America in the Age of Environmentalism

Published: 
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Posted by: 

climate-of-crisis_bookcoverIn his book on the history of environmental controversies, A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism, Patrick Allitt provides context for the debates. As two different reviewers point out, though, he misses the importance of the free market environmentalist perspective.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, Jim Huffman's review of the book praises Allitt’s reasoned approach:

Climate change has been the dominant environmental concern of the 21st century. Public discussion of the topic is less an informed exchange of ideas than a strident debate pitting alarmists against deniers—at least that is how each side labels the other. Both are secure in the knowledge that truth, reason and the moral high ground undergird their positions.

And thus it has always been with environmental policy. There was a brief period of productive collaboration during the Johnson and Nixon administrations, but thereafter "green" politics settled into a stark polarization as issues like hazardous waste, environmental racism, acid rain, the ozone layer and the Amazonian rain forest each came to the fore. Climate change is just the latest chapter.

It is this larger story that Patrick Allitt tells in A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism. In recounting partisan battles, Mr. Allitt's objectivity is refreshing.

Allitt may be fair in his critique, but Huffman suggests he misunderstands the importance of free market environmentalism:

Mr. Allitt's critique of the relentless crisis mentality will lead many environmentalists to dismiss the book as anti-environmental, while anti-environmentalists will object to his conclusion that much conservation has been achieved at little cost to ordinary Americans.

Yet for all its balance, Mr. Allitt's account falls short in two important respects. He misunderstands "free-market environmentalists" and bundles them with the "Sagebrush Rebellion" of the late 1970s and the "Wise Use" movement of the late 1980s. There is little that connects them. While the last two, like today's protesters at Cliven Bundy's ranch in Nevada, advocated for state rather than federal control of the vast public lands of the West, they were dependent on the largess of a friendly public landlord. Free-market environmentalists urged property-based solutions, spurring tradable emission permits, congestion pricing on roadways, volume-based trash-collection fees, transferable ocean-fisheries quotas, and numerous other market approaches. Even EPA administrators "eventually realized," in Mr. Allitt's words, "that it would be better to allow manufacturers to trade in the right to pollute."

Yesterday, writing for the Library of Law and Liberty, Bill Dennis made a similar observation in his review of the book:

James Huffman, in his April 24, 2014 review of the Allitt book in the Wall Street Journal, correctly says that Allitt confuses the free market environmentalists and their property rights based perspective, with the Sagebrush Rebellion of the late 1970s and the Wise Use movement of the late 1980s that advocated state rather than national control of the public lands in the West and continued government subsidies for productive uses. Suffice to say, a property rights approach to environmental use was not a priority of these latter movements. But it is much worse than this, except for a few scattered paragraphs (mentioning, e.g., Terry Anderson, Don Leal, and Robert Nelson), he does not explicitly deal with the free market environmental approach at all, and seemingly does not know of its scholarship, which is institutionally located in Bozeman, Montana in two well known think tanks, Foundation for Research on Economics and Environment (FREE) and Property and Environment Research Center (PERC). Together these two institutes maintain wide networks of academic and public policy experts on most environmental questions. Here are few, with recent affiliations, who have worked in areas of interest to Allitt whom he might have drawn on to strengthen his text: Jonathan Adler, Case Western Reserve Law School, Cuyahoga River fire; Terry L. Anderson, PERC and the Hoover Institution, water and water rights, climate change; John Baden, FREE, and Richard Stroup, Montana State University, bureaucracy and environmental management, Love Canal; Daniel Benjamin, Clemson University, environmental risk; David Haddock, Northwestern University, externalities and the public interest; Peter J. Hill, Wheaton College, environmental property rights, wildlife, water, eco-tourism; Andrew P. Morriss, Dean, Texas A & M Law School, DTT, Rachel Carson and the silent spring; Robert Nelson, University of Maryland, on the pathologies of federal land management and environmentalism as a religion; Dominic P. Parker, University of Wisconsin and Walter N. Thurman, North Carolina State University, private land trusts and conservation, bees and pesticides; Randy T. Simmons, Utah State University, endangered species; Bruce Yandle, Clemson University, environmental regulation. By any standard, these are a distinguished group of scholars whose work should have been consulted.

As for Dennis' desire to read more about the rich history of private contributions to environmental enhancement, our current research agenda includes a broader and deeper examination of private conservation in the public interest.

2017 UpdateAs PERC's director of outreach from 2014 through 2016, Wendy launched the Impact Fellowship,  the E.L. Wiegand Storyteller in Residence program, the Eco-Fads podcast with Todd Myers, and the interactive map of PERC's ideas in action. She managed PERC's website, social media presence, external relations, and outreach efforts. She helped...
Read More > More Articles by Wendy Purnell >