In 1994, environmentalism stood at a crossroads. The movement as a whole could fit itself to the American model of free enterprise, property rights and individualism or it could become a favorite tool of big money interests and shameless politicians who had no use for the American way. In fact, some would say that the movement had always been a tool of socialistic revolutionaries but some, like Joseph Bast, recognized that there had always been people within the movement dedicated to laudable ecological goals. There were good reasons to want real and effective environmentalism. Joe considered himself an environmentalist and was troubled to watch the slide of his peers toward political leftism and away from clean and green goals.

A recently unearthed clip of Joe Bast discussing Heartland’s early resistance to prevailing global warming theory:

Eco-Sanity was an attempt to right a foundering ship, an effort to start a dialogue “across the aisle” and was simply a potent payload of inconvenient facts and science. Now, Eco-Sanity stands at approximately the halfway point between the birth of the environmental movement and the present. Today’s agenda-driven and climate-obsessed environmentalists would surely prefer that Eco-Sanity be forgotten but that, in itself, should suggest there’s something worthwhile within its 300 dense pages, something timeless.

There are several angles from which this work was groundbreaking. What stands out to me though is that it was among the very first to make the case against doom-ridden environmentalism, the only environmentalism most of us know today. Eco-Sanity made it okay for researchers and authors to “come out of the closet” with their reservations about the evolving movement. Eco-Sanity opened a conversation on the true carcinogenic ties to cancer rates and mortality. It exposed much about the true relative harm of acid rain. People were allowed to notice that automobile pollution had declined steeply since the 1960s and ’70s. The unseen facts behind the exaggerated dioxin scare were brought to light. And importantly, the authors were among the first on the case against the global warming scare.

Between the lines, the reader comes to see an agenda of fear just below the surface of all that the modern environmental movement does. Notably, fear is also a potent motivator of those wishing to rule the rest of us and so we see in this work the specifics of how the environmental movement became a tool of authoritarian interests. Big picture politics remains largely beyond the scope of this 1994 work though, a volume intended more to help the foundering environmental movement find its way, less to prognosticate to the coming socialistic perils on the horizon. The book remains important because it suggests an environmental movement that might have been, something that was still within reach during the 1990s. Readers are left to ponder why such a well-reasoned road was not taken and whether such a paradigm may still be possible.

Instead of writing a dissertation or long review of this work (which I finished only recently) purely from my own head, I thought I’d do something different and actually talk to the author, 29 years post-publication. I contacted Joe and, despite a long list of accomplishments and publications between 1994 and now, Eco-Sanity still seemed in the forefront of his thoughts as a place where big ideas were introduced and a groundwork was lain for much scholarly work to follow. Joe went on, as president of the Heartland Institute, to grow this organization to the world’s premier antagonist of dogmatic global warming ideology, a place where science trumped the shallow talking points we sometimes see in our own right-wing media, re-hashed by people who haven’t really spent any time with the science. Joe has, if anyone has, spent time with the science and it shows, starting with early publications like Eco-Sanity.

Joe, a life-long environmentalist, described the inception of the work as a time when he was studying and presenting his findings on the economics of recycling, generally in a positive light. He was questioned on his findings by a fellow named Peter Hill who suggested that there were data he was overlooking. Dr. Hill furnished much of this overlooked data and suggested a broader research project, the studies that were to underlie Eco-Sanity.

Joe makes much of the idea that data and facts were emphasized, as opposed to anecdotes or the emotional appeals so common to the environmentalism of the day (and the present). The authors took pride in this, both in the breadth and depth of research and in the lack of emotions-based content. “We emphasized data and facts, not anecdotes, opinions, generalities, or personal experiences,” Joe asserted, remembering this clearly almost thirty years later. This is apparent simply from the extent of the book’s bibliography or from the number of citations (about 430). The data relied on includes much from government sources and encompasses the realm of environmental science and also economics—a pertinent “other half” of any meaningful conversation on the environment.

I’m going to quote Joe at length in the remainder of this review concerning Eco-Sanity—what it got right, what it got wrong and its legacy.

I asked what Joe likes best about this early book, 29 years later.

“Our ‘debunking’ of twelve environmental myths was more comprehensive but more succinct than appeared in any other books published around the same time… Those twelve myths still dominate the environmental movement and the national policy debate today.

“I’m especially pleased with the sections titled ‘Rules for Eco-Sanity’ and ‘A Common-Sense Agenda.’ If I had to write them today, I wouldn’t change nary a word. These were genuine contributions to the debate…no one else had digested the argument into simple and easy-to-remember rules and recommendations.”

