Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists
by Peter Huber
January 1, 2000
Let?s begin with an important but little-publicized environmental fact. The prevailing winds in North America blow West to East. On the continent itself, we burn about 1.6 billion metric tons of fossil fuel every year. If nothing else were happening, the carbon dioxide levels in the air ought to be about 0.3 parts per million higher on the East Coast than on the West Coast. In fact, as best as these things can be measured -- and I?ll readily grant they are not easy to measure -- the carbon dioxide levels in the air are actually about 0.3 parts per million lower on the East Coast than they are on the Pacific Coast. What?s going on?
Besides burning fossil fuels, of course, we?re building suburbs, roads and cities all across the continent. Suburban sprawl is much in the news these days. Estimates vary widely but without doubt, a lot of what used to be farmland around our cities is being transformed into suburb: our cities occupy about twice the area today that they occupied in 1920. Again, if nothing else were happening, this fact should be making our carbon balance worse, not better. If we?re leveling greenery, forest perhaps, to make room for our sprawling cities, things have to be getting worse, right?
But we aren?t leveling forests. In fact, we?re reforesting this continent. U.S. forest cover reached a low of about 600 million acres in 1920. It has been rising ever since. Precisely how fast is hard to pin down, but all serious analyses show that America?s forest cover today is somewhere between 20 million and 140 million acres higher than it was in 1920. At least 10 million acres have been reforested in the last decade alone. This is not the sort of thing you?ll read at the top of the Sierra Club?s web page.
How can we even begin to square these facts? We burn huge amounts of fossil fuel, yet on our continent at least, carbon levels seem to drop. Our cities sprawl, yet we have more forest. Am I making all this up? No, and if you think I am, I really encourage you to do your own independent research on these facts. They are ascertainable. They are facts, as close as anybody can measure them. What?s happening? What?s going on?
Understanding these apparent paradoxes sharply defines the two types of environmentalism -- the two types of "green" -- that I want to contrast briefly with you today -- "Hard Green" and "Soft Green."
Begin with this: conserve land, and you conserve environment. Save "Earth" -- land itself -- and you save wilderness. There are other things to consider, and I?ll get to them, but if you?re honestly interested in wilderness and environmental quality, land is paramount. When I say land, of course, I mean surface -- including stream, river, lake and coastal waters as well.
This is just basic ecology. Life on earth lives within a few hundred feet, give or take, of the surface of the earth. The less that humans disturb the surface -- the land -- the better for all the other species on earth. It?s as simple as that.
So how do we humans set about destroying wilderness? Lots of ways, of course. For one, we build cities and highways. But, doing the numbers, these things are quite secondary. Our cities, towns, suburbs, roads -- including all the interstate highways combined -- currently cover under three percent of the U.S. land mass, or under 60 million acres.
Yet for every acre of land we occupy ourselves, with our roads, homes, factories, office buildings and so on, we use six acres for crops. Another eight acres are designated as range -- larders for our livestock, which pound-for-pound outweighs us.
Most of the wilderness being lost worldwide is lost to third-world agriculture. However bucolic they may appear, farms aren?t green. Endless miles of wheat are not bio-diverse prairie. Rangeland isn?t pristine wilderness, not when cattle denude it of native perennial grasses, to be replaced by sagebrush or juniper -- or reduce it to desert, as has happened and continues to happen in some areas. Acres of cassava are not acres of rainforest.
Shrink the footprint of agriculture, and you can really save or restore a lot of wilderness. To put this in perspective, if we could simply shrink our agricultural footprint in this country by seven percent, this would be the rough equivalent of wiping all our cities, suburbs, highways and roads off the map. A seven-percent increase in agricultural productivity would do the trick. We can negotiate the number a bit: perhaps it should be 10 or 15 percent, if you want to allow for the fact that endless wheat fields actually leave room for some wilderness. But that?s the kind of number we?re talking about.
And shrinking our agricultural footprint is exactly what we?ve been doing since about 1920. The result, on this continent -- and I emphasize, I?m not talking about the globe yet -- on this continent, the result has been truly remarkable. It?s a first in human history. Roughly 80 million more acres of North American cropland were harvested sixty years ago than are harvested today. And, considering that all our dwellings and such occupy 50 to 60 million acres, that is a lot of land.
That explains one of the paradoxes I started with. Yes, our cities are sprawling. But why? Cities themselves have negative population growth. City dwellers do not reproduce fast enough to maintain the population. Cities swell because they draw in people from the countryside. The cities grow outward, consuming adjacent land, which is almost invariably farmland -- but in so doing, they contract human occupation farther from the cities. In two centuries, we?ve flipped from a population that was 80 percent rural to one that is 80 percent urban.
Most "Soft Greens" -- like the Sierra Club -- have the right instincts about cities. They recognize, correctly, that cities are green -- not because acres of concrete and high-rise and congestion are green, but because cities pack a lot of people into a small amount of space. That leaves more wilderness undisturbed.
But what they get right about cities, Soft Greens get wrong about almost everything else. Most of the policies that Soft Greens prescribe are environmental disasters -- because most of them force us to use more land, not less.
Let me put this as bluntly as I can: From Al Gore to the Sierra Club, the green establishment strives to make the human footprint on the wilderness bigger. If we do what they urge us to do with agriculture, our footprint on the land will at least double. If we do what they urge us to do with energy, it will more than double again. We are saving the Earth on this continent with the technologies that the Soft Greens most passionately resist and oppose.
Until quite recently, humanity?s advance -- its growth; its economic progress -- meant retreat for the wilderness. The surface ? the land, river, and shallow coastal waters -- supplied all our food, building materials and fuel. The more we grew, the more land we seized.
