Free-Market Environmentalism

Most self-proclaimed environmentalists indict free-market economies as unsustainable aberrations embedded in wasteful practices that result in major ecological strains. The Worldwatch Institute’s 1998 State of the World Report (but it could as well have been the 1984 or 2005 edition) tells us once again that the trend in environmental indicators was downward: “Forests are shrinking, water tables are falling, soils are eroding, wetlands are disappearing, fisheries are collapsing, rangelands are deteriorating, rivers are running dry, temperatures are rising, coral reefs are dying and plant and animal species are disappearing.” All this, of course, causes not only the loss of forests, topsoil, fisheries and freshwater, but also poverty, hunger, malnutrition, rampant disease, crime, corruption, lawlessness, anarchy and refugee populations.

Yet, as Bjørn Lomborg reports in The Skeptical Environmentalist, and Stephen Moore and Julian Simon report in It’s Getting Better All the Time, over the last one hundred years data on such important indices as life expectancy, income, health care, infant mortality and literacy have all shown positive trends. Most “poor” Americans today have routine access to a quality of housing, food, health care, consumer products, entertainment, communications, and transportation that even the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, and the 19th century European princes could not have afforded. Although the rest of the world lags behind the United States in most measures on well-being, almost everywhere the same trend of improvement is evident. Even well publicized scenarios about global warming are often distorted, according to Patrick Michaels and Robert Balling in the The Satanic Gases.

Some environmentalists will acknowledge these trends, but explain them by what they call “overshoot,” e.g., the ability to temporarily exceed the carrying capacity of the earth can help us live longer, but will put our natural capital into decline. As some of them are fond of saying, the ability to accelerate a car that is low on gasoline does not prove the tank is full. Nonsense, say Julian Simon in The State of Humanity and The Ultimate Resource 2, Ronald Bailey in Earth Report 2000: Revisiting the True State of the Planet, Barun Mitra in Population: The Ultimate Resource. Human beings create resources, they just don’t deplete them, and this is also true for natural capital. For example, there are now more trees in North America than when the first white settlers moved in.

Yet, if things are getting better, why are we always bombarded with bad news? Beyond the fact that the media likes bad stories much better than good ones, part of the answer is that it is a good way for environmental activists, bureaucrats, politicians and some scientists to increase their funding and power base, as is argued by Jonathan Adler in Ecology, Liberty and Property. In his last book, Hoodwinking the Nation, Julian Simon also notes that journalists know little about statistics and science and thus gather data in ways that lead to inaccurate conclusions. Some of them, however, sometimes allow their once negative pessimistic views on environmental matters to be changed by facts, such as Gregg Easterbrook in his A Moment on the Earth.

Despite these positive trends, nobody will deny that many problems still remain to be solved. For example, hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money are still annually diverted to promote inefficient and unproductive material and energy use in a wide range of economic sectors. But these are not caused by market failures (i.e. the inability of free-markets to address environmental concerns), but are rather the result of the absence of market forces. As illustrated by Terry Anderson in Breaking the Environmental Policy Gridlock, by Terry Anderson and Donald Leal in Free-Market Environmentalism, and by Richard Stroup and Roger Meiners in Cutting Green Tape, well-defined private property rights are a much simpler, cheaper and effective way to fight pollution and waste than the complex environmental laws that have been implemented in recent decades. If somebody dumps pollution on your property, just sue them! Is a common property being overgrazed? Privatize it! Are people wasting too much water because it is subsidized? Cut the subsidies! Is a species going extinct? Make sure that local people, and not government officials, own it. As Ike Sugg and Michael’t Sas-Rolfes remind us in the Elephants/Rhinos set, privately-owned cows, sheep, goats and chickens are consumed in huge numbers, yet their populations thrive because self-interest leads owners to maintain their value. This book presents a compelling case that African big game animals and other species can be saved only by harnessing the self-interest of local people, which means letting them own the animals. Then, the authors explain, wilderness will generate enough revenue from tourists and hunters, making land worth more as game habitat than as potential farmland. And, of course, what is true for Africa is just as valid for U.S. national parks.

Despite all the good news and the scientific evidence, your kids will likely be subjected to doom and gloom predictions in their assigned textbooks. A good way to teach your kids the basic truths about the real state of our world is to get a copy of Facts, Not Fear: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Children About the Environment by Michael Sanera and Jane Shaw.

As counterintuitive as this may sound after years of misanthropic environmentalist propaganda, the best way to solve our environmental problems is to get rid of government restrictions and subsidies that prevent the efficient use of resources and to tear down the socialist institutions that regulate many economic sectors, from transportation to urban growth (on this topic, see A Guide to Smart Growth by Jane Shaw and Ronald Utt). In the end, the free-market is the only system that is truly sustainable.

Pierre Desrochers is Director of Research at the MEI.

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