Toward a New, Market-friendly Environmentalism

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An edited version of this piece appeared in The Province, 1 June 2003
The first week of June is environment week in Canada, and this year, we have a lot to celebrate -- our air and water are mostly cleaner, our ecosystems healthier and better protected, and our awareness of the environmental consequences of our actions is higher than ever before. But challenges remain in combating air pollution, in protecting surface and ground water, in cleaning up abandoned industrial sites, in protecting fisheries, and more.

But the search for solutions to remaining problems is increasingly hampered by an old-school environmentalism that has grown increasingly irrational. Driven by a scare of-the-week mentality, hostile to economic freedom, and addicted to inflexible regulations, 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 is spending nearly $2 billion tax dollars on the still-speculative risk of global warming. Those tax dollars might have been better spent to ensure, for example, that Alberta’s animal testing labs had the resources to test that mad cow head in less than 14 weeks, or to re-evaluate whether, as many analysts suggest, DDT could be used in new ways that repel mosquitoes, but are safe for wildlife.

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 old-school 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,” written by noted toxicologists from the University of California, Berkeley. Rather than trying to get children to eat more fruit by lowering the cost with pesticides, what do old-school environmentalists want to do? Ban pesticides, thus raising the price of cancer-preventing fruits and vegetables. 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 old-school environmental pressure groups have helped identify risks to human and ecosystem health, and have often shone a critical warning light.

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 our remaining challenges are trickier than ever, 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, it’s time for a more rational, market-friendly environmentalism.

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