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August 27, 2021 Reading Time: 3 minutes

Dramatic headlines and images showing a deteriorating environment exist to demand swift, decisive, and large-scale action. We saw this approach in the 1960s when the first made-for-TV environmental crises showed oil-drenched seabirds on the California Coast and more recently in depressing videos depicting starving polar bears. Dramatic imagery has become the norm when discussing environmental issues.

We also see trends in editorial writing, discussions among political groups, changing business practices, and increasingly scholarly claims that also use dramatic imagery. At face value, these trends could indicate that the public demands dramatic governmental action on environmental issues. Some scholars, however, see this as more than mere increased public demand for government intervention, and they highlight similarities between environmentalism and religious movements. For example, Laurence Siegal states:

In the decades since modern environmentalism began, the movement has taken on some of the characteristics of a religion: claims not backed by evidence, self-denying behavior to assert goodness, (and a) focus on the supposed end of times.

Scholars have tuned into the general public’s zealous interest in the environment and more importantly, emphasis on government action, to push forward their own ideological goals under the guise of scholarship. Whereas the ultimate goal of scholarship is to mitigate climate change and improve sustainability, the reality is instead corrupted by thinly veiled ideology masquerading as scholarship, which is sure to distort any useful policy recommendations. 

This phenomenon is illustrated by a recent study making the rounds in Science Daily and The Climate News Network. The authors, Vogel et al., claim that the world must decrease energy use to 27 gigajoules (GJ) per person in order to keep average global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a recommendation included in the Paris Agreement. Our current reality illustrates the outlandish nature of this suggestion. We are a far cry from this goal both in 2012, the year chosen for this study, as well as in 2019, the most recent year for available data. Here is a snapshot of current per person energy consumption (GJ):

2012: 2019:
United States: 285.59United States: 287.63
China: 84.56China: 98.83
Canada: 385.67Canada: 379.94
Denmark: 127.97Denmark: 120.73
Germany: 165.10Germany: 157.33
Russia: 201.26Russia: 204.322
India: 19.84 India: 24.92

Using these data, the authors pair what they view to be excessive energy use with a failure to meet basic human needs worldwide. In their own argument, they acknowledge that among the 108 countries studied, only 29 reach sufficient need satisfaction levels. In each case where need satisfaction is met, the country uses at least double the 27 GJ/cap of sustainable energy use, thereby creating a conundrum both for those concerned about the environment and human well-being. 

The authors, however, provide a solution arguing that their research shows a complete overhaul of “the current political-economic regime,” would allow countries to meet needs at sustainable energy levels. Some of their recommendations include: universal basic services, minimum and maximum income thresholds, and higher taxes on wealth and inheritance. 

These policy recommendations are not supported by the research and directly contradict a body of literature that argues economic growth, not government redistribution, is our way forward. Vogel et al. argue against the necessity for economic growth and even go as far as to support degrowth policies on the grounds that their model finds no link between economic growth and maximizing human need satisfaction and minimizing energy use. 

In short, their proposed solution would punish affluent countries and favor a collective misery in which any market driven environmental improvements are crushed under the promise of equality and sustainable energy use. 

Conversely, Laurence Siegel in Fewer, Richer, Greener: Prospects for Humanity in an Age of Abundance and the 2020 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) argue that economic prosperity allows countries to invest in new technologies and policies that improve not only environmental health but also the well-being of the people. Thus, if we want to continue to improve our relationship with the environment and human progress, we should be more supportive of economic growth and the entrepreneurship that drives it. 

If the above relationship between economic prosperity, environmental health, and human well-being is the case, how can these authors claim the opposite? The most likely conclusion is that the authors allow an ideological bias to drive their research, a claim that is supported by their normative descriptions of affluent countries as examples of planned obsolescence, overproduction, and overconsumption as well as the authors’ obvious demonization of profit-making. 

As Vogel et al. demonstrates, environmental issues can be exploited by the drama and religious nature of the movement. Unfortunately, academics, such as Vogel et al., have learned to use these tools to stretch their limited findings into a full-blown rallying cry for their own preferred policies; in this case, socialism on a global scale.

