Environmentalism in the 1990s: Intolerant and Proud of It

by John A. Charles

Table of Contents

Vested Environmental Interests

The environmental movement in 1996 is dominated by professionals who have been working in the movement a long time. In one sense, this is good, as it provides stability and a large store of institutional knowledge.

Unfortunately, one of the downsides is that many paid environmental leaders have a vested interest in the status quo of environmental, energy, and land use policy. Earlier in their careers they helped lobby for various legislative acts, they participated in agency rulemaking, and they helped shape subsequent court interpretations of law. As professionals, they take pride in their intimate knowledge of arcane regulations; knowledge is power, and environmental professionals who can recite the legislative history of major laws have increased standing in their field.

However, by falling into the "comfort zone" of professional expertise, these same leaders have lost much of their interest in social change. Instead of constantly looking for new solutions to environmental problems, they tend to place their emphasis on making environmental laws passed ten, twenty, or fifty years ago "work better." This is a worthy goal if the fundamental paradigm represented by those laws is correct, but in many cases it is not. In such instances, we need to rise above our professional pride and admit that what made sense in prior years does not make as much sense today.

Many environmental leaders are unwilling to do this. As a result, they have become more conservative, and more intolerant, than many of the Congressional Republicans they are so fond of criticizing.

A recent example from Oregon is instructive. Last fall, I attended a meeting sponsored by the Oregon Division of State Lands (DSL), regarding the proposed sale of state-owned grazing lands. The lands in question, which represent less than 2 percent of all public lands in Oregon, are held in trust by DSL for the constitutional purpose of raising revenue for Oregon schools (K-12). Unfortunately, since these lands are scattered throughout southeastern Oregon, the cost of administering grazing leases costs more than the revenue received from ranchers.

Since DSL is under a legal mandate to maximize revenue from those lands, the agency was proposing that the lands be auctioned off, with revenue placed in the Common School Fund and invested in stocks and bonds, as public employee pension funds are. This would have increased the annual return on investment to at least 7 percent, compared with returns of less than zero on grazing lands.

I supported this idea, not only as a logical means of maximizing revenue for schools, but as a method of injecting market forces into the management of these lands. Under the DSL grazing rules, only ranchers can bid on the grazing leases. A previous rule that had allowed citizens to bid on grazing leases for the purposes other than cattle ranching had been repealed, effectively removing these lands from the public domain.

As with so many other government programs, state law socialized the risks of public lands management, while privatizing the rewards to some 40 ranchers who benefitted from below-cost leases.

I felt that selling off these lands, with assessed value of $35-100 per acre, would allow environmentalists and others to buy tracts and do something with them other than graze them. It seemed to me that this could not possibly lead to a worse environmental outcome than supporting the status quo.

While the ranchers were quite upset at this proposal--which was not surprising--what was surprising was the opposition of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups. They apparently were so wedded to the concept of "public" lands--regardless of environmental outcomes--that they opted for the continued political allocation of land over market allocation, thus depriving their members of a chance to outbid ranchers.

Faced with opposition on all sides, the DSL, and its parent board, the State Land Board, scuttled the proposal to sell off money-losing grazing lands. The result: Instead of possibly hundreds of small-scale nature preserves, owned by environmentally-oriented citizens, we have publicly-owned lands used exclusively by a few ranchers for one commodity purpose--at a net loss to the Common School Fund.

This particular drama was watched closely by public land activists throughout the West. Among such groups, there is an intense fear that public land may be put on the auction block. It doesn't matter that, by and large, public land managers have allowed these resources to be severely degraded, often at a loss to the public treasury. The public land paradigm blinds its supporters to the fatal flaws inherent in the political allocation of resources.

And the desire to politicize all natural resource debates is the heart of what's wrong with the environmental movement today. Environmentalists insist on regulatory, big-government approaches because: (1) the existence of laws and regulations makes them feel like environmentally desirable outcomes can be mandated; (2) regulatory programs offer powerful leverage points to control the lives and property of many people from one centralized location; and (3) they are confident they can prevail in the world of lobbying, rule-making, and litigation.

Lets take a closer look at these factors.

