Europe’s Fukushima Freakout

Back in 2011, I was in Rimini, Italy, and watched an anti-nuclear protest march down the street, beating drums. This was just a few months after the Fukushima nuclear accident, and the media had people in hysterics over the alleged dangers of nuclear power. Days later, Italian voters by a staggering 94% majority approved a referendum banning construction of new nuclear plants. In Germany, hysteria over Fukushima caused the government to announce that all nuclear plants would be shut down by 2022, and by now about half have already been shuttered. The move away from nuclear power has been bad for both the environment and the economy.

Now comes news that France is also turning away from nuclear. The just-elected French president, Emanuel Macron, announced that his energy minister will be Nicolas Hulot, a radical environmentalist. Following the announcement, shares in EDF, the big French nuclear company, fell seven percent overnight.

Hulot’s opposition to nuclear comes out of an emerging trend of thinking in France—and in Europe more generally—that holds that nuclear power ought to be phased out as soon as possible and replaced by renewables. Germany, motivated by an irrational fear of the energy source following the 2011 Fukushima disaster, is leading this charge to its own detriment. Berlin hasn’t been able to replace its shuttered nuclear plants with wind and solar, but has instead been forced to increase its reliance on lignite coal, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels around. As a result, the country’s emissions have risen, an entirely predictable consequence of snubbing the only source (other than hydropower) of zero-emissions baseload power.

Germany’s experience hasn’t been enough to phase France’s greens, though, and Hulot’s new position of leadership suggests that Paris is preparing to follow in Berlin’s footsteps. That would be a grave error, though, especially during a time in which Europe is placing such a heavy emphasis on emissions reductions. EDF itself has pointed out that environmentalist plans to replace France’s nuclear fleet with 100 percent renewables by 2050 are “not based on technological realities.”

A turn against nuclear in France is particularly shocking, because France has long been one of the most pro-nuclear countries in the world. Currently, France gets more than 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear.

Europe has apparently succumbed to an irrational fear of nuclear power. And it is indeed irrational, because nuclear is just about the safest form of energy. Even at Fukushima, where the tsunami caused three reactors to melt down, the number of deaths attributable to the incident currently stands at ZERO. Two people were hospitalized.

Of course, it is possible that a small number of people in the future might die from cancer. But nobody really knows how many, since the radiation doses were very small, and the effects of small doses are not well understood. A small dose of radiation is kind of like consuming diet Coke; safe in the short-run, but in the long-run, nobody has any idea what the health effects might be.

The so-called ‘linear no-threshold’ model tends to vastly exaggerate the impact of small radiation doses. The model’s linear extrapolation is analogous to assuming that if 70 percent of people are killed by falling 20 feet, then 7 percent would be killed by falling 2 feet. In any event, this model predicts 130 deaths as a result of Fukushima. So 130 deaths is most likely a gross exaggeration, with the real figure much closer to zero, and perhaps literally zero.

By comparison, more people are killed every year in coal mining accidents than have ever been killed by nuclear power. According to one estimate, in just one year (2013) in China, 1,049 coal miners were killed in accidents. Several major accidents that each take the lives of dozens of miners occur every year in China. For instance, last December, an explosion at a coal mine in Inner Mongolia claimed 32 lives. That figure might well eclipse the death toll from Fukushima.

Europeans take to the streets over non-existent nuclear deaths, but very real coal deaths get no attention. And using less nuclear means using more coal, which will cause more deaths.

The average European spends nearly a decade and a half in school. The ostensible purpose of schooling is to educate people for citizenship. Part of that education includes several years of science. Yet the typical European’s view of nuclear power is irrational fear based in ignorance; it is a view indistinguishable from that of an illiterate goat herder. If this sort of abject ignorance is the best the schools can do, then they deserve to be shut down rather than the nuclear plants.

Dubious Government Advice: Countries with Safe Tap-Water

In which countries in the world is it safe to drink the water? The question is important because I love traveling, but getting sick would really take the fun out of it. When I went to Mexico a couple of years ago I was frankly terrified of the water, but fortunately, I didn’t end up having any problems. I know a lot of people, however, who weren’t so lucky.

