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Conflicting Approaches to Saving Mother Earth

Throwback Thursday: From the Archives

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Traditional environmentalists and free market environmentalists have long worked toward similar goals of protecting the environment, and yet they remain two distinct groups.  H. Sterling Burnett, a 1995 PERC Fellow, sought to find common ground between the two parties in his article “Common Ground?” in the December 1997 edition of PERC Reports:

I’m still hoping, perhaps foolishly, that traditional environmentalists (by that I mean the typical Audubon or Sierra Club member) will find common ground with the classical liberals who call themselves free market environmentalists. As a student of philosophy, I see areas where the two groups ought to be close together. Whether this linkage will ever materialize, I don’t know. But here’s the argument.

For years, traditional environmentalists have recognized the ineffectiveness of many government policies. More recently, they have admitted a role for property rights and markets by such things as undertaking “debt for nature” swaps, bidding for timber contracts, and arguing for an end to subsidized resource use. In actions at least, there is some common ground with free market environmentalists.

It seems to me that both camps can agree that the government has a duty to prevent environmental changes that violate basic individual rights. For example, when people’s actions, such as polluting a river, cause wrongful harms to downstream users, the law should intervene. Traditional environmentalists see this as fair, and classical liberals see this as protecting rights.

Beyond protection of rights lie morally right actions. Environmentalists consider actions toward the environment as either morally right or wrong because they either protect or harm the health of ecosystems. Arguably, environmentalists have a role to play in informing individuals of morally right actions.

Okay, say the classical liberals. But since such actions go above and beyond simple respect for individual rights, they must involve the exercise of moral judgment and choice. Surely actions performed or prevented at gunpoint or under threat of criminal sanction do not involve moral choice.

Many environmentalists propose coercive pressure or restraint because they fear that if we rely solely on moral persuasion or positive incentives to protect the environment, some people will continue to purposefully destroy it. But at this point we enter the realm of individual preferences and personal values.

It seems to me that classical liberals and traditional environmentalists can agree that a minimal level of ecosystemic functioning is necessary for human survival.

But environmentalists also value ecosystems for their own sake, independently of their role in human survival. In their view, if ecosystems are to change they should only do so along paths created by their internal functioning. At this level, the desires and preferences of persons concerned with the preservation of ecosystems for their own sake must compete on an equal footing with the desires and preferences of others, rather than be promoted by coercive government action.

Fortunately, the protection of ecosystems goods under such conditions is not as difficult as it may seem. The large operating budgets of environmental organizations indicate that ecosystems can compete well for people’s affections and dollars in a free society.

So, there are areas of common ground between traditional environmentalists and classical liberals. They can agree on protecting rights and on protecting ecosystems to the extent that ecosystems are essential to human survival. Beyond that, they should agree that the marketplace of values and ideas is the proper forum for decisions about additional environmental protection. Let the discussions begin.

Yes indeed, let the discussions begin.  If there is, as Burnett argued 18 years ago, common ground, why are traditional environmentalists (TEs) and free market environmentalists (FMEs) still two distinct groups, often pitted against each other in an effort to help the environment? 

Whether it’s so that we have water to drink or beautiful landscapes to admire, TEs and FMEs can agree it is important that we care for our natural world.  Where the groups differ is in how to best achieve a healthy environment.  Traditional environmentalism depends too strongly on moral conviction to save the earth – often placing the motivation above the outcome. 

As hard as it can be to accept, the environment is a thing.  It is a grand, beautiful, dynamic, important thing, but a thing impartial to intent nonetheless.  The reality is whether we conserve it because we have an emotional conviction or because other people are willing to pay us to is not important to the environment.  All that matters is we do right by it.

As convenient as it would be if everyone felt an emotional conviction to save the environment, the sad reality is not everyone does.  Not everyone is willing to, or even in a position to be able to, accept a cost upon themselves to foster a healthy ecosystem. 

This is where the rubber meets the road and TEs and FMEs have a hard time seeing eye to eye.  Many hard-core traditional environmentalists disprove of free market environmentalism on the grounds that it is rewarding the enemy.  They do not want to reward those who lack an environmental ethic through mutually beneficial contracts; instead, traditional environmentalists attempt to force non-environmentalists to comply with their ideas.

Though TEs may recognize the ineffectiveness of many government policies and occasionally look to private contracts for environmental goods in specific situations, they continue to seek sweeping, extreme legislations that require the population to act in the “right way.”  But legislation takes years, and even then there are seemingly endless loopholes.  Under legal mandates, the environment becomes a hindrance and a burden, and people assume the government is taking care of it so they don’t have to.

If the true goal is helping the environment, not being “holier than thou,” the best approach is to turn the environment into an asset for everyone.  This is where free market environmentalism takes a different approach.  FMEs provide incentives for conservation, bringing together those who want environmental health and those who can implement it quickly, even if they lack emotional conviction, to save the environment.  With this approach, changes are made outside of legislative chambers, where it truly matters. 

In this way, environmentalists win because they acted on their morals and made a difference.  Those who don’t care also win because they are rewarded their environmentally friendly actions.  Most importantly, the environment is healthy, and that’s all that matters to Mother Earth.  In a world of limited resources and people of different mindsets, free market environmentalism gets the most bang for the buck. 

As both groups remain convicted of their approaches to save the environment, there is not enough common ground to unify the two groups.

Read the original article in full HERE.

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