Magazine Feature / People

Crusading alumnus says environmental groups should put people first

book cover

Alumnus Paul Driessen's book has sold more than 10,000 copies

When Paul Driessen was a student, he was a campus organizer and an environmental group supporter. Today he’s a vocal critic of the groups he used to champion and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power, Black Death (Merril Press, 2003), which has sold more than 10,000 copies.

In the book, Driessen focuses on access to energy, biotechnology, DDT and insecticides — the main issues he sees facing developing countries. He also argues that wind and solar power aren’t ready and writes about climate change and what he sees as the truth about the global warming scare.

“Eco-imperialism means applying eco-activist or wealthy-nation environmental laws, policies and ideologies to restrict or deny people in poor communities access to modern technologies that improve, enhance and safeguard lives,” Driessen explains. He calls eco-imperialism “morally wrong.”

Driessen was a geology and field ecology major at Lawrence University, he studied environmental and natural resource law at DU, earning his JD in 1976. He acknowledges the environmental movement improved conditions tremendously in the U.S., but as it grew more powerful he became more critical of its motives.

“I am by training a scientist and a lawyer,” he says. “I like facts and I like evidence. [Environmental groups] play fast and loose with the facts and have an agenda that I think is harmful to a lot of people.”

Driessen has worked for the U.S. Senate, the Department of the Interior, the Wyoming state planning coordinator’s office and an energy trade association. He’s senior policy adviser for the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow and for the Congress of Racial Equality. He has traveled extensively to Africa, Latin America, India and other developing regions where he’s witnessed abject poverty that deeply affected him and changed the way he thought of progress.

He says people in affluent, healthy societies have vastly different concerns than people who lack running water, electricity and basic medical services. He points out that a million villagers die every year from tuberculosis and lung infections caused by breathing smoke from wood- and dung-fueled cooking fires.

“The next glass of water you drink over there could kill you; the next mosquito bite you get could kill you,” Driessen says. “You may not have enough food to survive because the nutrition levels are so low. That’s their reality. We should not be dictating to people in these countries how they should move forward to get out of poverty and to improve their lives.”

John Bachmann (JD ’77) met Driessen at a welcoming picnic for the DU law class of 1974. Over the years, he says he’s seen his classmate evolve from a preservationist to a conservationist.

“A preservationist doesn’t want any development. Period. A conservationist is for reasonable development for the betterment of humanity,” Bachmann says. He’s kept up with Driessen’s work and has read enough of the Eco-Imperialism book to agree with it wholeheartedly. “I think Paul is a sound, solid spokesperson for what he believes in.”

Driessen didn’t consider himself a preservationist, but says he once held an anti-corporate perspective. Today he describes himself as “someone who believes in wise stewardship of our environment and resources, development of energy and other resources for the betterment of people and our environment, and creating opportunity, health and prosperity for less fortunate people all over the world.”

The crux of Driessen’s belief is that affluent nations should support developing nations in their focus on economic progress now using whatever technology they can afford, even if that technology isn’t the most environmentally friendly. He trusts that those nations will improve environmental standards later when they’re wealthier. If you believe Al Gore, there’s no time for any nation to wait to address climate change. Driessen isn’t buying it. He says the notion of catastrophic climate change is a hypothesis that hasn’t reached the level of theory.

“There’s a lot of assertions and assumptions and computer models but there’s very little out there that says we’ve got a problem that’s different from the weather and climate issues we’ve faced throughout human history,” Driessen says.

Driessen says the consideration is whether we’re more gravely threatened by climate change or by policies aimed at preventing climate change. Cap-and-trade, endangerment and other anti-hydrocarbon laws are intended, he says, to drive up the price of hydrocarbon energy, make energy less available, and thereby reduce access to modern living standards, pursuit of happiness and civil rights.

Driessen isn’t afraid to disagree with prevailing views — even those held by his alma mater. He calls the DU Sustainability Council’s efforts “misdirected.”

Echoing a book chapter titled “Renewable Energy Mirages,” he says wind and solar power, some of the options the council is considering to reduce the University’s production of greenhouse gases, aren’t reliable enough to provide sustained power to the University and would require having a gas-fired power plant as a backup.

“A lot of these things sound good, they’re politically correct, they have a certain panache to them, but they don’t make economic sense,” Driessen says. “They don’t make energy sense. The big question is always, what do you mean when you say ‘sustainable’?”

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