Politics & Policy

Spaceship Earth

An astronaut is up above the clouds.

Astronaut Eileen Collins is concerned about the environmental degradation she sees from space. On board the fragile spaceship Discovery, she lamented from her unique vantage point above the Earth: “Sometimes you can see how there is erosion, and you can see how there is deforestation. It’s very widespread in some parts of the world. . . .We would like to see, from the astronauts’ point of view, people take good care of the Earth and replace the resources that have been used.”

#ad#The first thought that must have sprung into many people’s minds was, “Who made her an expert on this?” Well, astronauts are actually given training in detecting major areas of environmental degradation that can easily be viewed from space. After all, we are approaching a half century of amassing detailed photos of the Earth’s surface viewed from the heavens. They are trained to watch for areas of Amazonia and the Congo tropical forests and compare amounts of deforestation with photos from 10, 20, 30 years ago. Likewise, they watch for how far out into the oceans the silt plumes from the major rivers extend. Or for expansion of the great Sahelian Desert further south into sub-Saharan Africa.

After all, it was the early astronauts and Adlai Stevenson, inspired by the photographs they took, that first remarked how fragile was this tiny ball of blue and green, floating through the enormity of time and space, how this was our only home, and how important it was that we should take care of it. Thus was born “Spaceship Earth.” There isn’t anything wrong with that, but what is troublesome is more the attitude and what they are looking for. NASA, the EPA, and the Greens have been trying desperately to turn the space program into an Earth observation program–the Mission to Planet Earth–for almost 20 years, to justify perpetual funding as part of the nation’s and world’s environmental-protection mission. Conveniently, this means not having to constantly justify the massive expense of spacewalks, manned missions, moon landings, whatever.

The nonsense is that everything evaluated is done so simply in area extent. The desert is larger! And so man or development is evil. They never look at causes or incentives: Why do the tropical forests continue to decline? Does NASA or the White House science adviser ever suggest any institutional factors? No one owns the forests and people in many of those forested countries live in dire poverty in nations with no free-market economies, no jobs, no food. Thus their only choice is felling the forests, raising crops and livestock, and hoping they can sell some of the rare forest woods in the illegal markets that the G-8 and Tony Blair are so concerned about. Has anyone noticed that Amazonian states continue to urge the teeming populations of Brazil’s coastal cities to move into border areas and clear forests to create boomtowns? Perhaps entire regions of Africa would not have to subsist on “bush meat” if their dictators would allow Frank Purdue to start up some chicken farms.

Astronauts might actually gather some useful data if they took extensive infrared photos of the U.S. forests to document the extent of unhealthy forests–the millions upon millions of acres of dead and dying trees–suffering from over-crowding, disease, bark-beetle infestations, whatever. All of those are results of failed environmental policies forced on our national forests by the Greens–all the things that the Bush Healthy Forest Initiative was supposed to start repairing. Of course, much of the nation still doesn’t believe that the forests are ill, preferring to believe that the HFI was passed to pay off the Bush administration’s Big Timber donors.

As for Eileen Collins’s comments themselves, a moment’s thought reveals them for the platitudinous claptrap we have come to expect from people who don’t know all that much about Spaceship Earth. She has seen “widespread environmental damage,” whatever that may be. “Sometimes you can see how there is erosion.” Huh? That is one of the most fundamental and basic processes on the planet. There is uplift and there is erosion–the two big players in the geological game. What are wind and rain and freezing and thawing supposed to do besides erode? “And you can see how there is deforestation.” Again so what? And why? Why do you suppose the trees get replanted in the vast clear-cuts of the giant timber companies, but not in mankind’s common tropical forests?

She keeps on going: “We would like to see. . . people take good care of the Earth and replace the resources that have been used.” What is that supposed to mean? Refill copper mines with more copper or start pumping crude oil into depleted reservoirs?

As for the comment, “We don’t have much air,” well. . . what is her concern? That people are using it all up by breathing? This is grade-school environmentalism at best, not the sort of thinking we should expect from the highly qualified scientists that astronauts are supposed to be.

With the shuttle seemingly falling apart around her, Collins might spend a little time worrying about how she’s going to get her crew safely back to terra firma, even if it is badly polluted. Home, sweet home–be it ever so humble.

R. J. Smith is scholar in environmental policy and Iain Murray is a senior fellow in international policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market advocacy group.

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