An environmentalist comes out of the woods

In the middle of the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau went into the woods for two years — and came out with some deeply felt beliefs about man and nature. In the last part of the 20th century, Wallace Kaufman went into the woods; he’s still living there, but he tells a very different story. Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Kaufman, however, believes the opposite is true: “In civilization is the salvation of wilderness and of nature in general.”

In No Turning Back (published by, Inc. in 1994 and reprinted this year), Kaufman takes on the whole liberal environmental movement. In Coming Out of the Woods (published this year by Perseus Publishing), he writes about his 25-year experience living (and trying to develop an ecological community) in the woods of Chatham County, N.C. From his owner-built house on about 100 acres near Pittsboro, Kaufman talked to me by phone, explaining his views.

He’s a past president of the North Carolina Conservation Council, where he says he was “caught up in the great blossoming of awareness of environmental problems in the new science of ecology, which was revealing the interconnectedness of the natural world in a way that most people had never been aware of before.” At first, says Kaufman, he did what many good environmentalists do. “I have to admit that I was caught up in this scapegoating, [believing] that the people who run industry are different from the people who teach literature or make tie-dye shirts. It was easy to attack the problems at the macro level, rather than consider what the human psychology of it is, and in what way these problems issue just from the nature of the human character — mine as well as the president of GM or Dow Chemical.”

Kaufman grew up in New York, in a working-class family, and moved to North Carolina to attend Duke (and, later, teach English at UNC-Chapel Hill). In 1968, he bought 330 acres near Pittsboro; over the years, others bought a few acres of this forest, seeking to live the simple life. He built his own house in 1974. His thirst for adventure in the natural world has taken him from the rain forests to the arctic tundra, from the islands in the Sea of Okhotsk to the glaciers of the Celestial Mountains (where China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan come together).

And Kaufman says his experiences developing land for those who wanted to live in harmony with nature also taught him some profound lessons: “I became engaged in helping people get back to the land and live simple lives. In that process, I learned that most people are only willing to do that if it is convenient for them. When it becomes their self-interest to disturb the environment — by having dogs and cats, or using herbicides to save some precious tree — they all do it. They are no different from anybody else. We all have the same motivation; we just have different scales.

“That’s when I began to look at free-market environmentalism and the work of a lot of people that is practical and has been tested and found to have great results, but is often ignored. A classic example was back in the early Reagan administration, when it proposed trading in pollution rights, and the environmental community automatically set up a huge protest, saying, ‘You can’t sell the right to pollute — how unthinkable!’ These are people who don’t understand that we’re already exercising that right — whether it’s people out here burning wood stoves [and] putting carcinogens into the air a mile a minute, because we like to heat our house with wood or we like to use a fireplace, or whether it’s someone who wants to read the New York Times on Sunday and says it’s OK to cut down that amount of trees, because, ‘I like the New York Times.‘ I was having this debate with some people recently, and I said you can read it on the Internet now, and they said, ‘Yes, but I like to hold it in my hand.’ But you’re an environmentalist! How can you justify buying it, when you don’t have to? It comes down to: ‘Well, it’s just what I like; therefore, I’m willing to sacrifice the principle.’ It became clearer and clearer to me that we’re in a market, and most of us are economic animals. So this shift came as I dealt with such real-life situations as people [wanting] to move back to the land. I had to make roads for them, so I had to cut trees.”

Kaufman started an organic garden and tried to compete in the marketplace. He found that he couldn’t sell his vegetables at competitive prices and make any money. “My goal was to sell them at the same price or less than they were selling them at the supermarket. In my mind, I said, ‘Look: Organic farming is never going to make it unless it can compete, and it is certainly not going to be of any use to the poor people of the world unless it can compete.’ So I had a good lesson from trying that, and I read widely in all the organic-gardening literature, and I couldn’t see where anyone had a formula for making it able to feed the masses of the world, or even making it relatively affordable. Organic farming is not as efficient in the use of land, because frequently it requires leaving land fallow, so when it’s fallow or growing a green-manure crop, you are at an economic disadvantage to nonorganic agriculture.”

Kaufman’s own vision of organic farming, however, entails something that both consumers and producers of organic food usually decry: “My lens for looking at these things from a different perspective is that I’ve got a godson who is 5 years old in Kazakhstan, where I lived for a couple of years and worked. He comes from a poor sheepherder’s family; they no longer herd sheep. His father is usually without a job, and his mother doesn’t work. And I think: What’s going to help this kid and others like him? Genetic engineering of food would help his people much more than organic gardening. I’m an organic gardener, and I believe in not using chemicals when you don’t have to, and I even grow heirloom varieties of tomatoes and apples. But I have the luxury to do that. I can fall back on going to the regular market, if my garden fails. I think, with genetic engineering, we are going to be able to create crops that are more easily grown organically. If we create crops that have their own built-in pesticides, then we’re going to have a gentler kind of agriculture. We are already doing no-till farming, and that returns minerals to the soil. If you only want some kind of heirloom corn grown in manure, that’s fine — but don’t impose it on the world. When you’ve got to grow hundreds of thousands of acres of wheat just to feed one country, you can’t rotate that crop; you can’t not have monoculture. For the time being, we need to continue commercial, chemical-based agriculture. I think, though, that everybody recognizes that, if you can do it organically and still feed the world, why not? Things like integrated pest management, no-till farming and different techniques that are coming along are going to make agriculture much gentler.”

