Let's Get the Bogeyman Out of the Green Discussion

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald, April 22, 2003
This Earth Day, we have a lot to celebrate – by and large our air and water are cleaner, our ecosystems healthier and better protected, and our awareness of the environmental consequences of our actions is far higher than in the 1970s. But challenges remain, in combating air pollution, in cleaning up brownfields, in protecting surface and ground water, in protecting fisheries, and more.

Unfortunately, the search for solutions to remaining problems is increasingly hampered by an environmentalism that has grown increasingly irrational. Driven more by a scare of-the-week mentality than one grounded in rational risk management, public attention and scarce resources are focused as often on non-problems as on real problems.

Consider that while West Nile Virus will become endemic all across Canada this year, Jean Chrétien seems focused on spending Canadian’s tax dollars on the still-speculative risk of global warming. Those tax dollars might have been better spent to form an Environment Canada committee to read the new research suggesting that DDT, used sparingly, could have prevented the spread of West Nile Virus carriers without causing the harm that misuse of DDT may have caused in the 1970s.

Every year, in Canada alone, 58,000 people die of cancer each year, most of it preventable through actions such as smoking cessation and improved nutrition. But environmentalists misdirect public attention by persisting in trying to associate cancer with low-level exposure to chemicals, an alarmist myth thoroughly debunked in a recent Fraser Institute Book, “Misconceptions about the Causes of Cancer.” Rather than trying to get children to eat more fruit by lowering the cost with pesticides, what do environmentalists want to do? Ban pesticides, thus raising the price of cancer-preventing fruits and vegetables. Because of alarmist policy crusades, municipalities across the country are banning, or contemplating bans on so-called ornamental pesticides, the chemicals that people use to protect their lawns, vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and so on. Not only will these bans prevent consumers from using pesticides to protect their home grown fruits and veggies from pests, even professionals will not be allowed to apply them! Instead, environmental advocates of the ban propose home-brew pesticide mixtures that some analysts have show to be more toxic than the commercial product they’re intended to replace!

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 many old-school environmentalists remain wedded to a philosophy that guarantees irrational policy because it starts from a fundamentally erroneous view of the relationship between human beings, economic freedom, and environmental degradation. These Old-school environmentalists, like those at the David Suzuki Foundation, view economic freedom and development as threatening to the environment. Another 20-year old environmental group, “The Sustainable Energy Institute,” defines the market as the enemy, and claims that “Our ecological deterioration so uncontrolled and devastating may be attributed to the market.”

Or is it? 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 are among the world’s most economically free. In fact, virtually all economically free countries rank in the top half of the environmental sustainability 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.

Our environment has improved, and will continue to improve in coming years, which is a blessing that we all enjoy. But the low-hanging fruit of environmental protection has been plucked, and if we are to continue to see improvements in the environment we must begin to recognize that remaining environmental problems require careful setting of priorities, cost-effective solutions, harnessing market forces rather than opposing them, and seeking cooperative approaches to work with industry, rather than focusing on adversarial approaches. In short, this Earth Day, it’s time for a more rational, market-friendly environmentalism.

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