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Why Environmentalists Sometimes Do More Harm Than Good  
Date: March-13-2000


Why Environmentalists Sometimes

Do More Harm Than Good

Peter Huber believes the environment is too important to be left to the environmentalists, and in his new book "Hard Green," he explains why. Huber adapts his terminology from Amory Lovins, who argued in a widely cited 1976 article that "soft" sources of energy, such as conservation, biomass, solar, wind and low-head hydro were vastly preferable to "hard" sources such as oil, coal, and nuclear. In the spirit of the times, when Americans fumed in long gas lines caused by federal fuel-allocation regulations and Jimmy Carter shivered in the White House rather than turning up the thermostat, Lovins’ message resonated.

But it’s wrong and not merely because the gas lines disappeared as soon as the government stopped causing them. The reason is wrong, Huber says, is that the soft energy sources depend ultimately on capturing solar energy, and solar energy is very diffuse. Maybe we could get enough of it by damming every river and covering the land with wind farms and solar cells and crops we could burn for fuel, but in the process we would destroy much of the natural world and its wild areas we cherish.

Hard power is greener, Huber says, because it extracts more power from less of the Earth’s surface, "Uranium is harder than oil and gas, which are harder than coal, which is harder than biomass, solar, and wind, "Policies that promote soft fuels over hard do not protect the environment, they hasten its destruction." Hard technology shows us to live in three dimensions rather than two, mining for fuel rather than clearing the surface, flying rather than laying down more highways and railroad tracks.

Putting waste back in the ground is just putting carbon back in the Earth, which is, after all, where we get most of it. "Composting food wastes and recycling newspapers are the last thing we should want to do, "Huber says. "The notion that ‘there is no room’ down there is absurd. If we take old carbon out of the ground, we can put new carbon back in. Only two-dimensional thinkers could possibly believe otherwise, in three dimensions, there is always plenty of room."

The irony of the successful campaign to stop construction of nuclear power plants in the United States is that it has led to vastly increased use of coal, which tends to increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But at the same time, the decrease in farmland because hard agricultural technology is so much more productive has meant a huge reforestation of America. Growing trees take carbon out of the atmosphere, so much so that North America is not, on balance, contributing to the worldwide increase.

None of this is what Soft Greens would predict, and Huber’s recurring theme is that grand theories of everything, applied coercively by planners who are certain they know better than anyone else how to save the planet, are likely to go disastrously wrong.

Soft prescriptions tend to be wrong on the small scale too. Saving energy with more efficient appliances doesn’t mean people use less energy "With all that money saved by your gas furnace in the basement, you fly to Aspen for a weekend in the snow."

People adjust, and not always for the better. Low-calorie foods abound, yet people keep getting fatter. "The Diet Coke tastes even better with a double-fudge brownie, and that’s how most dieters drink it." The one thing there is a genuine scarcity of is unspoiled land, and hard technology conserves it.

Huber’s model of conservation is Theodore Roosevelt, not because he liked to shoot animals but because he recognized the importance of unspoiled land that would give the animals room to live and restore the human spirit as well. Roosevelt wrote in 1909, "There are not words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness . . . where the wanderer sees the awful glory of sunrise and sunset in the wide waste spaces of the earth, unworn of man, and changed only by the slow change of the ages through time everlasting."

Hard, not Soft, is the path leading to that green vision.

Linda Seebach, Editorial Writer

Rocky Mountain News

Reprinted by permission from the Denver Rocky Mountain News, appearing on Friday, January 7, 2000 and Scripps Howard News Service


Author: Linda Seebach, Editorial Writer


Source:  Linda Seebach, Editorial Writer



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