The scary thing is that avoiding the problem is not so easy as drinking only bottled water. You can get sick from even a single ice cube, or just a tiny bit of water you swallow in the shower or while brushing your teeth. It’s very easy to slip up, and so even if you’re aware, the risk is real. Given the risk, I’m frankly not keen to travel to countries with unsafe water.

So which countries have safe water? The only source I’ve found online is from the Center for Disease Control (CDC). In other words, the government. Now, based on what I think I’ve learned about how the world works, my general view is that you can’t trust advice that comes from the government. And after examining the CDC’s list, I retain my skepticism of government advice.

In short, I believe the CDC’s list is too restrictive. For instance, here are some maps based on the CDC’s list.

According to the CDC the continents of Africa and South America have the grand total of ZERO countries with safe water. Maybe that’s right, but I might have thought the ‘cone’ of South America–Chile, Argentina, Uruguay–was safe. Argentina, after all, was one hundred years ago one of the richest countries in the world. If the Argentines don’t have safe water, they’ve fallen pretty far.

The list for Asia is short and probably pretty accurate, but I take issue with the omission of Taiwan. When I visited Taiwan a number of years ago, I freely consumed the water, brushing my teeth without concern, and did so in cities spanning the island: North, South, East and West. I never had a problem. Taiwan is a developed country, and I believe that almost everywhere the water is safe. Why did CDC not include Taiwan? Could it have been to avoid offending China?

I also find the list for Europe too restrictive. Is there really no safe water east of the Danube? Hungary and Slovakia don’t have safe water? I noticed that in an online comments thread, some guy from Romania objected to his country’s omission from the list. He insisted that the water in Romania is safe. Maybe he’s biased, but I suspect he’s right, at least for the primary areas of the country.

I also find it difficult to believe that the Baltic States don’t have safe water. Estonia in particular, based on what I have heard, is very clean.

Admittedly, I’m not doing a scientific study here and just giving my impressions based on my limited experience. But that experience, and what I think I know about the world, does make me skeptical of the CDC’s list.

Earth Day: Be Very Afraid

Today is Earth Day, an annual event during which scammers traditionally attempt to frighten people into giving up their money and freedom. Our friend Mark Perry offers an amusing list of 18 scaremongering predictions made around the time of the first Earth Day in 1970. For the full list, go to Mark’s site, but here are my favorites.

6. [Paul] Ehrlich sketched out his most alarmist scenario for the 1970 Earth Day issue of The Progressive, assuring readers that between 1980 and 1989, some 4 billion people, including 65 million Americans, would perish in the “Great Die-Off.”

9. In January 1970, Life reported, “Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support…the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution…by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half….”

13. Paul Ehrlich warned in the May 1970 issue of Audubon that DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbons “may have substantially reduced the life expectancy of people born since 1945.” Ehrlich warned that Americans born since 1946…now had a life expectancy of only 49 years, and he predicted that if current patterns continued this expectancy would reach 42 years by 1980, when it might level out. (Note: According to the most recent CDC report, life expectancy in the US is 78.8 years).

14. Ecologist Kenneth Watt declared, “By the year 2000, if present trends continue, we will be using up crude oil at such a rate…that there won’t be any more crude oil. You’ll drive up to the pump and say, `Fill ‘er up, buddy,’ and he’ll say, `I am very sorry, there isn’t any.’”

15. Harrison Brown, a scientist at the National Academy of Sciences, published a chart in Scientific American that looked at metal reserves and estimated the humanity would totally run out of copper shortly after 2000. Lead, zinc, tin, gold, and silver would be gone before 1990.

16. Sen. Gaylord Nelson wrote in Look that, “Dr. S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, believes that in 25 years, somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of all the species of living animals will be extinct.”

Nelson, by the way, was one of the principal organizers of the first Earth Day.

