Something appeals to Americans about protecting our environment and keeping it healthy for generations to come. This is something that transcends political parties, but one would not know it given the propaganda from the Left. The Left has been allowed to monopolize the conversation when it comes to this issue while the Right, in almost knee-jerk fashion, makes little effort to reclaim the mantle of environmental protection.
Some of this is a Cold War mentality leftover on the Right where anything that smelled of Communism was discarded and anything that opposed Communism was welcomed into the Republican Party. It saw protests over the environment as Left wing rabble. But, no one- conservative, liberal, Democrat or Republican- can escape questions of the environment and energy. As a result, we on the Right are constantly lectured by “naturalists” whose idea of “nature” is Rock Creek or Central Park.
The obvious hotbeds of liberalism are the coasts of the country while conservatives tend to live in the suburbs and the rural interior of the country. In effect, Republican voters tend to be closer to actual nature than those who proclaim the title of protectors of nature. The loudest voices of environmentalism tend to live in crowded, dirty urban areas, or at least the clean little oases within them.
Preservation of the environment is not inherently a liberal cause because conservatives tend to live closer to nature. It also should appeal to Christian conservatives since the Bible entrusts the faithful to be stewards of Creation. Thus, the philosophical foundations of environmentalism are more closely associated with conservative ideals. Conserving the environment is, by nature, conservative. Managing populations and resources is conservative. Preserving our natural heritage for future generations is conservative. Using market forces to solve environmental concerns is conservative. The fact conservatives have ceded the argument to liberals is another indicator that conservatives have lost touch with traditions.
Real conservatism- or conservation- requires that we take care of something that bears fruit long after we are gone. Conservation is a public good while government coercion- the preferred method of the Left- is a public evil and the two cannot coexist. Treating the environment like a managed savings account rather than a blank checking account insures we can pass on our natural heritage to future generations.
Today, environmentalism suffers from a lack of support from the Right and its marriage to the Left. For example, the Left proclaims that the Right is opposed to alternative energy sources and is a stooge for Big Oil and coal. Meanwhile, the Left is absolute in their opposition to the greatest alternative energy source not dependent on the weather- nuclear energy.
If we strip away the almost-religious bombast from the Left, we find that environmentalism can be reduced to simple stewardship. And the best mechanism for that stewardship is free enterprise and market forces. After all, it is not totally free trade agreements and declines in union membership that is transforming this country from a smokestack economy to a computer-driven one. In fact, we owe a debt to free enterprise for providing the tools that now allow us to safely and efficiently use natural resources. Any luxury of modern life is attributable to free enterprise. We have the luxury, wealth, and education to sit back and debate these issues in the first place because of free enterprise. As a counter example, how is the environmental movement doing in countries like Cuba or India?
The Left’s reflexive solution to environmental concerns has been regulation and many of these regulations have been bad for the environment. A perfect example is the Endangered Species Act. Since its passage, a dismal 1% of the listed species have been “recovered” while the very regulations designed to help these species has led to destruction of their habitat.
The majority of the land in the United States is privately owned. Meanwhile, 72% of threatened or endangered species live on private land. Many landowners have, over the years, actively destroyed the habitat. The prime example is the red-cockaded woodpecker in the Southeast which is dependent on long-leaf pines. To avoid attracting the birds, landowners have harvested the trees- which is perfectly legal- to avoid attracting the woodpeckers.
Another example of bad over regulation involves bees. In response to the death of bees due to a fungus, some made a link to a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. The EU banned their use and Maryland did likewise. But calls to ban this class of useful pesticides did not come from professional beekeepers, but instead from environmental activists and regulators lacking in basic knowledge of beekeeping. In fact, beekeepers have been finding their own ways to increase the total number of hives despite increasing mortality rates in individual hives. Obviously, beekeepers have a financial stake while hobbyists lack the knowledge necessary to create viable hives that may be vulnerable to a certain class of pesticide. Hence, the solution to reducing honeybee mortality does not come from regulators, but from beekeepers as they have proven.
The poster boy for environmental regulation is the EPA- a behemoth of a bureaucracy that has grown out of control and become increasingly political under Democratic administrations. There are about 8,000 EPA officials spread throughout the country in regional offices. It is difficult to discern what they do that state environmental agencies cannot do. An edict, regulation or mandate from Washington may have very little to do with an environmental concern specific to Arizona, but the state’s concern has become the federal government’s concern and their solution rules supreme.
