PRIVATIZING THE PLANET:
ALTERNATIVE VISION OF
THE CATO INSTITUTE
APRIL 28, 1994
By Senator Malcolm Wallop
As you may have noticed, last Friday was Earth Day. Rallies, teach-ins, exhibitions were held in schools, churches and civic spaces around the country to celebrate clean air and water as well as efforts to protect endangered species, vanishing rain forests, and national treasuers like the Grand Canyon. Who could be so vile as to be against such things? Nobody. Are we then all environmentalists? Well, that depends on your definition. You see, much of what passes for environmentalism today really has nothing to do with clean air and water, the health of humans or other species, and the beauty of wide-open spaces. It has everything to do with dirty politics and the acquisition of power-indeed with the hoariest of political scams; invoking supposedly scientific knowledge of the public good to legitimize transfering money and power to one's own friends and ideological compatriots.
Collectivists promised a better world if only we would empower government to nationalize or regulate companies, to take over the providential functions of families, to monopolize education and, almost every where in the world, to collectivize medical care. During the past several decades, and after harsh experiences, the public throughout the civilized world realized that all these schemes were scams. The principal beneficiaries were the people who ran them, while the general public paid, got ever-worsening services, and was obliged to learn to court bureaucrats. So now from Santiago to Stockholm, from Mexico to Milan to Moscow, privatization is the order of the day. Governments have sold more than $260 billion in state enterprises. Nations are privatizing pension systems, voucherizing medical care and education, and deregulating companies. People are privatizing even systems once deemed inherently governmental-police and fire protection, mail delivery, prison management, trash collection-as much to rid themselves of corruption and to regain control of their own lives as to improve the yield of the money they pay for services.
But corrupt collectivists have no shame. The moment one of their pseudoscientific claims is exposed, they invent another, confident that the public will take the loftiness of their expressed goals as a warrant of their good faith and competence. And so people who a few years ago described themselves as scientific socialists now describe themselves as environmental experts. But if you look at what they prescribe in the name of environmentalism now, you find that it is no different from what they were prescribing not so long ago in the name of some other pseudoscience. In the name of the environment they can do what they could not do in the name of Marx or Keynes. They can restructure the U.S. auto industry, block construction here while authorizing it there, punish politically incorrect constituencies in tobacco land or lumber land. Every landowner, everyone who eats, showers, works, will have to pay and bow to the new masters.
And to whom do environmentalist proposals channel power and money? Why to the environmental establishment, of course. Note that of the first $1 billion allegedly spent for toxic waste cleanup under Superfund, the biggest federal environmental program, more than half went to well connected law firms, including the infamous Rose law firm. And I assure you that the so-called cleanup contracts, with fat shares for consultants, are not given out by lottery either. If the spoils of federal public works projects are doled out on the basis of politics, why should we expect the spoils of environmental policy to be any different?
So what about the rest of us who don't want power and privilege at other people's expense, the ones who really care about clean air and water? Well, we had better realize that to get these goods we must do more or less what we do to get other kinds of goods. Real environmentalism is not about commandeering other people's resources, destroying jobs, or attacking industry. It's not about expanding and centralizing government power. Real environmentalism is about good stewardship. And what most effectively promotes good stewardship are the incentives created by private property rights and competitive markets. Real environmentalism seeks to empower people, not governments. If people are allowed to own more of the planet, they will take better care of it.
The Market Failure Paradigm
The policies and rhetoric of phony environmentalism are based upon a specific theoretical rationale-market failure. Just as they used to say that unregulated private activity would produce poverty, now they say that individuals freely pursuing their interests cause pollution, habitat destruction, and resource depletion. That, they say, is because markets do not reflect the social or external costs of economic activity. Therefore, they argue, only a politically controlled marketplace is compatible with environmental quality. This "market failure" paradigm has an almost unlimited potential for mischief. Practically every private transaction has some effect on external parties or resources. Since any economic activity may have some environmental impact, this approach demands that virtually all economic decisions be politically managed.