In 1850, with one-tenth of today?s population, the United States cultivated as much cropland as it does today. Almost all of it was managed exactly as the Soft Green would have us manage it today: organic, pesticide-free, and genetically "natural." For all that, the plows and the farmers and the deliberately set fires wiped out the perennial grasses, crowded out the last ranges of the bison, eradicated the cougars and wolves, and in due course created the Dust Bowl.
For much of this century, however that process has been reversed. With genetic seed improvements, fertilizers, pesticides and the relentless land efficiencies of corporate farming, we almost trebled (and in many instances, more than trebled) the land-to-food productivity of our agriculture. That has saved a tremendous amount of land.
Far more is still possible. In the United States, the sun delivers an average energy density of roughly 180 watts of energy per square meter of land (w/m2) -- that?s inbound, on a 24-hour average. Wild plants currently convert about 0.35 w/m2 of that into stored energy -- a horrendous 1:500 conversion efficiency.
Biotechnology could double and redouble the agricultural productivity of land, in much the same way as silicon technology has doubled and redoubled the informational productivity of sand. We can do even better with livestock. First our cattle graze on the open range, then they fatten in feedlots, consuming much of the grain we grow. Triple the efficiency of the corn (if you can), then triple the efficiency of the cow (if you can), and you cut by nine-fold the amount of farm and range it takes to deliver a burger.
It is now plausible, with technology either in hand or in sight, to imagine shrinking the footprint on our food to the point where it matches the footprint of our dwellings. I?m not suggesting this will happen any time soon -- that would be a tremendous shrinkage. But should we move any significant distance in that direction, it would represent a fantastic gain for the wilderness, far greater than anything we could imagine achieving by limiting urban sprawl, recycling newspapers, or anything of that sort.
Even larger gains are possible in husbanding the wilderness of the oceans. Until recently, the oceans seemed so abundant we didn?t even bother domesticating fish; we harvested them directly from the wild. But modern trawlers and dragnets are so relentless that they have overtaken the fecundity of the seas, with devastating impacts. A rapid, though sadly belated, shift is now under way from what we might call "free-range" fishing to the factory kind -- "aquaculture." Anybody committed to conserving life in the oceans should applaud it.
Pesticides, packaging, preservatives and refrigeration dramatically reduce the agricultural footprint, too. One of the things that most concerned Theodore Roosevelt, our first conservation President, when he was pressing for forest conservation in 1905 was lumber for railroad ties. Railroads were being built at a prodigious rate, and ties consumed enormous amounts of wood -- a significant fraction of all the wood we were harvesting. But that same year, 1905, the railroads began coating their ties with creosote. That chemical preservative stopped the termites, tripling the life span of the ties -- effectively slashing demand for wood for railroad ties by two-thirds. Since then, wood preservatives and termite eradication have done far more to save forests in America than any amount of recycling of newspapers.
Pesticides, preservatives, food irradiation and plastic packaging -- you name it, if the Soft Greens hate it, I can almost certainly add it to my list ? almost all of these things have comparable effects. They sharply reduce losses along the food chain, from farmer?s field to dining-room table, with commensurate reductions in the agricultural footprint. To put it another way, these things enhance the efficiency of the solar engines most widely used in this country and around the globe. They?re not sitting on our rooftops, they?re not photovoltaics; they?re plants. Enhance their efficiency, reduce the losses, and you shrink the agricultural footprint.
We?ve done even better with construction. In 1790, a British frigate required some 3,000 trees to build; the Exxon Valdez required none. Concrete, steel, and plastics substitute for hardwoods in dwellings and furniture, leaving more wood for the forest.
Far more substitution of this kind could be achieved. The total current U.S. wood harvest -- 90 percent of which is for construction, not energy -- exceeds by severalfold the tonnage of all the steel, copper, lead, nickel, zinc and other metals extracted in the United States. The raw materials for concrete are not at all scarce, and limitless amounts can be extracted from comparatively minuscule areas of land.
Now, I will not suggest Soft Greens oppose all of these opportunities. But they do oppose many of them. They urge us to eat less meat, and they?re right about that -- meat is a tremendously inefficient conversion engine for what we?re growing on our land. But they oppose just about everything that stops insects from eating more of our food. Well, whether you want to waste three-quarters of all the food you grow by feeding it to a cow or feeding it to a termite, the end result is that it?s not being fed to the people you?re growing it for. Soft Greens urge us to improve the efficiency of our car engines, but a great number of them are quite passionately opposed to improving the efficiency of a cow or a chicken or a pig -- all of which we can quite readily improve, with hormones and genetic engineering, and other "hard" agricultural technologies. Soft Greens prefer natural, organic, free-range, wild -- all of which end up requiring more land, not less.
Only one solar technology perennially fascinates Soft Greens: Photovoltaics (PV). Indeed, I owe my hard/soft taxonomy of green to Amory Lovins, of the Rocky Mountain Institute, who gained fame in the 1970s by promoting what he called "soft" sources of energy like wind and solar, over "hard" ones like uranium and coal.
Compared to a green plant, PV is really a very impressive technology. Selenium-doped silicon wafers mounted in glass or plastic can convert sunlight to useful energy about 60 times better than chlorophyll in a typical leaf. In the United States, current PV technology can capture (on a 24-hour average) about 20 watts per meter squared (W/m2), compared to under 1 W/m2 for your typical plant.
This is fine technology. Unfortunately, New York consumes 55 w/m2. So, to power New York with PV, you have to cover every square inch of the city?s horizontal surface with wafer (Central Park, too), and then extend the PV sprawl out about threefold or so. And that?s making wildly -- ludicrously -- optimistic assumptions about perfect efficiency; every inch covered; no space used for batteries and storage. Under any rational assumptions, it would be ten-fold or a hundred-fold expansion.
PV technology could improve, of course. But the laws of nature and physics aren?t going to allow anything approaching 100-percent capture. A reliable 20 percent would be extraordinary, and would still require enormous amounts of ancillary material and space for energy storage, to keep lights up when the sun is down.
