George Reisman on Environmentalism

I recently published an article in the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics which was critical of the work of one George Reisman on the subject of resource economics. Professor Reisman has been kind enough to respond to my article, and although I thank him for taking the time to reply, I find his response rather unconvincing. This article is a rejoinder to his criticism, and will show that his response has both reinforced my original arguments and misunderstood certain claims I made.

I apologize in advance for the length of this response, which is greater than I first anticipated. I pondered whether I should take the time to write it, but given that Professor Reisman does not believe in opportunity costs, I could not justify a lack of reply on the grounds that I had more important matters to deal with. I encourage interested readers to read both my original paper and Reisman’s response, which will reveal that the tone of my article was fair and respectful. I leave it to the reader to determine if Reisman’s response was equally congenial.

Reisman’s response consists mostly of a series of quotations from his book Capitalism, which he claims undermine my criticism. I will show that they do anything but. I would also like to address some of the larger concerns Reisman raises in his introduction and conclusion, which will serve to highlight important confusions.

To begin, Reisman has been quite selective in his summary of my paper. The original article contains a series of arguments regarding Reisman’s theory of resource economics (or lack thereof). Reisman’s response addresses only the last and least important of these criticisms. Interestingly, nowhere in his response does he quote the title, “Five Erroneous Ways to Argue About Resource Economics,” which by itself would show the reader that there is much more to my argument than Reisman admits.

Furthermore, in an attempt to defend himself, Reisman does not shy away from drawing extraordinary inferences from my argument:

Mr. McCaffrey simply ignores these passages [from Capitalism], the statements they quote, the proof of the existence of the statements, and the logical argument demonstrating the applicability of the statements quoted to the whole of the environmental movement insofar as it proceeds on the premise of nature’s intrinsic value. Instead, he arbitrarily decides that statements that demonstrate the actual nature of environmentalism are simply to be disregarded, allegedly representing mere “exaggeration for literary and pedagogical effect” (p. 139). In effect, he argues, they’re only a kind of joke, not meant to be taken seriously. In this way, he gives environmentalism a free pass, as it were, on its expressions of a desire for mass human death and of enjoyment at the prospect of human terror. He then claims that he’s left looking for a “footprint” of something that in his mind does not exist for no other reason than that he’s decided to ignore its existence.

Even in these lines, there is a complete misinterpretation of my clear meaning. Reisman says that “to exaggerate for literary and pedagogical effect” implies: (a) that this exaggeration is “some sort of joke,” and (b) that it implies that I give environmentalism a “free pass.” Neither of these follows at all from my statement: the inferences have been invented out of thin air. And as an example of my “arbitrary” decision to dismiss some environmentalist claims, Reisman quotes Muir’s benediction to alligators as proof of environmentalism’s desire to destroy humanity: ‘Honorable representatives of the great saurians of older creation, may you long enjoy your lilies and rushes, and be blessed now and then with a mouthful of terror-stricken man by way of a dainty!’ Has Reisman not considered that this might be an attempt at verse by Muir, and an example of exaggeration (as I originally pointed out in my paper)? It is quite clear that it is Reisman who is choosing not to see the hyperbole here.

And I do not give environmentalism any sort of free pass, even pointing out that Reisman’s conclusions might often be true (2012, p. 139). While there indeed is a strong case to be made against environmentalism, the point is that Reisman has not made it. He does not seem to understand that a case against environmentalism that is not also of his own design is even possible, and assumes that anyone who disagrees with him must perforce be an environmentalist reprobate.

I should also note that I cite with much approval Robert Nelson’s 2010 book The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion Versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, which carefully and consistently unpacks the beliefs of the environmental movement and exposes many problems in its reasoning (I also quote several other sources critical of the broad tenets of environmental economics). The conclusion of this book, with which I am in agreement, is that environmentalism is a confused and often contradictory secular religion. Nelson actually makes a case for his claims; Reisman pronounces them ex cathedra. Reisman would like to believe that I refuse to see problems with environmentalism, when in fact, what I see are problems with his presentation of it. Attempts to derail my argument through guilt by association are doomed to failure.

