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Thursday, March 1, 2007

Re-Thinking Green: Alternatives to Environmental Bureaucracy

Independent Institute • 2005 • 440 pages • $22.95 paperback

Readers of The Freeman don’t need to be reminded that freedom works better than coercion, but when I hike a wilderness trail I sometimes think there might be some small role for government in protecting the environment. If you’re inclined to drift in that direction, Re-Thinking Green provides the antidote. Robert Higgs and Carl Close have collected 22 articles that cover the gamut of environmental issues—population, global warming, endangered species, coastal management, urban planning, air pollution, and energy. The common theme is the explanation of how the good intentions of environmental groups, policy makers, and bureaucracies fail to produce improvements in the environment. Since it isn’t possible to do justice to each chapter, I have chosen three examples to provide the reader a flavor of this gem of a book.

Elephants occupy a special place in most of our hearts, and they’re especially appealing to children. Think of Babar and Dumbo. Environmental groups have converted many to their cause by describing in vivid detail the road to elephant extinction. As a result, the 1989 international ban on the ivory trade was celebrated as a great environmental victory. Yet this ban was passed over scientific and economic objections by leading conservationists who demonstrated that it would harm elephant populations. How did this harmful ban pass in the face of scientific and economic evidence?

William Kaempfer and Anton Lowenberg’s article, “The Ivory Bandwagon: International Transmission of Interest-Group Politics,” provides the answer. The crux of their analysis is that environmental groups observed that the “save the elephant” crusade brought in truckloads of money and busloads of new members. Therefore, leaders of those organizations turned a deaf ear to the scientific and economic evidence and joined the competition for funding and membership. All the better if elephant populations suffered—just more evidence of the need for activism.

Energy has been a national concern for decades, and when gasoline topped $3 a gallon in 2006 it became a national obsession. The media often provide the public with a melodrama featuring environmental groups protecting pristine wilderness from being despoiled by greedy, profit-hungry oil companies.

In “To Drill or Not to Drill: Let the Environmentalists Decide,” Dwight Lee argues that the incentives provided by private property rights help us to solve the conflict over drilling without the good-guys-against-bad-guys melodrama. Lee notes that an environmental group such as the Audubon Society opposes drilling in the Alaska Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) because it is publicly owned land; for Audubon, the risk of an oil spill is a cost not balanced by any benefit.

On the other hand, give the Audubon Society private property rights and its incentives and behavior change. Proof of this proposition need not rest on economic theory because the Audubon Society owns 26,000 acres in Louisiana called the Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary. This area also happens to have deposits of oil and natural gas, and the Society allows production on its property. It has concluded that an estimated $25 million in annual royalties is worth the small chance of environmental damage. Lee notes that environmentalists’ “adamant verbal opposition to drilling in ANWR is a poor reflection of what they would do if they owned even a small fraction of the ANWR territory containing oil.”

The lessons learned by the collapse of the Soviet and Eastern European communist systems, due in large part to the failures of central planning, is lost on advocates of “smart growth.” Randal O’Toole notes in “Is Urban Planning ‘Creeping Socialism’?” that our urban areas are experiencing socialist planning on a grand scale through the use of extreme forms of zoning regulation. Planners and their political allies want more power to force the rest of us to live urban lifestyles of their choosing. Smart-growth advocates press local officials to require high-density and “affordable” housing. Autos in these centrally planned smart-growth cities are nearly regulated out of existence. Limits on parking, narrow streets, and an end to new road construction are designed to increase traffic congestion and encourage (read: force) people onto public transit.

In the final analysis, smart growth is a threat to individual freedom because it’s an attempt to use government coercion to reverse two great liberating trends of the twentieth century: increased individual mobility provided by inexpensive autos and the desire for increased privacy provided by larger homes and lots.

Re-Thinking Green is the indispensable handbook to consult the next time you need to win an environmental debate.

  • The Foundation for Economic Education, founded 1946, works for a free and prosperous world.