Let me assure you, the threat of pervasive regulation is not imaginary. The Environmental Protection Agency alone requires local governments to implement some 419 "essential" regulations.
Environmental rules have imposed "water efficiency" standards on our shower heads and toilets and environmental agencies tell companies how their employees must commute to work. In the name of air quality, biodiversity, waste disposal, recycling, and wetlands, America is rapidly adopting a green variant of centralized planning.
But the premise is as bad as the conclusion. Environmental problems are not the consequence of free markets and private property; rather, they result from too little reliance on private property and markets. Whether we consider elephants in Africa, salmon streams in England, or forests in the United States, privately owned resources have been better protected than their politically-managed counterparts. Because environmental degradation is caused substantially by government interference, a policy of ecological privatization-the extension of private property rights to the broadest possible array of natural resources-is the proper agenda for real environmentalism.
What Preserves? What Destroys?
Let's look at some examples of how markets and private ownership promote good stewardship.
My first example is "The Strange Story of the Disappearing Pigeons and the Flourishing Chickens!" When Columbus discovered America, there were billions of passenger pigeons, no chickens-now there are billions of chickens, no passenger pigeons.
The reason is straightforward. People concerned themselves with the welfare of stilt houses to shelter these vulnerable birds. Farmers would stay up at night to protect them. Researchers studied the tastes and nutritional needs of chickens, diseases were cured, and social pathologies (for example, the tendency of birds to peck one another to death) were resolved. Private property linked chickens and mankind symbiotically.
By contrast, passenger pigeons became extinct because they were the "common heritage of all Americans." Many people valued these birds but they had no way to translate their concern into effective action. By law, wildlife is owned by "the people" collectively. Private ownership of a pigeon was possible only if one first killed the bird. Not surprisingly, pigeons were destroyed in huge numbers and the habitat for the bird shrank rapidly as America converted forests into lands suitable for chickens and other species that could be owned. The point of this simple story? Private ownership provides a critical linkage between man and nature, between economy and ecology. Private property encourages human beings to consider the welfare of what they own; when you own it, if you destroy it you're the one who loses. Common or public ownership provides far fewer and much weaker inducements to good stewardship; destroy an unowned property, and someone else bears the cost.
A limited experiment with privatization is working to save the African elephant, an animal imperiled by cows, ploughs and poaching. Most media accounts blame the poaching on the international trade in ivory. The solution thus seems obvious: Suppress the ivory trade! Environmental groups endorsed this approach, now codified under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The ivory ban, they predicted, would reduce trade, lower prices and, thus, protect the elephant. But the prediction, and the results, have gone awry.
Africans are poor. If elephants do not contribute to their well being, Africans will convert elephant habitat to other land uses. Without economic reasons for preserving the species, Africans are likely to view the elephant less as a noble animal than as a giant rat!
The only way to ensure the survival of the African elephant is to let people own them. As it happens, Zimbabwe has experimented with a limited form of privatization, and the results are encouraging.
Zimbabwe's government, recognizing that it could not effectively prevent poaching, created a mechanism whereby local tribal councils could petition to have elephants in their territory transferred from national to local control. In effect, ownership rights were transferred to the local citizenry.
The effects of this policy were significant. Elephants provide over 10 million Zimbabwe dollars a year in income to about two dozen tribal villages. Complaints that "your" elephants are causing problems quickly became pleas for advice on how best to protect "our" elephants. Former poachers became game wardens, protecting the newly privatized species. Individuals in the affected communities came to recognize that keeping an elephant alive today might well mean a better life for their families tomorrow. Villagers guard against poachers, cull elephant herds to prevent overpopulation, and protect their investment in future ivory production and safari income. As a result, the elephant population has grown from 30,000 to more than 70,000 over the past two decades.
In contrast, in Kenya, where hunting and ivory sales are banned, poachers succeed in killing elephants because no one has an economic stake in protecting them. The elephant population has plunged from 140,000 to 20,000 over the past two decades.
