The Evolving Environmentalism

by John Baden and Doug Noonan

Table of Contents

  • Ecotopia Is Here
  • Republican Platforms At Cross Purposes
  • Environmentalists Equally Confused
  • A New Environmental Vision
  • Rewarding Environmental Entrepreneurs
  • Sound Goals Deserve Proper Means

    Ecotopia Is Here

    The slogan in the 1994 election was "It's the economy, stupid." In the 1996 election, environmentalists tried to update this to: "It's the environment, stupid." After all, the environmental record of the 104th Congress was so misguided that even seasoned observers are left wondering if members of the Republican party are indeed brain damaged.

    Perhaps they misinterpreted the polls. A Roper Starch poll shows that most Americans are extremely or very satisfied with their community's air and water quality. Only 8 percent of young voters consider the environment a high priority in voting. According to a recent Competitive Enterprise Institute poll, less than 5 percent of voters identified environmental concerns as "the single most important problem facing the country." The same percentage said the "most important problem" is President Clinton.

    Compared to other issues, the environment takes a back seat. An August 17, 1996 Newsweek poll indicates that only 42 percent all of Americans consider the environment one of the most important issues in the Presidential election, compared to 74 percent for the economy and 70 percent for crime. Likewise, a National Wildlife Federation poll found that the environment influences 54 percent of voters, while education affects 76 percent. Shrewd politicians might disregard the relatively weak support for the environment and focus on bigger issues, like crime, health care, or education. Sound policies on these issues, they may have calculated, will garner them more votes come election.

    Yet by and large, Americans are environmentalists. A deeper look at the polls reveals this. Politicians who ignore the pervasive pro-environmental sentiments are in peril.

    Together, such a broad-based consensus among American voters is both rare and powerful. Everybody wants a better environment. Campaigning against such ecotopian sentiments is foolish and, in today's world, increasingly impossible.

    But this didn't stop the Republican-dominated 104th Congress. The traditional practice of subsidizing natural resource extraction industries continued unabated and even gained momentum--often at the expense of both the taxpayer and the environment. Grazing fees were lowered. Salvage logging was expedited. The Endangered Species Act came under fire. Many regulatory burdens and standards were eased. The Environmental Protection Agency's substantial decline in enforcement actions was blamed on the 104th Congress forcing a federal government shutdown.

    Environmental protection took a back seat to Republican efforts to dismantle the existing regulatory system and replace it with one more advantageous to vested interests. Timber industries finally had renewed access to old growth trees. Northwestern utilities benefited from exemptions to the Endangered Species Act and Republican opposition to plans to divert more river water for salmon preservation.

    The FY 1996 budget passed by the 104th Congress and signed by President Clinton actually increased federal support for U.S. agricultural interests and power utilities. The Clinton Administration bailed out the beef industry with $50 million in school lunch purchases and by releasing 36 million acres of rangeland for grazing. Clinton also bailed out Alaskan salmon fishers with school lunch purchases and and gasoline consumers by releasing national oil reserves.

    Congress attempted to expand the subsidized logging in Alaska's Tongass National Forest. The Mojave National Preserve was also opened up to mining and commercial development by the 104th Congress. And, the Presidio national park in San Francisco was very popular among Congressmen from both parties. This one-time military base has been converted into an office park, the most expensive park in the entire National Park System. There were almost no objections to spending money here or in other regional "park barrel" projects.

    Attempts at genuine reform demanded that Republicans confront orthodox command-and-control environmentalism. However, extreme spokespeople like Don Young of Alaska and Helen Chenoweth of Idaho undermined the credibility of their reform. They and their "wise use" constituents paraded under the banner of free enterprise while demanding a continuation of subsidies for outmoded, environmentally destructive exploitation of resources on public lands.

    Despite the merits of some of their changes, we can see why the Republicans were branded "anti-environmentalist." Almost everybody favors environmental protection; the big difference is in how we achieve it. Voters did not reject environmental goals in the 1994 election. Rather they found repugnant the statist, bureaucratic, command-and-control means to green ends exemplified by the EPA's approach to wetlands and its management of Superfund sites.

