Eight years ago, my fellow economist Bryan Caplan apparently convinced himself that there was a good chance that climate science was a joke, and he convinced himself so convincingly that he then convinced himself to make a bet with me about it.
We are now a bit more than halfway through our 15-year betting period, and—surprise!—I’m crushing him. So, while I’m waiting for Bryan’s check to arrive (and while he’s spending his time “auditing” a book by some fellow who claims that “climate scientists lack the causal understanding of climate to make meaningful predictions” but who probably doesn’t want to put his money down on Bryan’s side of our bet!), I figured I would take a few minutes to review Bryan’s book, Don’t Be an Environmentalist: Essays on Intergenerational Justice.
Now, I should admit that I haven’t actually read Bryan’s book. That’s probably par for the course in many book reviews, but when it comes to Bryan’s book I have a really good excuse, namely that Bryan hasn’t written it yet!
His most recent book is actually called Don’t Be a Feminist: Essays on Genuine Justice and, well, I haven’t read that one either.
But I did read his post about the book, and it’s easy enough to extrapolate the three-point approach outlined in his post to environmental issues, so here goes my review of Don’t Be an Environmentalist.
- Many people would say that an “environmentalist” is someone who cares about clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment. As Don’t Be an Environmentalist cleverly points out, however, polls show that just about everybody cares about clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment. Only a fraction of those people describe themselves as environmentalists… so that can’t be what environmentalism is really about.
- So what is environmentalism really about? I’ll give you three guesses, but if you know anything about Bryan then you should only need one. The answer, according to Don’t Be an Environmentalist, is simple: it’s about socialism. Bernie Sanders, the Green New Deal, the whole nine meters. (Hah! Another metric system joke!)
- From here the book races merrily downstream to its inevitable conclusion. Bryan deftly synthesizes the voluminous research showing that socialism negatively impacts economic growth rates, and then argues that when it comes to intergenerational equity, well, as Robert Lucas put it, “Once you start thinking about growth, it’s hard to think about anything else.” (Presumably Lucas never tried thinking about socialism!) And that, in short is why you shouldn’t be an environmentalist.
Bryan’s approach in his books—redefine a term, and then attack it—is so powerful that it’s practically Orwellian. Read Don’t Be an Environmentalist and you too may be tempted to squander the legacy of Julian Simon by betting against climate science. Read Don’t Be a Feminist and you too may start to see all the ways that men are mistreated in movies like Legally Blonde. (Recall that Professor Callahan has the hots for the Reese Witherspoon character… so he helps her get a prestigious internship! Too bad Dorky David Kidney isn’t so lucky.)
Speaking of Don’t Be a Feminist, Bryan’s approach in the title essay is to write a letter to his daughter, so I figured I would also post some thoughts for her (and for Bryan’s other children).
Dear child of Bryan:
Many people don’t seem to care all that much about anything outside of a pretty small circle of family, friends, and maybe a football team. What I like about your father is that he does show extra concern for something else: he cares about ideas. We might even redefine an existing word—something your father loves to do!—and call him an idealist.
Unfortunately, his supply of interesting ideas is sometimes swamped by his desire for attention, and in those moments he becomes a troll. That’s what happened with Don’t Be a Feminist, and I fear that it’s happening again with Don’t Be an Environmentalist.
Now, a commonsense definition of an environmentalist is someone who shows extra concern for the environment, just like a feminist is someone who shows extra concern for girls and women, just like a child welfare advocate is someone who shows extra concern for children.
By contrast, Bryan’s definitional approach is wackadoodle. In Don’t Be a Feminist, he asserts that a feminist is someone who thinks society is “less fair” to women than to men, which suggests—for example—that a child welfare advocate must be someone who thinks that society is “less fair” to children than to grown-ups (whatever than means). If he didn’t come right out in Don’t Be an Environmentalist and define environmentalists to be socialists, my guess would be that he’d define them as people who think that society is “less fair” to penguins than to people (again, whatever that means). Heaven knows what will happen if, in his push against conventional wisdom, he gets around to looking into whether society is or is not “less fair” to Jews than to gentiles. (Perhaps his next next book will be called Don’t Worry about Anti-Semitism!)
Part of what’s disappointing here is that an idealist like your father should have more respect for ideas, and for people who care about ideas. Trolls take up time and attention that could be better devoted elsewhere.
But there’s a deeper source of disappointment here, namely that he should have more respect not just for people who show extra concern for ideas, but also for people who show extra concern for the environment, and for people who show extra concern for girls and women. Such people deserve to be celebrated, even if the subject of their attention is something as small as, oh, let’s say, public choice theory. They are trying to make the larger world—the world beyond family, friends, and football—a better place.
I hope you turn out to be one of those people, but in any case I wish you the best of luck. Feel free to reach out to me anytime, and if our paths cross after my bet with your father ends in 2030, well, lunch is on me!
PS. Anybody interested in moving beyond words and thinking about actual policy is encouraged to check out (and hopefully support!) the clean-air-and-climate ballot measure effort I’m helping to lead in Utah. It’s called Clean The Darn Air. Our proposal is to put $100m a year into local air quality programs and $50m a year into rural economic development, eliminate the state sales tax on grocery store food and expand the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit match for low-income working families, and pay for it all with a modest carbon tax on the fossil fuels that are the main cause of local air pollution (a big problem in Utah) and global climate change (a growing problem in many places).