Let me now set up Reisman’s specific criticism of my paper. Throughout his response, Reisman quotes the following passage from my article:

[W]hen discussing all the hatred and vitriol which supposedly flows from the environ­mental movement, Reisman’s claims are rarely substantiated with textual evidence. We must simply take Reisman at his word when he states that the environmental movement believes this or that. Even worse, we are not even given criteria to judge the relative weight of any reference Reisman makes to the environmental literature. But surely a movement that is responsible for ‘the creation of a horde of hysterical bumpkins in the midst of modern civilization’ (1996, p. 79) should have left behind some records which would (even implicitly) indicate their designs. Environmentalism must have left some sort of, if I may be allowed a happy word, ‘footprint’ (pp. 137-38).” [Internal quotation is from Reisman (1996)]

This problem is about rhetorical devices and setting high standards for academic argument, both topics which, while important, are far less so than the problems of economic theory which form the body of my paper. However, even when attempting to pick the low-hanging fruit, so to speak, Reisman stumbles and his response is quite off the mark. My point in the above is twofold: first, to point out that any claims about the beliefs of opponents must be substantiated by references to their own writing (also important is charitable interpretation). Second, we must have some sort of criteria for establishing which individuals or statements may be taken as representative or relatively more important; this is especially true when we deal with a large and heterogeneous group like “environmentalists.” Otherwise we risk constructing straw men. These points should be obvious, and they appear plainly in the above quotation. Reisman, however, does not seem to have grasped them.

Throughout the quotations in his response, he continuously falls into one problem or the other. I begin with the problem of the lack of citations. Even though Reisman’s generous self-citations are mostly unrelated to my original argument, I have no problem extending the argument to the other passages as well. Consider some of his examples which supposedly show the weakness of my criticism (and the moral poverty of environmentalism). These passages, Reisman argues, “are replete with verified references to statements by prominent environmentalists. They also contain a fundamental logical argument demonstrating implicit endorsement of those statements by everyone who accepts the basic environmentalist premise of an intrinsic value of nature.”

However, the first three paragraphs Reisman cites (from 1996, p. 81) are presented without citation, which was the thrust of my initial criticism. Reisman thinks I dismiss “these passages, the statements they quote, the proof of the existence of the statements, and the logical argument demonstrating the applicability of the statements quoted to the whole of the environmental movement insofar as it proceeds on the premise of nature’s intrinsic value.” But none of these things are present in the quotations, as any reader of Reisman’s book can easily see. There are no citations, no substantiation of the claims. Reisman responds by doing exactly what I claimed he was doing in the first place.

The same problems appear in the last group (the last seven) of Reisman’s quotations, which I will not quote, but are easily available for inspection. These passages contain many vague claims about spotted owls, wolves, rattlesnakes, and so on, but no discussion of any of these specific conflicts, no word from environmentalists about when they might value particular things one way or another. They are presented as examples of the idiocy of environmentalism (and counterexamples to my original paper), but as usual we have nothing to go on except Reisman’s word that these events happened, and that they happened as he said, and that the environmentalists believe this or that. In all this, one New York Times article is seriously inadequate as source material. Throughout, the refrain is the same: Reisman says environmentalists believe in the intrinsic value of nature, therefore all environmentalists believe in it, therefore all environmentalists hate life, despise man, and wish for humanity’s extinction. It is astounding that one could believe that any of these propositions follows from the others.