Ensuring Outcomes

Many environmentalists are ignorant of how the economy works and distrustful of economic forces. They see the economy as a chaotic, messy place, with millions of people making billions of voluntary transactions daily, with only their self-interest in mind. Environmental leaders see self-interest as inherently at odds with good environmental outcomes, and conclude--wrongly--that "market failures" such as pollution can only be solved through centralized regulation. Government rules that mandate "zero discharge," or "best available technology," or "exclusive farm use," provide apparent certainty that an environmental objective will be met.

But this certainty is often an illusion. The city of Los Angeles has implemented dozens of prescriptive air quality rules for over 20 years, but is still faced with many days of unhealthful air. Centralized regulation in Los Angeles will never work because there are too many diffuse sources of pollution. The amount of knowledge it would take for regulators to design effective pollution reduction strategies for each source is so vast that even if it could be collected, it would immediately be out of date.

Market-based strategies are far more reliable if designed correctly. The Oregon container deposit law is an example. Certain kinds of beverages have a five cent deposit, designed to encourage the return of that container to be re-used or recycled. According to the state Department of Environmental Quality, approximately 90 percent of all containers are returned. Some people may bring them back out of a feeling of civic virtue, others merely to get the refunds; supporters of recycling don't need to know the reasons, as long as the program is effective. And the program is so effective that there is no single person in the state assigned to enforce it. The program simply runs itself.

This proves the point that, even though market-based programs appear to be unpredictable--because there are no mandates for individual behavior--in the aggregate, they are very predictable. If an individual's self-interest is aligned with societal interests through pricing mechanisms, most individuals will act in their self-interest, improving the environment at the same time.

Regulatory Leverage Points

For environmental groups with limited funds, centralized planning and regulatory programs are an attractive strategy because technical expertise can be brought to bear on one set of rules that might have statewide or national effects. Thus, upon adoption, entire classes of industries or people can be regulated. Environmental groups with offices in state capitals, or Washington, D.C., can regularly participate in dozens of rule-making proceedings, without having to travel very far. For the professional advocate, this is a cost-effective strategy.

A lawyer working for one of the largest national environmental groups once remarked to me, in a casual conversation about litigation, that he and his colleagues wanted certain cases to be brought in the "D.C. circuit [court] so we can control the outcomes."

In contrast, strategies that rely on markets, prices and incentives don't have such leverage points. They are inherently decentralized. People respond to incentives for all kind of reasons, some predictable, some not. This bothers traditional environmentalists, so they seek programs that are centralized.

Professional Expertise

Command-and-control programs are attractive to environmental groups because they can hire lawyers, planners, and other technical experts who can succeed in these processes. Although legislative work is more prone to be influenced by non-technical factors, rule-making and litigation are clearly dominated by technocrats, and environmentalists thrive on making these kinds of arguments.

Command-and-control is an insider's game. The people who play it love being able to dominate situations with their extensive knowledge of how laws were passed, who wrote certain sections (and why), what the legislative language really means, and so forth. This is the kind of technical knowledge that makes them valuable to their organizations, and gives them stature within their professions.

People who accrue this kind of knowledge gradually develop a vested interest in the status quo. All of their expertise would be useless if the regulatory programs were scrapped in favor of other strategies. When the evidence shows that these programs are not working as expected, the environmental professionals blame it on bad people, not a bad system. They then re-double their efforts to make these programs even bigger and more bureaucratic.

Looking to the Future

What should environmental leaders do instead? First, they should do what Republicans least expect them to do: bring forward sweeping proposals that rely on markets, prices and incentives. Most Republicans, despite their campaign talk, lack a commitment to real market reform; they are happy to cut EPA's budget, but refuse to change the 1872 Mining Act. Or they talk about ending subsidies to Amtrak, while protecting outrageously expensive federal water projects.

Environmentalists should out-flank Republicans on the right, and demand that subsidies of all types be eliminated across the board.

Of course, this would require environmentalists to swallow a strong dose of medicine, since it would mean an end to transit pork, solar energy pork, and a variety of other spending programs that receive favored status even among budget-cutting environmentalists. But the overall benefits of being philosophically consistent would be significant: we would forego the tiny environmental benefits of our favorite subsidized programs (if there are any benefits), while receiving major environmental benefits from an end to below-market timber cutting, grazing, mining, water development, etc.