    Although the 104th Congress capitalized on their majority, they failed to articulate a vision linking economy with ecology. They ultimately supported traditional, subsidized destruction of natural resources. Under Republican leadership, oil interests gained, timber companies gained, hydroelectric utilities and ranchers benefited, and commercial fishermen were favored for the short run. Republicans brought home the pork to industries that extracted natural resources, industries long ago left behind in a rapidly-changing West. Instead of a "new vision" for a new America, the Republican majority bolstered traditional political and special interests.

    The 1996 election failed to either affirm the Republican attack on environmentalism or give the environmentalists a mandate over the resource extractionists. The reason is that both sides are confused about the true nature of our resource problems.

    Republican Platforms At Cross Purposes

    The Republicans' position on the environment is opportunistic and counterproductive in the long run. Here's why:

    Some non-environmental reforms hold great promise for improving America's economy and citizens' well-being. School choice is coming and will improve the education and welfare of Americans everywhere. With improvements in education and entrepreneurial innovation, hard-working Americans will be more productive.

    Successes in these areas will ultimately conflict with the Republicans' lack of environmental sensitivity. Across time and across space, as wealth and education increase so does environmental sensitivity. If Republican reforms successfully improve the education and increase the prosperity of Americans, then demand for environmental quality will increase. As Americans become richer, they will demand ever more environmental protection. As Don Coursey, Dean of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, has demonstrated, the elasticity of demand for environmental quality is the same as for BMWs and foreign travel. As income rises 1 percent, demand for environmental quality increases 2.5 percent

    But we've already seen the Republican party line sell out the environment to parochial special interests, outmoded extractive industries, and regional subsidies. Protecting favored industries and constituents undermines environmental quality. Making Americans wealthier and wiser will only increase their abhorrence for these policies.

    Simply put, the Republican environmental platform is at cross purposes with its domestic agenda. Rolling back environmental protections is not only inconsistent with making a prosperous, educated nation, it appears diametrically opposed. They've set up a no-win situation. Republican success in one arena will be turned against them in another. Rich, (sub)urbanite, well-educated Americans will demand environmental quality if not "ecotopia." Instead, Republicans offer them ethanol subsidies, salvage logging, and lax efforts to preserve endangered species.

    Environmentalists Equally Confused

    Ironically, the Republicans' weaknesses are precisely the flip-side of shortcomings of the traditional environmentalist position. Where the GOP fights for economic progress even at the expense of higher environmental standards, the environmental camp has been willing to sacrifice economic health for environmental quality. For nearly two decades, this environmental dogma has reigned largely without challenge. The traditional environmentalist agenda relied on greater bureaucratic powers, increased federal control, and heightened paranoia over environmental problems. Since the first Earth Day, the means to environmental goals were federal management, political mandates, and stringent regulations. They have imposed costs on everyone and pitted the environment against prosperity, rather than harmonizing these two complementary values.

    Some environmental gains were well worth the costs. But ever-increasing environmental regulation ultimately costs society more than it benefits. In Breaking the Vicious Circle, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer identifies the rising costs of regulations such as fuel economy requirements for cars, EPA restrictions on benzene, and Superfund.

    Inflexible and exorbitantly expensive regulations are predictable consequences of separating power from responsibility. When pollution is free to polluters, we get too much pollution. Likewise, when regulations are free to the regulators, we get too much regulation.

    It's irresponsible to ignore trade-offs inherent in every policy. Pursuing environmental goals with what Justice Breyer calls "tunnel vision" will squander billions of dollars. This process will also trample individuals, communities, and even endangered species.

    The Framers of the Constitution understood these pathologies of interventionist, command-and-control government. After 200 years of American history and 25 years of traditional environmentalism, we are finally relearning our Founding Fathers' lessons.

