All Commentary
Tuesday, May 1, 2001

Environmentalism as Though People and Facts Really Mattered

Threatening Individual Rights with "Environmental Rights" Weakens the Cause

Christopher Lingle is a visiting professor of economics, ESEADE at Universidad Francisco Marroquín.

One of the most compelling political issues of the new millennium is to discover ways to arrest and reverse the debilitation of our natural environment. To many observers, no less than a revolution is necessary to change public opinion and to implement policies to correct a wanton disregard for the environment. However, accomplishing these ends requires careful thinking about what role and impact governmental policies might have.

Protection and rehabilitation of the environment are indisputably worthy goals, so the nature of the debate is over methods rather than objectives. The quest for solutions should begin with the understanding that government interventions can be a cause rather than a remedy when it comes to environmental damage. Failures by governments to serve as guardian of the environment are evident in the ecological destruction in the authoritarian socialist economies of the former Soviet Union and China.

Although the authoritarianism associated with communism is now widely rejected, ecologically based authoritarianism could replace it. “Ecologism” is used here to describe state-imposed interventions, regulations, and coercion motivated by blind adherence to protecting the natural environment without regard for the impact on the human environment. Freedom of choice and personal self-determination should also be considered when measuring quality of life.

Taken to a logical limit, ecologism would replace bureaucrats motivated by scientific socialism and social engineering with technocrats guided by “scientific” evaluations of environmental impacts. In the end, both approaches apply a logic that would impose restraints on individual behavior that are said to serve the wider community.

Perhaps the worst failure of socialism is that the pursuit of social goals can easily lead to unintended and unforeseen destruction of individual rights on an extensive scale. German National Socialists under Hitler implemented policies that might warm the heart of some of the most extreme ecologists of today. One element of the guiding philosophy of the Nazi Party (Gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz) promoted the good of the whole over the good of the individual. This view supported racial hygiene, or racial purity, and included attempts to halt alcohol and tobacco consumption. It is doubtful that Nazi supporters in their early days could have dreamed of the terrible outcomes of their ideology.

In all events, caution is in order in relying on much of the conventional wisdom that supports anxieties over environmental deterioration. Many of the accepted truths of the Green movement are based on dubious facts and spurious reasoning. Just as Hitler relied on false generalities about Jews and gypsies, environmentalists gain support by generating a certain amount of hysteria over issues that are unsupported by logic or science. Perhaps, the most famous case is the unfulfilled prophesies (fantasies?) of the Club of Rome report (“Limits to Growth”) that pointed to inevitable global conflict arising from resource depletion.

Intolerance Toward Free Choice

Ecologism tends to encourage intolerance toward individual choice and conceals a distrust of private property. Ecoterrorism and the confiscation or destruction of private property to promote an environmental agenda is unfortunately accepted in a wide community. Such attitudes were also evident under authoritarian regimes whether guided by right-wing or left-wing ideologies.

While attempts to halt degradation of the natural environment can lead to degradation of the human environment, they may also slow progress toward correcting problems in the natural environment. Excessive restraints on individuals based on ecologist logic would certainly make the community worse off. In a modern market economy entrepreneurs are the engines of economic growth and innovation. Suppressing access to market-based rewards will slow the pace of technological advance and dampen gains in income. Evidence confirms that improvements in technology and higher income levels provide the means and motivation for environmental protection.

In all events, government intervention and regulation are not the only vehicles to resolve environmental problems. Economists have exerted considerable effort to examine ways in which the pricing systems can bring about desired reductions in pollution and similar problems caused by the “tragedy of the commons.” Examples of market-based mechanisms for resolving environmental problems include marketing pollution rights, privatizing wilderness areas and wildlife, and innovative techniques like “tagging” that would allow for the identification of ownership of dispersed resources or to the tracing of the sources of pollution.

Each of these proposals relies on providing individual incentives that encourage better monitoring of the use of resources and the environment. Private ownership allows individuals to benefit directly from conservation and preservation since they benefit from enhancements in value. This provides a strong incentive to carefully exploit natural resources to provide maximum returns.

The beginning of the new millennium provides the world community with some mixed omens of hope for the future. While the global demise of authoritarian regimes merits three cheers, the outcomes from the heightened awareness of environmental issues might warrant only one or perhaps two cheers.

It is as though a new set of “environmental rights” is being imposed that clash with property rights and individual rights. If these rights are threatened, it will actually weaken the support for environmental protections. For environmentalism to thrive and serve its purposes, it should take into account that individuals really do matter.

  • Christopher Lingle is senior fellow at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi and visiting professor of economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala.