Thou Shalt Not Prosper

by Don Boudreaux on June 13, 2007

in Environment, Standard of Living

In my latest column in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I challenge the religion of environmentalism.  Here are a few paragraphs:

What we almost never hear from self-proclaimed "environmentalists" is
recognition of the upside of contemporary life. The commerce and
industry that produce all the things that environmentalists
ecstatically despise also produce incredible amounts of wealth, health
and cleanliness — not to mention the leisure necessary for modern
people to reflect upon and enjoy nature.

Also, too many environmentalists condemn people who don’t share their
creed. For example, I don’t recycle my trash because my time is too
precious for me to spend it sorting such items into different
containers. I never criticize those who do recycle, but
environmentalists point accusing fingers at us nonrecyclers. In
environmentalists’ eyes, those who unquestioningly disregard the value
of one resource (time) in order to spend it on the conservation of
other resources (wood, plastic and glass) are righteous while those of
us who value and conserve time are sinners.

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Russ Nelson June 13, 2007 at 8:56 am

We have more to fear from environmentalism than we do from environmental change.

Jon June 13, 2007 at 9:28 am

CO2 makes up les than 1% of the earths atmosphere. I find it hard to be lieve that na infinitesimal increase in it will redically alter the climate of the earth. I'm much more inclined to beleive that sun activity is responsible… nothing like a HUGE ball of fusion to change your climate.

scott clark June 13, 2007 at 9:29 am

Watch where you proclaim your activities as a non-recycler. In Fairfax County, where I live and where I know you at least work, it is illegal not to recycle.

The law is posted on the Fairfax County website; the hilarious part about the law is where it says if you want to know the penalties for breaking the law, please call the county and ask.

As you may have also guessed, I am a flagrant outlaw in my own right.

caveat bettor June 13, 2007 at 9:31 am

I recall my jury duty in NY State Supreme Court from a few years ago, in an employment dispute. A good portion of the jury pool, perhaps a fourth, claimed during voir dire that they could not be objective because they were anti-corporation.

So they gathered up their cell phones, NY Times, and Starbucks coffees and left. People just don't get it

Keith June 13, 2007 at 9:38 am

Environemntalism is a perfect compliment to socialism. Whenever I here somebody complaining about people in poverty or without heath care or some other socialist crusade, I will say "you should go give those people some of your time and money so they can fix that", but that isn't good enough. They aren't happy unless everybody has to give their time and/or money to their cause. With environmentalism, its everybody's problem. Everybody lives in the environment. Everybody has to fix it together.

Horatio June 13, 2007 at 9:48 am


That miniscule fraction of the atmosphere is responsible for ~10% of the greenhouse effect. To first order, small changes in it will result in large changes in temperature. The extent of AGW may be questionable, but the insulating ability of CO2 is well proven.

Methinks June 13, 2007 at 10:26 am


It's worse than that. They aren't happy unless OTHER people give time and money to their cause. Somehow, just believing in the cause is enough to absolve them of responsibility. It's sort of like Soviet Russia or Animal Farm – some people are more equal than others because I said so.

I have two examples from my own life. They aren’t the only two but these are the first to jump to mind.

An avowed socialist/communist university history professor (Russian history, no less!) whom I know is on the city council for his small town. The town wanted to increase funding for a social program the professor supported. To fund it, the council voted to raise taxes on the highest earners in the county. The professor became enraged when he found out his taxes would increase and carried on about how “the rich” should bear the cost. The professor’s compensation puts him in the top 5% of earners in the United States. The professor also doesn’t “believe” in “making money” and, unfortunately passed this “ideal” on to his children who are both well educated and bone idle.

I have another friend who is an environmentalist. Although she is very well educated and has an above normal IQ, she’s pretty radical in her beliefs and doesn’t understand the true expense of the trade-offs she wants people to make. She’s all for restrictive and expensive government regulations that will prevent drilling, emissions, mining, logging, etc. Some “population control” to ease the pressure on Mother Earth is okay with her. She herself has had a couple of kids, drives a gas-guzzler and uses disposable diapers. A more “environmentally friendly” car was considered but she wanted to have the ability to seat more kids than that car would allow. Her opportunity cost is incredibly small but she doesn’t want the inconvenience of the life of drudgery she would impose on others in the name of the environment.

What I’ve learned is that “environmentalist” and “socialist” are usually code words for “dictatorial hypocrite”.

spencer June 13, 2007 at 10:56 am

I would argue that it takes less time to recycle your newspapers then it does to throw them in with the other garbage.

I get three newspapers every day. I have one big basket I put them in and every other week carry out the one basket.

But if I put them in with the other trash bags in the house those bags would fill up more frequently and I would have to empty them much more frequently.

Now, I have not done a time and motion study, but it seems to me I save a lot of my time by keeping my newspapers separate from the start.

Do you have any evidence that not recycling newspapers actually saves you time?

If I had to clean the paper labels off glass bottles it would take more time, but I'm not making claims about recycling other thing.

Vanya June 13, 2007 at 11:23 am


I have a theory that leftists in general, including socialists, environmentalists, and all sorts of other "-ists" often espouse their leftist beliefs of choice to build social capital for themselves (rather than because they've actually thought deeply about policymaking) and that this is a rational, successful strategy on an individual level.

Think about it. You're at a party. Someone brings up the weather. If you say something about global warming, you make yourself look well-enough informed, serious and concerned about the world. You've been noticed, made the right sort of impression, and you didn't have to work very hard or risk saying anything controvercial (because, don't you know, the New York Times has declared that "the debate is over" and all that).

Now imagine, instead, that you're standing next to that person, and you say something about how global temperature fluctuations correlate better with changes in the strength of solar radiation than with atmospheric CO2, and the recent warming on Mars backs that up. People look at you like you're a conspiracy theorist who just said the FBI coordinated 911 to get back at the CIA. (No, bad example, those people might agree with that.)