The numbers for liquid fuels are even worse. The Soft alternative here is "biomass." It certainly does sound greener to say "bio" than "agri." I quote from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which urges us to espouse a policy of "Tilling, not drilling. Biology, not geology. Living carbon, not dead carbon. Vegetables, not minerals." The Institute exhorts us to return to what it calls the "carbohydrate economy."
Now don?t for a moment suppose that these people are crazies out on the fringe. Strip things down to basics, and you find that this is very close to the policy prescription of mainstream, "soft" environmentalism. Farmers love the idea; I gather it?s especially popular in Iowa. "Green Acres in your tank" --natural, organic, free-range, wild. "Our goal," declare carbohydrate-economy pundits, "should be to get back to the ratio of 1920, when plant matter constituted one-third of all our materials."
But we know what the carbohydrate-energy economy would look like: we?ve already lived it. In 1790, agriculture employed over 80 percent of our people; the Founding Fathers obtained 80 percent of their energy from wood. They had a "renewable" source of oil, too: the sperm whale. Their children and grandchildren almost fished the whale to extinction, until Colonel Edwin Drake finally thought to mount his harpoon on a derrick in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Well into this century, vast areas of woods and forest were still being cut down just to warm homes and cook food. The forests retreated steadily.
Any return to that way of life would mean resuming the retreat. There is no calculation, no scenario, that would culminate in anything different. Your car engine consumes far more calories than your muscles do; the agricultural land now being used merely to feed you would have to double and double and double again to feed your car as well.
No conceivable mix of solar, biomass, or wind technology could meet even half our current energy demand without (at the very least) doubling the human footprint on the surface of the continent. This is a matter of basic physics. Sunlight is a thin, diffuse form of energy, and it?s found nowhere but on the surface of the land. Humanity burns the energy equivalent of somewhere between one-tenth and one-fifteenth of all the energy captured by all the green plants everywhere on the planet. We burn a lot of energy. And of course, all that solar energy is already being used to power something we?re supposedly trying to conserve -- the wilderness itself. If we take it, the wilderness won?t get it. There?s no way to finesse your way past that incontrovertible fact.
Hydro is the best "solar" we?ve got, and it?s not very good. Why do I call hydroelectric solar? Because it?s a low-power, solar-powered steam engine -- we use the sun to evaporate water, which then rains up on the hills and flows down into reservoirs behind our dams. Build a Hoover Dam and you can capture quite a bit of renewable solar that way -- but at an enormous price in land. You?ll find very few Soft Greens endorsing that form of renewable solar power these days, because they know exactly what the land consequences are. You flood a lot of land, and disrupt water flows upstream and down.
To be sure, today?s technology can boost efficiency in the carbohydrate energy economy, just as it can in the food economy. "We need to go from black gold to green gold," declares the director of biotechnology development at DuPont. But however much DuPont can help us on that (and I don?t doubt they could help us a lot), they can?t help us enough. Because -- for all the Softs keep telling us otherwise, and the Exxon Valdez notwithstanding -- black gold is very kind to the land indeed.
How did we escape from the carbohydrate economy in the first place? We began to dig. U.S. oil wells and refineries cover about 160,000 acres of land, or about one-fifth the area of King Ranch in Texas. All coalmines, including all the strip mines, cover about two million acres -- or well under one percent of the area occupied by U.S. cropland.
How did our energy footprint ever get so small? It really isn?t very complicated. Our energy footprint is small today because coal and other fossil fuels are dead trees -- fossilized biomass. A coal mine yields something like 5000 w/m2, taking the lifetime of the coal (we?ve done the numbers on a time basis). An oil field yields more like 10,000 w/m2. This makes them 5,000 to 10,000 times more land-frugal at the wellhead (and I?ll get to the downstream in a moment) than any existing PV or biomass technology, and 100 times more frugal than the highest PV or biomass efficiency that?s even theoretically attainable.
There is no mystery to this. You can get a whole lot of energy out of a small amount of land because these are three-dimensional resources. They are not surface resources, they are sub-surface. Sunlight is all two-dimensional surface -- of course it?s going to do worse on any area calculation. But the environmental implications, so often overlooked, are enormous. For every acre occupied by dwellings and offices, we need about 14 acres of farm and range to produce the quite modest amounts of energy -- edible food -- required by the people on that original acre. But we need a mere 0.3 acres or less of land to deliver the much greater quantities of energy people use as fuel -- and most of that land is used not in the extraction but in the transportation, distribution and so forth.
In sum, it takes far less land to dig up energy than to grow it. That?s what?s so dreadfully wrong with all "renewables." By definition, renewables tap energy flow: solar and its immediate byproducts -- plant growth or wind. But plant growth is either wilderness we should aim to conserve, or it?s a farmer?s field already under the plow that the wilderness might otherwise reclaim. Real estate on rooftops does offer some ecologically dead surface for solar capture, but there?s nowhere near enough of it, and it isn?t economical.
Technology won?t ever close the gap. Biotechnology is young, which suggests great potential for improving the biomass energy economy. But conventional hard fuels are so much more concentrated forms of energy, and so much more profitable, that they attract far more investment, which drives even more rapid innovation. Soft does improve -- it gets better year after year -- but hard improves even faster.
It just isn?t a fair race, and it?s never going to be. Sunlight is too thin, and it starts out spread across the surface -- exactly where the wilderness is. Going after the sunlight means going after the energy that fuels the wilderness. In the end, it means overbuilding the wilderness itself.
Coal, oil and gas, by contrast, represent ancient biomass already concentrated by nature, and buried in vast, three-dimensional reservoirs from which it can now be extracted through comparatively tiny incisions in the skin of the earth. Given a choice, the wilderness will prefer the keyhole surgery every time.
