All Commentary
Sunday, December 1, 1991

Book Review: Free Market Environmentalism by Terry L. Anderson and Donald R. Leal

Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, 177 Post Street, San Francisco, CA 94108 • 1991 • 208 pages • $28.95 cloth, $14_95 paper

Property should be in a certain sense common, but as a general rule, private; for, when everyone has a distinct interest, men will not complain of one another, and they will make more progress, because everyone will be attending to his own business.

      Aristotle, Politics, Book II, Ch. 5

Thus did Aristotle take Plato’s advocacy of communism to task. Aristotle’s stress on private property rights is reflected in the approach to environmental concerns taken by research associates Terry Anderson and Donald Leal of the Political Economy Research Center at Bozeman, Montana, in their study on how America should best manage its natural resources and achieve environmental quality.

Anderson and Leal maintain that most of the proposed solutions to perceived environmental problems today call for centralized, politicized, and bureaucratized approaches that are not even consistent with the science of ecology. Moreover, they hold these solutions pit winners against losers in a zero-sum game that tears at America’s social fabric.

Their brilliant answer of what they call “free market environmentalism” depends on an Aris-totelian voluntary exchange of property rights between consenting owners that promotes human cooperation and mutuality of interests. In short, it offers, say Anderson and Leal, “an alternative that channels the heightened environmental consciousness into win-win solutions that can sustain economic growth, enhance environmental quality, and promote [social] harmony.”

The authors furnish an example of such harmony in the case of the National Audubon Society’s Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary in Louisiana. There the Society, a group opposed to oil and gas development in most wilderness settings, acted differently when it happened to own the land and mineral rights in an extensive area that is home for deer, armadillo, muskrat, otter, mink, thousands of geese, and many other birds.

That home has in no way been measurably damaged by the Society’s allowing Consolidated Oil and Gas to extract oil from the wildlife sanctuary for years in exchange for royalties so that the wildlife group can better carry on its work. To be sure, the Society imposed extra precautions on the company oil wells to prevent pollution in the huge marshland, but the environmentalist group/ business firm partnership still evidences what the authors see as a win-win environmental solution.

This solution may provide the key to what to do about the Interior Department’s proposal to permit oil exploration in the 1.5 million acre coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—about 8 percent of the nation’s largest preserve. That plain may contain as many as 9.2 billion barrels of economically recoverable Oil, quite possibly America’s last great oil reserve, according to petroleum geologists.

But the proposal, backed by President Bush, encounters strong opposition in the environmentally sensitive, politically attuned Congress: Still, this opposition seems to ignore the Rainey Sanctuary and the Alaska pipeline experience of successfully preserving wildlife while producing a valuable resource. And it ignores various recent Middle Eastern oil disruptions, the latest involving Desert Storm.

The note on Congress and President Bush points up the inevitable intrusion of politics and the consequent diminution of private property rights in most proposed solutions to pollution. The Clean Air Act of 1977, for example, requires the “best available technology” standards for new coal-fired electricity generating plants. But these standards, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, precluded specific pollutants-emission criteria, thereby not allowing plants to burn cleaner, low-sulfur western coal without having to install expensive stack-gas scrubbers, which cost a lot more to buy and operate.

Where’s the politics? Just here: A “clean air/dirty coal” coalition of environmentalists and eastern coal producers lobbied Congress and the EPA for the technological fix. The eastern coal producers worried that a sensible environmental policy would induce electric utilities to buy low-sulfur western coal to the exclusion of high-sulfur eastern coal. The environmentalists, for their part, are just not particularly cost-conscious when it comes to pollution control, often arguing that the best solution isn’t good enough, that “pure” air and water really means 100 percent pure.

The upshot has been not only the undermining of private property rights but higher-cost electricity for consumers and, ironically, still more air pollution due to a reduction in the rate of replacement of older, dirtier utility furnaces and boilers.

Anderson and Leal neatly encapsulate their strategy of getting private property rights to clinch the war on pollution by noting a sign on the side of a commercial garbage truck: “It may be garbage to you, but it’s our bread and butter.”

Dr. Peterson, an adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation, is the Lundy Professor of Business Philosophy at Campbell University, Buies Creek, North Carolina

  • William H. Peterson (1921-2012) was an economist, businessman and author who wrote extensively on Austrian Economics. He completed his PhD at New York University in 1952 under the supervision of Ludwig von Mises.