His central thesis is: "...even for all their failings, market forces and a self-interest stake in forests are the best system for assuring responsible behavior, as they confer voluntary reasons to protect the land." (403) By implication, there is no longer any role for governmental regulation?
How well is this thesis supported?
Generally, I have found Easterbrook to be more careful and honest than Limbaugh. For example, while Easterbrook promotes the virtues of private enterprise and seems to be arguing against an important role for government regulation - he also acknowledges that it has played an important role in getting private companies to behaving in more environmentally responsible ways. In this way, he's not (immediately) the "black/white" thinker that Limbaugh is - in more technical terms, it will be harder to accuse Easterbrook of falling prey to the sorts of false dilemmas distributed so generously throughout Limbaugh's writings.
Similarly, Easterbrook points out that forest growth works as an important "sink" for absorbing CO2, so that young forests help counter the greenhouse effect and thus global warming. But he further acknowledges an important caveat: namely, that "when some ancient forests are logged and replanted, disruptions to carbon chemistry in the soil offset the gains from carbon absorbed by young trees, netting no greenhouse improvement." (400f.) This more balanced recognition of the complexity of environmental issues leads Easterbrook to a more moderate position: his "ecorealism" advocates protecting remaining ancient forests while encouraging high-yield timber growth in existing timber plantations (401).
This assessment, however, is not as kind as that of Thomas O. Lovejoy, who reviewed Easterbrook's book for Scientific American. Nor does Easterbrook always pass Logic 100: in fact, in several places in his chapter on forests, he can be severly criticized from a critical thinking perspective.
1) Easterbrook acknowledges that tree companies have behaved destructively in the past, but they've now learned their lesson: presupposing a long-term commitment to the health of the lands they own is more profitable than short-term, "cut and run" approaches to forestry.
Yes - but what is it about market forces and self-interest that will guarantee long-term commitments to the health of the lands? This begs an important question: Easterbrook simply assumes the central point that must be proved - namely, that market forces and self-interest will in fact result in the sorts of long-term and global commitments necessary to protect environmental health.
2) This question-begging is further apparent alongside one of Easterbrook's faulty analogies.
To suggest that private enterprise can do better than government forest managers involves another dis-analogy. The U.S. Forest Service is not a for-profit agency. More generally, its goals include: protecting watersheds which may lead to restrictions against logging in major drainages of importance for cities, etc.; protection of habitat and the ecological health of the forest in general; determining and monitoring appropriate uses of public lands, including grazing, recreation, and mining.
These are global goals - at least more global than the concerns with profit which define the goals of a single tree company. To attempt to compare the two without further qualification is "comparing apples and oranges," as we commonly say - or faulty analogy, as logicians like to say.
3) Easterbrook is also guilty of some surprising omissions - what logicians call suppressed evidence.
a) part of his argument further rests on the claim that
Almost everything that happens in the industrial forest is driven by nature, the main exception being that trees exit after being sawed down, not burned down as would happen in the lightning-caused fires that restart the natural forest cycle. (396)
a claim he repeats later on in order to justify clear cutting:
A natural fire such as occurred at yellowstone does not impact soil in the way that even the most cautious logging operations do. Otherwise, a natural fire and carefuly clear-cutting are close to identical ecologically. (409)
But this misses a crucial, obvious point: in the natural fire - and, more generally, in a natural forest in which trees die and decay on the forest floor - the organic material of the trees remains in the ecosystem of the forest: most basically, whether through decay or burning, the organic material of the trees regenerates the forest soils with needed organic material
.So it is one thing to allow trees to burn in a forest fire - there is no net loss of organic material to the forest ecosystem;
it is another thing entirely to clear cut the forest - which results in a substantial net loss of organic material available in the forest soils.
This means: suppressed evidence, and as a result, faulty analogy - again.
b) Easterbrook's argument further rests on attacking the economic inefficiency of Forest Service timber sales (so as to argue that privately held lands are better managed).
But his argument here is not so successful either. For example, he asserts that "Selling timber at a net loss is nonsensical for the Treasury but popular with communities that receive the bonuses and with Forest Service bureaucracies that expand their empires." (404) To make this case, he describes the forced retirement of John Mumma in 191, the Forest Service regional director for Idaho, Montana, and the Dakotas. He claims here that the retirement came "after logging companies and town officials complained to their congressional delegations that Mumma was not authorizing enough acreage for timber sales. Mumma's region was at that time logging only 60 percent of its Forest Service goal." (404)
Well, things aren't so simple. According to my Montana friends in the Forest Service, Mumma was the first wildlife biologist to reach the post of regional forest manager - that is, he was the first person with this sort of biological and ecological understanding to assume such a powerful position. He is also a tough character, one who frequently rubbed people the wrong way. He'd apparently made a lot of enemies, who had been trying to get him out of his post for some time.
Beware those who attempt to portray complex events as simple! (fallacy of false cause)
Beyond the much more complicated factors surrounding Mumma's retirement, Easterbrook also slips in here a rather astonishing and misleading assumption.
Question: does the Forest Service have logging "goals"? No. The Forest Service establishes something called the Allowable Sale Quantity (ASQ), which is an estimate of the most allowable board feet that can be cut from a forest while still preserving its overall health - and the other missions of the Forest Service (protection of watersheds and the ecosystem more generally, preserving recreation (hiking, camping, water, etc.) and sustainable economic uses of the land (ranching, mining - and logging). But the logging industry - and apparently Gregg Easterbrook - translate ASQ's into logging "goals."
