Are environmentalists afraid of economics?


Author: Daniel Himebaugh

Back in January, we highlighted Robert H. Nelson's book, The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion v. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, which frames some of today's major public policy battles in terms of religious conflict.  While we thought that Nelson might be engaging in hyperbole, we also suggested that his book reveals how refusing to acknowledge economic costs has radicalized the environmental movement.  Now, a new article in the latest special issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, a journal of the Ecological Society of America, seems to support Nelson's theory that contemporary environmentalism is fundamentally averse to economics.

In their article, Four cultures: new synergies for engaging society on climate change, professors Matthew C. Nisbet, Mark A. Hixon, Kathleen Dean Moore, and Michael Nelson call for "multidisciplinary collaborations" to persuade society to address climate change.  The authors argue that scientists working in "relative disciplinary isolation" have been ineffective at forcing societal action on the issue, so the authors propose "a new communication infrastructure," which will be a catalyst for climate change measures that they hope to see.

By "new communication infrastructure," the authors mean a coalition of academics specializing in what they call the "four cultures"–environmental sciences, philosophy and religion, social sciences, and creative arts–that will pool their talents to "achieve a fundamental shift in societal consciousness on climate change" and "re-imagine how we live on Earth."  When it comes to implementing their plan, Nisbet et al. recommend increasing funding from the National Science Foundation for "communication research," and launching "digital news communities and social media sites" focused on "four-culture synergies."

Conspicuously absent from the "four cultures" proposal, however, is any mention of economics.  (No, the authors did not include economics in the social sciences category).  This is a glaring omission, especially if the authors are serious about pioneering workable solutions to climate change.  Neglecting important economic concepts, such as trade-offs and opportunity costs, strikes me as a monumental error if the point is to convince the public that climate change "solutions" (which remain undefined throughout the Four cultures article) can actually be undertaken without destroying the livelihoods of millions of people.

Furthermore, the authors fail to address how–or if–their desired climate change solutions will respect individual rights, such as the right to own and enjoy property, or the right to earn a living.  Last I checked, there is no "environment exemption" in the Constitution.

While I suspect that many people who read Four cultures will applaud the authors' ambitious, though uncomfortably vague, call to action, I think that the authors' neglect for economics and constitutional rights betrays an unreasonable desire for "action" at all costs.  Given the environmental movement's propensity to impose its will through government programs that trample individual rights, I am skeptical that an approach which seeks to publicly fund a "new communication infrastructure" comprised of government scientists, philosophers, religious leaders, and television producers–while lacking any consideration of economics–will produce anything but more costly restrictions on freedom.