As Earth Day approaches, it reminds us that the most compelling political issue of the new millennium is finding how to arrest & reverse actions that undermine our natural environment. To many observers, no less than a revolution is necessary to change public opinion & to implement policies to increase awareness concerning the impact of humans on the natural world.
To achieve these goals, mainstream environmentalists tend to look to an expanded role of public-sector authorities as the correct or perhaps the only way forward. This bias invites opponents of greater government intervention to suspect that the “green” agenda is driven by an opposition to free markets as much as by concern for the environment.
Since protection & rehabilitation of the environment are worthy goals, the debate should be a matter of methods rather than objectives. & the quest for solutions should begin with an understanding that government interventions can as easily cause environmental damage than to be a remedy. A clear instance of this is the ecological destruction under authoritarian-socialist regimes like the former Soviet Union & China.
One particular worry is that the promotion of government interventions & coercion to protect the natural environment will ignore the impact on the human environment. This could lead to a new “ism: whereby technocrats guided by scientific evaluations of environmental impacts replace bureaucrats guided by scientific socialism & social engineering. In the end, “ecologism” would impose the same sort of coercive restraints on individual behavior on the grounds that they would promote the interests of the wider community.
Just as the “good intentions” of communism gave way to authoritarianism that brought economic & social failures, we must guard against the emergence of ecologically-based authoritarianism. There must be safeguards against the fervor for improving environmental quality giving way to the overreach of government that erodes personal self-determination & freedom of choice.
Otherwise, ecologism might lead to the sort of failures of socialism whereby the pursuit of social goals led to unintended & unforeseen destruction of individual rights on an extensive scale. In all events, caution is in order in relying on much of the conventional wisdom that supports anxieties over environmental degradation.
Many of the accepted truths of the Green movement are based on dubious facts & spurious reasoning. Just as Hitler used false generalities about Jews & gypsies, environmentalists gain support by generating hysteria over issues that are unsupported by logic or science.
On one hand, there are the unfulfilled prophesies (fantasies?) of the Club of Rome report (“Limits to Growth”) that pointed to inevitable global conflict arising from resource depletion. More recently, dubious questions about scientific ethics concerning global warming alarmism was revealed in the wake of Climatgate.
For its part, ecologism encourages intolerance toward individual choice & invites distrust of private property. This finds extreme form in “eco-terrorism” & the confiscation or destruction of private property to promote an environmental agenda.
While attempts to halt degradation of the natural environment can “pollute” the human environment, they may also interfere with correcting problems in the natural environment. If restraints based on ecologist logic are excessive & interfere with entrepreneurial initiatives that are the engine of economic growth & innovation, the community would be worse off.
Suppressing access to market-based rewards will slow the pace of technological advance & dampen gains in income. This is because environmental awareness depends upon countries reaching a minimal annual per capita income level that data suggests is about $4,000. & higher income levels provide the means to implement technological improvements to protect the environment.
As it is, increased taxation & regulatory powers of governments leaves citizens with less control over rightfully-earned incomes & less freedom to choose how to spend what is left to them. It turns out that billions of free minds operating within free markets have more potential to improve environmental conditions & make human life better than armies of bureaucrats.
It turns out that government intervention & regulation are not the only way to resolve environmental problems. Economists have expended considerable effort to examine ways to use the pricing systems to overcome 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 or using market incentives to preserve wildlife. & then there are innovative technological advances like “tagging” so that ownership of dispersed resources or sources of pollution can be identified.
Each of these proposals relies on providing individual incentives to encourage better monitoring of the use of resources & the environment. Private ownership allows individuals to benefit directly from conservation so that gains from enhanced values create strong incentives to husband natural resources for maximum returns.
As we move into the new millennium, the global demise of authoritarian regimes & heightened awareness of environmental issues provides hope for the future. But an ideology of ecologism & new “environmental rights” that clashes with property rights & individual freedoms will likely weaken support for protection of the natural environment.
If an essential & literal condition for environmentalist policy is to promote balance, then it must reflect the fact that rights & freedoms of individuals really matter. & it must be the outcome of an honest adherence to scientific ethics. Unfortunately, public officials & climatologists that promote the theory that humans have had a strong, negative impact on climate change have erred on both counts.