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Greens Versus Energy*


George Reisman**

Environmentalism, and its boa constrictor-like, strangling grip on energy production, is taking an increasingly visible toll on production and the quality of life in the United States. Recurring power blackouts in California and skyrocketing oil and natural gas prices are the most obvious symptoms.

Nevertheless, the environmentalists seem utterly impervious to the destruction they are causing. Despite the fact that the American people so clearly need additional energy supplies, the environmentalists claim that additional energy supplies are desired only by the companies that produce energy and not by the tens— indeed, hundreds—of millions of ordinary American consumers who need it to power their automobiles and appliances, to light and heat their homes, to cook their food, and to be able to buy goods in general at affordable prices.

The New York Times—that fount of wisdom and moral authority (according to today’s intellectual establishment, at least)—has let it be known that ". . . on the whole it [President Bush’s energy proposal] is an alarmingly unbalanced piece of work whose main objective seems to be to satisfy the ambitions of the oil, gas, and coal industries, either by easing environmental rules or by opening public lands for aggressive exploration" (Lead editorial, May 18, 2001).

The Times repeatedly advances this same editorial theme in its alleged news reports. For example, in one such recent report, it declared: "Administration officials seem eager to blunt charges from Democrats and environmentalists that their energy policy depends almost exclusively on new production rather than on conservation. Critics have accused Mr. Bush of using California’s woes as a pretext to rally support for an energy policy that emphasizes measures long supported by oil, gas, and utility industries while largely playing down the potential impact of energy efficiency and conservation" (National Edition, May 3, 2001, pp. 1 and 17).

According to The Times and those who share its views, additional energy is desired only by its producers, merely for the sake of their "selfish profit"—or, sometimes one gets the impression, for their equally cruel desire to be able to create smog, acid rain, and global warming, and to kill off cuddly wildlife, such as caribou and grizzly bears. The activities of the evil energy producers allegedly have no relation to anyone else’s needing or wanting the additional energy they are eager to produce. Certainly, mentioning any such relation is carefully avoided.

When consumers are considered, it is never as customers of the energy producers, who provide the demand for the latter’s products. The source of the profits of the energy producers and thus of their motive for desiring to produce more—i.e., the demand of more than two hundred million consumers—is simply ignored. The consumers allegedly have no need of any additional energy production, certainly not from conventional sources. The fact that they would willingly—indeed, eagerly—pay the producers very profitable prices for selling them the additional energy they allegedly do not need is, as I say, simply ignored.

Instead, it is assumed that the consumers are, or easily could be, fully supplied by "renewable energy sources," namely, wind and solar power, and by "conservation," or consuming less energy. In the interval between the arrival of sufficient additional solar and wind power and the achievement of sufficient "conservation," the consumers are apparently to rely on being supplied by magic.

When the inevitable consequences of not increasing the supply of energy appear—namely, sharply higher prices or shortages—the blame is placed on anything but the actual causes. Propositions based on the fact that electricity comes from power plants, and to have more electricity, more power plants are needed, are ignored. The lack of power plants, of crude oil and oil refineries, of natural gas and natural gas pipelines, is considered irrelevant to high prices of power, oil, and gas, and to shortages of these products when prices are not allowed to rise sufficiently.

Their lack allegedly makes no difference. What explains the high prices and shortages according to the environmentalists is "manipulation" and "price gouging"—by the very producers whose efforts to expand energy production, if not frustrated by the environmentalists, would have held prices down, or actually reduced them, and prevented shortages.

It should be obvious that the environmental movement has become a massive public nuisance, striking at the material well-being of all Americans. This is the literal meaning of its repeated frustration of efforts to find new sources of oil and gas and its repeated prevention of the construction of power plants, refineries, and pipelines.

The movement’s endlessly repeated demands for "energy efficiency," i.e., producing with less energy per capita, strike at the very heart of the productivity of labor, which requires the use of more energy per capita if the same, very limited, muscular endowment of human beings is to be able to produce more and better goods. Our standard of living depends on the fact that we have augmented our modest human muscle power with ever-greater amounts of manmade horsepower, in the form of engines, motors, and generators, powered by fossil fuels and nuclear energy. This is what the environmentalists wish to undo.

The environmental movement is profoundly antilabor, because in seeking to undercut the productivity of labor, it strikes at the foundation of rising real wages. Only a higher productivity of labor, based on the use of more energy per capita, not less, serves to increase the supply of products relative to the supply of labor and thus to reduce prices relative to wages, or, what is equivalent, to make it possible for wages to rise without prices having to rise, or rise as much.

The environmentalists make no secret of the direction in which they are trying to move us. Bill McKibben, one of the leading representatives of the movement writes: "The environmentally sane standard of living for a population our current size would probably be somewhere between that of the average Englishman and of the average Ethiopian—each lives unreasonably" (The End of Nature, New York: Random House, 1989, p. 202).

In an age of class-action lawsuits, isn’t it time to consider one on behalf of every American who values his standard of living and has seen it reduced because of the repeated destructive interference of this cabal of self-righteous pests?

This article originally appeared on May 22, 2001 on the web site of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and was reprinted in slightly abridged form in The Orange County Register on June 10, 2001, under the title "Environmentalists assume role of pests in our society.

*Copyright © 2001 by George Reisman. All rights reserved.

**George Reisman, Ph.D., is professor of Economics at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management and is the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996). 

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