If these examples are rejected because chickens, after all, are protected only to be killed and eaten, or because one believes privatization options are applicable only to species having direct commercial value-then consider cats, dogs, parakeets, tropical fish and other pets. People protect these species not for monetary reasons or to grace the dining table, but rather because we enjoy and care for these animals. Much the same can be said for privately-supported zoos and conservation centers that protect all sorts of endangered and threatened species-lemurs, butterflies, birds-not because of any profit margin, but because in the free-market, individuals have the ability to protect those things that they find valuable, for whatever reason they so choose.
The pet example is an interesting one because it illustrates that ownership links man and nature in ways that extend beyond the strictly commercial sphere. People care for specific animals and therefore are willing to devote time, energy and money to protecting them. Ownership makes it possible for that effort not to be wasted. I need not fear that my well fed and pampered parakeet will become my neighbor's Sunday lunch. Moreover, although the relationship between pet and owner is a non-commercial one, a rich commercial sector-pet food companies, veterinary hospitals, pet care products, even pet grooming salons-has evolved to serve the owners and their pets.
Green ideologues warn that thousands of species are disappearing each year, that the earth faces a biodiversity "crisis." As Julian Simon and the late Aaron Wildavsky have shown, the empirical data do not support such claims. Nonetheless, it's worth pondering how we can possibly protect the 10 to 100 million species of plants and animals that are believed to exist today. Current strategies would leave this task to governments. Yet many of them are inept at protecting their human populations, never mind animals. There are, however, more than 5.5 billion people in the world today. If able to own some specific endangered species, many would do so. If a few hundred or thousand people were overseeing each species, then the survival odds would greatly improve. Moreover, since such species will often be protected in a fenced "natural" habitat, it's likely that other species will be protected as well.
The good news is, in spite of legal limitations on ownership of wildlife and habitat, grass-roots private conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation, and the North American Bluebird Society are achieving great results. As a recent Policy Review article by Brian Jendryka reports, there are perhaps 1 to 2 billion more songbirds in the United States today than at the time of the Pilgrims. The population of wild turkeys has increased from about 30,000 in the early 1900s to more than 4 million today. Private citizens and organizations have built more than 100,000 bluebird houses in the past 15 years, helping to increase the Eastern bluebird population by 9.5 percent.
Private conservationists are protecting non-indigenous species as well, reports Ike Sugg of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. David Bamberger, the former chairman of Church's Fried Chicken and now a game rancher, has single-handedly preserved 29 of the 31 remaining bloodlines of the Scimitar-horned Oryx, a rare antelope native to war-torn sub-Saharan Africa. Bamberger is one of 450-plus ranchers in Texas who own an estimated 200,000 head of some 125 exotic species. More than 19,000 of these animals belong to species that are imperiled in the wild. Several are now more plentiful in Texas than in their lands of origin.
Reassessing the Market Failure Paradigm
In contrast, government has been a leading cause of environmental problems. As Richard Stroup and Jane Shaw note in a book called Taking the Environment Seriously, the U.S. Forest Service has promoted clear-cutting in ecological sensitive forests where it is difficult to grow trees. The Bureau of Reclamation has built dams that innundated canyons and free-flowing streams. Department of Agriculture subsidies have encouraged farmers to drain wetlands, overuse marginal crop land, and use excessive amounts of pesticides. The Armed Forces and the Department of Energy have created hazardous waste dumps that will cost untold billions of dollars to clean up.
How come? Bureaucrats are no more evil than the rest of us-or maybe not much. But they work with huge sums of other people's money. They have the legal power to jail people who try to stop them, and prosper to the extent that they manage big projects and give out big contracts. Furthermore, they bear little if any of the costs of their actions. With such incentives, it is no wonder that they have often acted in total disregard of environmental concerns.
The relevant test for us as citizens is not whether markets are perfect, but whether they perform better than political arrangements. If the market failure explanation were correct, one would expect that less market-oriented societies would have fewer environmental problems. The opposite is the case. Our worst ecological nightmares are the daily realities of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where government had the kind of environmental control powers that our environmental movement craves. Experience shows that market economies consistently outperform socialist economies on ecological grounds.
