Environmentalism is dead - Long live environmentalism!

Posted: Apr 29, 2005 12:00 AM

I was recently invited to speak to C-Fact, a conservative environmentalist group at the University of Minnesota. To some this might sound about as weird as saying I was invited to speak to a group of Socialist Yachtsmen in Monaco. Of course, there are plenty of yachtsmen who are more or less socialists (whether they meet in Monaco, I have no idea - but I will gladly go speak to them there). And, there are conservatives who love the environment - more of them than you might realize. More importantly, young conservatives are willing to fight for the environmentalist label, and that's a sign of progress.

For decades, a certain type of environmentalist has laid exclusive claim to this set of concerns, terming anyone who disagreed with them as "anti" environment. It was a twist on the "for the children" gambit devised by Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children's Defense Fund. She discovered that you can push favored policies farther if you claim they are "for the children." Thanks to this insight, the same old tired suite of Fabian programs were recast as efforts "for the children," and anybody who opposed them became, in effect, anti-child.

For years environmentalists have done the same thing with their favored policies. Even though recycling is often a monstrous waste of time, energy and money, the Greens have insisted that if you don't separate your plastic from your paper you are "against" the environment.

The truth is that nobody is anti-environment. I have lots and lots of conservative friends and colleagues. I go to many of the most sinister right-wing meetings and parties. I've simply never heard anybody say they want to hurt the environment. No matter how many pave-the-planet jokes conservatives tell to annoy liberals, the truth is none of them really wants to. Some may not care that much one way or the other. But if given a cost-free option to maintain clean water, clean air and prospering ecosystems, there's really not a conservative - with his marbles intact - who wouldn't leap at it.

In other words, all of the serious arguments are about means, not ends. For decades, Greens have insisted their means - heavy-handed government command and control - were the only way to those ends. Obviously, there are some exceptions: Some organizations have raised money to buy land and then manage it themselves. But at the national level, where impressions are formed, the enviros have become indistinguishable from any other special interest group that wants the government to do their bidding.

Don't take my word for it - google "The Death of Environmentalism" by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus. "We believe," write these two respected veteran liberal Greens, "that the environmental movement's foundational concepts, its method for framing legislative proposals, and its very institutions are outmoded. Today environmentalism is just another special interest. Evidence for this can be found in its concepts, its proposals, and its reasoning."

The author's remedies aren't necessarily my cup of tea, but they clearly recognize the political problem their movement faces. For decades, environmentalists have relied on scare tactics and doomsday scenarios that never had any chance of coming true. Does anybody remember Paul Ehrlich's prediction that 65 million Americans would die of starvation by the early 1980s? If you haven't checked, obesity is a much bigger problem than starvation.

The future of environmental success is to move away from Romantic gobbledygook about Gaia and semi-pagan mumbo jumbo about communing with nature, and instead to foster a more mature understanding of costs and benefits. The great flaw in conventional environmentalism has always been its view of capitalism and, to a lesser extent, technology as enemies of all things Green. This way of looking at the world comes from the Industrial Revolution, with its belching smokestacks and poisoned air and waterways. It's no coincidence that the Industrial Revolution gave birth to both Romantic environmentalism and socialism.

It's also no coincidence that socialism's environmental track record is a disaster. Which is why governments around the world are crafting environmental policies that "monetize" resources, recognizing that people tend to take care of things they own better than things nobody owns. If a fisherman knows that his competitor will grab any fish he leaves behind, he will in all likelihood grab as many as he can. When everybody subscribes to this "tragedy of the commons" logic, there are no fish left for anybody. That's one reason why many global fish stocks are in danger of crashing. But if you sell someone exclusive rights to fish in a certain area, he will leave enough fish behind for another day. This is why many governments are moving in the direction of assigning property rights to all sorts of environmental resources, from fisheries to wetlands, with very encouraging results (for an excellent survey of the trend, pick up a copy of the April 23 edition of The Economist).

Obviously, not every problem can be solved through tax credits or property rights, but the exciting solutions these days are coming from the people at least willing to entertain that possibility.