property and individual liberty causes me to shun such an approach. But what I find absolutely strange, baffling and ultimately hypocritical is that so many self-described “environmentalists” are on the organic food bandwagon.
Here is the problem: In an excellent article in Scientific American earlier this decade, ecologist Christie Wilcox succinctly states that “organic farms produce far less food per unit of land than conventional ones.” (Sadly, by daring to write about some of the other problematical aspects of organic farming, Ms. Wilcox came under blistering attacks by the usual left-wing critics.) The inescapable fact of the matter is that organic farming’s lower productivity means that more land must be converted from wildlife habitat to agricultural uses. Organic farming is destroys more wildlife than more technologically advanced modes of agriculture.
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So, which is more important to you, environmentalists: conserving land to preserve nonhuman species, or eating organic food in the debatable belief that you will be healthier? It’s time to face up to economic reality: You can’t have it both ways. Millions of acres either have to be organic farms or wildlife habitat, so you have to choose. If you choose organic farming, you are valuing your own sense of well-being more than the well-being of other species. Personally, I have no problem with that, but from your point of view, aren’t you being hypocritical? Aren’t you guilty of anthropocentrism and species-ism?
You greens cheer the EPA, FWS and other federal bureaucracies when they persecute homeowners for trivial offenses like building decks in the wrong place and allegedly making it harder for some critter to live. Why don’t you lead by example? You’re willing to have others pay the price to protect other species, but you don’t want to do your part by forsaking habitat-destroying organic farming. Well, that’s no surprise. You lefties have succumbed to “the liberal temptation”: You love do-gooding as long as someone else pays the price. As for me, I’ll eat genetically modified food, save myself a few bucks, and do my part to protect wildlife habitats without infringing on the property rights of others.
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