According to my Montana friends in the Forest Service, Mumma's keeping logging at "only 60%" of the ASQ was generally regarded as environmentally responsible and in keeping with the larger goals of the Forest Service. To turn around and say, as Easterbrook does, that Mumma was fired because he somehow prevented loggers from attaining Forest Service "goals" (i.e., 100% of the ASQ) is distortion and equivocation.
[This same dis-analogy is at work in Randall O'Toole's work: while O'Toole apparently makes some good points in his economic analyses of forest management - it misses that point that the U.S. Forest Service is not a for-profit institution, which is assumed and argued by O'Toole.]
4) Two of Easterbrook's most significant - but also most subtle - logical mistakes occur in one of his opening arguments against environmentalists' arguments for maintaining old-growth forests:
The creatures that dwell in successional forests [i.e., cut/replanted forests] often are browsing species such as elk and deer, animals that like open-access or "edge" areas. Some who oppose managed forestry argue that the world has plenty of browsing animals, deer now overpopulating many U.S. and European woodlands. But, they continue, the world is short of old-growth species such as the spotted owl and marbled murlet. This may well be true, yet it is an entirely human judgment. The notion that owls or murlets are more deserving than deer no more springs from the natural condition than do the finished two-by-fours in your couch. (397)
Cute, but no cigar. Easterbrook shifts here
from the importance of preserving biodiversity in old-growth forests
to the notion that somehow human judgments is being invoked to prefer the spotted owl and marbled murlet over deer.
This is to misleadingly shift the issue from a relatively objective assessment of biodiversity to - it is implied - an entirely subjective, relativistic, and irrelevant human preference for one species over another. The two are not the same.
This shift means that Easterbrook is guilty of straw man: he attempts to replace the environmentalists' original position - the importance of protecting biodiversity in old-growth forests - with a much weaker version of that position - a merely human preference for spotted owls over deer. The latter is somewhat easier to knock down - but to knock it down is not to attack the original argument for preserving old-growth forests for the sake of preserving biodiversity.
Perhaps Easterbrook has genuinely fooled himself here. But if he persuades us that
the attack on the weaker, "phony" version of the original argument (merely human judgements)
is the same as
overturning the original argument (preserving biodiversity)
then he succeeds in fooling us: we take his straw man for the original - and land in a conclusion that is in fact logically unsupported.
There's a further problem here: one of simple contradiction - but contradiction about a fundamental matter.
On the one hand, Easterbrook's whole book is a book written to shape our judgments - our judgments about what environmental course(s) we should follow. He is asking us to judge in favor of his "ecorealism," over against some of the views and beliefs of environmental activists. Of course we judge - and part of my central point here is that we must judge, and make the best judgments we can.
But I assume here that if Easterbrook has written 697 pages in which he's attempting to persuade me and others that we should judge a certain way - then Easterbrook must believe that his judgment (prefering ecorealism over other views) is more sound, more defensible - more "objective" - than other judgments.
In fancy terms, if I'm correct about this, then Easterbrook - and anyone else who attempts to persuade us that their view is correct - is committed to a view we can characterize as epistemological objectivity in the domain of moral judgments. On this view, some views are better than others - and we are able to sort out those views on the basis of the sort of thing I'm doing here this evening, i.e., by attending to evidence, argument, etc.
So far, so good. Just to be clear: I'm in agreement with Easterbrook on this point.
But is Easterbrook in agreement with himself? On the other hand, Easterbrook wants to argue here that "entirely human judgments" about what to prefer regarding the environment (deer or spotted owls) are merely subjective and thus irrelevant. In fancy terms, this is epistemological relativism - one that says any judgment is as good another.
But if all human judgments about nature are merely subjective - then no objective judgments are possible, and we can all go home now. Nor should we bother to read Easterbrook's book - or any other book which makes claims to objective or quasi-objective judgments regarding nature.
In short, Easterbrook apparently wants to be an epistemological objectivist - except when it's convenient to dismiss his opponents by becoming an epistemological relativist.
5) Question-begging, again - this time, regarding that philosophically important question of human nature.
In making his case for private land management, Easterbrook approvingly quotes Randal O'Toole: "Letting market forces determine the best use of public land is more likely to preserve species than Congress trying to legislate new laws of human nature." (405)
I see - and just what are the "new laws of human nature" at stake here - and what current "laws of human nature" does O'Toole prefer and assume?
I would guess that O'Toole, and others who argue for private over public management, assume "the rational man" of much contemporary economic theory. The rational man is primarily self-interested, and it is the appeal to especially his (or her?) economic self-interest that is supposed to drive the motors of capitalism and free-enterprise.
Perhaps so: but my point is - can we simply assume without further debate that human beings are primarily self-interested, that there's some sort of "law of human nature" that makes us such? Hardly. The question of human nature is enormously complex - as I think both cultural anthropologists and philosophers would agree. To simply assume one version of human nature without further ado is to beg a very important question.
Other fallacies can be pointed out here (see below) - but you get the point. As with Limbaugh, Easterbrook's "ecorealism," for whatever sound point he might manage to make - those points are made within a thicket of logical missteps that any beginning logic student would immediately recognize.
The critical thinking lesson is the same: beware those whose arguments rest on a tissue of logical fallacies.
More generally: when we're faced with competing and conflicting views - how do we begin to sort them out? A first step, as I hope to have shown with Limbaugh and Easterbrook is: if a proposed position rests on a consistent use of fallacious reasoning - one has good reason to be suspicious of that position.
(This is only the start of a critical thinking approach - but it's a start!)
Part III: Comments on the Environment