Anyway, you gain social capital by repeating the familiar, even when it is obviously wrong, and lose social capital when contradicting the familiar, because it makes people uncomfortable. Therefore, if you care about accumulating social capital, it is most rational to parrot familiar liberal trophes to others, and to be seen punishing those who don't.

This behavior, though useful on an individual level, creates problems for everyone else when people get confused and try to actually act on these notions. It's a lot like polluting a stream, actually, the "Tragedy of the Commons" problem. Though it's convenient for you to dump your garbage in the stream, it can get rather nasty when too many people follow suit.

Just look at Europe. I think this happens there a lot, and I think that has a lot to do with why Western European countries so often follow such obviously flawed policies.

Sam Grove June 13, 2007 at 11:29 am

…, but the insulating ability of CO2 is well proven.

In the lab, this seems to be the case, but as an atmospheric component, there is no way to be so certain of CO2's impact vis a vis other gases and factors.

Jon June 13, 2007 at 12:03 pm

There was an interesting interview with one of the founders of greenpeace who has since left the organization where he state that the environmentalist and natural preservation movement have een hijacked by the anti-capitalist movement. Funny how that works eh? Eastern Europe collapses and the socialists can't say that socialism will outproduce capitalism, so thay have to say that capitalism is destroyig the world…

Jon June 13, 2007 at 12:03 pm

There was an interesting interview with one of the founders of greenpeace who has since left the organization where he state that the environmentalist and natural preservation movement have een hijacked by the anti-capitalist movement. Funny how that works eh? Eastern Europe collapses and the socialists can't say that socialism will outproduce capitalism, so thay have to say that capitalism is destroyig the world…

Freemarket June 13, 2007 at 1:02 pm

I support the work of most environmentalists. I view their efforts as an attempt to prevent negative externalities to the environment, a goal economists should embrace. The worst thing to ever happen to the environment is the government subsidy of roads and gasoline. In addition to causing an obscene amount of CO2 to be produced by automobiles, this has ultimately led to unsustainable development outside of cities. Many people think of cities, like Manhattan, as dirty wastelands. However, the density of the population of cities is the best friend of the environment.

Brad June 13, 2007 at 2:00 pm

The latest from California and greenhouse gases, as discussed on a local talk radio show… We recently passes the Governator's bond issue, which is supposed to build infrastructure like freeways and jails for Paris Hilton and her entourage. San Bernadino County (east of Los Angeles) had a plan to build some freeways with some of the money. Our environmentalcase Attorney General Jerry Brown is suing them over the freeway plan because of some obscure assembly bill that just passed. It requires any major construction to account for and mitigate against greenhouse gases. Guess what the 3rd biggest source of greenhouse gases is? Did you guess concrete production? Yep. So basically any human construction activity now screws the earth.

Meanwhile, the head of NASA has to retract a statement of his opinion that while the earth is warming, who are we to decide what the right temperature is?

Fortunately, in 10 years, when we're all not burnt to a crisp, maybe we can wake up and realize that the only way these clowns get any traction is to hate mankind and predict doom and gloom.

Vanya June 13, 2007 at 3:39 pm

Of course, 30 years ago, they told us that we were in for a new killer ice age and global overpopulation. Now it's global warming and population decline. But you see, it's all proven, and very scientific.

Methinks June 13, 2007 at 4:57 pm

Freemarket, since when have we subsidized gasoline and on what basis are you asserting that development outside of densely populated cities is unsustainable?

Methinks June 13, 2007 at 5:06 pm

"Of course, 30 years ago, they told us that we were in for a new killer ice age and global overpopulation."

I vaguely remember that. The over-population issue was especially funny. Part of the claim was that we would not be able to grow enough food to feed the "exploding" population. Of course, if there's not enough food in the world, reproduction will suffer and the population will decline naturally to a sustainable level without mass starvation. And that's assuming that no new agriculture technology increases crop yields.

One of the new ice age suggestions was to drop stuff onto polar ice caps (or glaciers? – don't remember exactly) to melt them. Now they're melting naturally and nobody is happy. I think these people just don't like things to happen without their specific intervention. Engineering at any cost.

Freeemarket June 13, 2007 at 5:40 pm

Methinks- good question. I should have said subsidy of the automobile, not subsidy of gasoline.

Mace June 13, 2007 at 10:14 pm

Ah, California. Where the enviros have 5 kids, drive SUVs, own 3000 sq ft houses, have fancy redwood decks, and loudly proclaim moral superiority over anyone who disagrees with them.

triticale June 15, 2007 at 8:44 pm

Spencer, if you care so much about the environment, why are you getting three newspapers? Especially given the inefficiency of paper recycling (I know of warehouses full that are mildewing) you would do far more good by cancelling your subscribtions and getting your news online.

Brooke June 23, 2007 at 10:57 pm

This is like my mother who claims she is very concerned with the environment. She hates what is happening with off-shore drilling and deforestation. She especially is concerned with global warming. So, one time I asked her what she was DOING about global warming, after all she drives a SUV and her husband drives a fancy really big pickup truck with a backseat. She told me that she recycles and she buys organic food. I told her that if she was really that concerned she should stop using air conditioning when the weather was nice. I told her that the ONLY thing she was doing for global warming, which she is "very" concerned about was directly benefiting herself (buying organic food sure does taste better). When I asked her why she didn't buy a hybrid (because she's VERY concerned) she said because her car was paid off. So then I asked, "Well then what do you think the solution is?" She responded, "We need a big global disaster that eliminated a third of the worlds population, or maybe a nuclear war…"

My mother isn't the most logically person in the world. Just thought I would share…

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