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The American Conservation Ethic: How Individual Liberty and Free Markets Can Help Us Find Real Solutions to Environmental Problems

by Robert Gordon
January 31, 2012

Americans are constantly deluged with bad news on the environment.

We are told that we humans are degrading natural resources, disrupting the delicate ecological balance, the web of life—Earth as a living, breathing entity. We are told that, by and large, Earth’s natural resources are fragile, finite, and destined to degradation and decline, and even supposedly “renewable” natural resources are threatened given the rate at which they are now being depleted. We hear that this destruction is unsustainable; that we are approaching points of no return: a tipping point for the acceleration of global warming, the line where the extinction rate creates runaway ecological catastrophe or irrevocable injury to water, air, or other fragile resources.

We are told human consumption drives the degradation and destruction, and as population grows, so does the impact; that technological advances magnify our ability to degrade and deplete natural resources; and that profits from meeting the increasing consumption-driven demand enable further technological advances, establishing a vicious cycle of increasing destruction.

We hear that the array and magnitude of the threats humans present demand action even if some threats are speculative and even if the costs of the proposed actions are enormous. We are told, consequently, that science can no longer be value neutral when employed in the public policy arena and should determine environmental policies; and that government regulation and ownership—centralized and top-down—are necessary to protect Earth’s natural resources.

We are told that making society environmentally sustainable will require social transformation for undeveloped nations with explosive birthrates and especially for developed nations with disproportionate per capita consumption of resources. We hear that achieving sustainability will require altering, eroding, or jettisoning obsolescent cultural concepts, legacies, and institutions: the institution of property rights; the Judeo–Christian concept of dominion (the according of lesser values to non-human species); American notions of social and geographic mobility; and, clearly, consumption-oriented behavior. And we are told that policies must establish new norms that put us in greater harmony with the Earth; that opposition to these policies will eventually wane; and that ascending generations will have altered—meaning lowered—expectations tempered by their greater environmental awareness.

These messages sound ominous. I have asked many people: “What do all these ideas have in common?” and have gotten many different answers. The most common by far has been that these ideas are used to support command-and-control policies. That is definitely true. Ideas like these have formed the spines and ribs of much environmental thinking and, consequently, have guided the Environmental Protection Agency as well as the major pieces of environmental legislation, especially, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Clean Air Act in 1970; the Clean Water Act in 1972; and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA). These ideas really began to take hold four decades ago in the Nixon era of wage and price controls, gas rationing, and other laws in the command-and-control mode.

The command-and-control answer is true, but there is another, more fundamental, commonality to these ideas. While there are instances, events, and examples that those who believe these ideas can point to in defense of their worldview, the reality is that, in general, these ideas are wrong. They are wrong—and wrongheaded ideas have consequences. A few examples of these ideas in action should give a flavor of the problems.

In the 1970s, environmental groups opposed capturing and breeding in captivity the last few wild California Condors. Instead, they argued that the Condors should be allowed to die out in dignity—that they should be allowed to go extinct. Clearly, these groups believed that human intervention can only be a negative on the environment. That is the philosophy behind the Endangered Species Act. Now, nearly 40 years after the ESA’s enactment, we keep adding critters to the list with little evidence that the program generally works and much evidence that it does not.

In 1994, a helicopter crew spotted a Boy Scout lost in the Pecos Wilderness, but because of the Wilderness Act, could not land to rescue him without permission from the National Forest Service. It took the Forest Service another day to grant permission for a second helicopter to rescue the 14-year-old boy, who thus had to spend another night lost in the wilderness. Environmental bureaucrats have had similar hesitations about permitting mechanical devices that would allow disabled individuals to visit wilderness areas—i.e., wheelchairs. Such bureaucrats seem to place little value on human welfare in their environmental calculus.