Centralized ecological planning is a species of what Nobel economist Friedrich Hayek called the "fatal conceit." Hayek observed that the knowledge necessary to manage a modern economy is dispersed-only the individual knows the specific circumstances he faces, and only the individual knows the full range of options he might exercise to improve the situation. This information is too extensive, too ephemeral, too non-quantitative, and too intuitive to be centralized and made available to any single mind or set of minds. Furthermore, only if the individual cares enough to make the best of the little piece of the puzzle in his hands, can society expect to benefit from the richness of this dispersed information. Like markets, ecosystems are too complex, too varied, and too sensitive to changing circumstances to be managed by a central authority. Good environmental stewardship, no less than good business management, depends upon the kind of dispersed knowledge that is available only to self-interested individuals.
Bureaucratic environmental policies are also highly vulnerable to corruption. The details of environmental policy have major economic implications; thus, interest groups will seek favorable treatment at the expense of groups less well organized or less politically powerful. What we learned in school about regulatory agencies, that they are often captured by the strongest of the special interests they regulate, also applies to environmental regulation. In the mid-1980s, for example, a coalition of environmental groups and waste treatment companies successfully lobbied to expand the number of Superfund sites and mandate the use of the most expensive cleanup methods. They even succeeded in blocking measures aimed at reducing the production of hazardous waste! These days a coalition of agricultural interests has sought to impose a more expensive and more heavily polluting fuel-ethanol-on an unsuspecting public in the name of clean air! There is no end to political greed, and the more extensive political controls get, the more opportunities for special-interest politics we create.
The regulators themselves have incentives to put their organizational interests ahead of the public interest. A 1987 survey of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials found little correlation between the officials' judgments as to which areas merited most attention and what the agency actually did. In part, these skewed priorities result from the political imperatives of the budget process. To enlarge its share of federal resources, EPA has not been above sensationalizing environmental risks such as asbestos in our schools, radon in our homes, and pesticide residues on our food. When environmental policy is political, it is bound to reflect fads, careerism, and greed rather than scientific realities.
Not surprisingly, bureaucratic approaches aren't working. The New York Times has reported how a refinery in Yorktown, Virginia was required to spend 31 million dollars to control benzene emissions. The regulatory requirements focused on the refinery's waste water treatment plant, but the majority of benzene emissions were coming from another part of the facility that would have been far less expensive to clean up-about 25 million dollars less. And how about the Endangered Species Act, a very controversial law these days and one of my personal favorites Since 1966, 1,354 species have been listed as endangered or threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Of these, only 19 species have been "delisted"-seven because they became extinct, eight because they were improperly listed in the first place. Only four species have been delisted because they have actually recovered to the point where they are no longer threatened. Yet according to the National Wilderness Institute, the American people spend over 3 million dollars per species on enforcing this ineffective law, and their are over 800 species on the list. Not exactly a brilliant success. And not so different from government performance regarding welfare and other matters. Then there is the problem of cost. Business compliance expenses, paperwork burdens, and other direct costs of environmental regulation in the United States are now estimated at well over $150 billion a year, based on the calculations of the EPA-and I don't have to tell you about the EPA's reputation for less than accurate numbers. Total costs, which include reduced levels of business formation and job creation, are significantly higher.
Finally, the web of environmental regulations is restricting the freedom of our citizens and criminalizing what would otherwise be regarded as lawful behavior. How does this item grab you? In March of 1992, federal officials trespassed onto Richard Smith's ranch and seized the pickup trucks of Mr. Smith and his elderly father. The Smiths were accused of poisoning endangered birds, even though the Fish and Wildlife Service was unable to present any evidence and formal charges were never filed. Only nine months later were the trucks finally returned.