While this strategy might be no more successful than any other strategy--given that members of Congress are rarely concerned with philosophical consistency--it would, at least, radically redefine the terms of the debate. It would allow environmentalists to claim a moral high ground of sorts, bewilder Republicans by being more fiscally conservative than most of them, and help educate the public about the environmental destructiveness of the welfare state.

This would be a first step towards a longer-term strategy of moving away from bureaucracy, regulations and subsidies, towards a vision of markets, incentives and prices. But in order for environmentalists to do this, they will gradually have to let go of their need to control the lives of others.

Second, they need to attack so-called "market failures" such as pollution with creative ways of re-arranging price signals, so that the negative externalities are included in the price of goods and services.

Obviously we need to forge real-world examples of these principles at work to help convince skeptics that markets can protect the environment. One such experiment that I have been working on for the past six years is in the field of urban transportation. The mainstream transportation orthodoxy in Portland calls for the build-out of a heavily subsidized light rail program, ostensibly to reduce traffic congestion and encourage "compact urban development" around rail stations. Despite overwhelming evidence that this strategy will waste billions of dollars in tax subsidies, while having little effect on transportation habits, political leaders (and their environmental allies) remain committed to this as the centerpiece of regional growth management policy.

My colleagues and I at the Oregon Environmental Council (OEC) have promoted a five-part, market-based alternative strategy. The elements are: (1) time-of-day "congestion pricing" of major highways; (2) mileage-based emissions fees; (3) de-regulation of the regional transit monopoly; (4) replacement of supplier-based transit subsidies with user-based subsidies (vouchers); and (5) the repeal of other, less-desirable transportation taxes concurrent with the enactment of congestion pricing and/or smog fees.

Each of these strategies makes the other stronger, creating synergism. Congestion pricing won't work without increased transit options. Increased transit service is only possible by de-regulating the transit industry to encourage private competition. Privatized service won't be possible unless transit subsidies are changed from supplier-based subsidies to vouchers, allowing all providers to compete for the voucher revenue. And private vendors won't even be interested in entering the market without congestion pricing, because only congestion pricing can create the consumer demand necessary for privately financed transit service.

Most of these policies, by themselves, would not work, but together they could be highly effective. This scenario, and others, will be studied during the next two years as part of a Congestion Pricing Pilot Project Study being sponsored by the regional government, Metro, and the Oregon Department of Transportation. The study is being paid for largely with a federal grant, as part of a Congressional inquiry into the potential effectiveness of peak-period road pricing.

Environmentalists need to think of ways that prices, competition and markets can be used in other policy arenas. The ideas themselves are not that difficult to come up with. The bigger challenge is convincing activists that protecting the environment is not the same as protecting the environmental bureaucracy.

Environmental Codependency

The public is expressing an increasing hostility towards the meddling of government into their lives. Instead of fighting this trend, environmentalists should accept it and use it as a catalyst to initiate a public dialogue about small-government environmentalism.

This will require that environmentalists let go of their needs to control the lives of others. They need to develop policies that are decentralized and largely self-enforcing. This will not only lead to better environmental outcomes, it will likely help create a broader-based environmental ethic by transforming the behavior of the public.

In the words of Melody Beattie, author of Codependent No More, giving up some of this control

even motivates and frees people around us to begin to solve their problems. We stop worrying about them, and they pick up the slack and finally start worrying about themselves. What a grand plan! We each mind our own business.

The environmental movement acts as if it is on a moral crusade when it is really just codependent on the continuation of environmental crises. Instead of preaching to people about how everything they do is supposed to be in the public interest--even when they receive no financial rewards for acting that way--we should work to correct the market failures of pollution by making the markets work better, then get out of the way and let people make their own decisions.

This may not be as professionally satisfying as writing regulations or winning lawsuits, but it's likely to protect the environment a lot more.

John Charles was the director of the Oregon Environmental Council for seventeen years and continues to work on a variety of projects to improve the Pacific Northwest's environment.

Electronic Drummer | Different Drummer | The Environmental Movement | The State of the Environmental Movement