Now, here?s where I really try to shock the conscience. Given the choice, the wilderness will also take an SUV over a bicycle. I?d like to challenge you to think why. Because however outrageous the exercise may seem -- and incidentally, I?m not advocating that anybody buy SUVs; buy a Ford Escort like I did -- however outrageous the exercise may seem, a land-for-land comparison between bicycle and SUV exposes the essence of our Hard/Soft divide.
Surface transportation uses a lot of land. Roughly half of all "urban development" -- about 25 million acres -- is roads and highways. If you want a rule of thumb, for every acre used in daily living, we use an additional acre for our daily moving around. It?s possible to do better: air travel is a lot more frugal with land -- about one-third as land-intensive as cars, per passenger mile traveled. (If you wonder how trains stack up, I can give you an answer, but I won?t; because the whole trick with trains is how you divide up the freight track and the passenger track; and since it?s one and the same track, there are tremendous allocation problems. If you divide it up according to revenues, trains perform so far as frugal use of land is concerned, but one could equally well argue that at the margin, passenger trains use no additional track at all, given that we need the track for freight trains in any event.)
Now, back to the biker and the SUV. And let?s start with the very worst of the SUV. With a single occupant, the SUV is moving 30 times its weight in useful payload. And it?s all dead weight; wasted weight; 3,000 pounds or more, moved for no "good" reason at all. So that?s a factor of 30 worse than the bike right there -- we?ll assume you have a weightless bike, so you?re just moving the payload of your own weight. The SUV also needs, say, ten times the width of roadway, right? All that useless junk needs a lot more space to barrel down the ribbon of highway. So now we?re at a factor of 300-times worse for the SUV. From the get-go, a 300-fold penalty. And that?s where ordinary intuition always leaves it.
But let?s finish the calculation. A car engine (including the refining and distribution systems behind it) is about twice as efficient in converting crude oil to locomotion as the grain-bread-muscle systems are in converting the energy in food to locomotion. So the SUV regains a factor of two or so there. It can pick up more than that if the biker eats a lot of meat, because he?s wasting a lot of land for all those cows. So maybe the SUV can get back a factor of ten so on the fuel cycle. Still, that doesn?t begin to close a 300-fold gap.
But what completely eclipses everything else is simply this -- at the source, crude oil is at least 1,000 times more frugal than growing grain, in terms of land consumed to extract and deliver energy. For obvious reasons: you make a very little hole in the earth; you extract a lot of energy. The biker, by contrast, is fueled too -- by granola, one presumes. It takes a lot of field to grow the granola to move a useful pound of biker payload down the road. Bottom-line: per mile, and per useful pound moved, drilling for oil and building an SUV-grade highway system uses ten times less land than growing food to fuel the bicyclist.
To repeat: I?m not endorsing SUVs -- for the most part they?re profligate and wasteful and certainly not to my green taste. But I do think that unless you do the numbers and follow their implications through to their logical limits, you aren?t thinking rationally about such issues at all.
A sanity check: as late as 1910, almost a third of all U.S. farmland was still devoted to feeding horses. Horses were the "organic" transportation system of that day. Feeding that organic transportation system required twice the land used today by all our roads and highways, oil pipelines, refineries, and wells.
Impossible though these numbers may sound to many right-thinking Greens, they are easy to verify. They are, in fact, obvious once one gets used to seeing plants, cows and bikers for what they are: land-hungry, territory-expanding, surface-dwelling automatons, which are optimized for survival and reproduction, not for locomotion. To be sure, a bike or a horse looks incomparably greener than an SUV or eighteen-wheel truck, but only because we so easily overlook such things as corn field and pasture and the rest of the energy cycle.
There are three main Soft Green responses to this line of the argument. The first is to suggest that renewables can be harvested interstitially -- that they can actually be harvested with zero land cost, because we can stick them on our rooftops, or we can extract "biomass" energy from agricultural waste. The case for biomass usually does come down to the suggestion that there?s really a lot of waste out there, and that we can capture this energy with no additional cost in land whatsoever. We can mount PV-arrays on our rooftops. We can process the agricultural waste. We can erect 400-foot-tall wind turbines amongst the rolling vineyards.
These are good rejoinders, so far as they go, but they don?t go very far. Despite decades of spending and subsidy, "renewables" -- other than conventional hydro -- generate rather small amounts of energy in this country -- under 1 percent of what we use. Add in the forest industry?s on-site burning of waste wood, and renewables contribute perhaps 3 percent of all the energy we consume. The economic case for renewables just doesn?t wash, most of the time. Again, once again, this just isn?t very surprising: gathering something that is very thinly spread out is inherently much more expensive than gathering something that is highly concentrated. It is cheaper to stoop down to pick up a $20 bill, even if buried under some rock, than it is to stoop down to pick up 2000 pennies spread across the countryside.
Soft rejoinder number two: we?re going to run out of fossils, so we?ve got no choice but to turn to renewables. The stuff under the ground will disappear and then we?re going to come back to the surface, like it or not. This is a purely economic argument, I might add -- it?s not an environmental one. It?s saying, look, we need energy; we?re not going to find it down there indefinitely, so we better begin looking back up here on the surface.
They?ve been saying that about energy since the 70?s, just as they said it about food since the time of Thomas Malthus. But the fact is, we haven?t run out; we don?t run out, and all serious economists understand why. Not because anything is unlimited -- no serious economist says that -- but because human ingenuity stretches resources and finds substitutes. It is impossible to say how or when. But that has been our economic history, and there is no reason to suppose that the record is about to change.
What terrifies honest Softs today isn?t that we will run out of fossil fuels, but that we won?t. If we were about to run out of fossil fuels, what would be all this brouhaha about global warming? If there?s no more fossil to burn, we don?t need the Vice President to tell us to stop, right? The Earth itself will take care of it. We don?t need the Federal Register to issue an edict. There will be nothing down there to burn, so no more carbon emissions into the air, so no more greenhouse to worry about.