Some of you are no doubt familiar wiwth the story of John Pozgai, an immigrant from Eastern Europe. Pozgai purchased a 14-acre dump site across from his truck repair business in Morrisville, Pennsylvania. He removed some 7,000 old tires and several rusting cars, and leveled the area with clean fill dirt. His neighbors were pleased. But in 1991, he was hauled into court by the EPA, charged with violating federal wetlands "policy," sentenced to three years in prison, and slapped with a $200,000 fine (later commuted to $5,000). His crime? Using dirt without a permit.
Does that happen to everybody? No. We have all heard how the State of Arkansas gave special treatment to Tyson Foods because of their cozy relationship with the Governor. If politics can provide protection to the propreitors of failed S&Ls, it can give good cover to politically-powerful polluters. It is the nature of politics, even when we try to use politics to protect nature; saying it is all for a good cause makes not a difference in the world. Remember, the more expensive environmental regulation gets, the higher the economic stakes, the more incentive there will be to play by a special set of rules.
The current situation is
unacceptable: we are spending vast sums, getting very
little in return, stifling enteprise, surrendering our
freedom to unelected bureaucrats, and encouraging
corruption. I hope you all will agree that there has got
to be a better way.
Most environmental problems are not the fault of capitalism. Rather, they stem from the absence of property rights and markets. Since the air, the water, most species of mammals and fish and public lands have no private owners, they have few effective protectors and defenders. Trees cannot have standing. But behind many a tree, there could stand a private owner ready and able to defend his property.
Granted, privatizing trees and land animals usually presents no great technical difficulties, though some may find it politically controversial, so let's look at the hard cases.
In both England and America, the primary approach to protecting river quality is political. A legislature sets water quality standards, and an environmental agency determines what effluent levels are compatible with those standards. The agency then takes an inventory of emission sources along the river and decides what cleanup burdens each source will bear. In the United States, the water quality standards and cleanup requirements imposed on municipalities have been more lenient than those placed on industry. Moreover, enforcement has been less stringent. The result is that today government polluters pose the main threat to river quality.
In England, much the same system prevails, but along some rivers, political controls are augmented by a system of private property defenses. One such river, the Derby [pronounced Darby], illustrates the situation. A fishing club, the Pride of Derby, held the rights to fish along a stretch of the river. When the club found that water pollution was killing fish, it took action to defend its property rights.
As in the United States, the plaintiff looked upstream to determine which sources might contribute to the problem. And as in the United States, both industrial and municipal sources were found. The club approached both groups. The industry reviewed the situation, recognized that it had indeed been "trespassing," and negotiated a cleanup agreement.
In contrast, the municipality argued that city governments faced more pressing responsibilities (public housing, unemployment relief, education, street and bridge maintenance) and should not be required to divert funds to any cleanup. Besides, the city authorities argued, the cleanup would primarily benefit wealthy fishermen. To spend money in this way was regressive and unfair. In effect, the municipality in England-like many in the UnitedStates-argued that not all polluters are equal; political polluters are entitled to special consideration.
The Pride went to court, however, and prevailed. The court held that the issue was not one of income distribution but rather one of trespass. A municipality had no more right than anyone else to take another's property. The case set a precedent which to this day puts potential polluters on notice that endangering river quality is not acceptable. Note, also, that the Pride of Derby's success protected not only its stretch of the river but areas downstream as well. What's more, it extended the umbrella of protection to species not highly valued by the fishermen.
A property rights approach might also dramatically improve the way we manage and protect ground water. Under current policies, users of groundwater have rights to the water they capture or consume, but not to water left in the ground. Since users have no right to the water they conserve, their incentive is to overconsume. This poses no great problem where groundwater is relatively abundant. But when rising demand leads to groundwater depletion, the only recourse now available is to impose political controls on water usage.
Fred Smith, a former EPA analyst who founded the Competitive Enterprise Institute ten years back, suggests we consider another approach. He points out that a very different strategy has been successfully used to manage another valued underground liquid resource-oil. In the United States and many other countries, underground rights in oil capture are assembled via "unitization" agreements into single pools that can be managed in an integrated fashion to ensure rational usage.
