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Monday, June 29, 2020 Leer en Español

Markets Are Green

A new book explores how property rights and free markets are good for the environment.

Image credit: Mert Guller on Unsplash

A new book set for release today may change the way we view the conservation of nature’s splendors. Titled Green Market Revolution: How Market Environmentalism Can Protect Nature and Save the World, its publishers are the Austrian Economics Center and the British Conservation Alliance, to which I serve as an advisor. Details below, but first a few points.

What nobody owns, nobody takes care of. Aristotle said something to that effect, and it’s almost self-evident and indisputable; exceptions to it are hard to find. It’s a fundamental rule of human behavior and, at the same time, a powerfully favorable commentary on the institution we call “private property.”

What is owned by “everybody” (i.e., “the people’s this” or “the people’s that”) is often not cared for, either. The worst cases of pollution, for instance, tend to be on public lands or in public waters that supposedly we all own in common.

Back in the 1980s, a report of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality explained it this way: “Unowned resources are more likely to be over-exploited than resources privately owned and managed, since a private owner directly benefits from the preservation and maintenance of such resources and is thus more likely to act as a responsible steward.”

These points are so fundamental to human nature and experience that they ought to be cast in solid rock. Yet, when it comes to conserving the natural environment, many people believe that government supervision of “public” property is the only game in town. The truth is that many of the best examples of environmental preservation are the products of private property and private groups, both for-profit and non-profit. They include the bigger and better-known ones like the Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society, and Ducks Unlimited as well as countless local groups that own or maintain small preserves and even stretches of highway.

Thousands of private conservation organizations around the world are actively engaged in saving natural things and places, sometimes on lands owned by governments. Some receive public funding but many are entirely reliant upon memberships, philanthropy, or even commercial development on their property. Many other enterprises which do not have conservation as their principal objective, such as hunting ranges, end up conserving and enhancing Mother Nature as an important by-product of their activities. Private, for-profit forest product companies like Weyerhauser are responsible for nearly half of the 1.6 billion tree saplings planted each year in the US alone.

The premise of Green Market Revolution is that these private impulses are a particularly good thing. Moreover, with the right public policies that encourage and complement them with incentives and the price system, so much more can be done. Markets, not mandates, already provide almost everything that comprises our standard of living. Why not utilize them more fully for the environment? The book’s 21 authors offer enough good ideas that any true environmentalist will salivate at the potential. You can download a free digital copy or order a print copy here.

In their chapter titled “Why Government Fails the Environment,” Hannah Downey and Holly Fretwell of the Property & Environment Research Center ( assert that

…market environmentalism gets the incentives for conservation right. Property rights and voluntary trade align the incentives so that we can fully understand the trade-offs and maximize the benefits that come from conservation. Environmentalists that demand ever-more centralization should take note of this.

In the chapter that follows, Matthew Lesh of the Adam Smith Institute notes that “Countries with the most economic freedom perform 50% better on Yale and Columbia University’s Environmental Performance Index compared to countries that are repressed or mostly unfree.” Lesh cites numerous examples of effective, market-based initiatives that protect the environment. They point in the direction of harnessing market forces “to leverage the power of prices by asking market actors to internalize the costs of external damage.” Citing the work of Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom, Ben Ramanauskas then argues convincingly for localized solutions to environmental problems instead of top-down mandates from distant regulatory bureaucracies.

One of my favorite chapters is “Success Stories of Market Environmentalism From Around the World” by the Austrian Economics Center’s Kai Weiss (a frequent contributor to Among the many examples he provides is one involving the white rhino. Weiss writes,

[P]rivate actors have also proven able to protect wildlife. Take the example of the white rhinoceros. In 1900, rhinos were an endangered species in South Africa. But through an auction system and the Theft of Game Act of 1991, which established private ownership rights to wild animals, the number of white rhinos increased significantly, today standing at 20,000, “making it the most common rhino species on the planet.”

Other authors in the book address the application of a market environmentalist vision to the United States, to Europe in general, and to countries like the U.K. and Austria in particular—all in a way that people anywhere in the world will find useful and instructive. In his chapter, “Why We Should Be Optimistic,” Swedish economist and historian Johan Norberg inspires the reader with an understanding that the message of this book is not a theoretical pipedream. It is ultimately too powerful to be ignored.

British Conservation Alliance founder and president Chris Barnard concludes the book with a chapter titled “Towards a Greener and Freer Future.” He invokes Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s observation that “People are likelier to accept the fact of global warming when they are told that the problem is solvable by innovations in policy and technology than when they are given dire warnings about how awful it will be.” Barnard says,

We must harness this truth of human psychology and craft the emerging global movement for market environmentalism around optimism, policy innovation, and technological progress. We must offer people worried about the future of the world and our environment an alternative to the negative doom and gloom of the system-change types.

He’s right. When we have so much logic, economics, psychology and experience that argues for the power of markets, why would sane people ever want to flush that away and replace it with politics and politicians and their dubious track record?

The average age of the 21 authors of Green Market Revolution is, I would guess, under 35. They are people with decades of life on this planet ahead of them. They have grabbed hold of eternal truths and solid principles and deployed them in the service of the clean environment they want to live in. They are not wedded to any failed policies of the past just because those policies are superficially appealing. This is a book of substance, accessible to a broad audience, full of hope for a better future.

If in 50 years, we find ourselves on a planet with air, land, and water cleaner than ever before and brimming with abundant life, it won’t be because we put commissars and central planners in charge. It will be because people like you, the reader, took books like this to heart and insisted that its wisdom be our touchstone.

Once again, you can get it here.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is