The Bear’s Lair: The environmental blight of environmentalists

I was shocked this week to discover that the Pan American Highway, much admired in my youth as a potential connector for the entire American continent, is still incomplete, with a 66-mile Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia that has been held up by environmentalists since 1972. Given the hyperbolic multiplier from completing first-move infrastructure, that is total economic insanity – I cannot offhand think of a stronger word, but if there were one, I would use it. It is just one of the appalling costs and blights that the environmental movement has imposed upon humanity since its 1960s genesis. The time has come to declare freedom from this scourge.

To take an equivalent example, there is a reason the Transcontinental Railroad completed in 1869 did not leave a 66-mile gap halfway across Utah. Had it done so, it would have left travelers subject to a perilous trek by foot or horse, harassed by bands of marauding Native Americans and herds of stampeding buffalo. In that event, it is fair to guess that the entire enterprise would have gone bankrupt and California would have remained accessible only by a perilous passage around Cape Horn. Billions of 1869 dollars in GDP would have been lost, equivalent to trillions today, while cities such as Los Angeles that have grown to mighty metropolises would have remained doubtless pleasant but economically insignificant Hispanic villages.

That is of course assuming that the 66-mile gap was around the point where the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads met, at Promontory Point, Utah. The terrain in that region is not especially difficult, so although railroad travelers would have been subjected to Native American raids, they would have had a high probability of crossing the gap successfully and completing their transcontinental journey (though freight transport across the gap would have been inordinately expensive). Had the gap been in some other region, for example across the Donner Pass, the passengers would have had to survive in winter by eating each other, surely a deterrent to global tourism.

The Darien Gap between the two portions of the Pan-American highway is equivalent in its terrain to the Donner Pass rather than to hospitable northern Utah. The Colombian half is marshy jungle, the Panamanian half is high near-impassable mountains. There is an active and revolting trade by the Central American crime cartels in ferrying illegal immigrants along the highly dangerous and unpleasant foot trail through the Gap towards the United States – some 300,000 of them per annum in recent years – although it is not clear why a Chinese illegal immigrant (say) would not complete the first portion of his trip by flying into Mexico City rather than Bogota, thereby avoiding great danger and privation.

The thought experiment of leaving the Transcontinental Railroad with a 66-mile gap should demonstrate why the economic return on finishing the last few miles of a huge infrastructure project of this kind is almost infinite. Without that last 66 miles, the development of California would have been hugely retarded, let alone that of Utah. The few million dollars to complete the railroad would thus have returned themselves a thousandfold over the next century or more, both to investors in the railroad and to the global economy as a whole.

The same must surely be true of closing the Darien Gap. If the Pan-American Highway were completed, the return to Colombia and Panama would be greatest of course, as all kinds of economic activities became possible between the two localities but returns for a thousand miles or more up and down the road would be considerable. The whole of Central America and northern South America would find its economy rejuvenated and would enjoy at least a decade of rapid growth that would lift its inhabitants out of poverty. The one non-beneficiary would be the cartels, who would no longer be needed to guide travelers along a well-marked and well-policed road and would no longer be able to prey on such travelers.

The reason the Darien Gap has remained unclosed for 52 years is not the cost nor the technical difficulties of the terrain – both are considerable but surmountable – but opposition from environmentalists, first within the United States and more recently in the United Nations. Local opposition also exists, but with a local population of only around 8,000 dirt-poor people, some financial compensation arrangement could surely be reached. In any case, the environmental cost of 300,000 U.S. illegal immigrants being escorted through the region (or to their deaths) by criminal gangs must hugely exceed that of a simple through highway.

Take another example – nuclear power. In the 1950s and the 1960s, the United States and the world as a whole developed an effective power generation technology, easily scaled up and free from the health costs of coal-fired production, in nuclear power stations. Then the environmentalists arrived. First, they delayed every station by half a decade or more, thereby causing its costs to spiral. Later they managed to prevent some completed stations from opening (Shoreham, on Long Island, for example) then prevented any further nuclear power station construction for three decades, even now making it excessively slow and costly. With only two new reactors in the last three decades, while 39 have been shut down, the balance is altogether unfavorable.

This is a huge problem. Whether rationally or not, the U.S. has committed itself to an economy of reduced carbon emissions, or even zero emissions on a net basis. Solar and wind power are mere expensive fantasies as means to achieve this, because they do not provide power on a consistent basis. Thus, the only way of scaling to meet the new demand is with a massive nuclear power building program, preferably including fusion reactors as soon as possible. Without such a program, the additional burdens placed on the current grid by the government’s mania for electric automobiles and now even electric trucks will cause it to collapse, plunging the U.S. population very quickly into a state of starvation and savagery. Even though a rapid emergency program of nuclear power construction is the only way to avoid this fate, the environmental movement is an immovable and irrational obstacle to any such program.

Examples of environmentalist destruction proliferate. Our local electricity supply here in Poughkeepsie is now endangered because environmentalists made the Feds close nearby Peekskill’s Indian Point nuclear station in 2021 without any kind of replacement. At present, we get power from Hydro Quebec’s wonderful hydro-electric projects in James Bay, but if New York City runs out of power, as is likely, how secure is our own supply from being diverted southwards by their well-connected and very rich Democrat donors? President Biden has mandated a switch to electric trucks by 2032, ignoring the fact that they currently have a range of only 150-160 miles and their batteries are so heavy that they can carry only a fraction of the load of an ordinary truck, because of damage to the roads. And so on.

Since the founding of the Environmental Protection Administration in 1970, U.S. productivity growth has trended far below its previous robust level, while the approval process for major projects has stretched towards infinity – for example, it is currently estimated that replacing Baltimore’s Key Bridge after its destruction will take ten years, while its original construction in the 1970s took only five. The environmental movement, and the regulators it has suckered foolish politicians into imposing, are entirely responsible for this grotesque degradation of ordinary people’s living standards.

“First, let’s kill all the lawyers” said that sound thinker Dick the Butcher in Henry VI Part II. The lawyers are indeed a worthy target for extermination, but today, they must be only the second priority. The first, without any doubt, is to eliminate the environmentalists and the monstrous jungle of foolish legislation and regulations they have engendered.


(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)