[Editor note: Part I yesterday described Ken Green’s current responsibilities at the Fraser Institute and Canadian energy/environmental issues. Today’s post covers Green’s early interest, education, and career in environmentalism.]
MR: When did you first become interested in environmental science?
KG: I was always interested in nature as a kid. I remember catching frogs at a nearby golf course when I was 5, and I grew up in California camping in the various state parks, where I was always interested in catching critters and playing with them. Lizards, horned toads, snakes, small rodents, whatever I could catch. I also loved science, and remember the name of my 6th grade science teacher, Mr. Jahn, who made studying science fun.
I used to go out to the Mojave Desert a lot with my mother, who was a real character. She was an amateur “treasure hunter,” and loved prospecting for gold in the rivers and streams of California, as well as out on a placer mining claim we had in the Mojave. I’d tool around on a motorcycle, and do the shoveling for the sluices boxes and dry-washers, she’d pan out the gold, and spend time chatting with friends around the motor home. For a short time, she had a shop that sold prospecting equipment in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles.
Prospecting with my mother would turn out to be influential on the way I came to view environmental policy. My mother was a member of the Prospectors Club of Southern California and hauled me along to meetings with her when I was in my early teens. It was there that I was first exposed to the tension that was growing with environmentalists, who were laboring to ban things like prospecting in state parks, or in areas they viewed as fragile, such as the Mojave.
They were also beginning to push for bans on motor vehicles in parks, and things like that. It was seen as a huge threat in the mining community, and my mother, who absolutely adored the desert (where her asthma eased up and she felt healthier) invited people to the club to speak about the threats that environmentalists posed to prospecting, and to encourage people to write their representatives.
MR: So you were a ‘naturalist’ before the term ‘environmentalist’ began to be used?
KG: I suppose that’s a fair characterization – I was always somewhat fascinated with nature, and I enjoyed watching insects and animals, and speculating about why they did the things they did, wondering how water-striders could walk on water, wondering how desert iguanas could run so fast, that sort of thing. But I did develop some strong environmental beliefs as well – growing up as a kid with asthma in the smoggy San Fernando Valley in California did sensitize me (literally) to the reality of pollution.
MR: And was your mother a naturalist…as well?
KG: Well…I wouldn’t go that far – My mother enjoyed nature, certainly, but that was secondary to her interest in the particular activity of prospecting, and socializing with others in the prospecting community. She had asthma as well, and loved the clean air of the deserts and California’s state parks. Certainly, we tried to minimize any impact we had on the environment, and tried to be responsible in our camping, but there’s no question, we did leave a hole or ten here or there. I was more interested in the flora and fauna side of things than my mother was – my mother just humored the giant collections of bullfrogs I’d amassed, or my keeping a tank with lizards and horned toads in my bedroom. My mother passed away before the full onslaught of the environmental movement and consequently got to enjoy her claim until her death. I eventually let the claim lapse as I’d moved away. But in the end, that area would have been taken from me anyway: the land was set aside to protect endangered species such as the desert tortoise and the kangaroo rat.
MR: Tell us about your education through your doctorate at UCLA.
KG: That part is fairly straightforward, at least! For a few years as a child, I went to a private Jewish day school, in New Jersey, but after that, it was public school through high-school. Most of my schooling was in the San Fernando Valley in California, the cradle of ValSpeak. I was at the grand opening of the infamous Sherman Oaks Galleria, like, ohmygod! (and yes, the girls in my Jr. High and High school really did talk that way. I remember hearing the accent when I was still riding a bus to school, around the mid-1970s. The rest of the country wouldn’t suffer that for another decade or so.)
After high school I was recruited to UCLA in a new English honors program they’d created and were populating by recruiting people who scored particularly well on the National Achievement Tests. The program emphasized writing extensively – in fact, virtually every assignment in all of the courses within the program had written exams and numerous (and lengthy) writing assignments. I spent a year in the program before going into biology, a subject that came naturally to me and offered diverse career pathways.
I completed a Bachelor’s degree in general biology at UCLA, went down to San Diego State University for a Master’s in molecular genetics (where I got interested in the idea of using molecular biology and genetic bioengineering to remedy environmental problems).