18. Kenneth Watt warned about a pending Ice Age in a speech. “The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years,” he declared. “If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.”

Mark, however, somehow missed this one from Ehrlich.

On the first Earth Day in 1970, he warned that “[i]n ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish.”

Personally, I’m far less afraid of environmental degradation than I am of environmentalists.

Seattle Environmentalists Demonstrate Fen’s Law

Fen’s Law states that leftists don’t really believe any of the crap they lecture the rest of us about.

It’s the proverbial tree that fell in the forest without making a sound, or perhaps the raw sewage that spewed into Puget Sound without making a splash.

Since the region’s largest wastewater-treatment plant was disabled in a catastrophic flood last month, the Metropolitan King County Council and Regional Water Quality Committee between them have held multiple public hearings on the disaster.
Not a single person from an environmental group or the public turned out to testify or demand action on the crippled West Point Treatment Plant, or even take notice of one of the largest local public infrastructure failures in decades.
Tons of solids are pouring into Puget Sound every day because the plant is too broken to treat wastewater properly. Yet council members say they’ve barely heard a peep from environmental groups.

The Seattle area is no slacker for environmental activism; hundreds of people have turned out of late in the streets to demand the city change banks to punish Wells Fargo for lending money to help build the Dakota Access Pipeline. And Elliott Bay swarmed with “kayaktivists” in 2015 to protest drilling in the Arctic when Shell staged equipment at the Port of Seattle docks.

“It’s odd, I have to say, I haven’t heard from any of them, not at all,” said King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, whose district includes the plant. “It is bizarre.”

So they’ll take to the streets to protest oil drilling or a pipeline thousands of miles away, but won’t protest sewage right in their own backyard. It’s almost as if environmentalism is not really about protecting the environment, but about advancing some ulterior agenda. And what might that agenda be? Well, stopping drilling and pipelines both have the effect of impeding U.S. oil production.

And who benefits from less U.S. oil production? Well, for one, there’s Russia. The last couple of years, the Russian government has had to make steep budget cuts as a result of relatively low oil prices, caused largely by expanded U.S. oil production. The Russians would love to curtail U.S. production.

Right now, the more febrile domains of the internet are burning up with conspiracy theories regarding Russian influence over the 2016 election. While we’re trying to get to the bottom of that, maybe we should also be investigating potential Russian funding of U.S. environmental groups. After all, we wouldn’t want to let the Russians corrupt our precious environmental organizations, amirite?

The Most Irrational Law in America

The most irrational law in America might be…wait for it…The Endangered Species Act. Some people believe that ESA violates the rights of more Americans on a day to day basis than any other law on the books. You can have much of your life savings invested in land, and then some bureaucrat shows up and says you can’t use your own land because of an endangered rodent or toad. Most recently, the law was enforced against landowners even though the critter did not even live on the land in question.

A federal appeals court declined to rehear a case brought against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for designating private property as critical habitat for an endangered frog that hasn’t lived on those lands for decades.

FWS officials designated 6,477 acres as critical habitat for the endangered dusky gopher frog in 2012. About 1,500 acres of the critical habitat was private land in St. Tammany Parish, despite the fact no frogs had been spotted there for decades.

Landowners sued, but were rebuffed by federal circuit court judges in June. They appealed their case, arguing the government can’t designate land as critical habitat for an endangered species that doesn’t even live there.

In an 8-to-6 decision, judges declined to rehear the case. But lawyers representing the landowners said they planned on taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ESA actually hurts endangered species as well by undermining the incentive of landowners to protect wildlife. If the legal sanctions weren’t so draconian, many landowners might be persuaded to work with conservationists to protect endangered species. But because the law is so unreasoning and punitive, landowners have the incentive to go scorched earth. If you find a nest of a kangaroo rat, the incentive is not to preserve it, but to burn it quickly before the authorities find out and take control of your land.

Brian Seasholes, an ESA expert, said the current way the government designates critical habitats ends up hurting more species than it helps.