The real problem for the other side is that we in fact have enormous reserves of fossil fuels, coal in particular. And our technology keeps getting better and better at extracting more and more oil from fields that were supposed to be dead. We?ve learned how to drill horizontally and optimize flows out of these fields. We?re learning to inject bio-engineered bacteria down into the oil fields. In due course will probably learn to extract the vast quantities of oil in tar sands. And if the time comes, we then turn to uranium if we must, and the tremendous nuclear reservoirs out in the oceans and deep down in the core of the planet.
Overall -- sanity check -- the price of hard energy keeps dropping, which tells us all we can or need to know about scarcities. It?s the price of land, and particularly the value we attach to land that is undeveloped, untouched by the hand of man or woman ? that?s the price that keeps rising. Which tells you all you need to know about where the real scarcities lie. The scarcities aren?t down there, deep under the ground; the scarcities are up here on the environmentally critical surface.
The Softs? last and most emphatic rejoinder is that hard fuels devour surface in other, more insidious ways: Uranium looks frugal with land, until it becomes Chernobyl and ruins the entire Ukraine. Oil looks frugal, until it becomes the Exxon Valdez and ruins Prince William Sound -- or, by way of global warming, the whole planet. Hard agriculture really isn?t frugal because the run-offs, fertilizers and pesticides destroy a lot of adjacent land, and kill the monarch butterfly besides.
These are valid arguments, important arguments -- they need to be taken seriously. But to win the debate on these terms, they have to be pushed further than they reasonably can be. Hard agriculture and hard fuels start out so land frugal, with footprints so much smaller than the soft alternatives -- usually hundreds or thousands of times smaller -- that for this kind of secondary-sprawl theory to tip the balance, you?re really going to have to have a lot of sprawl. The secondary effects from pollution and such have to be very bad indeed to make the hard options as bad or worse than the soft alternatives.
And soft alternatives entail secondary sprawl of their own. Technologies that use more material and more surface -- soft fuels invariably do -- are generally going to end up polluting more, as well. The bicyclist, lest we forget, emits greenhouse gas, too, as he puffs along the road. In fact, the main reason many of us are biking is precisely to promote our emissions of greenhouse gas, and metabolize some of that excess granola we ate for breakfast, or steak that we consumed too freely the night before. Per pound of useful payload moved, the biker emits more greenhouse gas -- or so I assert -- once you take proper account of land usage, cow pasture, and the alternatives of more deforestation or more reforestation. Soft agriculture has run-offs and relies on pesticides -- pesticides bred into the pest-resistant crops themselves, and designed to kill predatory insects in much the same way as the chemicals Dow or DuPont would have us spray on less hardy plants. PV?s are manufactured from toxic metals. More eagles have been killed by wind turbines than were lost in the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The Audubon Society labeled a proposed wind farm in the Tehachapi Mountains north of LA the "condor Cuisinart."
The carbohydrate economy is the deforestation economy: third-world practices make that unambiguously clear. All the while, keep in mind, hard technologies keep getting cleaner and more efficient, too. And in one very important sense, it?s the hard fuels that are "renewable," not the soft ones. I mean in the land sense. Much of the land used when we extract fuels from beneath the surface is restored to wilderness after the fuels have been mined or pumped. Not so with soft "renewables." The surface-intensive technologies that the soft renewables depend on must stay in place permanently ? that?s essential for the "renewing." If they don?t stay in place, you aren?t going to continue extracting the energy. Only the subsurface fuels are "renewable" so far as renewing the surface of the land is concerned.
Finally -- and I end where I began -- we have to allow for offsetting environmental benefits, too. Soft alternatives certainly have their share, many of them purely aesthetic. But hard technologies have their secondary benefits as well. Returning land to wilderness, as hard technologies do, can take care of a lot of pollution. Whatever impact pesticides have, freeing up 100 million acres to be reclaimed by forest will likely protect more birds than trying to bankrupt Dow Chemical or digging up New Jersey to cart the dirt around under Superfund auspices. The most beautiful way to purify water is almost certainly the most effective, as well: to maintain unfarmed, unlogged watersheds.
Carbon vividly illustrates this. As I mentioned at the outset -- and I will concede, the measurements are not perfect, they are just pretty good; they come from Science magazine, and they are the best numbers currently at hand -- America today is apparently sinking more carbon out of the air than it is emitting into it. What?s doing the sinking? In large part, regrowth of forests on land that is no longer farmed or logged, together with faster growth of existing plants and forests, which are fertilized by nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide "pollutants."
The total forest ecosystem in the United States holds about 52 billion metric tons of carbon. If you enhance the growth rate of that forest by just three percent a year, that would be enough to consume all carbon emissions of the U.S. economy. And either in forests themselves or on surrounding grasslands and farms, that seems to be about the net growth rate we actually have.
In other words, our carbon-energy cycle begins with carbon sequestered in fossil fuels, and ends with carbon sequestered in trees. Not a bad cycle. The sun supplied the energy that first converted atmospheric carbon into fossil fuel, and today, again, the sun supplies the energy that takes the carbon back out of the air and into the trees. Give it geologic time, and today?s new biomass will eventually end up back in the depths once again, as new coal and oil. Well-sealed landfills will help advance that process.
Thank you very much.
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Question and Answers
Question: Recently President Clinton declared a huge amount of Arizona off-limits to development, with the idea that he wants "to preserve the wilderness." Would you call that act "Hard Green," or just adding to the 28% of this country that the federal government already controls?