In No Turning Back, Kaufman addresses assorted other environmental topics. I asked him about one much-contested topic in the debate over the future of the planet — global warming, and what we should do about it. “Science is not a democratic process where we all vote on what we think the right answer is,” he replied. “Science is the hard job of pinning down facts. We do know that there is more carbon dioxide in the air; that’s a fact.

“Let’s assume that there is a warming of the planet. First question is, what are the most economically efficient ways of cutting back on carbon-dioxide production? The Kyoto protocols have certainly not produced, from what I’ve seen, economically efficient ways. We’ve spent billions of dollars, and we cut back on a very tiny proportion of carbon dioxide — and, in terms of what effect this might have on actual temperature rise, it’s almost nil. But it’s very sexy, politically, for Al Gore to say, ‘I went to Kyoto and I got an agreement, and we’re going to cut back X percent of CO<->2<-> emissions.’ What he’s not saying is how much this will affect world temperature. Because the effect is tiny. I don’t pretend to know how to make a real reduction in CO<->2<->, but we have time to make that decision. Sea level is not going to rise and consume New York City tomorrow. I think most scientists and climatologists think we don’t have enough data to determine how we make the reductions, and they believe we have the time to find those solutions.”

Right here in the pages of Mountain Xpress, readers are bombarded with letters and commentaries blasting the over-consuming, materialistic culture that’s rapidly depleting our mineral and other natural resources. Kaufman, however, takes a different perspective. When confronted with the statistic that the United States has 6 percent of the world’s population, yet accounts for 50 percent of the world’s resource use, he says: “The first thing to recognize is that we are not just using the resources up; we are transforming them into goods that people all over the world use. It’s not as though 50 percent of the world’s resources are brought to America and never leave again. Nevertheless, on a per capita basis, Americans do consume five to 10 times what is consumed in a developing country. Is that bad? You would have to demonstrate that we’re taking these things away from those people. That is not demonstrable. Are we actually using up a particular resource? We are not using them up — or, at least, not as fast as some people thought — because the price is getting cheaper, for most things.

“If the free market is allowed to operate, the price will reflect the scarcity of particular resources, and there will be the incentive for people to develop alternatives. It’s happened throughout history. You can’t say we can’t do it; of course we can. As oil becomes more expensive in the next 50 years, fuel cells — which are already in the works — are going to become more competitive. That happened when wood got scarce in a lot of countries; people began to find coal and oil. Solar power may, at some point, become competitive. Even the vast stores of coal may be turned into a benign type of gas. What people in the environmental community always do is they take a given trend and they say, ‘Oh, look, 50 years from now, following that trend line, it’s going to be a disaster.’ But there’s no trend line in history that has continued in the same curve ad infinitum. As things become more or less expensive, people adapt, and they abandon something for something else.”

Another common theme in the environmental community (and on bumper stickers) is, ‘Live simply so that others may simply live.’ But, once again, Kaufman charts his own course: “Most of the people in the world are living simply already. My godson’s family in Kazakhstan lives very simply, and it’s very dangerous for them. It would be much better if they all had jobs and were producing something. The living-simply thing is based on the notion that, if you’re not consuming gasoline or trees, they’re available for somebody else, somewhere in the world. That’s a little bit like saying that the food I leave on my plate could be used for some hungry person in Armenia. In fact, the more Americans consume, the more likely there are to be jobs in other countries in the world, to produce the things we consume. If people start consuming things in the same quantities as Americans, either people will plant more of those things (if it’s trees), or they will turn to substitutes, like plastic lumber. We used to have to grow 2 acres of hay for every horse, but we don’t do that anymore, because we have cars. So lots of the old pastures are now growing up in trees. Allow the market to put the real costs on products, and substitutes will be found.”

But aren’t there some things, at least, that the government must do in the name of environmental protection — such as setting aside forests and wilderness areas? Not according to Kaufman.

“Government ownership often creates problems that private ownership would never put up with,” he maintains. “I think about what I want to do about my forest here, when I get too old to take care of it. I would hate to see it cut over, and I thought about donating it to local government. I took a walk around Jordan Lake and it was so full of trash, I thought, ‘My God, that’s the last thing I want to happen to my forest!’ I’d rather leave it to my daughter, or give a conservation easement to a group like the Nature Conservancy.