“Ironically, this decision will most likely end up harming the dusky gopher frog and many other endangered and at-risk species by causing more landowners take actions to avoid the Endangered Species Act’s draconian penalties,” Seasholes told TheDCNF.

Seasholes said landowners have taken drastic actions to keep endangered species off their lands, “including ‘scorched earth’ (destroying habitat), ‘shoot, shovel and shut-up’ (killing species), going silent, denying researchers and government personnel access to their land, and refusing to become involved in species conservation efforts.”

Furthermore, I confess that I don’t even understand the point of the Endangered Species Act. In all seriousness, what is the point of this law? Ostensibly it is to prevent species extinction, but extinction has always occurred since the beginning of life on Earth. Something like 99 percent of all the species that ever lived are extinct. Life on Earth is in a constant state of flux, with old species being replaced by new. To stop species extinction is simply not possible. So why even try?

Environmentalists argue that human activity has caused a dramatic increase in the rate of extinction. But the fact is that nobody really knows how much higher the extinction rate is now compared to the rate that prevailed prior to human civilization.

Some environmentalists claim that tens of thousands of species are going extinct every year.

In 1979, Berkeley ecologist Norman Myers published a book called “The Sinking Ark,” which claimed 40,000 species were disappearing each year. The next decade, a biologist who worked for the World Wildlife Fund predicted up to 20 percent of all species would disappear by the turn of the millennium. That didn’t happen, but the drumbeat of alarms continues: A much-publicized paper in 2004 warned that by 2050, climate change could put 1 million species at risk of extinction.

Stuart Pimm … published a paper this summer warning that species are currently dying off at 1,000 times the rate they were before the human era, and in the future are likely to perish at 10,000 times that rate.

These numbers, however, are just guesses and not based on documented extinctions. The amount of documented extinctions is comparatively tiny.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which keeps the most definitive list of extinct and threatened species, has counted just over 800 total confirmed animal extinctions since the year 1600.

So that’s an average of about two per year, not tens of thousands. And these are extinctions due to all causes, not just human activity. The late economist Julian Simon noted the following excerpt from a 1992 book written by two ecologists.

[F]orests of the eastern United States were
reduced over two centuries to fragments totalling 1-2% of their original extent…during this destruction, only three forest birds went extinct — the Carolina parakeet … the ivory-billed woodpecker … and the passenger pigeon …. Although deforestation certainly
contributed to the decline of all three species, it was probably not critical for the pigeon or the parakeet (Greenway, 1967). Why, then, would one predict massive extinction from similar destruction of tropical forest?
(Simberloff, 1992, p. 85)

Closer examination of the existing data on both well-and little-known groups, however, supports the affirmation that little or no species extinction has yet occurred (though some may be in very fragile persistence) in the Atlantic forests. Indeed, an appreciable
number of species considered extinct 20 years ago, including several birds and six butterflies, have been rediscovered more recently. (Brown and Brown, 1992, p.
128)

So 200 years of destruction and absolute devastation of the virgin forests of the eastern U.S. caused between one and three bird extinctions. That’s it.

Scientists don’t even know how many total species exist, as estimates range widely from 2 million to as many as 100 million. The claims of high extinction numbers are based on assumed species number near the high end of the range.

There’s a sense in which the big numbers, however, tend to work against the conservation argument. If there are 100 million species, and a huge number go extinct due to natural causes, why should humans bear significant costs in order to save just a few species here and there? Why should one frog make thousands of acres off limits to humans? Especially since that frog might be unlikely to survive the next glacial period, a few thousand years from now. Why should the timber industry be devastated because of the spotted owl?

And in any event, if we do care about insuring that these species do not disappear forever, we have the ability and technology to preserve their genetic line even if they can no longer live in the wild.

Don’t get me wrong; I like animals, and I’d be genuinely bummed if, say, rhinos or lions went extinct. I’m sure millions of other people feel the same way, and for that reason, it would be desirable to expend considerable resources to protect them.

The other consideration is how important the species might be to the broader ecosystem. So for instance, plankton dying out would be catastrophic because it would threaten whales and other marine animals.

