The sea otters and the case for conservative optimism

by DANIEL HANNAN August 9, 2015

I was in Alaska last week with several hundred clever and patriotic National Review readers. It's a wonderful place, Alaska. We saw whales and bears and bald eagles and sea otters; and I couldn't help noticing that, despite the mandatory pessimism of the environmental movement, all these species are becoming more numerous.

Who'd have thought it? Alaska is the state with the lowest rate of personal taxation in the Union, a Republican redoubt, and a place synonymous with Big Oil. Yet it turns out to be a remarkably good steward of rare animals.

Sea otters, in particular, had been hunted almost to extinction. It was their fur - "soft gold" - that had pulled Russian adventurers across the vastness of Siberia in the first place. A single pelt could fetch the equivalent of two years' wages in the entrepôts of northern China. A century ago, there were barely a thousand sea otters left. Now there are hundreds of thousands, cutely holding hands as they lie face-up in the water so as not to drift apart in their sleep.

Capitalism turns out to be as good for the natural world as for people. Karl Marx taught that nature was a resource to be exploited, a doctrine which found brutal realization in the smokestack industries of the U.S.S.R. But private ownership incentivizes us to treat flora and fauna as renewable resources.

It's not that free markets make us kinder; but they make us richer, which means we can afford to do things that our ancestors couldn't, such as leave whales alone. The global recovery in whale numbers is one of the untold miracles of recent years. Species which were recently endangered are becoming so abundant that they are having an impact on fish stocks. Much the same applies to bears. Where our poorer ancestors shot them with rifles, we can afford to shoot them with cameras.

It's true across the developed world. Where I live in the southern counties of England, red kites occupy the ecological niche that bald eagles do in Alaska. I had never seen one in the wild until my thirties. Now, like the Alaskan eagles, they are almost as common as pigeons. Salmon have returned to the Thames and, extraordinarily, otters have followed the salmon.

Conservatives, in general, are prepared to believe good news on the environmental front. We recall the ludicrous predictions of overpopulation and energy shortages from the 1970s. We see that technology - above all, the ability to get more food out of a fixed quantity of soil - is freeing up more space as farmland is "rewilded." We allow ourselves the occasional chuckle at the doom and gloom of the greenies.

But we have blind spots of our own - areas where we, too, are determined to see the worst. Where Leftists fret about eco-calamity, Rightists fret about immigration, Islamization and debt.

Our error is the same as theirs: a reluctance to see that problems have solutions. Just as we have found ways to deal with environmental challenges, so we can find ways to deal with population movements, radical Islam and government spending.

Margaret Thatcher's deputy prime minister, a man on whom she relied more than anyone liked to admit, was an old-fashioned, patrician Tory called Willie Whitelaw. He eventually boiled his experience of public life into one observation: "Nothing in politics is ever as good or as bad as it seems at first".

It's true. Current levels of immigration to the United States, though large in absolute terms, are not unprecedented in proportion to the existing population. Previous generations of American conservatives fretted, just as ours does, about cultural and linguistic ghettos. But in the end, the children of immigrants decided that America offered a better way of life than any rival, and embraced it.

Nor should we make the mistake of judging two billion Muslims by their loudest and most disagreeable coreligionists. Economic freedom has a way of making people want other freedoms. As populations throughout the Islamic world become accustomed to choosing their mobile phone providers, their television stations, their holiday destinations, so they demand political pluralism, too.

The debt? Yes, it's a problem. But, despite everything, the United States has grown by 9.4 per cent during Barack Obama's presidency. As long as your economy grows faster than your liabilities, debt is manageable.

I'm not arguing for complacency - far from it. All these challenges are real, just as the near-collapse in the sea otter population was real. But we can overcome them, if only we have confidence. Cheer up - things keep getting better.

Daniel Hannan is a British writer and journalist, and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the EU is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free. He is the winner of the Bastiat Award for online journalism.


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