    A New Environmental Vision

    A new environmental vision is emerging which learns from the shortcomings of both the orthodox environmentalism and the reactionary Republican (anti)environmentalism. This new vision stresses the importance of harmonizing environmental quality and economic well-being. Such a vision should hold great appeal for politicians whose constituents are increasingly environmentally sensitive and whose supporters are increasingly aware of their interdependence with the environment. An April, 1996 Roper Starch poll indicates that sixty-six percent of Americans believe that environmental protection, economic growth and the health and happiness of communities can be achieved simultaneously.

    The environmental movement now stands, potentially, on the threshold of a new vision, a new orthodoxy. This environmental perspective seeks to improve environmental quality through well tested but generally misunderstood principles. These include:

    Politicians of any political party will be able to capture the spirit and the benefits of this environmentalism by articulating such a vision. The 104th Congress is indeed cowardly when they accept a milder version of orthodox environmentalism or when they continue the old, pork-barrel subsidies. They also seem dimwitted when they fail to articulate an alternative environmental vision which promotes environmental goals and economic development in harmony.

    Some political entrepreneur will catalyze a new era of environmentalism--a new shade of green. Taking control away from bureaucracies and their advocates (be they industry or environmentalist) means allowing flexible adaptation to govern environmental stewardship. The Nature Conservancy demonstrates flexible, innovative responses to Americans' demands for stewardship. The Conservancy has tripled the acres it protects in the last 10 years by stressing its decentralized, local approach.

    What the 104th Congress ought to have done, and what politically savvy successors will attempt to do, is reject the command-and-control environmentalist model at the same time they discard the financially and environmentally wasteful subsidies. Risking political capital in this way will earn politicians the support of the public, of businesses, and, most importantly, of the voters. Perhaps the biggest threat to environments, economies, and communities are federal pork projects and using government as an engine of plunder.

    The new environmental vision would advocate new strategies to bring economic prosperity and environmental quality into unison. In the place of regulatory, bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all, top down solutions, it would introduce decentralized, incentive- and community-based, market-oriented tradeoffs.

    Rewarding Environmental Entrepreneurs

    The political climate today should favor, rather than punish, environmental entrepreneurs. Politicians should encourage innovative efforts to "tread lightly" on the earth. We can reform institutions to reward environmental sensitivity.

    Until recently, environmental entrepreneurship has been ignored or punished. This was not the appropriate direction for the environmental movement. The movement is undergoing a wrenching change.

    Recently, Adolph Coors Company in Golden, Colorado, voluntarily conducted a self-audit of its environmental impact. The 17-month audit, which cost Coors $1.5 million, discovered previously unknown emissions in the brewing process. These emissions were not covered by environmental regulations but far exceeded all of the company's other emissions. When Coors disclosed this information as a step to obtain permits, the Colorado Department of Health and the Environment fined Coors more than $1 million for their troubles.

    The message of this fine was perverse: don't be a good citizen--hide, don't disclose. Not surprisingly, nearly half of the companies recently surveyed by Price Waterhouse expressed reluctance to conduct self-audits because they feared possible punishment.

    Coors' observation that "voluntary initiatives are more effective than mandated actions because they create flexible solutions, foster innovation and promote collaboration rather than adversarial relationships" merits the close attention of reformers. Voluntary activities like Coors' clearly foster environmental quality. Since 1988, Coors has lightened its bottles, cans, and packing by 21 percent and reduced its contribution to landfills by 850,000 tons. In 1994 alone, Coors reused 964,359 tons of packaging materials. And they saved money in the process. As the President's Council on Sustainable Development recently reported, "Pollution is waste, waste is inefficient, and inefficiency is expensive."

    "Cyberfarms" are another excellent example of entrepreneurial innovation fostering environmental quality and economic progress. Satellite-based Global Position Systems (GPS) track variations in elevation, soil composition, weather, and productivity--down to the square foot. Cyberfarmers can then make minute adjustments in seeding, fertilizing, and irrigating their fields.