It seems pretty clear, however, that trying to preserve any and every species with little or no regard to cost makes no sense. Yet that is essentially the mandate of the ESA, perhaps the most irrational law on the books.

The Mystery of Slow Growth

Economists have long been concerned with the ‘productivity slowdown,’ which refers to the fact that productivity growth since about the early 1970s has been significantly slower than it was during the 1950s and 1960s. During the past 15 years, productivity growth has been even slower. Economists don’t really understand the cause of the productivity slowdown, and view it as something of a puzzle. Speaking for myself, however, I feel a lot less puzzled when I see headlines like this.

A tiny unborn hummingbird is getting in the way of a big project at the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.

The discovery of a nest and egg in a tree is stalling the start of upgrades on the bridge that connects the East Bay and North Bay, officials said Tuesday.

The species, Anna’s Hummingbird, is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that forbids the removal of the egg and offers other protections to birds.

The nest, about half the size of a fist, was discovered about a week ago when work was set to begin.

It was found on the Richmond side of the $70 million bridge project, in one of about two dozen trees that were to be removed to widen the freeway, officials said.

Under the protection act, the tree must stay put until the hummingbird baby is gone.

One egg the size of a marble holds up a $70 billion project. Can’t they just hatch the egg in a lab or something?

The productivity slowdown started in the early 1970s. The first Earth Day event was held in 1970, and the Environmental Protection Agency was created that same year. But maybe it’s all just a coincidence.

A couple of years ago, a made a visit to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Something I learned there was that the harbor could not serve as a deep-water port until the coral reef blocking the channel was removed. Demolition of the reef started in the first decade of the 20th century so that by 1912, battleships were finally able to enter the harbor.

If today’s environmental rules and sensibilities had existed in 1900, that reef would never have been removed, and Pearl Harbor would never have functioned as a deep-water port and would never have hosted a naval base. Honolulu might today be nothing more than a sleepy little village.

Exit question: How many radical environmentalists are currently living in Honolulu, with their lives there made possible by the existence of that port?

It’s Always About the Nutella

Migrant refugees fleeing the war-torn countries of Morocco and Algeria apparently started a huge fire in Dusseldorf after authorities failed to supply them with Nutella.

nutella2

nutella-jarWe wonder how much the decision not to provide ‘refugees’ with Nutella was influenced by political correctness. Leftists happen to be boycotting Nutella because they believe it is destroying the planet.

Denying migrants Nutella seems to be just the latest example of leftists putting their environmentalist ideology ahead of basic human rights.

Is the ‘Ozone Hole’ a Hoax?

For thirty years now we’ve heard that we’re all at risk of getting skin cancer due to the ‘ozone hole.’ As a result of the ozone scare, cheap but effective refrigerants like Freon were phased out by the Montreal Protocol of 1987. We are all therefore forced to use more expensive and less effective refrigerants.

This summer, a series of articles appeared in the media claiming that the ban on Freon and other CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) is finally working to ‘heal’ the ozone hole. The international political and managerial class is patting itself on the back for supposedly solving the problem.

In the 1980s, ozone in the atmosphere dropped like a rock at the initial onset of the affliction. The implementation of the 1987 Montreal Protocol—widely considered a triumph of international cooperation—quickly phased out industrial CFCs, and the ozone layer stabilized, though it was still at a depleted level.

The size of the ozone hole varies from year to year, influenced by changes in meteorology and volcanism, which can make it difficult to identify a healing trend. Scientists believe it has remained relatively stable since the turn of the century, but the October 2015 hole was the largest on record.

Scientists have long thought the ozone layer was recovering slowly, but [Susan] Solomon and her team—comprising researchers from MIT, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the University of Leeds—are the first to rigorously uncover evidence of the healing.

But is the ozone hole even really man made? Some scientists believe it is actually a natural phenomenon.

[The Montreal Protocol] was created to eliminate CFCs but the plan only appeared to work. There is no hole in the ozone, even at its thinnest, which occurs in winter when there is no sunlight; it is one-third the global average.