Huber: I would call that initiative political conservation. There is a school of thought that says all conservation can and should be private. I agree with the first 70% of that sentiment, but not the last 30. There are some things in my view -- national defense is an obvious one -- that are simply too large for private initiative. And the way we decide how much to put into national defense, how much into public conservation, is the political way. There is no substitute for that. There wasn?t in Teddy Roosevelt?s day, there isn?t any today. The only way you ever attach values to public goods, if you concede the existence of public goods at all, is through political debate. President Clinton is engaged in exactly what Teddy Roosevelt was engaged in. I don?t have to pass judgment on each individual conservation initiative. Some may be wise, some may be foolish. But unless you take the position -- which I do not -- that there is no useful or proper or necessary role for government in conservation, you are inevitably going to be returned to political debates. And that?s what we have here. That?s what we should have here. What appalls me is not when we have a good, honest, open fight about whether we should set aside a part of Arizona or Alaska or New Jersey for a park or forest. What appalls me is when deep in the bowels of the EPA, we can spend $30 billion digging up New Jersey and carting it around for no reason whatsoever. And where was the debate on that? That?s the one that worries me. Open conservation does not worry me; democracies can handle that kind of thing.
Question: I was encouraged by all you said about the benefits of agriculture research and biotechnology. We certainly recognize that the clearing of forests in the Third World for unsustainable agriculture is a major problem and promoting agriculture research and biotechnology to produce more food from the given amount of land is absolutely essential and we need to keep this going. A couple of points. One, it?s not just forests that sequester carbon, it?s agricultural soils. There?s data from NRCS and others to the effect that conservation tillage and no-till farming and other techniques that keep the carbon in the soil are major factors in accounting for the sequestering of carbon. So to the extent you clear agriculture for suburbs or something, you?re going to impact that just the way if you cleared forests for suburbs. Two, we worked on a major biomass bill this term. It is true that the collection of biomass is a fairly low-cost operation. The main problem is not the collection costs, which have been estimated by the National Academy of Sciences Report to be very low. The main problem is the conversion process. That suggests to me that the same kind of technical advances that you are so bullish on in every other area of energy have tremendous promise in biomass and solar. I don?t quite understand the rational basis for being pessimistic about advances in that area and optimistic about advances in others.
Huber: I am actually quite confident that biotechnology can improve these things enormously. I don?t for a second doubt that Monsanto and DuPont together can breed very good fungi that will take your waste stocks and all the rest, and convert them into liquid fuel. And if this Congress wants to spend money on that ? I certainly have no strong objection. Look, there are interstitial opportunities to find new sources of energy on farmer?s fields and rooftops. Crop waste does offer such an opportunity. But a small one. In the 70s the huge opportunity was that we were going to burn our trash. Then that fell out of favor, because we realized there were air pollution issues. I have not the slightest doubt that you can boost [energy] from the plant, which is now at something like a 1:500 conversion efficiency, up 20 or 30% -- who knows, maybe even 70 to 80%. And you?ll still be nowhere overall. There?s a little bit to harvest interstitially, but you will still be on the surface; you will be in the carbohydrate economy.
The paramount objective is not to see if we can squeeze an extra five percent or ten percent of energy out of our farmland. It?s to see if we can shrink our farmland another ten or 20 percent ? even as we maintain or even increase farm output. That should be objective, at least, if we?re resolved to conserve wilderness. There are other objectives, and of course people and their representatives should be debating those. My objective, however, is to work out the green issues, the wilderness issues. Then we?ll turn to the rest. Going to a dead desert in Arabia and getting very dead trees out from deep down under the sand ? that is very, very good, environmentally speaking, at least when you use the oil to shrink your footprint on the land, regrow your forests, sequester carbon, and regenerate wilderness.
Question: You mentioned that the Soft Greens claim that eventually, the fossil fuel in the earth is going to be consumed. You said, "Well, if it is consumed, if there isn?t any more fossil fuel, well, there?ll be another technology, another means of obtaining fuel." That?s not a hard answer ? you?re not really answering the question.
Huber: Known fossil fuel -- known, including tar sands and coal, not speculative -- provides hundreds of years of supply at current consumption levels. Now I?m not saying I want to use it. I?d rather actually be using uranium, but that?s beside the point. We have a good 500 to a thousand times our current annual consumption in tar sands, plus coal. Now you can say, "Well, okay, but tell me about the thousand years after that." I can?t tell you what the fourth millennium will bring. Over the thousand-year time span, we may be getting our fossil fuels from somewhere out in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri. I think it is reasonable for me at some point to say, look, if it were a year or two, or a decade (as we were told in the ?70s by the Club of Rome), then there would be a reason for panic. But it?s hundreds of years. If I look at the past hundred years? price history of fossil fuels, it is just dead flat. That fact tells me that we?re not facing imminent exhaustion. Where the price is going up is surface, particularly the value we attach to wilderness, and we?re all discussing just how much value we should attach to it. That tells me where the scarcity is; it?s not underground, it?s on the surface.
Question: You identified the North American terrestrial carbon sink, which is an important recent scientific development, but it?s controversial at this point. And the unlimited burning of coal indefinitely is, according to the international scientific assessments, very likely to produce adverse ecological and socioeconomic consequences for climate change. To whatever extent that?s true, pointing to the North American terrestrial carbon sink does not itself --
Huber: You?re absolutely right -- there is direct measurement here, but there is a large model that goes with it. You have to extrapolate and it?s in controversy, I readily concede. But I want everybody to notice this very fast leap from, "gee, the North American picture is this," to, "the global problem is real." The globe is not North America. We are at a unique stage in our development here in North America, and we are doing radical things. We are reforesting our continent -- the numbers are unambiguous on that. Very few other countries are. Europe is debatable, but the rest of the world is clearly on a deforestation track. We in the United States have to debate seriously whether we are even net emitters of carbon any more. There?s no serious debate about that for most of the Third World, none whatsoever: we know what they are doing ? they?re the ones who are cutting down their forests and burning them.
