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Maddening Numbers

The way in which the media and policymakers are using the numbers on coronavirus approaches insanity. Most of the numbers published are about as credible as Trump’s estimates of the size of his inaugural crowd. Absolutely no one with any expertise believes that China has only 80,000 cases o...

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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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In Defense of Raising Alarms


Thursday April 24, 2014

A good alternative to a bracing cold shower as a way of raising your heart beat in the morning is to read any review, oped, or editorial about environment in the Wall Street Journal. Today’s digitalis was served up by James Hoffman in his review of A Climate of Crisis by Patrick Allitt. I’ll reserve judgment of the book, but the review offers the standard WSJ stew of casuistry, cherry-picking, misinformation and distortions that has long been the Journal’s signature when it comes to environment.

For instance, Huffman credits authors like Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner with rousing the public to demand the landmark environmental legislation of the ‘60s and early ‘70s (give a nod to Richard Nixon – much of the credit for today's cleaner air, water, and protected species trace to legislation he signed), but then has this gem: “Even so, environmentalists continued to cry wolf, and we’re undeterred when their doom-saying forecasts of global famine and ecological ruin failed to materialize.”

In what way was Silent Spring crying wolf? To find an example of a nation that didn’t heed the warnings of the environmentalists of that era, Mr. Huffman need only travel to China, where pesticides did kill off most birdlife, where pollution has so fouled the air and water that in vast stretches of the country the water is unfit even for industry, the land is too poisoned for farming and air pollution makes the cities unlivable.

And then there’s this: “And numerous Northwest communities were devastated in the 1990s by a 90% cut in public-land timber harvests, which crippled the timber industry to save the Northern Spotted Owl.” Really? At the point at which the Spotted Owl issue boiled up, the only remaining large tracts of old growth Pacific Northwest forests were on public land as virtually all old growth on private land had already been cut. So much for Wise Use. Moreover, over the years, automation threw more loggers out of work than environmental restrictions (which were a convenient whipping boy for owners who would gladly cut the payroll if a machine could do a man’s work). With old growth gone the logging industry was destined to shrink drastically anyway as the real money lay in extracting the giant, ancient trees.

If private owners had acted responsibly and the Forest Service not acted as errand boys for the loggers over many decades, the Endangered Species Act would not have come into play as a last resort. Would Huffman have preferred that all old growth be available for logging?

I’ll give Huffman some credit. Unlike virtually any other writer that appears in the Journal’s editorial pages, he sounds as though he does think environment needs protecting. He thinks the courts are the place to work out environmental disputes (which reminds me of Michael Kinsley’s pithy line about the libertarian preference for courts over regulation: “Why do something once when you can do it many times”). Courts need laws, however, and when has Congress enacted any legislation without a sense of urgency?

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Short Take

A Glimmer of Hope in the Coronavirus News?

I’m usually the most apocalyptic guy in the room, but, maybe, there’s a glimmer of hope in the latest news on the coronavirus. If it’s been circulating in Washington state for several weeks, it’s probably also been circulating in a few other states for weeks as well. And if there hasn’t been a big spike in visits to emergency rooms with respiratory ailments (and I have not read about such), it may well be that the virus is already widely spread in the U.S., but not hitting Americans as hard as it has populations elsewhere. If this turns out to be the case, the difference might be that there are far fewer smokers in the U.S. than in China, South Korea, Japan and Italy, and that the air is far cleaner in American cities than in China’s. 

We’ll find out in the next few weeks whether Americans are better able to withstand the disease. There remain major unknowns about coronavirus; nor do we know how hard the virus will hit the elderly and infirm. Still, this latest news could be a positive. 



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