The term was created to scare people: “We’ve torn a hole in the sky, and harmful radiation will give children skin cancer!”

I appeared before the Parliamentary Committee on Ozone. It was a political circus. Friends of the Earth had representatives there with no scientific knowledge; I asked them.

Ozone is created by the ultraviolet (UV) light portion of sunlight hitting free oxygen (O2) in the atmosphere. They assumed the level of UV radiation is constant. In fact, it varies widely and is the major cause of ozone variation, but that’s what allowed them to focus on and blame CFCs. [Emphasis in original.]

Even if CFCs were damaging atmospheric ozone, as alleged, it’s not clear the effects on humans would be significant. In 1995, professor Fred Singer testified as follows.

A projected 10 percent UV increase from a worst-case global ozone depletion is the equivalent of moving just 60 miles closer to the equator….New Yorkers moving to Florida experience a more than 200 percent increase in UV because of the change of latitude.

I confess that I really don’t have the scientific expertise to be sure if the ozone scare was scientifically valid or not. But one thing that makes me suspicious of the science is the economics. Dupont was the manufacturer of Freon, and was actively involved in developing the Montreal Protocol. Freon and other CFCs were cheap and not very profitable. But at the time of the ban, Dupont held the patent on the CFC substitute, R-134a.

In a 1997 paper written by MIT’s James Maxwell and Forrest Briscoe titled, “There’s Money in the Air: The CFC Ban and DuPont’s Regulatory Strategy” published by UCMERCED University of California, Merced’s Business Strategy and the Environment the other, much longer, side of this story is told.

In examining the paper, the first thing discussed by the authors is, “DuPont, the world’s dominant CFC producer, played a key role in the development of the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depleting Substances.”

The authors go on to state their argument that in pursuing “its economic interests, along with the political impact of the discovery of an ozone hole and the threat of domestic regulation,” DuPont was responsible for molding the “international regulatory regime for ozone-depleting substances.”

In 1986, the Freon division of DuPont conducted its own evaluation of the ozone and announced a “significant reduction” in the ozone layer.

The EPA responded with a call to reduce 85% of CFC production – immediately. The paper states that DuPont decided to support a CFC ban since the company mindset was that it could gain a “competitive advantage” with the sales of its new chemical substitutes that would be sold as specialty chemicals at a much higher price than the CFC.

Finally, the paper concludes “DuPont’s organization and strategy were key to the successful leveraging of the Montreal process.” This was achieved through the Freon Division’s interaction with “public officials” and various groups, positioning DuPont to “exploit the situation when regulatory discussions were stepped up.”

Always follow the money.

Yellowstone: One Hundred Years of Mismanagement

Many years ago I told an Australian student that, in my opinion, a certain famous Australian national park should be taken out of government hands and privatized. He looked at me like I had two heads. He probably imagined the place paved over by Disney with parking lots and people standing in line to get on rides. But the truth is that governments around the world have poor records of protecting and managing parks as well as historic and cultural sites. For instance, irreplaceable buildings have been collapsing at Pompeii for years due to the dysfunction of Italian government. There’s also evidence that the U.S. government manages forests less effectively than does the private sector.

Back in 2005, author Michael Crichton (The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park) gave a fascinating talk at the Independent Institute. In part of his talk, Crichton included a devastating summary of 100 years of government mismanagement of Yellowstone National Park. Government officials in managing Yellowstone have been guilty not just of hubris and ignorance, but have also broken laws and engaged in cover ups. In other words, typical government behavior.

Theodore Roosevelt…in 1903, as President,…went to Yellowstone for a dedication ceremony… Roosevelt saw a thousand antelope, plentiful cougar, mountain sheep, deer, coyote and many thousands of elk. He wrote at that time, “Our people should see to it that this rich heritage is preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with its majestic beauty all unmarred.”