Now let us be very careful, because this rhetorically happens all the time and it just drives me nuts: "Gee, there?s a global problem. It must be the U.S." It?s not. The U.S. is the solution. We?re doing the right thing, we reforesting our continent, and as best we can measure things, we?re sinking our carbon. We could do more and better. If we hadn?t had the panics of the ?70s, which told us we?d be running out of this or that, and then the nuclear panics beyond that, we would have already made a much more substantial transition away from the coal economy, as well. But overwhelmingly, we are on the right trajectory here. Not perfect. Can we do more? Of course we can. But let?s not play the shell game where we say the rest of the world has a problem; therefore, it must be a U.S. problem, therefore the U.S. must implement a solution.
Question: But we are the driver of technology development, and if climate change requires a new set of technologies, be they nuclear or other, that would not come from the third world; it would come from us and be transferred elsewhere.
Huber: The debate is indeed usually framed this way and I want to frame two alternative rhetorical pictures. One alternative -- the one most commonly heard -- is: "If the rest of the world consumed the way we did, we?d need two Planet Earths because the United States consumes so profligately." There?s no doubt that if we simply took all the rest of the world?s population, all six billion or so, and somehow instantaneously lifted them to our level of consumption, that would be quite a hit.
But let me turn that around. If the rest of the world was as productive agriculturally as the United States, the planet as a whole would be regrowing rain forests today. It would be feeding itself on one-quarter of the agricultural land that it?s actually using. You can always play this "if the rest of the world" game. If the rest of the world had all the worst aspects of our way of life, and none of the best, wouldn?t things be awful? Well, that?s an easy game to play, and it?s easy to turn it around. If they had all our best habits, a whole lot of problems would be solved. Yes, we in the United States burn a lot of carbon fuels, but we do other very good things as a result. We move to the city; that saves forest land. Try fueling a city, try living in the industrial economy we live in if you don?t use the hard fuels. Can?t be done, you?ve got to return to the land, where the rest of the world lives. Our hard technologies, our three-dimensional lifestyle, are what let us sink carbon. I might add, that hard technology is also what has put a stop to our population growth. The key statistics are solid: Worldwide: wealth seems to limit fecundity. You can see that correlation in our own history, or in Burundi?s, or India?s, or China?s -- the correlation is very strong. And we know what makes us rich. It isn?t biomass. It?s hard technology and hard fuel.
Question: In your book you?re fairly optimistic about the government?s ability to manage large wilderness areas in places like Yellowstone because the one thing you say the government can do well is nothing ?
Huber: No, it can "learn" to do well.
Question: And I agree with that sentiment, but I wonder how you reconcile that with what has actually happened in a place like Yellowstone, which hadn?t been managed for economics, it?s been managed for wilderness and in some cases not managed -- and in both cases, I would say it?s been mismanaged.
Huber: I am tempted to open up the book and read to you verbatim. I will flatly assert that if we handed over Yellowstone to Disney, or sold it to Disney, either way, I am quite, quite confident that Disney, overall, would do a better ecological job managing it. And if not Disney, you take your favorite, AOL perhaps. Having said that, let us recognize that very few of our fellow countrymen would actually be in favor of handing Yellowstone over to Disney -- and I wouldn?t, either. Why? Why is it that if we are green, if we want conservation, if we believe Disney would do a better job -- and I surely do -- why wouldn?t we want it to own the place? Because there are some things so big that they actually enrich us all when they are owned not by Wall Street, but by America. I can?t speak for you, but I feel wealthier knowing that I am part of a country, a nation, that is grand enough to own a place like Yellowstone ? own it as a nation. I think there are many things in this country that make us feel that way, and we have to recognize those components of value too, values that inhere in national pride and purpose.
Now if you don?t believe in that kind of value -- and you certainly don?t have to -- then strike everything else I have to say. But if you recognize that there are affirmative values that come from public ownership ? some people don?t, but if you do -- then you have no alternative but to try and capture those values and perfect them. It?s no use saying other people can manage them better. Yes, they can, but that?s not the whole issue. Unless you simply deny the existence of public values, you have to grapple with how to create and preserve and advance them. It doesn?t mean you have to come down where I do. Maybe we already have too much government conservation; you could take that position. You can?t take a position for none of it, unless you altogether deny the existence of any inherently public value in the public conservation of those spaces.
Question: I?m mostly familiar with conservation issues in a biological context and a physics context. But it seems like you?ve taken us almost to the Promised Land and then you forgot something. What you need is a slogan and I?m going to propose a slogan for you, "Stop the Neolithic" or "End the Neolithic." Because it isn?t contemporary technologies that are the threat, it?s the continuation of neolithic technologies. How do we do that? We have to go back to Garrett Harden?s notion of the tragedy of the commons. And this brings in this whole issue of who?s calling the shots and who?s owning. You want us to fall back on the political process. But the problem with the political process is it?s always winner-takes-all and you?ll have the same combatants, generation after generation, fighting over the spoils. In some way, major resources have to be more privatized because people can defend their own property. If the water?s impure, you?ve got to be able to get at it, you?ve got to be able to purify it and take into court the people who have polluted it, and the same with the air and the same with the land. We need more what?s called free-market environmentalism.
You mentioned the fisheries problem. Our fisheries are in terrible shape. Why? Because of the tragedy of the commons. We have a set of incentives that says go out and grab it as fast as you can, it has present value, no future value. What we need is to have people be able to own fish into the future so they can rationally develop it.
Huber: Number one, about fisheries, I say in my book almost verbatim what you say. Number two, Garrett Harden is a repeat player in my book, beginning to end. The main mistake he made on the tragedy of the commons, and I say exactly this in exactly these words, is if you want to graze cows, you don?t need a commons. Same with fisheries. The main problem with fisheries isn?t our coastal waters, where these solutions should and will emerge. It?s what we send to the South Atlantic. And if we send Al Gore, I?m quite sure the fish will disappear. If we send gunboats or if we expand our coastal waters by 500 miles or so, I think we could probably protect the fish. The main problem with the global commons is that ultimately, you need a policeman behind your private property and we ain?t got one out there.
