Friday, January 19, 2007

Simon's Hoodwinking the Nation

I wrote this piece for my American Environmental Issues class. We read Hoodwinking the Nation through the first chapter, and that's ALL I've read, so some misinterpretation on my part is quite possible. At some later point, I may read the book and do a proper review.

In Julian Simon’s Hoodwinking the Nation, the author argues that the media, politicians, and scientists portray environmental problems in the U.S. and the world as worse than they are, or even invent problems that aren’t really there. This is a bad thing, Simon argues, because it will lead to a distrust of the media – the “boy who cried wolf” phenomenon. It’s obvious from the beginning that Simon’s intention is the discredit the environmental movement. He even compares the environmental movement to the Communist Party, since they were both formed to bring about social change. (For a book that shows how the public’s fears are taken advantage of, that’s a pretty low blow.) Incidentally, the foreword to this book was written by someone from the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank supported largely by industry contributions. I’m not saying that Simon advocates what he does because he’s paid to do so; it’s simply interesting to note the kinds of people who want Simon’s ideas to be known.

I have some serious problems with even the short passage of Hoodwinking that we were assigned – through the first chapter. (There are a number of problems with his interpretation of the science or data, as well as minor logical issues, which I will not address in this journal. This will only cover my problems with his main thesis.) Early in the first chapter, he states, “In the 19th century the earth could sustain only one billion people” (7). He goes on to imply that the increase in human intellect leads to an increase in resources, which can support an ever-larger number of people. Simon doesn’t seem to realize that if the nonrenewable resources of the earth are totally used up, no amount of intellect can get them back. Although he doesn’t make this explicitly clear, Simon believes that the human intellect will be able to solve all of the problems we’re faced with today by developing new technology. In that vein, it’s interesting to note that the American Enterprise Institute (of the book’s foreword) is funded in large part by the auto industry, a sector which for some time has been loath to use technology to improve fuel efficiency despite increasing evidence of global warming and an admitted “addiction” to oil. Maybe they have a secret plan to develop a car that runs on intellect alone?

Simon goes on to show some things that have improved with increased human intellect and economic development. Again, there are several major problems with his argument. First, he doesn’t acknowledge that just because things have improved so far, there may be a limit after which our exploitation of the environment will have consequences. Simon cites almost no scientific literature to support his accusations, and when he does, he practices very selective quotation, only citing studies that say what he wants to hear. In one instance of his irresponsibility towards the science, he points out that in the paper industry, new forests are planted to replace the old ones lost, and new forests are created entirely. Here he misses the point that virgin old-growth forest is a completely different, healthier ecosystem than a former clear-cut young nursery. The second problem with his argument that our relationship with the environment is better than ever has to do with the time scale he’s looking at. Sure, things have gotten better since, say, mid-century – with the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts – but humanity is still having a huge impact on the environment which, in large part, could be avoided with the adoption of new technology.

Although Simon advocates technology as the solution to all our environmental woes, it seems to me that he’s talking about a different kind of technology – technology that would help us cope with the destruction of the ecosystems around us, rather than technology that could help save what ecosystems are left. When I read what Simon has to say, I remember something from Star Wars. I might be making it up, but I’ll continue nonetheless. Do you remember that planet that was basically one giant city? Sure, it’s got a thriving economy and a healthy population – the people of that planet developed technology that allowed them to live like that – but is that really the kind of world we want to condemn our descendants to? Do we want future generations to live in a world where the only nature is the 10 acres of grass and benches that is the municipal park? I certainly wouldn’t want to live in such a world, and I believe we need to do everything we can to prevent that outcome.

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