That led me back to UCLA for a Doctorate in Environmental Science and Engineering. That was something of an odd program, which was designed to produce people capable of working in public policy.
This program was highly interdisciplinary – in addition to the core science curriculum that was taught in-program, we studied environmental engineering in the school of engineering, we studied environmental law at UCLA’s law school, we studied environmental health in the school of public health, and we studied environmental planning in the school of urban planning.
MR: What was your doctoral dissertation at UCLA on?
KG: My dissertation studied the costs and benefits of compliance with one of the most hated environmental rules promulgated in California, a rule that required employers with over 50 employees to persuade their employees to rideshare. The rule, then called “Regulation XV” had been promulgated by the South Coast Air Quality Management District. What I found, basically, was that despite spending ever larger amounts of money, and despite developing more complex accounting systems, hiring more and more “rideshare coordinators,” giving out prizes to people who shared rides, and so forth, ridesharing actually declined over the period I studied.
I did my doctoral research as an intern at Hughes Aircraft Company’s headquarters, where I also ran an environmental communications program for them and did analysis of their environmental audit data.
My experience at Hughes definitely influenced my view of environmental regulation. Many of the things that the South Coast Air Quality Management District insisted on were not only onerous, they were often arbitrary and capricious, and seemed completely disdainful of the private sector. The regulatory agency involved was notoriously anti-manufacturing, and in meetings and hearings showed arrogance, and blatant disregard for the economic impacts of their regulations.
The rules, and the nature of the regulations looked, in many cases, to be dubious scientifically, economically, and in terms of incentive creation. Indeed, they ultimately, through their rules and regulations, wound up chasing major components of Hughes Aircraft out of California, and Hughes would ultimately become first a holding company, and now a vestige of what it once was.
MR: Did you have any mentors along the way?
KG: I was fortunate enough to have several mentors throughout my education, and into my career. As an undergrad, my parasitology professor, Austin MacInnis at UCLA, would become one of my mentors, as would Ray Lunt, who taught a course in soils, plants, and society.
Parasitology should be mandatory study for biologists and environmental science people, because nothing will shatter the Disney-esque view many people hold of nature than a good course in parasitology!
Ray Lunt also fed some of my environmental skepticism, when he pointed out that, in the fight over acid rain, environmentalists were not using a balanced analysis. He pointed out that acidic rainfall would significantly increase the productivity of agriculture, yielding numerous benefits that might exceed the harms done by acid rain.
When I was doing my doctorate, I was mentored by a man named Renzo Venturo, who directed Hughes’ environmental, health, and safety department, and who hired me into his department. Renzo was a wonderful man, who died tragically young – he passed away shortly after I graduated and left the company.
Also in my doctorate, Martin Wachs at UCLA’s school of Urban Planning would become a critical mentor: not only was he the chair of my doctoral committee, he pointed me toward my first position in public policy at California’s Reason Foundation. Marty had done some work for Reason on transportation pricing, and knew they were looking for someone of a Libertarian bent to work on environmental policy for them.
MR: Tell us about Reason.
KG: I joined the Reason Foundation in 1994, straight out of my doctorate. I joke that it was the second job where I was hired off a bed – my interview for Hughes had taken place in a hotel room where Hughes was holding a job fair, and my interview was held on a bed in a hotel suite. My interview with Lynn Scarlett primarily took place on a sofa in a hotel lobby. What’s generally known as just “Reason” actually has two divisions: there’s a research division, and a magazine division. I was on the research side of the house. Bob Poole was the President on the think-tank side, while Virginia Postrel was editor of Reason Magazine during my time at Reason.
While there, I was mentored/managed by Lynn Scarlett, later Deputy Secretary of the Interior. Reason was a great place to work, and Lynn believed in letting people find their own depth at their own pace. I quickly moved up from being a policy analyst to directing Reason Foundation’s environmental research program. Reason is a libertarian organization, which did a lot of great research on education policy, transportation policy, environmental policy, and land-use policy.
