By Russ Roberts
Here’s my postmortem on the Gregory Zuckerman episode. I focus on the question of what I described in the conversation as the religious aspect of environmentalism.When I was in college I was discussing the California redwoods with a fellow undergraduate. He really loved the redwoods. I asked him if he would be willing to give up the redwoods to save 3000 children from dying. He refused to answer the question. Said it was silly. Maybe it was. But I think he was uneasy with answering either yes or no. In a way he was right, it was a silly question. But years later, there was a debate over whether to harvest taxol from Pacific yews in the northwestern United States. The trees were the habitat of the spotted owl, an endangered species. Taxol had been shown to be effective against ovarian cancer. A lot of people opposed cutting down Pacific yews to save lives.
That’s a legitimate view. It’s not my view but there is no disputing tastes. I would describe the view that would save the redwoods or the spotted owl at any cost, a religious view. For me the essence of a religious perspective is that there are some values or desires that trump all others, regardless of the price. Being a religious person in the traditional sense of the word, I have no problem with holding religious views. For me, it’s a way of saying there aren’t any tradeoffs. In real life, each of us may struggle to hold to our views when confronted with an actual situation. I presume there were defenders of spotted owls who changed their minds when it was their mother’s life at stake. But maybe not. The fancy name in economics for the kind of preferences that don’t have tradeoffs is a lexicographic preference.
Talking to environmentalists, I sense a lot of preferences that are lexicographic–religious–rather than the more common case where tradeoffs come into play. I assume there are people who are worried about climate change who are excited about fracking because it reduces the use of coal and substitutes natural gas. But I think there are a lot of people who are worried about climate change who are very opposed to fracking and who are not interested in trying to see if the risks of fracking are relatively small or not. They just don’t like the idea of fossil fuels or drilling. That’s a religious perspective to me. Is it common or uncommon? I don’t know. But I don’t think it’s rare.
Commenters Jesse and Geoff Harris seem to think my view on this is an example of my bias. Not sure what the bias is. I understand that fracking and oil extraction is risky for our water and so on. The risks seem small to me. The benefits are large–a lot of people are spending a lot less for energy. If I am wrong about the risks I’m happy to learn that that’s the case and that would cool my enthusiasm for the process. But for some people that kind of calculation is irrelevant. It’s always going to be too risky. That’s the attitude I was describing. I didn’t mean to imply that all environmentalists feel that way. But I think many do.