And very recently, the EPA told an Idaho couple that they could not build a home on their dry, vacant, residential lot, because the agency considers the property to be protected wetlands. And until the Supreme Court ruled otherwise in 2012, the EPA had maintained that its instructions to the couple were not challengeable in court because they did not constitute a final ruling under the law. If the couple had chosen to wait for a final ruling, they would have run the risk of facing fines in the amount of $37,500 per day. Here, the EPA seems to consider the rule of law and property rights as anachronistic obstacles to be swept aside in order to keep pristine every half-acre near any puddle or moisture.

The environmental establishment’s most illogical missteps do indeed become the subject of sensational news accounts and critical congressional hearings; but these accounts usually gloss over the deeper problems with environmental policy. At best, the environmental community may rhetorically acknowledge that environmental priorities should be “balanced” against other concerns—but only if doing so doesn’t threaten its broader quest for power.

There is, however, another framework for understanding environmental policy issues. That framework helps us understand that the problems noted above are not merely cases of bad judgment by environmental bureaucrats, but too much power given to too few bureaucrats in the first place. What’s needed to augment the piecemeal critique of the environmental establishment’s worst depredations is a set of principles that connects the goal of conserving the environment to America’s tradition of individual liberty, free markets, and the rule of law. We need a set of principles that shows how these ideas are not merely obstacles to be managed or accommodated by a centralized bureaucracy, but, indeed, should be sources of guidance in the search for solutions to environmental problems.

Below are eight principles that provide an effective framework for understanding environmental issues, and that provide an alternative to the command-and-control approach to environmental policy. That alternative is needed not only to find a better “balance” of human values, but indeed because the command-and-control approach is fundamentally mistaken in its understanding of how human beings best solve problems in order to live better lives. Here are the eight principles of what I and others in the natural resources field have come to call the American Conservation Ethic:

Principle #1: People are the most important, unique, and precious resource. This principle is both a value statement and a recognition of the power of human creativity. The inherent value of each individual is greater than the inherent value of any other resource. Accordingly, human well-being, which incorporates such measures as health and safety, is the foremost measure of the quality of the environment. Simply put, a policy cannot be good for the environment if it is bad for people. Moreover, this principle recognizes that human intellect and accumulated knowledge are the only means by which the environment can be willfully improved or modified.

The power of human creativity was most famously demonstrated by a bet between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich. Simon, a great free-market thinker, believed that human creativity was the ultimate resource. Ehrlich, who constantly sells catastrophe, sees humans as a plague. He even devised an equation: I = P x A x T, in which I = negative environmental impact; P = people; A = affluence; and T = technology. Humans are reduced to nothing more than a negative variable, and the renascence—progress itself—is illusory.

Many years ago, Simon bet Ehrlich that any basket of resources Ehrlich picked would go down in price over time. Ehrlich was sure that he would win because as population increases, demand increases, reducing supply. This would be especially so for finite materials. If present trends continue, prices should go up. Ehrlich picked a group of metals: What could be more finite?

Simon won. When the wager was up, every single metal Ehrlich had picked went down in price. They went down because present trends don’t continue. They don’t continue because the ultimate resource—human creativity—changes things. The ultimate resource resulted in things like the discovery of new supplies, more efficient mining techniques, and the development of substitutes.

Principle #2: Renewable natural resources are resilient and dynamic and respond positively to wise management. These resources—trees, plants, soil, air, water, fish, and wildlife—are the resources upon which we depend for food, clothing, medicine, shelter, and innumerable other human needs. Such resources are regenerated through growth, reproduction, or other naturally occurring processes that cleanse, cycle, or otherwise create them anew. These characteristics make it possible to use renewable resources now while ensuring that they are conserved for future generations.

Principle #3: Private property protections and free markets provide the most promising new opportunities for environmental improvements. Ownership inspires stewardship. Whether for economic, recreational, or aesthetic benefit, private property owners have the incentive both to enhance their resources and to protect them. Polluting another’s property is to trespass or to cause injury. Polluters, not those who are most vulnerable in the political process, should pay for damages done to others. The guarantee that people can reap the fruits of their own labor inspires the investments of time, money, and effort necessary to expand upon centuries of accumulated wisdom.