I was with Reason Foundation for about 8 years. I did some of my most important work at Reason, including a three-study series that we injected into the debate over the proposed 1997 revisions to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards…the studies were used by legal teams challenging the revisions, and one of them was cited in a brief to the Supreme Court. Reason was also where I developed my “style” of “Plain English” writing about science issues that eventually led to the opportunity to write a book for middle-school students on global warming.
MR: How did Lynn impart the philosophy of liberty with environmentalism?
KG: I was already a libertarian by the time I went to work at Reason, having gone through a philosophical exploration as an undergraduate many years before. I can still remember going to UCLA’s library and plowing through entire shelves of libertarian literature (and critiques) as well. That philosophical foray was triggered, oddly enough by a class I had in my first year at UCLA that focused on “freedom and control.”
Although, one could argue that it was triggered far earlier than that – I was a huge Robert Heinlein fan from about age 12, and a lot of what Heinlein wrote had libertarian themes. “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” is his best-known libertarian-inspired work, but there are elements of libertarian thought short through his canon. Then too, my mother handed me Atlas Shrugged to read when I was 15 or so. So, you can see where I’d be a somewhat natural fit for Reason!
What Lynn did at Reason was to help me learn the peculiar genre that is “policy analysis” in the think-tank world, to help me develop a feel for what public policy issues were important, and to teach me how to direct and manage outside and inside authors. And, she helped me shed the bad writing habits I acquired during the doctorate, which favored acadamese over English. Lynn was an empiricist, and would regularly exhort me to “show, don’t tell,” something I still try to do today. Lynn also had me media trained, which has come in very handy over the years!
MR: Was there much controversy within the libertarian movement about environmental issues then?
KG: There was some, but probably less then than there is now, as overall environmental awareness was less prominent in those days, and debates still a bit more civil. Very few think tanks back then had full-time environmental analysts, and even fewer had full-time environmental policy analysts who’d actually studied environmental science. Most were economists or general students of public policy, and that’s still true today.
There are people in the libertarian movement who are, I think, extreme in both directions. There have always been some “libertarian greens,” in the movement, who simply accept what the media tells them about the environment and who want to apply “market mechanisms” to solve whatever ill they’ve heard about regardless of whether or not other people are harmed in the solution of some environmental non-problem.
By the same token, some refuse to acknowledge potentially real environmental problems because they don’t have an off-the-shelf libertarian solution to it, regardless of the fact for example, that real people may be hurting other real people via their discharging of things into an indivisible commons like the air or water, which should be a clear-cut no-no in a libertarian framework.
MR: How did you get from California to Washington, D.C.?
KG: So many straight lines here…”why, by car, of course.” Seriously, my pathway to D.C. was quite circuitous. I lived in Texas for 5 years (in and around Austin) while working for Reason via telecommute, then I moved up to British Columbia for my first stint with Fraser Institute. From there, it was down to DC, first, to take over a small non-profit (the Environmental Literacy Council) that I ran for a year before I had to dive back into the policy world when I heard of a potential slot at AEI, where I’d always wanted to work.
MR: How long were you at AEI?
KG: I was at AEI for about 6 years, and they were great years for me. So many incredible people work at AEI, and the atmosphere of intellectual exploration is tremendous. What can you say about having the opportunity to chat with people like Charles Murray, Des Lachman, Chris DeMuth, Sally Satel, Christina Hoff Summers, Alex Pollock, and the other great scholars AEI has on staff. I had some fantastic research assistants at AEI, and the non-research staff at AEI are also amazing. They made it such a great pleasure to work there. I still do some writing for AEI’s online magazine “The American,” and I expect to work with AEI scholars on projects in the future. I was lured back to Canada by a variety of factors, but I’ll always cherish my work for AEI.
At AEI, I enjoyed the mentorship of Steven Hayward and Chris DeMuth, who I still consider key mentors of mine.
MR: In your 20 years as a policy specialist, what were some of your most exciting, or gratifying, projects?
KG: I can hardly believe it’s been 20 years… But this is the 20th anniversary year of my start at the Reason Foundation in 1994.
There have been so many projects, it’s hard to single any out. My doctoral studies led to a paper for Reason Foundation that I think had some impact in eventually leading to the pull back of the regulation that I studied, then called Regulation XV. As I described above, Reg. XV required employers with over 50 employees to convince their employees to carpool, or rideshare.