Another example of government regulation gone awry is solar energy subsidies for manufacturers which became a hallmark of Obama’s energy policy. In the aftermath of the Solyndra debacle and the investment of billions of dollars in the solar industry, the administration was placed in the position of passing regulations to protect the investment. Imposing tariffs on Chinese solar manufacturers, it drove up the price of solar energy and negated the purpose of the subsidies in the first place.
However, there are times when regulations are needed. When the government determined that lead was a serious pollutant, regulations to ban its use in gasoline led to a phase-out that essentially ended the pollution. The regulation worked because (1) the source of the pollution was simple and easily identifiable and (2) free enterprise created alternatives to the use of lead in gasoline.
The conservative solution to environmental problems lies in a basic pillar of conservatism: property rights. A perfect example is fisheries. For years, government regulators tackled the problem of over-fishing. More recently, “catch shares” are doing more where fishermen own a portion of the overall fish haul each year and therefore have a very tangible incentive to manage the fisheries. Local knowledge proves critical to set up rules that are fair and stable over time.
In fact, prior to the advent of modern environmental law, decisions were informed by local common law principles of “do no harm” and “non-trespass.” This regime which did more for environmental stewardship than anything the EPA has done, was supplanted by statutory law with strict liability, an increased role of administrative law and an intrusive government.
This is the antithesis of stewardship and self-government which defines conservatism. We have a duty to manage our land, water, air, timber, minerals and wildlife with care. That is best understood and carried out by those who actually live upon that land.
Take the example of our national park system where payment for their upkeep has been socialized. The Left tells us that these areas are to preserved for us all to enjoy. But, we all DO NOT enjoy them. Today, there is an $11.9 billion backlog in national park projects and in some cases there is leaking sewage. Visitor fees come nowhere near what is needed for park upkeep. Hence, taxpayers who never visit a park subsidize the millions who do. “Concern” does not justify the current system of socialized costs. It makes greater sense to charge those who patronize these parks rather than spread the cost across society.
Putting a cost on pollution can create a range of options. People can simply change their behaviors. Or they can continue their behaviors and continue to pay higher costs if they can afford it. Or new technologies can arise to deal with the problems.
But putting a price on environmental impact must only occur when there is real environmental risk. To the left, “environmental impact” has become a catch-all excuse to justify increased taxes and more regulation. Charging for environmental damage makes sense only if there is actual damage.
In fact, the key to a healthy environment is economic prosperity. Those trapped in poverty lack the luxury of managing the quality of their air and water, or worrying about an endangered woodpecker. They lack the technology to use resources more efficiently. If you care about the environment, then you should work to improve economic prosperity. And, ironically, that prosperity is linked to reliable energy sources whether you live in Kosovo or Kansas.
A perfect example is coal. More than regulations or Obama’s war on coal, economic prosperity that spurred technologies like fracking have led to the demise of the coal industry. Despite Trump’s words to the contrary, coal as a source of energy is a dying industry. There will be no “clean coal.” Instead of spending so much money enforcing regulations, why not spend it to simply retire coal domestically by leaving it in the ground? In this way, it becomes another investment in the savings account should we ever need to dip into that account in the future. For every dollar put into such an effort, there are residual advantages such as the natural environment not being despoiled and less carbon released into the air. It uses market forces to make alternatives more viable and cheaper. It would be voluntary, of course, and specific to coal-producing regions. It would collect diffuse interests and concentrate them on a local, voluntary project.
When talking about climate change, market solutions are preferable because it is an economic problem with environmental consequences. The Left has the equation backwards. To the extent it exists, climate change is a market failure where private-sector actors impose a cost without paying appropriate compensation. To some, this may sound as an endorsement of a cap-and-trade system of imposing appropriate compensation. In reality, it is a call for more efficient use of resources through technology and that can only be achieved with economic prosperity.
Leftist environmentalists can carry all the signs they want, block bulldozers in North Dakota and march in the streets of Washington, but their solutions have proven to be failures. To hear them talk and chant, we are living in an era of burning rivers, cities choking in smog akin to Beijing, and rapacious energy companies stripping the land of beauty. They fail to realize two things.
First, the best stewards of the land are those closest to the land and who live on the land and use it for their own economic gain. A rancher in Texas is a better steward of the environment than a bureaucrat in Washington because he has a vested interest in the environment. States are better administrators of public lands than the federal government.
Second, economic development which necessarily requires affordable, reliable energy is far more effective in lifting people out of poverty and taking care of the earth we live on. One cannot be a reliable steward of the environment without having the economic means to be so. The Left would have us revert to some pre-Colombian “Utopian existence.” We can debate the environment because we have the economic prosperity to do so.