Environmentalism’s Destructive Path

From an excellent article in New Geography.


“Eighty years ago, the Tennessee Valley region was like many poor rural communities in tropical regions today. The best forests had been cut down to use as fuel for wood stoves. Soils were being rapidly depleted of nutrients, resulting in falling yields and a desperate search for new croplands. Poor farmers were plagued by malaria and had inadequate medical care. Few had indoor plumbing and even fewer had electricity….

“By the 50s, the TVA was the crown jewel of the New Deal and one of the greatest triumphs of centralized planning in the West. It was viewed around the world as a model for how governments could use modern energy, infrastructure and agricultural assistance to lift up small farmers, grow the economy, and save the environment. Recent research suggests that the TVA accelerated economic development in the region much more than in surrounding and similar regions and proved a boon to the national economy as well.

“Perhaps most important, the TVA established the progressive principle that cheap energy for all was a public good, not a private enterprise. When an effort was made in the mid-’50s to privatize part of the TVA, it was beaten back by Senator Al Gore Sr. The TVA implicitly established modern energy as a fundamental human right that should not be denied out of deference to private property and free markets.

“The Rejection of the State and Cheap Energy

“Just a decade later, as Vietnam descended into quagmire, left-leaning intellectuals started denouncing TVA-type projects as part of the American neocolonial war machine. The TVA’s fertilizer factories had previously produced ammunition; its nuclear power stations came from bomb making. The TVA wasn’t ploughshares from swords, it was a sword in a new scabbard. In her 1962 book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson described modern agriculture as a war on nature. The World Bank, USAID, and even the Peace Corps with its TVA-type efforts were, in the writings of Noam Chomsky, mere fig leaves for an imperialistic resource grab.

“Where Marx and Marxists had long viewed industrial capitalism, however terrible, as an improvement over agrarian feudalism, the New Left embraced a more romantic view. Before the arrival of “progress” and “development,” they argued, small farmers lived in harmony with their surroundings. In his 1973 book, Small is Beautiful, economist E.F. Schumacher dismissed the soil erosion caused by peasant farmers as “trifling in comparison with the devastations caused by gigantic groups motivated by greed, envy, and the lust for power.” Anthropologists like Yale University’s James Scott narrated irrigation, road-building, and electrification efforts as sinister, Foucauldian impositions of modernity on local innocents.

“With most rivers in the West already dammed, US and European environmental groups like Friends of the Earth and the International Rivers Network tried to stop, with some success, the expansion of hydroelectricity in India, Brazil and elsewhere. It wasn’t long before environmental groups came to oppose nearly all forms of grid electricity in poor countries, whether from dams, coal or nuclear. “Giving society cheap, abundant energy,” Paul Ehrlich wrote in 1975, “would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.”

“Elaborate justifications were offered as to why poor people in other countries wouldn’t benefit from cheap electricity, fertilizer and roads in the same way the good people of the Tennessee Valley had. Biomass (eg, wood burning), solar and efficiency “do not carry with them inappropriate cultural patterns or values.” In a 1977 interview, Amory Lovins added: “The whole point of thinking along soft path lines is to do whatever it is you want to do using as little energy — and other resources — as possible.”

“By the time of the United Nations Rio environment conference in 1992, the model for “sustainable development” was of small co-ops in the Amazon forest where peasant farmers and Indians would pick nuts and berries to sell to Ben and Jerry’s for their “Rainforest Crunch” flavor. A year later, in Earth in the Balance, Al Gore wrote, “Power grids themselves are no longer necessarily desirable.” Citing Schumacher, he suggested they might even be “inappropriate” for the Third World.

“Over the next 20 years environmental groups constructed economic analyses and models purporting to show that expensive intermittent renewables like solar panels and biomass-burners were in fact cheaper than grid electricity. The catch, of course, was that they were cheaper because they didn’t actually deliver much electricity. Greenpeace and WWF hired educated and upper-middle class professionals in Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg to explain why their countrymen did not need new power plants but could just be more efficient instead.

“When challenged as to why poor nations should not have what we have, green leaders respond that we should become more like poor nations. In The End of Nature, Bill McKibben argued that developed economies should adopt “appropriate technology” like those used in poor countries and return to small-scale agriculture. One “bonus” that comes with climate change, Naomi Klein says, is that it will require in the rich world a “type of farming [that] is much more labor intensive than industrial agriculture.”

“And so the Left went from viewing cheap energy as a fundamental human right and key to environmental restoration to a threat to the planet and harmful to the poor. In the name of “appropriate technology” the revamped Left rejected cheap fertilizers and energy. In the name of democracy it now offers the global poor not what they want — cheap electricity — but more of what they don’t want, namely intermittent and expensive power.”

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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