“When I came back from the former Soviet Union and told my friends what a disaster had happened to the environment there, they would say, ‘Well, it was a good system, it was just abused.’ They say that about government ownership here. I don’t think everything should be privatized. But a lot of the complaints people have about pollution of the rivers is not from hog farmers but from municipal sewerage systems. When you have a democratic government, you are putting the management of the commons at the will of the political forces. Everybody decries how often vested interests control government policy, and yet they want to put all these parks and lands at risk politically by allowing the government to control it — and, therefore, [allowing] whoever is most politically powerful to have the say.”

We often hear that the true conservationists in history have been indigenous peoples, who respected the land and were careful to use only what they needed, so there would be enough for future generations. Again, Kaufman has a different take.

“Where is wilderness being preserved most assiduously? It’s in the Western, civilized countries. You can say there’s a lot of wilderness in Papua New Guinea and the Amazon basin, but nobody’s preserving it there. The indigenous people never had any particular intent to preserve it; they simply didn’t have the means to destroy it. Their survival depends on concentrated attention to economic benefits. There have been lots of anthropological studies [showing] that, given the opportunity to wipe out the last few game animals rather than go hunt somewhere else and let the local population recover, the native people will take the short-term view, wipe out the local fauna, and move on. There’s no pagan respect for nature, or preservation of wild things. It’s only in more developed, affluent countries that there’s a move to preserve nature or have the science to understand it. Indigenous people didn’t have nearly the understanding we have of population dynamics, of diseases in wild species, [of] mating patterns and migrations. The Mayans never knew where all those songbirds spent the summer. But we do, and [we] have the scientific foundations for preserving wilderness — and the money and the leisure to be interested in doing it.”

Kaufman says he worries that the triumph of the environmental movement is about to infect our thinking with a wrong-headedness that will require decades to reverse. “I hope that, eventually, reason and education will triumph. We now have a lot of people who are dedicated to debunking the junk science of the environmental movement. But even among scientists I know in universities, they don’t want to tackle junk science, because it’s getting them grants to study these things. In the meantime, they are willing to overlook a decay of scientific integrity, and I think that’s dangerous. I think the story is yet to be written whether these New Age pseudoscientists are going to become the politically correct censors of science, or whether scientists are going to be able to hold their own and produce work that has real integrity.”

Meanwhile, Kaufman says he finds himself traveling a path between the left and right wings of environmentalism. Does that mean he’s a middle-of-the-roader? Not in his view. But that’s not to say he doesn’t think he has a role to play in bringing opposing sides closer together.

“I see [a middle-of-the-roader] as someone who can’t make up his mind. My idea is conciliation. I could get people from the liberal side of the spectrum to consider hard science and economic incentives. And I could get people from the conservative side to consider more of the noneconomic values and how to deal with those. And also how to involve people from other walks of life in these things. I think we all do have a common interest. We just have to evaluate the means and put aside ideology.

“I find more and more of my friends who I knew back in the ’70s are willing to consider these new ideas and find them interesting. Maybe I’m getting better at getting my message across. A lot of the writers in the regional press are locked into a certain point of view, and they don’t even know the existence of other points of view. Therefore, they may be good journalists and [not] even know of the existence of people like Dan Botkin [a highly respected ecologist who’s the author of Discordant Harmonies], or others. They don’t consult them, and therefore, don’t get an alternative view.”

For information on free-market environmentalism, Kaufman directs me to a Web site: The Political Economy Research Center tackles a multitude of environmental issues, such as suburban sprawl, managing the nation’s wilderness areas, genetically modified foods — all from the perspective of the free market and hard science.

Despite having a daughter who grew up with him at his house in the forest and went on to earn a doctorate in ecology, Kaufman also takes a swipe at environmental teaching in the schools.

“In the end, scare-tactic environmental teaching makes kids less discerning of real truth. It’s instilling in them a kind of religious faith that human beings are an evil influence, and that industry is bad, recycling is always good. It doesn’t equip them with the critical thinking needed to evaluate the subtleties of things, to determine when something is good and when it’s not good. The whole notion that we should tell grade-school children that the earth is doomed, which is what we are doing — even though we’re also saying you can make a difference — gives the overall message that there are these huge, evil forces out there, and your life is doomed. What an awful thing to say to kids!

“My daughter is now a Ph.D. ecologist. She went to Vassar as an undergraduate and went through their biology and environmental-studies program. And I must say that I was disappointed in this great liberal-arts school. It was basically a bunch of alarmist articles out of newspapers about what a sad situation the world was in. It wasn’t a course in environmental science at all. It was a course in liberal environmentalism and its view of the world. I see that in a lot of colleges — they have now substituted a course in fuzzy environmental thinking for a course in hard science.”

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