Wolf Heads and Carbon Credits


Abraham Lincoln, in vivid recollections from early childhood, described the cashing of bounty for freshly severed wolf heads on the steps of an Indiana courthouse. In 1816 killing wolves at public expense was seen as an obvious necessity and probably represented a genuine emotional reassurance to the intrepid settlers of the era. Though it places me squarely out of the “in” crowd to equate this now-discarded policy with the newfound wisdom of publicly funded carbon-reduction schemes, I can’t quite help seeing a corollary.

Now before Greenpeace hones a quill for a sharply worded reprimand, let me clarify: I am not dismissing concerns over anthropogenic carbon emissions (or nineteenth-century wolf-phobias for that matter), but wondering aloud whether or not our policy choices will have similar long-term unintended consequences. The amateur historian in me thinks it highly likely that we will come to regret large-scale managed “solutions” to what ails us, whether the dragons we slay come slavering at night or quietly in the air.

Battling grievous menaces to public welfare ought, by all reason, to be supported at public expense. Or so the prevailing wisdom goes. Take wolves for instance. The long-running nationwide government wolf extirpation program has lasted for longer than our history as a nation. It continued for well over a century after Lincoln’s firsthand experience, and Jefferson himself had recalled state wolf bounty programs more than a century earlier. By 1914 the program really got down to business, and Congress gave the U.S. Biological Survey primary responsibility for wolf eradication, insisting that a third of its budget be used to kill wolves and their ilk (“survey” apparently had a different connotation in Great War America). Federal trappers killed the last two wolf pups in Yellowstone National Park in 1926, and wolf killing was being done from the air by Fish & Wildlife rangers as late as 1948.

And no, it wasn’t for lack of romantic attachment that wolves were removed from the habitable continent. Ernest Thompson Seton wrote with vivid prose lingering and sympathetic accounts of wolf trapping from the turn of the century. (Who can forget “Lobo” and “Blanca”?) Aldo Leopold writes with some dismay in Thinking Like a Mountain of his experience killing wolves as a forest ranger in Arizona in 1909. Qualms or not, however, wolves were a threat to progress. Government, clearly in the business of promoting progress by this time, was harnessed to do the dirty work and was, not surprisingly, rather successful at it.

Obviously Kevin Costner films weren’t yet in vogue. Or perhaps wolf imagery hadn’t quite made it onto the t-shirt scene. Either way, government bureaucrats weren’t privy to the sort of enlightened ecological sensitivity that even a grade-schooler possesses today.

Well of course, you say, that was a darker, dumber era now firmly behind us. We ought now to rest easier, allowing officials license to focus their efforts on solutions to today’s clearly pressing concerns—like carbon pollution. Since the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has deemed carbon emissions a “clear and unmistakable threat to the public welfare” and since an awful lot of experts seem to agree on this point, why buck the facts? Oh sure, there are a few misgivings by a few cranky troglodytes, but there are always some crackpots who won’t get with the program. I mean, when was the last time a panel of experts was wrong? Ignore for the moment eighteenth-century European naturalists on the new world’s “stunted” growth, the Royal Society’s views on geologic superposition, the science of eugenics, socialism as a masterpiece of human happiness, the Population Bomb and Snowball Earth madness of the 1970s, and more. There were probably even some skeptics who claimed that killing all the wolves was a bad idea in 1816. Imagine.

Plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions are not all that different from the plans to reduce (and eventually eliminate) wolf populations. A reward, of sorts, is given for each unit of reduction—be it a cash bounty for wolf heads or a “credit” to keep a carbon emitter from having to pay a stiff fine. These credits, under a veneer of “free-marketism,” can be traded or sold to someone else who wasn’t as successful at reducing emissions. In Lincoln’s era, it was optional to hunt wolves, but today we are approaching a point where we are all coerced into the hunt for carbon credits. Even if you don’t happen to be a large-scale carbon emitter yourself, your consumption of things (electricity anyone?) will inevitably draw you into the chase.

Whether wolves or carbon, activity is being driven by central decision-makers as to what constitutes the proper way to handle things.

Again, it is not my intention to argue that carbon emissions aren’t important, or even to question whether or not they represent a public menace. (They may well be as threatening as wolves!) My only purpose is to cast a jaundiced eye on the proposed solutions to the crisis du jour. The Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, now has the power to regulate carbon emissions and by all indications appears intent on restricting the output of the dangerous stuff. Does anyone else feel another “survey” coming on?

Society’s tastes and mores are in constant flux, driving the inexorable drift of the tectonic structures we erect to “improve things.” And while norms can change radically and quickly (smoking? birth control?), the plans, programs, bureaus, and institutions generally do not. In fact they generally continue along their predetermined paths, creating errors of Himalayan proportions. If we believe the myopic shortsightedness that nearly extinguished Canis lupus has been corrected, we are fooling ourselves. We know many more things, to be sure, and particularly in the fields of natural science and ecology. But to believe that we can remotely grasp, let alone master, the intricacies of global climate is surely hubris at its best.

When you ask government to get things done it generally does. And that’s precisely the danger. What is an unambiguously brilliant notion for one generation may not sit so well with the next. The apex of Progressive Era thinking in the 1930s gave us the magnificent damming projects of the arid west, projects now roundly decried (oddly enough) by heirs of the Progressive Left who now wish us to demolish these projects at taxpayer—oops—“government” expense. This sort of policy pendulum is inevitable in a world marked by a less-than-perfect grasp on information.

The only way to mitigate this effect is to ensure that action keeps pace with the values and knowledge of the day. This can only be accomplished through the diffusion of power to an individual level, where actors with firsthand observations can react to dynamically changing situations.

I know we’re worried about global warming today. Nobody wishes to see Vanuatu slip under the Pacific. And maybe, for the first time in history, human-caused climate change represents “The Big Problem” that we need “The Big Fix” for. But I doubt it. Something tells me, deep inside, that managed overreaction to carbon emissions will lead just as surely to the kind of devastating policies that made wolves an endangered species.

In fact, writing as I do from ground zero in the gray wolf reintroduction zone, I’d be willing to bet as much: One hundred years from now (if carbon emissions are “solved” by the authorities), I give it better than even odds that governments will be requiring carbon emissions. Lincoln probably wouldn’t take the bet.


October 2011

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