Environmental Adversarialism Misses the Point

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posted February 26, 2003
Some observers are suggesting that Canada’s passage of the Kyoto Protocol, are another sign of the ultimate victory of environmental pressure groups over “conservative critics.” In a recent Post column, for example, Lawrence Solomon suggests that environmentalists are on the “right side of history,” and are trusted because they’re right about identifying problems, and they’re in tune with the desires of the public.

But Solomon’s victory dance propagates an outdated, and largely false, dichotomy that pits “conservatives” against “environmentalists,” distorts the actions and motivations of both groups, gives credit to the wrong actors for the wrong things, and obscures the important distinctions that people need to make if they’re to put their faith in the right environmentalists, who may come from any point on the political spectrum, and any role in government, industry, or the non-profit sector.

There’s no doubt that the populations of developed countries have become profoundly pro-environment. Polls, voting patterns, and market signals all agree: once people’s basic needs are met, their attention turns to securing additional safety and environmental quality through regulations and market choice. And there’s equally no doubt that environmental pressure groups have helped identify risks to human and ecosystem health, and have often shone a critical warning light. Some environmental groups, such as the Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, and others do spectacular work protecting the environment.

But the real challenge of the 21st century isn’t about claiming credit for falsely defined categories of environmental combatants. Having moved light-years beyond the days of flammable rivers and foaming lakes, the environmental problems that we now face are increasingly complex, and resistant to the old-fashioned prescriptions of many environmental pressure groups. The real challenge of the 21st century is in finding the best approaches to environmental management.

And in dealing with that challenge, adversarialism is a hindrance, not a help.

Along with a growing group of scholars in academia and the think tank world, the World Bank, not exactly a hotbed of conservative philosophy, has observed that the problems of the 21st Century require a new environmentalism, better suited to the complexities and dynamics of an increasingly globalized world economy.

The New Environmental principles at the World Bank recognize that solving remaining environmental problems requires careful setting of priorities, seeking most cost-effective solutions, seeking ways to harness market forces to gain both environmental protection and economic growth, seeking cooperative approaches to work with industry, rather than focusing on adversarial approaches.

At the core of this new environmentalism is a realization that old-school environmentalists don’t like to acknowledge: study after study shows that economic freedom and economic productivity simply must be protected, and held safe from excessively costly and intrusive environmental rules. That’s because it’s economic freedom that generates the resources that society uses to secure safety for its members, and to protect its environment.

When one looks around the world, and examines which countries have the best track record of cleaning up the environmental degradation that accompanied their development, and of securing health and safety protections for their populations, it is the countries that are more economically free, more politically free, and that have stronger civil rights protections.

In the 2002 Environmental Sustainability Index of the World Economic Forum, the five highest-ranking countries are Finland, Norway, Sweden, Canada, and Switzerland. Those countries also stack up well in the Fraser Institute Economic Freedom of the World Index. In fact, virtually all of the developed countries are in the top half of the rankings, while the worst environmental performers are the countries where rights are little more than a dream: Haiti, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, North Korea, United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. The sustainability index shows that though there are exceptions, environmental sustainability correlates with per-capita income, and with level of development.

Adversarial environmentalists, such as Greenpeace, and other groups that Solomon praises have staked out a position in the political debate that is best characterized as scorched earth: they are right, and everyone opposing their favored environmental policy, whatever its impacts, are not only wrong, but are suspect in their motivations.

New environmentalists, on the other hand, realize that nobody has a lock on environmental truth, and that good solutions to environmental problems can be found not only in government and self-proclaimed environmental group wisdom, but in private stewardship endeavors of individuals and corporations as well, in environmental entrepreneurialism, and in regular citizens responding to economic incentives.

The debate over environmental policies regarding global warming, air pollution, water pollution, chemical exposures and ecosystem protection is too important to trivialize with an “Environmentalists Rule,” and “Industrialists drool,” world view. Let’s hope that’s not the lesson of Kyoto, or we’ll all be the poorer for it.

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