The second problem I pointed out was the problem of representation. Reisman quotes, but largely ignores, my point that, “we are not even given criteria to judge the relative weight of any reference Reisman makes to the environmental literature.” How do we know from Reisman which are the “serious” sources on environmentalism and which are simply the remarks of irrelevant or misguided individuals who are not representative of the group as a whole (which, as I pointed out, is not homogeneous)? This point goes unmentioned, even in one partly successful counterexample. But to acknowledge it would undermine Reisman’s response, by showing that I criticized not just the absence of citations, but the quality and representativeness of the citations that are used.

Rather than consider this objection, Reisman instead seems to take my paper to mean that there are no citations or evidence whatsoever in his book, which is not what it says. Furthermore, Reisman treats my argument as applying to every passage in his book. He thus carefully avoids answering any of my objections: he uses general arguments in response to unrelated specific points, and uses specific examples to respond to general summaries. In fact, he only quotes the summary claims I make, as if they were the entire substance of my argument, avoiding my narrower claims about the lack of references in his work, such as the following:

Reisman believes himself to be paraphrasing the tenets of environmentalism, but extraordinary claims, large paragraphs, even entire sections appear without any citation to the environ­mental literature. For instance, a section titled “The Alleged Pollution of Water and Air and Destruction of Species” contains no citations to any environmental writings. Another, “The Envi­ronmental Movement’s Dread of Industrial Civilization,” contains only one citation to an opposing author (Carl Sagan). The citation in question merely lists some of the more dangerous environmental effects of the industrial revolution, and their possible long-term costs in terms of human health, a citation which does not actually support the ambitious section title by stating the position of Reisman’s opponents. These sorts of references do nothing to expose us to the “Pathology of Fear and Hatred” which allegedly characterizes the environmental movement. When citations do appear, they are often taken from the popular press, precluding the possibility that they might represent a sustained, systematic presentation of the environmental movement’s principles. (McCaffrey, 2012, p. 139)

This is the actual claim I made, and the one which goes unanswered by Reisman. It is a significant portion of this section of the paper, and cannot be divorced from the part Reisman cites. But Reisman does not respond to it, choosing instead to look elsewhere for counterexamples, in a section I did not accuse of falling into the insufficient evidence trap (although it does, as I point out).

The passage Reisman cites is a summary of these individual points (and others made in the same section of my article). But Reisman responds as if I claimed he never cited a source, as if to destroy my argument it is sufficient simply to show that he uses some references on environmentalism. Nothing could be further from the truth. This type of response does not begin to touch on the specifics of my argument. It merely attacks a straw man.

The next sample he provides, including a footnote, is the closest Reisman comes to actually addressing my argument:

While it is not necessary to question the good inten­tions and sincerity of the overwhelming majority of the rank-and-file members of the environmental or ecology movement, it is vital that the public realize that in this movement itself, which is so widely regarded as noble and lofty, can be found more than a little evidence of the most profound toxicity—evidence provided by leaders of the movement themselves, and in the clearest possible terms. Consider, for example, the following quotation from David M. Graber, a research biologist with the National Park Service, in his prominently featured Los Angeles Times book review of Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature:

“…We are not interested in the utility of a particular species or free-flowing river, or ecosystem, to mankind. They have intrinsic value, more value—to me—than another human body, or a billion of them.

Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, are not as important as a wild and healthy planet. I know social scientists who remind me that people are part of nature, but it isn’t true. Somewhere along the line—at about a billion years ago, maybe half that—we quit the contract and be­came a cancer. We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth.

It is cosmically unlikely that the developed world will choose to end its orgy of fossil-energy consumption, and the Third World its suicidal consumption of landscape. Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.”

Here Reisman does his best job of providing examples of source material, particularly in the footnote, which lists two books, a book review, and a magazine article. This is the largest group of citations anywhere in the chapter on resource economics; most of the other sources are newspaper articles. Of course, I did not make my specific claims about this passage, so Reisman misses the mark in any case. Even though this is hardly a comprehensive literature review, however, at least it is something. And to be charitable (although as a follower of Rand, Reisman presumably abhors this act), I will consider it further.