This process is not simple; it involves difficult analytic procedures to determine the appropriate boundaries of the field, and requires costly legal maneuvering to reach agreement among the original owners. Nonetheless, unitization has been widely applied and has done much to make possible the efficient use and conservation of petroleum. Why not extend property rights to groundwater and see if unitization and private management agreements evolve?
Now let's consider how property rights, markets, and emerging technologies may enable the private sector to play a greater role in protecting oceanic resources and airsheds. One of the most cost-effective ways to protect ocean water quality and biodiversity would be to lift restrictions on offshore oil production. I know this will strike the environmental establishment as outrageous heresy, but facts are facts. Prohibiting offshore drilling has made the U.S. more dependent on imported oil. And major oil spills are far more likely to occur because of tanker accidents than because of platform or pipeline accidents.
More important, offshore oil platforms actually protect marine biodiversity. We often imagine the oceans as teaming with life. In fact, they are mostly vast underwater deserts. Reefs are the breeding grounds of many marine flora and fauna, providing critical links in the planetary food chain. In U.S. waters, reefs occur naturally only off the coasts of Florida and Hawaii. Oil platforms have served as highly efficient artificial reefs, providing habitat shelter for many kinds of fish. According to environmental scholar Robert J. Smith, biological studies of platform fish populations show concentrations 20-50 times greater than those found in normal sandy bottoms, and about 5 times those found at natural reefs.
People can create artificial reefs just by dumping durable objects such as rocks and cement-filled tires in sandy bottom waters. Under the laws of most coastal states, however, private parties cannot establish ownership rights in artificial reefs. This diminishes the incentive to build reefs, since the full economic benefits cannot be captured by the builders. More reefs would be built if owners could charge fees to commercial fishermen, scuba clubs, and other interests desiring access.
Moreover, owners would have an incentive to prevent overfishing and other environmental hazards that could destroy the long-term value of their property. Conservation groups could also purchase the rights to such areas and manage them as marine wildlife refuges.
Market-based solutions to oceanic and atmospheric pollution are in their infancy; but here, too, new technologies promise to reduce our reliance on bureaucratic command-and-control mandates. The major challenge to extending private protection to oceans and airsheds is their fluid nature. There are no fences separating your air from mine; there is no easy way to trace oceanic pollution to its source. But we should not underestimate the ingenuity of free peoples to come up with solutions.
Using technologies known as gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, scientists can detect oceanic pollutants in quantities as small as one part in a trillion. They can also identify the culprit by matching the pattern of the chemical constituents found in samples taken from the site with others from the suspected source. This sort of chemical fingerprinting is already being used to determine liability for oil spills. As the technique becomes more refined and more widely utilized, private parties may be able to sue for damages and make polluters pay.
Fred Smith foresees even more imaginative applications of technology to pollution control problems:
"Tracers (oderants, coloring agents, isotopes) might be added to pollutants to ensure the damages were detected early where the costs of reduction were lower....There are exotic technologies that might well play a fencing role even for resources as complex as airsheds. For example, lasimetrics, a technology which can already map atmospheric chemical concentrations from orbit, might in time provide a sophisticated means for tracking transnational pollution flows. If that system were combined with a system under which each nation adopted some fingerprinting system to identify its major greenhouse gases (a kind of chemical zip code system), it would be possible to trace pollution to its source and thus make it possible to make polluters pay."
Some of this may be a long way off, but if we don't know where we want to go, we can be sure that we will never get there.
The goal of real environmentalism is to do well today, better tomorrow. No one knows what kind of fencing and fingerprinting technologies may be available in the 21st century to identify which parties are trespassing (throwing their trash) into which backyards. Yet, the dynamic record of market economies in finding ever more efficient ways of advancing human goals should inspire confidence and hope. Private property creates a vast incentive system which encourages people having no direct linkage to a specific industry to seek to solve that sector's problems.
These quick sketches do not argue that government has no role to play in the environmental field; preventing trespass and tort-environmental or otherwise-has always been a legitimate function of government. However, government's role should be limited, and it should not stifle private sector experimentation and initiative.