Ryan M. Yonk

Ryan M. Yonk

Ryan M. Yonk is Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research.  He holds a PhD from Georgia State University and a MS and BS from Utah State University. Prior to joining AIER he held academic positions at North Dakota State University, Utah State University, and Southern Utah University, and was one of the founders of the Strata Policy. He is the (co) author or editor of numerous books including Green V. GreenNature Unbound: Bureaucracy vs. the Environment, The Reality of American Energy,  and Politics and Quality of Life: The Role of Well-Being in Political Outcomes. He has also (co) authored numerous articles in academic journals including Public ChoiceThe Independent ReviewApplied Research in Quality of Life, and the Journal of Private Enterprise. His research explores how policy can be better crafted to achieve greater individual autonomy and prosperity.

 

Selected Academic Journal Articles

“Trading Places; Effects of voting systems on multicandidate elections”, (2011) (with Randy T Simmons and Derek Johnson) Public Choice, Volume 146, Numbers 3-4, 341-351, 2011.

“Bootleggers, Baptists and Political Entrepreneurs: Key Players in the Rational and Morality play of Regulatory Politics,” (2010) (with Randy Simmons and Diana Thomas) The Independent Review, Volume 15(3).

“Citizen Involvement: Quality of Life in a time of Direct Democracy” (with Shauna Reilly) Applied Research in Quality of Life, March 2012

“Battlegrounds and Budgets; State-level Evidence of Budget Manipulation in Competitive Presidential Election States” State and Local Government Review. Vol 45 No. 2, June 2013 (With Daniel Franklin and Sean Richey)

“The Empty Intersection: Why so little Public Choice in Political Science? Public Choice July 2015 (With Randy T Simmons)

“The Regulatory Noose: Logan City’s Adventures in Micro-Hydropower”  Energies. June 2016. (With Randy T Simmons and Megan Hansen)

“Boon or Bust: Wilderness Designation and Local Economies” Journal of Private Enterprise. Fall 2016. (With Randy T. Simmons and Brian C. Steed)

“From Equality and the Rule of Law to the Collapse of Egalitarianism” Independent Review. June 2017 (With James Harrigan)

“Disincentives to Business Development on the Navajo Nation”. Journal of Developmental Entrepreneurship. June 2017 (With Devin Stein and Sierra Hoffer)

Human Influences on the Northern Yellowstone Range. Rangelands. January 2019. (With Jeff Mosely and Peter Husby)

“Exploring Impacts of the Surface Mine Reclamation and Control Act” Resources. Feb 2019 (With Joshua Smith and Arthur Wardle)

“Manufactured Yellowstone: Political Management of an American Icon: Institutions and Incentives in Yellowstone Management” (With Jordan Lofthouse) May 2020, International Journal of Geoheritage and Parks.

Permissionless Innovation and Land-Use Regulation: How Zoning Can Frustrate Sustainability an Example from the United States. (With Josh Smith) December 2021, Journal of Sustainability Science and Management

 

Books & Edited Volumes

Green vs. Green: The Political, Legal, and Administrative Pitfalls Facing Green Energy Production. Routledge Press. Oct 2012 (With Randy Simmons and Brian Steed)

Nature Unbound: Bureaucracy vs. The Environment. Independent Institute. March 2016[1] (With Randy Simmons and Ken Sim)

The Reality of American Energy: The Hidden Costs of Electricity Policy. Praeger Press. July 2017 (With Megan Hansen and Jordan Lofthouse)

The Political Impacts of Quality of Life : Springer International Press.  Jan 2018 (With Josh Smith)

Direct Democracy in the United States: Petitioners as a Reflection of Society. Routledge Press. Oct 2012 (Edited Volume edited with Shauna Reilly)

[1] [1] Winner of the 2017 Independent Publisher Book Awards Gold Medal (IPPY) in the Environmental, Ecology, and Nature category.

 

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Jessica Rood

Jessica Rood

Jessica Rood is a Research Intern for AIER. She is in her senior year at Truman State University in Kirksville, MO where she majors in Economics and minors in Mathematics and Political Science.

At Truman, she is a teaching assistant for the Economics department, President of the Student Activities Board and active in Cardinal Key. In her spare time, she likes to help out at her family’s Christmas tree farm.

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