In this quote, in order to show that environmentalists truly desire the destruction of the whole human race, Reisman quotes, not from a scholarly article or book on environmentalism, but from one book review in a newspaper. This is an underwhelming piece of evidence. In my original argument, I made it very clear that there was a problem with many of the citations Reisman does actually provide, and this section provides an example. The difficulty is that the citations are usually from the popular press or non-academic works, which are of their nature too brief and general to contain sustained arguments, and possibly to be available as a canonical source or even a common reference. In addition, there is the problem of representation, because it is not at all clear why one book review (and/or the book under review) necessarily sums up the whole environmental movement. Even Reisman’s best efforts then are not up to the task of satisfactorily representing environmentalist beliefs.

Reisman suggests a possible way out however:

The significance of such statements cannot be dimin­ished by ascribing them only to a small fringe of the environmental movement. Indeed, even if such views were indicative of the thinking only of 5 or 10 percent of the members of the environmental movement—the “deep ecology,” Earth First! wing—they would represent tox­icity in the environmental movement as a whole not at the level of parts per billion or even parts per million, but at the level of parts per hundred, which, of course, is an enormously higher level of toxicity than what is deemed to constitute a danger to human life in virtually every other case in which deadly poison is present.

Starting from this passage, none of the remaining quotes Reisman includes have any citations at all (except for one newspaper article). Given that this was my initial objection, it is obvious that Reisman has done nothing to assail my argument. I ask for citations and evidence of the beliefs of the group in its own words, which is a standard and necessary tool in writing arguments: none of these last quotations provides these things. Note that this is an entirely separate point from the claim that any particular assertion in these passages is false: the question was about source material, which is simply absent from the last quotes (pages 81-82 of Capitalism). As all readers (except Reisman, apparently) will easily see, my original argument is supported by this lack of outside and/or representative sources.

And yet, Reisman continually asserts that he has found a logical strain in this type of thinking which serves as a substitute for representative textual evidence:

But the toxicity level of the environmental movement as a whole is much greater even than parts per hundred. It is certainly at least at the level of several parts per ten. This is obvious from the fact that the mainstream of the environmental movement makes no fundamental or sig­nificant criticisms of the likes of Messrs. Graber and McKibben. Indeed, John Muir, whose wish for alligators to ‘be blessed now and then with a mouthful of terror-stricken man by way of a dainty’ McKibben approvingly quotes, was the founder of the Sierra Club, which is proud to acknowledge that fact. The Sierra Club, of course, is the leading environmental organization and is supposedly the most respectable of them.

The inference does not follow at all. A lack of criticism does not imply that any individuals actually agree with these writers. Compare this argument with an analogous one: Reisman did not respond to the substance of my paper: therefore, he agrees with it. But surely this is not the case. And even if absence of criticism was somehow equivalent to approval, this would say nothing about the quantitative composition of the environmental movement. Here, Reisman has merely asserted an unsubstantiated claim about what environmentalists believe. Many people who espouse environmentalist beliefs might never have heard of these individuals, much less actually read their writings, much less have grown to hate humanity and desire its extinction.

Reisman insists that there can be no question of the moral bankruptcy of environmentalism, and no possibility of error or exaggeration in his own argument:

The premise of nature’s intrinsic value constitutes the intellectual equivalent of a steel cable, as it were, which ties virtually the whole of the environmental movement to the collection of concrete blocks constituted by its effusions of hatred for the human race. The connection is such that it makes my references “to the environmental literature” carry a weight sufficient to sink the whole movement…

Mr. McCaffrey’s claims here are simply untrue. They are so profoundly in contradiction of the facts, that they make it difficult to believe that he ever even bothered to read the passages I have quoted from my book…

The suspicion that McCaffrey did not read those passages is reinforced by a comment of his in a footnote: “Reisman does occasionally temper his criticisms of environmentalism with qualifying statements to the effect that not all environmentalists are ‘poison’ (1996, p. 81, 82–83), proposing instead the odd claim that only ‘several parts per ten’ are poisonous (p. 138, n. 20).’” If it came out the blue, so to speak, a reference to “several parts per ten” would, indeed, seem odd. But it clearly did not come out of the blue. It was made in the context of a discussion that here and there referred to toxicity levels of varying degrees of concentration. Describing matters in such terms would have seemed odd only to someone who was not aware of the context established by that discussion, which Mr. McCaffrey apparently was not.