I had to ask, however, about the book’s biggest mistake, knowing that there had to be something, something perhaps not apparent in 1994 but revealed by the passing years.

“The biggest mistake in the book appears on page x in the preface when we wrote, ‘Our concern is principally with the tactics and methods used by the environmental movement to attain its ends—ends that we generally support.’ It is possible that, at the time, the movement still cared about human as well as animal and plant flourishing, and the movement’s leaders may have been open to ‘new methods of thinking about and reacting to environmental hazards.’ It was an olive branch offered sincerely but also naively.”

How did the worthwhile environmental movement that still existed in the early ’80s and ’90s get off track?

“The environmental movement always had a closer affinity with the left end than with the right end of the political spectrum, but in the 1990s many conservatives were still proud to call themselves ‘conservationists’ and many environmentalists saw them as allies. I believe that ended in the 2000s when big foundations, already captured by the far left, took over all the major environmental groups and used them as front groups to attain purely political ends. Groups such as the Sierra Club and even the Nature Conservancy were told to lobby for more stringent air quality regulation, restrictions on private land use, a ban on the use of chlorine, and climate policies based purely on alarmism and fear. Eventually, they all capitulated.

“The left then used the environmental movement—as it was using K-12 schools, universities, media, Hollywood, and other institutions—to advance its anti-human and anti-capitalism agenda. The tactics we said ‘bore a strong resemblance to the problem-solving approaches of adolescents and young adults’ (p. vii) are still being used today by the environmental movement, not because they work to protect the environment (they clearly do not) but because the left finds them valuable to sow chaos, destroy institutions, and whip up public support for their controlled politicians.

“In retrospect, we should have warned of the coming takeover by liberal foundations, warned grassroots environmentalists that their leaders had sold out or were about to sell out, and urged them to disassociate themselves from the political left now, before it was too late. Would anyone have listened? Maybe…”

When the book was released, did you actually expect to start a dialogue with the environmental mainstream?

“Oh yes, absolutely. We were sincere, and we thought we saw an opening for ‘common-sense environmentalism’ at a time when public resistance and even backlash to the environmental movement was becoming visible. But as I alluded to earlier, that window soon closed as the MacArthur Foundation, Rockefeller brothers, Tides, and other leftist foundations stepped in and began to enforce an anti-market and anti-science orthodoxy.

“Some dialogue actually took place. I was often on panels with environmentalists and our exchanges were usually cordial and mutually informative. (That stopped happening in the 2010s, around the time of ‘Fakegate.’) Most of them were still ‘stuck’ in the tactics of the movement’s early years—peddling fear and not caring about facts, costs or unintended consequences—and I was the first environmentalist to call them out in front of an audience. Since I presented myself as a ‘numbers guy,’ and they were invariably unprepared to defend their views with actual data, they would sometimes concede that I had something worthwhile to contribute to the discussion. Remember: I was always there to help the environmental movement, not debunk it.

“Through the book we discovered other people in the environmental movement who were having doubts, and we inspired them to come out of the closet. Eco-Sanity led to Unstoppable Global Warming…Every 1,500 Years (2007) and then Climate Change Reconsidered (five volumes, the first published in 2009). These books clearly identified Heartland as the place to go for science on that topic. The few prominent skeptics at the time (e.g., Fred Singer, Pat Michaels) didn’t have organizations and so weren’t able to publish as much, hold events, etc. By hosting a dozen International Climate Conferences, we were able to identify and support some 400 scientists, economics, and policy experts willing to dissent from the left’s narrative on climate change.”

Today, this book should still be read by anyone wishing to really understand environmentalism—where it came from and where it might be going. Big-picture points are made here that are easily glossed over by mainstream environmental coverage. Among these is the idea that characterizations of environmental emergencies should not be taken at face value. There are forces at work and motivations behind the scenes that the environmental lobby would rather not have you think about or even be aware of. There are expansive departures from the science.

It’s easy to imagine millions of Americans who’ve encountered only the standard line on the environment: Earth is good, business is bad, skeptics are worse. If you’re among these millions, you should pick up Eco-Sanity right away before consuming any more of the prevailing Eco-Madness.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Malcolm

    Yeah, missed out on this transitions as I was raising kids, but always saw that with the major environmental goals attained in the 1970-80’s that fringe issues would have to be exaggerated to keep the media hype relevant. Like the published numbers of deaths due the supposed air pollution and the so called mercury fallout from burning coal.

Comments are closed.