    In addition to being more productive, cyberfarmers have a "green" thumb. With GPS technology farmers no longer need to uniformly blanket their fields with pesticides, water, fertilizer, and other potentially environmentally damaging inputs. Now they can target specific amounts to the areas where they'll be most beneficial. They save money on chemicals while reducing their use of insecticides, herbicides, and water. High-technology farming helps meet the growing demands of a hungry planet by reducing our use of the land itself.

    As another example, "Cybercommuting" allows workers to work from home, to transmit projects and ideas instantaneously across long distances, and even to develop "virtual offices". Technological progress makes possible new, environmentally friendly ways to work by decreasing costs and increasing productivity. Conversely, environmentally sensitive commuting and communicating leads to economic gains.

    More and more, economic development comes from innovating new technologies and business practices--not discovering more natural resources to extract. By encouraging "green" entrepreneurs, we can continue to find better ways to detatch ourselves from the environment. Whether their green thumb grows better crops with satellites or hitches a ride to work on the Internet, their creative resources need to be tapped.

    We can learn from Coors, cyberfarms, and cybercommuters. They represent efforts to harmonize economic progress and environmental protection. They reject the romantic "return to nature" dictum and offer economic progress through environmentally sensitive innovations. Environmentalists finally recognize that environmental protection increases because of, not in spite of, economic prosperity.

    Sound Goals Deserve Proper Means

    The time is ripe for this new environmental vision to reshape our institutions. Our experiments in command-and-control environmentalism and Progressive Era resource management have run their course and proven financially and environmentally bankrupt. Sylvan socialism, as embodied in the U.S. Forest Service, epitomizes the failures of central federal planners to act as sensitive stewards of the environment. The progressive management practices of private timber companies have surpassed the USFS, while the federal government incurs $1 billion in annual net losses each year. As we prepare to celebrate the centennial of the Forest Service, it is incumbent on us to consider the deficiencies of the socialist model

    Environmentalism is becoming an increasingly salient political issue. The means at our disposal for dealing with environmental threats are improving every day. We need to tap into and foster these human resources, so that we don't depend on natural ones so much.

    In order to unleash that entrepreneurial creativity to foster harmony with nature, we need political entrepreneurs. These public policy entrepreneurs stand to gain immense political capital for themselves if they can articulate such a cohesive environmentalism. They can implement reforms at the federal level to correct the fundamental flaws in public land management agencies, wasteful regulatory quagmires like the ESA, EPA, and others, and environmentally destructive federal subsidies. Creating new institutions in their place, following the principles outlined above, holds the best key to satisfying the growing environmental interests as well as the business community.

    The intellectual tide is shifting. The paradigm for the environmental movement is being rewritten. In October of 1993 a new benchmark of environmental thinking was established at Airlie House, a conference center in Airlie, Virginia. Leading conservationists from around the world concluded that despite elaborate efforts the conventional approach to conservation wasn't working.

    Their new strategy emphasized positive local participation, not prescription and enforcement alone. They sought ways to make local communities the beneficiaries and custodians of conservation efforts. The phrase "community-based conservation" captures the essence of their approach.

    Their "View from Airlie" (published by the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation) offers an innovative perspective on effective and viable protection of ecological values. This is progress. We've tried command and control and found it wanting. It's time for community-based conservation and for rethinking environmentalism. (The complete proceedings of the Airlie conference were published in a 1994 Island Press book titled Natural Connections, edited by David Western and R. Michael Wright.)

    The environmental movement born at the first Earth Day had noble goals. It's well-intentioned policy prescriptions, however, were fatally flawed. It's very difficult and extremely rare to get public policy right the first time. The lessons learned from traditional environmentalism are helping to elaborate a new, evolved environmentalism that recognizes and appreciates environmental entrepreneurs.

    John Baden ( is the director and Doug Noonan ( is a research assistant at the Gallatin Institute and the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment in Bozeman, Montana.

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