But there?s no question, if you?re trying to feed a cow or fuel a car or do anything that is traded on the New York or Chicago Exchange, anything that we can package as property ? all of these things will be produced better in the private market. But there are some things that possibly have value because they are not packaged as private property. Now some of you may disagree with that, but many people actually feel enriched personally by knowing that there is a kind of great wilderness open space, which belongs to us all. They may be crazy, but they?re allowed to be ? that?s how personal preferences and "subjective utility" actually work.
Question: Many of the most important hard technologies are stymied because of public perceptions or irrational fears of nuclear technology or toxicity. The priorities in environmental policy have been towards the Soft Green concerns. So how do you propose switching the priorities to land?
Huber: First, I?m trying to put the right metric in front of people. In Soft Green today, there is no metric. As soon as you say "this," they say, "but how about that." And it goes from fuel to asbestos to pollution to the next thing. We need some metric. There is no single perfect one, but overwhelmingly acres, green acres, is the best metric, the one to start with, the one to keep front and center throughout all the discourse. Take that paradigm, use it to assess policy options, crunch technologies through it, and you?ll end up with pretty good policies. Lose sight of it, and you?ll end up with rotten ones.
Second, there?s a matter of education. I wonder how many people, even in this room, even at this point in my discussion, actually believe we?re reforesting this continent. I?ll bet half of you still don?t (or maybe in this room, it?s only a quarter). Very few people believe it; they just won?t believe it. They?ve been told so often that we?re doing the opposite. Few soccer moms or soccer dads with good-sized houses in the suburbs will actually believe that they are covering more land with their lawn mower than they are with their SUV on the highway. They can?t internalize the thought that private land occupies a lot of space, while highways are shared goods and don?t occupy that much space at all. Their share of the highways is 0.2 acres or so; if you?ve got a half-acre lot, you?ve got more land under your lawn mower than your car, pro-rata. How do I persuade people? I do my best.
Question: You talk a good bit in your book about models and the building of models. Could you just give us a brief summary of what you concluded about the use of models in the environmental debate?
Huber: I think they are a natural, inevitable consequence of our rise of computing technology. It?s interesting that the limits-to-growth people of the ?70s got their models and computing power from the guys who first started building computers to track Soviet bombers for the U.S. military. Then they began modeling cities. Then just for the hell of it, why not model a whole planet? And they actually published a book on this, Limits to Growth. It?s great fun if you?re a conservative to hold that book up and wave it and laugh at it, because they got everything wrong and for reasons that are obvious in retrospect. And it?s almost equally clear, that if you try [to model] most pollutants, you?ll be just as wrong, because pollutants are the market?s externalities. If you can?t predict the market over the long term, you can?t predict its externalities over the long term.
Alvin Weinberg wrote a tremendous paper on this about 30 years ago. He coined the term "trans-science." There are questions out there that are epistemologically scientific, that are phrased in scientific terms, that look like scientific questions, but that -- for a number of reasons -- lie completely beyond scientific verification, testing, or falsification. Either they address very long time frames, fifty or a hundred years, say. Or else they involve extremely low-level, diffuse effects ? you?d need a billion mice to test out the proposition. These are questions that are so diffuse either in time or space that while they?re framed as scientific, they are not actually resolvable by any scientific means.
It is very easy to gin up such models. You can make them really complicated ? hundreds of thousands of lines of codes. To pick one much in the news, global warming. One of the key variables is cloud shape. Carbon dioxide alone won?t raise the planet?s temperatures very much. To raise temperature seriously takes water vapor, which a small initial amount of carbon induced heating may promote. The water vapor forms clouds. But a really big issue is what shape will those clouds be? Will they be big and round and puffy or will they be flat and thin? Because clouds can have one of two effects, one is a blanket effect, the other is a reflection-of-sunlight effect, and they work in opposite directions. Proposition one: some of the models out there are right. Proposition two: you can?t tell which ones. Proposition three: the models are so bad that much of the time you cannot believe the sign predicted -- plus or minus. Most of the trans-scientific models are so weak, they?re so untestable, that you can?t even believe the sign of what they predict, plus or minus, up or down. Global warming happens to be a vivid example. Read the literature from 25 years ago; it was all global cooling back then. The scientific community was unanimous on that. Now it?s global warming.
I?m not saying they?re wrong now, I can?t say it?s wrong. I?m not going to fall in the trap of saying that I know what is not knowable. What I do know is that, given this profusion of weak trans-scientific knowledge, and the number of different directions that these models can send you racing -- if you?re concerned about environment the best thing to do is to work on the things you can see and protect and improve on in the here and now, and forget about the big models. Do your conservation in the here and now, reforest, protect land, protect birds, protect the green things in hand today -- which, by and large means, protect acres -- and hope for the best on the rest. The modelers won?t help you do any better than that.
Question: You say some things that are very "Teddy Rooseveltian." If Teddy Roosevelt were around today, wouldn?t he have been a champion of EPA, going after the polluters with the Clean Air Act and -- ?
Huber: Unlike some in our government, I don?t consult with the dead, and they don?t speak to me. (Laughter) I?m inclined to think that some portion of our modern environmentalism, the basic macro issues of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act ? T.R. would have understood and accepted and embraced them. But I think he would have been appalled and horrified -- embarrassed -- that so much of our environmental agenda today is being set by wonks with big computers, rather than by outdoorsmen who know the outdoors and live in it and enjoy it and really know nature through direct, personal experience. I think he would have spent much less time than some do on the banks of the Potomac and a whole lot more time hiking in the woods.
Dr. Jastrow: Thank you.