But in fact, Yellowstone was not preserved. On the contrary, it was altered beyond repair in a matter of years. By 1934, the Park Service acknowledged that whitetail deer, cougar, lynx, wolf, and possibly wolverine and fisher are gone from the Yellowstone.

What they didn’t say was that the Park Service was solely responsible for the disappearances. Park rangers had been shooting the animals for decades, even though that was illegal since the Lacey Act of 1894. But they thought they knew best. They thought their environmental concerns trumped any mere law.

What actually happened at Yellowstone is a cascade of ego and error, but to understand it, we have to go back to the 1890s. Back then, it was believed that elk were becoming extinct, so these animals were fed and encouraged. Over the next few years, the number of elk in the park exploded…

Roosevelt had seen a few thousand animals on his visit, and he’d noticed that the elk were more numerous than in his previous visit. Nine years later, in 1912, there were 30,000 elk in Yellowstone. By 1914, there were 35,000.

Things were going very well. Rainbow trout had also been introduced, and although they crowded out the native cutthroats, nobody really worried. Fishing was great. Bears were increasing in numbers, and moose and bison as well.

By 1915, Roosevelt realized the elk had become a problem, and he urged scientific management, which meant culling. His advice was ignored. Instead, the Park Service did everything they could to increase the number of elk. The results were predictable. Antelope and deer began to decline. Overgrazing changed the flora. Aspen and willows were being eaten at a furious rate and did not regenerate. Large animals and small began to disappear from the park.

In an effort to stem the loss, the park rangers began to kill predators, which they did without public knowledge. They eliminated the wolf and the cougar, and they were well on their way to getting rid of the coyote. Then a national scandal broke out. New studies showed that it wasn’t predators that were killing the other animals. It was overgrazing from too many elk. The management policy of killing predators therefore had only made things worse.

Actually, the elk had so decimated the aspen that now, where formerly they were plentiful, now they’re quite rare. Without the aspen, the beaver, which use these trees to make dams, began to disappear from the park. Beaver were essential to the water management of Yellowstone, and without dams, the meadows dried hard in summer and still more animals vanished.

The situation worsened further. It became increasingly inconvenient that all the predators had been killed off by 1930, so in the 1960s, there was a sigh of relief when new sightings by rangers suggested that wolves were returning. Of course, there were rumors all during that time, persistent rumors that the rangers were trucking them in. But in any case, the wolves vanished soon afterward. They needed to eat beaver and other small rodents, and the beaver had gone.

Pretty soon, the Park Service initiated a PR campaign to prove that excessive elk were not responsible for the problems in the park, even though they were. The campaign went on for about a decade, during which time the bighorn sheep virtually disappeared.

Now, we’re in the 1970s, and bears were recognized as a growing problem. They used to be considered fun-loving creatures, and their close association with human beings was encouraged in the park….There were more bears, and certainly there were many more lawyers, and thus the much-increased threat of litigation, so the rangers moved the grizzlies out. The grizzlies promptly became endangered. Their formerly growing numbers shrank. The Park Service refused to let scientists study them, but once they were declared endangered, the scientists could go back in again.

And by now, we’re about ready to reap the rewards of our 40-year policy of fire suppression, Smokey the Bear and all that. The Indians used to burn forests regularly, and lightning causes natural fires every year. But when these are suppressed, branches fall from the trees to the ground and accumulate over the years to make a dense groundcover such that when there’s a fire, it is a very low, very hot fire that sterilizes the soil. In 1988, Yellowstone burned, and all 1.2 million acres were scorched, and 800,000 acres, one third of the park, burned.

Then having killed the wolves, having tried to sneak them back in, they officially brought the wolves back. And now the local ranchers screamed. The newer reports suggested the wolves seemed to be eating enough of the elk that slowly, the ecology of the park was being restored. Or so it is claimed. It’s been claimed before. And on and on.

I wonder if part of the problem with putting a bureaucracy in charge of a national park is the tendency to do too much. It almost sounds like the park would have been better off with a bit more benign neglect. The Park Service should have intervened less, starting with not feeding the elk. But if the park service weren’t doing much in Yellowstone, the bureau wouldn’t be able to make their case to Congress for more funding, which is what every bureau wants to do. There is perhaps a built in bias to do too much.