The timing of the study was quite inconvenient for the Southern California Air Quality Management District, the head of which tried to have me fired. Strangely enough, he was a graduate of the same doctoral program.
Certainly, the three-study set I did on the 1997 National Ambient Air Quality Standards stands out as particularly exciting and gratifying, I was new to the field, and the studies had very long legs, leading to a great deal of media, Congressional testimony, conference proceeding spin-offs, and most important of all, they were cited in Supreme Court arguments over the NAAQS.
A study I did for Reason Foundation, “A Plain English Guide to the Science of Climate Change,” led to some great exposure and spin offs, including an offer to write a textbook for middle schools on the topic.
I’ve enjoyed most of the work I’ve done with Reason, AEI, PRI, and Fraser. Having shifted from straight environmental policy, into broader energy and natural resource policy has also been gratifying.
At AEI, I wrote a supplemental text for college students on energy as well, which was quite gratifying. Finally, I find the opportunity to work with students quite gratifying, and though I have not taught courses in academia, I’ve still gotten to do a lot of teaching through my career.
I did a one-year stint as Executive Director of the Environmental Literacy Council in Washington DC which was neither exciting nor gratifying, but it did teach me that I’m really not into the whole “Executive Director” role. I prefer to be in the policy trenches.
MR: What is the future of liberty in the environmental arena? Has it become a ‘road to serfdom.’? Or is it just managing costs so that human ingenuity can continue to allow economic growth and environmental improvement at the same time?
KG: Though I’m sure it would surprise people who see only my critiques of bad policy, in general, I’m optimistic about the future of liberty in the environmental arena.
First, the reality is, developed countries have largely extinguished real environmental problem with advanced technology. You can only fool people for so long until their own senses tell them that the environment is healthful. And, I’ve always felt that environmentalists would lose on their public policies when the public got handed the bill. They’ve managed to hide the costs of their policies in many cases, but increasingly, when they get that bill for the “green energy” environmentalists insisted on, they’re quite upset, and push back.
And, as Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus at Breakthrough Institute pointed out some years ago, in a very real sense the environmental movement has lost many of its biggest battles, and has shown itself incapable of implementing a global environmental policy regime.
If you think about it, critics of draconian climate policies have held them off, for the most part, for well over a decade now. The overly-restrictive 1997 air quality standards were held up for almost as long, so that by the time they were implemented, technology had advanced enough to make them affordable.
There’s no global agreement on greenhouse gas controls, and few mandatory regimes at all. The only possible ‘road to serfdom’ I see in the environmental area is the ongoing climate crusade, and the reason I fear it there is that there simply is no technological fix on the horizon, and the only alternative to that is basically energy rationing.
MR: What advice would you give to the next generation interested in increasing liberty and responsibility and in bettering the environment?
KG: My suggestion to those interested in liberty, responsibility, and environmental protection is to hit the books, on science, liberty, economics, and public policy. Get into the weeds and really study an issue before you go off on a policy crusade. Learn how to argue rationally, and debate effectively.
Refine your writing – it’s how you’ll reach most people, even in the age of social networking. Always keep your eye out for the balance, rather than the extremes. Don’t dismiss concerns out of hand, but don’t accept them without digging in to see if they’re real. Always be aware of the risk of unintended consequences of the actions you propose – it’s easy for public policy to do more harm than good.
On a personal note, find a good wife, have some kids, and take time to enjoy your life. Oh, and if you’re young study a trade, like plumbing – always good to have a fall-back plan if your career in activism doesn’t work out!
Kenneth Green posts at MasterResource: A Sampling
Real Politic: Carbon Tax Pessimism (Part I) August 8, 2013
Real Politic: Carbon Tax Pessimism (Part II) August 9, 2013
Kenneth Green (AEI) on the Carbon Tax: From ‘For’ to ‘Against’ (July 19, 2012)
Death Spiral for Climate Alarmism Continues (June 2, 2010)
A Death Spiral for Climate Alarmism, Redux? (September 30, 2009)