Environment vs. Development: A False Antithesis
I've been arguing that private property rights can link ecology and the economy in ways that benefit both. Green ideologues will vehemently deny this, claiming that economic development and environmental quality are incompatible objectives. And indeed, if one only considers the well-publicized clashes between environmental groups and commercial interests over the use of public lands such as the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, one may well conclude that we must suppress business to protect the environment or sacrifice the environment to promote business. But this a false dichotomy, an artificial problem created by government's control over natural resources.
Some 40 percent of all U.S. land is owned by governments-federal, state, and local. Many public land tracts contain valuable commercial commodities and valuable ecological resources. Developers and environmentalists clash over the disposition of those lands precisely because the lands are in the public domain. Each party tries to use its political muscle to deny or restrict access to its rivals. An outcome that does justice to all the interests concerned is highly unlikely, not only because political power is distributed unequally, but also because the winners have no incentive to accomodate the losers.
Public policy ought to encourage environmentally responsible behavior. But people behave responsibly only if they have to bear the costs of their actions. The problem with public land management is just this: the costs are borne by taxpayers and other third parties, rather than those who manage or use the land. The environmental movement does not bear the economic costs-the jobs destroyed, the factories closed, the towns decimated-when it succeeds in locking up timberland or blocking oil production. Industry, similarly, does not bear the costs when it develops public land in an environmentally destructive manner. The bureaucrats who are supposed to weigh and balance these competing interests have no financial stake in the lands they manage. In fact, they may have an incentive to mismanage public lands if the resulting environmental problems create pretexts for increasing agency budgets and enacting new regulations.
Private ownership, on the other hand, fosters responsible behavior. In a splendid book entitled Free Market Environmentalism, Terry Anderson and Donald Leal provide several telling examples. At a time when the federal government was encouraging environmental destruction on the Barrier Islands, commercial interests at Hilton Head Island discovered that conservation increased property values. While the federal government has subsidized environmental damage in our national forests, companies such as International Paper have discovered that wildlife research and habitat protection can provide profitable recreational opportunities.
Private property not only encourages industry to respect environmental concerns, it also encourages environmental groups to accomodate economic interests. Consider the Audubon Society's Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary in Louisiana. The Rainey Sanctuary is home for deer, armadillo, muskrat, otter, mink, geese, and many other birds. Since 1960, it has also been a site for oil wells run by Conoco. Because Audubon owns the land, it can impose strict conditions on how the oil is extracted to ensure that wildlife is not damaged. In return for allowing the oil company to produce on the sanctuary, Audubon receives royalties that it can plough into its environmental program. Michigan's Audubon Society has similar arrangements with Mobile and Michigan Petroleum Exploration.
These examples are noteworthy, because Audubon and other environmental groups fiercely opposed any oil exploration and production in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. Yet they recognize the value of reaching mutually beneficial compromises on their own land. Private property encourages economically responsible conservation as well as environmentally responsible commercial development. Audubon profits handsomely from their own oil drilling deals, and it is my understanding that the birds have not suffered a whit. If private stewardship creates this type of win-win situation, we should try it more often.
Ecological central planning cannot protect the environment, but it can destroy civil and economic liberties. America need not go any farther down this road. The environment can be protected, and we can continue to reach new heights of prosperity. Modern societies have succeeded only when ordinary citizens have been free to solve their own problems. Ecological privatization is an unexplored means of achieving real benefits in the environmental field.
It's sometimes said that man is the only animal that fouls his own nest. That's not true. Most of us don't trash our own homes and gardens. In fact, we usually don't trash our neighbor's yard. We are far more likely to litter public streets and parks. To save the earth, we must ensure that more of it is somebody's back yard.
It's not too late to rescue America
from centralized ecological planning. But we must get serious
about shifting the environmental debate from the current market
failure paradigm to one based instead on a failure to allow
should offer the American people an alternative
environmental vision-a vision in which each person, by
protecting his own property, protects the planet for the
rest of us. If we begin now to rescue environmentalism
from ideological pollution, then maybe someday we, too,
will have reason to celebrate Earth Day.
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