Congress should just auction off Yellowstone to the highest bidder.

Pro-Rhino Non-Profits: Saving Rhinos, or their Budgets?

Justin DelPrince brings to our attention this fascinating Snopes report on the possibility of reducing Rhino poaching by marketing synthetic Rhino horn. At least four companies have announced plans to produce artificial horn that is genetically indistinguishable from the real thing. One company claims it can sell the fake horn at only one-eighth the current black market price of horn. If flooding the market with fake horn can successfully take the profit out of selling real horn, this will solve or at least greatly reduce the problem of poaching.

The really interesting part of the story, apart from the technology, is that the major non-profits dedicated to protecting Rhinos have come out against marketing artificial horn. The International Rhino Foundation along with Save the Rhino International issued a joint statement that made a number of points, not all of which seem logical.

  • Selling synthetic horn does not reduce the demand for rhino horn or dispel the myths around rhino horn and could indeed lead to more poaching because it increases demand for “the real thing”.

It’s certainly plausible that synthetic horn might not ‘dispel the myths’, but dispelling myths won’t be necessary if synthetic horn takes the profit out of real horn. If synthetic and real horn become equivalent on the market, then real and synthetic horn will sell for the same price: as little as one-eighth the current price. At one-eighth the price, poachers are not going to risk arrest and Rhino attacks to procure real horn. That’s the point.

There are some possible, though perhaps improbable, scenarios in which synthetic horn might increase the demand for real horn. For instance, the relatively low price of synthetic might introduce more consumers to horn. Synthetic horn might serve as a kind of starter good that eventually causes more consumers to seek out the real thing. But for that story to work, consumers would have to be able to distinguish between real and synthetic. And it’s not clear to us how that would be possible, given that the two are chemically identical. Sellers of real horn would have the incentive to demonstrate authenticity, but again, it’s not clear to us how they would do so. If sellers of real horn can’t demonstrate authenticity, then nobody will willingly pay more for their product. In that case, we don’t see how synthetic horn would increase demand for real horn.

Regarding the ability of consumers to distinguish real from fake, the bullet points from the non-profits contradict each other. First, they assert:

  • Users buy from trusted sources and value “the real thing.”

Those sources would have to be very trusted indeed if the real and fake are genetically identical. We’re not sure we’d trust some of our own family to this degree.

  • How can consumers and law enforcement officials distinguish between legal synthetic horn that looks real, and illegal real horn?

This bullet point contradicts the previous one. In any event, consumers not being able to distinguish real from fake is not a problem, it’s the solution! This inability to distinguish would destroy the market for real horn.

  • Companies benefitting from making synthetic horn have shown very little commitment to use their profits to help the core problem of rhino poaching; besides which, those profits would meet only a tiny fraction of the total rhino protection costs that would remain to be met as long as demand reduction campaigns falter, as they would with the marketing of synthetic horn.

Translation: “Makers of synthetic horn won’t share their profits with us, the Rhino non-profits, and even if they did, it wouldn’t be enough to fund our operations.”

So long as synthetic horn successfully destroys the market for real horn, what does it matter how the producers use their profits?

  • Finally, the manufacture / marketing / sale of synthetic horn diverts funds and attention from the real problem: unsustainable levels of rhino poaching.

Translation: “The real problem is that the manufacture / marketing / sale of synthetic horn diverts funds and attention from the International Rhino Foundation and Save the Rhino International.”

That’s our (admittedly cynical) interpretation. If you set up an organization–a non-profit or government bureau–dedicated to solving the problem of ‘X’, that organization will never solve ‘X’, because doing so means putting itself out of business.

Do pro-Rhino non-profits really want to see Rhinos thrive, to the extent that the animals would no longer require resources for protection?

Maybe, but we have our doubts. As Lily Tomlin used to say, “I get more and more cynical every day, but still find it hard to keep up.”