Saturday, April 26, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: McMichael's "Planetary Overload"

In the book“Planetary Overload,” A.J. McMichael uses a wide variety of techniques to bring the global challenges we face in the coming years to the forefront. Unfortunately, the piece offers little inspiration regarding personal action, as the overwhelming majority of solutions presented seem to fail to consider the individual in any way. Instead, all is considered from an omnipotent view that sees our ever looming environmental dangers in a macro context. In place of faith in humanity and individuals resides this ever undeterred view that the solutions lie in government intervention and international regulation.

It is easy to agree on the important implications of what may come of us along with our environment if we do not act. I struggle with McMichael’s strong affection for the idea of government regulation. I would describe his approach as “tunnel vision” in nature. But if we are to properly address this issue, should not other methods be considered?

Seemingly unbeknownst to McMichael, there are many like myself, who struggle with this assumption that only government is capable of tackling the big problems of the day. I would think that the idea of entrepreneurship and its related capabilities would be something worthy of a minimum of a chapter in this book.

McMichael stresses all sorts of examples of failed empires and civilizations that can be aligned with the environmental degradation of their time and area. Are there no positive examples? I find it hard to believe that, in our long history as a species, we can find no examples of management done right. I would also contend that those such findings are far more rare an occurrence in government policy, than it is in free market entrepreneurship. Problem solvers like Benjamin Franklin flourished in a deregulated, self-responsibility filled setting.

The strongest testaments to the potential of humanity, when left with nothing less than liberty, can be found in what Leo Marx calls the “heroic generation of founding revolutionists” (Teich, 7). In his article, “Does Improved Technology Mean Progress?” Marx reminds the reader that before we can decide if technology means progress, we must first decide what exactly it is that we are striving to progress towards.

The modern idea of progress, championed by those like Thomas Jefferson, recognized that technology was only progressive so long as they worked towards sacred goals such as justice, freedom, harmony, beauty, and self-fulfillment (8). Knowing that technology will play a large part in how we go about handling world health and environment, as well as understanding that any solutions are going to need the leadership and mobility of a strong and moral people, the prevailing philosophies of our “heroic generation” suddenly seem very relevant to the current debate.

The enlightenment idea of progress was something that nay existed before our nation formed. Most of human history sees history as a fall from grace or some other utopian origin (Foltz).The embodiment of these ideas in the U.S. Constitution is what truly makes the document so special. Patriots like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams rooted their beliefs not in technology alone, but also recognized that they must be conducive with protecting the natural rights of man.

Many will shiver at the notion of the above described free society, with its emphasis on person to person contracts and the importance of private property. These same people will claim that such a free market oriented solution couldn’t possibly work. Not only that, but dangerous! How can I expect intellectuals such as McMichael to willingly participate in the leveling of the playing field? A successful businessman or rural farmer has no place in the debate over how to handle global warming. Well, nothing outside of paying their new “green taxes” (McMichael, 334). Leave the rest to the lobbyists and their public servants.

My counter argument to their cynicism is that it is only fair to understand that there is an equal basis for skepticism in the faith blindly thrown behind entrusting all the responsibility to government and other giant institutions. He claims we need far reaching policy making as instituted by our government (mostly non-elected bureaucrats, mind you). This is the part where I am expected to entrust such important responsibility to the career politicians. These are the same folks who spend far too much time crunching numbers from their latest polls, and the other half over dinners with some of the deepest pocketbooks this world has ever known. I would rather entrust the human spirit operating within a free market any day of the week.
When talking about Jefferson and his virtues, Marx goes as far as to claim, “In weighing political, moral, and aesthetic costs against economic benefits, he anticipated the viewpoint of the environmentalists” (Teich, 5).

Look at the seemingly boundless innovations that have sprouted out of the first decade of one of the greatest “free-market friendly” technologies to date: the internet. With current trends creeping towards more and more regulation, the world wide web’s first decade will probably be remembered as its most open as well as its most innovative.

Early developments such as the idea of search engines have evolved and streamlined themselves into the powerhouses of the internet, (Yahoo!, Google etc…) while chat rooms that were once the buzz, were overshadowed by instant messaging, which has now been replaced at the top of the communications ladder by the Internet 2.0’s social networking sites (such as Facebook and MySpace). It would be difficult to find an example of such accelerated progress within the constraints of any traditional institution’s regulations. I believe that the immediately (though low) quantifiable satisfactions that come from centralized regulation (such as a carbon tax) strongly aid in the reasoning behind the seemingly overwhelming faith society is putting behind it.

It is much more difficult to accurately measure and present the results of an open market, making it a much less desirable option for any politician trying to get reelected. A PowerPoint slide with a simple bar graph depicting taxes rising and pollution falling will work for regulation. But quantifying earth friendly intellectual property that is born out of freedom from restrictions, and the courage to entrust an entire society with such power is not nearly as easy.
George Reisman’s article, Environmentalism in the Light of Menger and Mises, recalls a quote regarding global warming from his previous work Capitalism, “It would be too great a problem for government bureaucrats to handle…But it would certainly not be too great a problem for tens and hundreds of millions of free, thinking individuals living under capitalism to solve” (Reisman, 14).

The fact of the matter is that such heavy handed regulations are, daresay, un-American in their roots. We have lost faith in the abilities of ourselves, and feel much more comfortable sacrificing those responsibilities to faceless elites in D.C. and the Executive Branch only to watch the highlights on our 24 hour cable news. A free market places property rights in a near sacred light. Congressman (R-Texas) Ron Paul best explains how pollution can be handled when operating within a free system, “no one is allowed to pollute his neighbor’s land, air, or water…Currently, preemptive regulations and pay-to-pollute schemes favor those wealthy enough to perform the regulatory tap dance, while those who own the polluted land rarely receive quick or just resolution to their problems” (Paul, online).

I mentioned in the introduction that McMichael has many ways of going about making his points on the environment. I should also stress my allegiance to his overriding concerns. Deforestation, (currently subsidized by the US government) global warming, loss of coral reefs, etc…are all very real problems (McMichael, 334). While virtually all can agree that the present results are nowhere near satisfactory, I contend that piling more of the same solutions is also not the answer.

If allowed, the entrepreneurs born in the spirit of freedom, will be the Shepards of the 21st century. Thanks in large part to the internet as a new template; any one of us can see the potential greatness harbored in capitalistic institutions such as Google. The word has only been part of our vocabulary for a mere few years, and already it has grown to be so much more than a simple, internet search engine. Google is now actively engaged in critical sectors such as telecommunications, (bidding wars with telecommunications giants such as Verizon) and energy. It should be no surprise 10 years from now when Google is recognized worldwide as the leading provider of alternative energy (Google windmills anyone?).

In conclusion, I applaud McMichael’s efforts to instill a sense of urgency, (not shying away from possible scenarios such as those embodied in “threshold theories”) but I am left wishing that more various approaches to the situation were explored. Ludwig Van Mises, one of the great advocates for liberty, may have said it best, “Only individuals think and only individuals act” (Reisman, 12). Now is the time for action.

Works Cited

Foltz, Prof. Bruce. Eckerd College lecture. October, 2007.

McMichael, A.J. Planetary Overload: Global Environmental Change and the Health of the Human Species. Cambridge University Press. Great Britain. 1995.

Paul, Ron. Environment and Energy Policy. . April, 2008.

Reisman, George. Environmentalism in the Light of Menger and Mises. The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. Vol. 5, No. 2. Summer 2002.

Teich, Albert H. Technology and the Future. 10th ed. 2006. Thompson and Wadsworth Publishing. United States. pp. 5-8.

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