Why does Reisman assume that believing in the intrinsic value of nature is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for being an environmentalist? An individual might favor the preservation of the environment for any number of reasons, and might completely disregard the intrinsic value approach. These reasons might be flawed, to be sure, but at best Reisman is attacking only one type of environmentalism. He cannot therefore, use this specific criticism to support his attack on environmentalism in general. I had pointed out some similar problems with faulty generalizations in my original article, and once again Reisman dodges the real question. None of the necessary connections about environmentalism have been made. The “reasoning” here simply runs something like this: Reisman wants to damn all environmentalists, and therefore, the cable analogy is appropriate. (Reisman also suggests that I did not read the passages of his book which he presents. But as I mention above and below, the “odd claim” about the composition of the environmental movement is odd precisely because there is no logic in it, not because the claim had not been introduced up to that point in the text).

Another general point relates to a criticism regarding Reisman’s notion that ultimately, environmentalism is always “poison.” He argues that no matters its composition, to swallow environmentalism is to swallow poison. This conclusion is carefully constructed: yes, one inescapably swallows poison. But the question is not whether one swallows it, but rather what effect it has, and especially its relative weight compared to other things consumed. I breathe ammonia every moment (it exists in tiny amounts in the atmosphere), and I am not inescapably poisoned because I am not breathing only ammonia. Its negative effects disappear because they are overwhelmed by healthier substances. Bad ideas can be overcome with good ones.

But assuming all the characterizations of the environmentalists are correct, this only means that the environmentalists Reisman really attempts to study are the extremists. Does Reisman really believe that any movement which openly calls for the suicide of the human race has or ever will be taken seriously in any important discussion of economic policy, or in any other forum, for that matter? This was my initial problem with his exposition. What serious policymakers or philosophers is Reisman responding to? What mass movement understands and seriously advances the notion that nature is valuable for its own sake, no matter the costs? Perhaps some such group does exist: but we could never know from reading Reisman’s book. Many people do seem to believe some weak form of the idea that nature has intrinsic value, but that does not at all imply that anyone believes in it in the way Reisman claims: i.e., to the extent that they become “depraved individuals who would rather kill than live, who would rather inflict pain and death than experience pleasure, whose pleasure comes from the infliction of pain and death” (1996, p. 102). The “logic” Reisman presents to link all environmentalists together with this “steel cable” is simply unsupported assertion.

Reisman finishes with the most mind-boggling of his claims, that actually, those who believe in the intrinsic value of nature do not believe it at all, but merely use the idea as a smokescreen and a “rationalization for a preexisting hatred of man. It is invoked not because one attaches any actual value to what is alleged to have intrinsic value, but simply to serve as a pretext for denying values to man.” Reisman apparently does not balk at the extraordinary irony of accusing others of developing a “rationalization for a preexisting hatred.”

This concludes Reisman’s orgy of self-citation. As I pointed out earlier, even if his counterexamples were all perfectly valid, he would not have disproved my argument, which was directed elsewhere. But when I extend my argument to the passages Reisman cites, one can still see that the same problems appear there as well.

It is unfortunate the Reisman takes the tone he does. The reader of Capitalism finds himself confronted in the early chapters with the writings on resource economics. These pages are such a barrier to entry that I fear they are responsible for the fact that readers never finish the work, and thus neglect its core chapters and discussion of fundamental issues such as the theories of profit and interest, which are surely the most important to Reisman.