In my latest reading of Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, Al Gore says that environmental damage is actually costly to the economy, particularly in a long-term sense. When forests are cut down, what is there left for the timber industry of the future? When soil is overworked, it eventually loses its productivity. Gore provides other examples, as well.
What I want to focus on in this post is something that Gore says on pages 193-194:
companies are trying to guess whether the new public awareness of the
environment is temporary or permanent. Major paper mills, for example,
facing a round of investment in new capacity, must decide whether the
current interest in recycled paper is here to stay. If so, then large
investments in recycling plants will be profitable; if not, they may
face serious risks in making such investments. Such prophecies often
tend to be self-fulfilling, of course. But here is where the government
can play an important role----and too often has failed to do so. The
Bush administration talks loudly about the tendency of a free
marketplace to solve all problems. But many of our markets are highly
regulated, often in hidden ways. In the case of the paper industry, for
instance, taxpayers currently subsidize the manufacture of paper
products made from virgin timber, both as the largest single purchaser
and by further subsidizing the construction of logging roads into
national forests. In addition, the federal government pays the entire
cost of managing the forest system, including many activities that
exclusively benefit the timber industry. All of these policies
encourage further destruction of a critical natural resource."
not entirely clear as to how Gore thinks that the government can help,
in the area of recycled paper. Does he think that the government should
invest in recycled paper, if private industries do not do so because
they do not find it to be profitable? But Gore does point out that the
government, in certain ways, is already on the side of the timber
industry----as a consumer, as a subsidizer, and as a builder of
infrastructure that encourages logging. This reminds me of the
libertarian argument that government is part of the problem because it
is on the side of special interests, giving them an unfair advantage.
What Gore says also calls to my mind the argument by green conservatives
and libertarians that, when land is not personally owned but is owned
by the government, the government can easily encourage environmental
devastation of that land, whereas private owners would take better care
of it (see here).
wonder, though: Is Gore against the timber industry, which provides a
number of jobs? Could there be a way to maintain the timber industry,
while also preserving the trees that are so necessary for absorbing
carbon, for giving us oxygen, and for serving as a resource for the
timber industry? Perhaps businesses could replant trees after cutting
them down (though it may take a while for the trees to grow).