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:
“Some 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.”
I’m 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).
I 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).