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Green: The New Color of Catastrophe

Is there an advert on TV that doesn't claim the product or company involved is "doing its best for the planet" or something like that? I feel like I'm drowning in a sea of green every time a program goes to a commercial break. Yet the recent stories of food riots all over the world and wildfires in California should remind us that there's a downside to environmentalism -- a pretty big downside. It's a downside I explore in my new book, The Really Inconvenient Truths: Seven Environmental Catastrophes Liberals Don't Want You to Know About -- Because They Helped Cause Them.

The problem is the way liberal environmentalists work to achieve their policy aims. It's based on a model that goes back to 1962, when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring. What she did was take a genuine environmental concern -- the thinning of the eggs of large predatory birds caused by inappropriate use of the chemical DDT -- and turn it into a moral fervor. Environmental groups like the Environmental Defense Fund were founded to press for laws banning even appropriate uses of the substance. By exaggerating the effects of DDT, in particular by alleging a non-existent cancer risk from mere contact with it, she fomented a zealotry that cast any who opposed such measures as uniquely evil.

That fervor is self-perpetuating. That is why DDT use is still for all intents and purposes banned despite its withdrawal causing devastation among the population of American elms, and the far more tragic result of stripping African nations of the most effective weapon they had against malaria. The real silent spring is heard every year in playgrounds across countries like Uganda, where children fall victim to the disease in heart-rending numbers. That's the human price of the moral fervor over DDT.

The wildfires we see in the West are another example of the downside. Environmentalists exploit people's concern at the idea that people cut down national forests for profit, and have used the Endangered Species Act and other legislative vehicles to reduce commercial logging by 80 percent in national forests over the past decade. Yet the reason why wildfires spread so fast is that we have allowed massive amounts of brush and undergrowth to grow up in our forests and parks. In particular, small trees cause devastation because large trees have thick enough bark to brush off fires; small trees act as a ladder, lifting the fire up to the crown of mature trees, where it can take hold. An average stand of ponderosa pines now holds 10 to 15 times as many trees per acre as it did a century ago.

Logging helped clear that growth, but that process has now been abandoned in favor of the suicidal and risky process of "managed fires." As the loggers paid the Forest Service for the privilege, the service's budget has also been squeezed, while it needs more and more money to fight fires. In 1991, 13 percent of the service's budget went to fighting fires. By 2006, that had ballooned up to 45 percent, so the loss of logging is doubly disastrous for the Forest Service. The moral fervor that says that logging is wrong sets the West on fire every year.

And then there's ethanol. The poor of the world spend most of their money on two things: energy and food. Energy prices are going up all over the world, as Americans well know. Now, we're seeing a massive rise in the price of food. Energy prices obviously factor into that, as do other things like developing world countries getting richer and their people eating more. Yet even as these things were happening, our Congress decided to restrict the corn supply by requiring that massive amounts of corn be converted to fuel in the form of ethanol. In this they were spurred on, of course, by big agribusiness, but also by liberal environmentalists like the Natural Resources Defense Council (which as recently as 2005 was aggressively pushing corn ethanol because "existing biofuels technologies save oil, reduce greenhouse gases, build infrastructure, and develop markets.")

The effect has again been a humanitarian disaster. We're seeing food riots all over the world and massive increases in hunger. Haitians have been reduced to eating dirt. The World Bank and the United Nations both pin much of the blame for this on biofuel mandates. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has even gone so far as to call them a "crime against humanity." Once again, the moral fervor whipped up by environmentalists that oil is bad and ethanol good has resulted in increased human suffering.

Yet somehow, green is still good. There is a zeitgeist about green environmentalism that has gripped us like some form of mass hysteria so that we cannot see the very real harm it is causing. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that firms were ceasing to see any benefit from their green advertising and were now counting it as a cost of doing business. The green emperor not only has no clothes, he is oppressing the poor and burning the forests. It's time for an anti-green revolution.

Iain Murray is a Senior Fellow at CEI and author of The Really Inconvenient Truths: Seven Environmental Catastrophes Liberals Don't Want You to Know About -- Because They Helped Cause Them, published by Regnery. You can get a free chapter via reallyinconvenienttruths.com.