Principle #4: Efforts to reduce, control, and remediate pollution should achieve real environmental benefits. Science provides invaluable tools to do just that. One is risk assessment, through which we may rationally weigh risks to human health or assess and measure other environmental impacts. Another is cost-benefit analysis, through which we may measure actions designed to reduce, control, and remediate pollution or other environmental impacts so that we can have a cleaner, healthier, and safer environment. Tools such as these, not the self-contradictory “precautionary principle,” are most likely to help us achieve real environmental benefits.

Principle #5: As we accumulate scientific, technological, and artistic knowledge, we learn how to get more from less. Technology promotes efficiency, and through efficiency we substitute information for other resources, resulting in more output from less input. Technological advancement confers environmental benefits like more miles per gallon, more board-feet per acre of timber, a higher agricultural yield per cultivated acre, and more gross domestic product per unit of energy. As the economics writer Warren Brookes used to say: “The learning curve is green.”

Principle #6: Management of natural resources should be conducted on a site- and situation-specific basis. Resource management should take into account that environmental conditions will vary from location to location and from time to time. A site- and situation-specific approach takes advantage of the fact that those who are closest to a resource are also those who are best able to manage it. A site- and situation-specific approach avoids the institutional power and ideological concerns that dominate politicized central planning. Where laws and regulations to achieve environmental goals must be set, we should ensure that they are meaningful, measurable, and objective; and contain bright legal lines—rather than bureaucratic requirements—as to how such standards are to be met.

Principle #7: Science should be employed as a tool to guide public policy. Science should inform societal decisions, but, ultimately, such decisions should be based on ethics, beliefs, consensus, and other processes. A law is a determination to force compliance with a code of conduct. Laws go beyond that which can be established with scientific certainty; indeed, laws are based on normative values and beliefs and are a commitment to use the coercive power of the state.

Principle #8: The most successful environmental policies emanate from liberty. We Americans have chosen liberty as the central organizing principle of our great nation. Consequently, environmental policies must be consistent with this most cherished principle. Choosing policies that emanate from liberty is consistent with holding human well-being as the most important measure of environmental policies. Freedom unleashes the forces most needed to improve our environment. It fosters scientific inquiry, technological innovation, entrepreneurship, rapid information exchange, accuracy, and flexibility. There is a strong and statistically demonstrable positive correlation between economic freedom and environmental performance.


The Key to Effective Stewardship

Briefly, those are the principles of the American Conservation Ethic. In a nutshell, the Ethic recognizes that:

• The key to effective environmental stewardship is to better understand renewable natural resources and the relationships among them;

We must use science as a guide for public policy;

• We need to create policies that result in real and significant environmental benefits;

• We should tap the free market and property rights to achieve environmental goals;

• We must approach environmental issues on a site- and situation-specific basis;

• We need to tap the inherent and relentless drive for efficiency through technological improvement; and

• While doing all of this, we need to recognize humans as the most important resource and liberty as something we choose and refuse to sacrifice.

Applying this knowledge improves our ability to use our natural resources wisely and conserve them for the benefit of current and future generations.

All Americans aspire to improve upon our tradition of wisely using and conserving the world around us for generations to come. The American Conservation Ethic embodied in these eight principles is the way to fulfill these aspirations.

While we may not have all the expertise gathered here to answer each and every environmental question, we—not being planners for the state—should not expect to. What we recognize is that somewhere out there, among the greatest resources—humans, human intellect, human creativity—there is an answer and that having principles such as these can help us identify it.    


Mr. Gordon is Senior Adviser for Strategic Outreach in the External Relations Department at The Heritage Foundation. This article is adapted from remarks he delivered on August 28, 2012, introducing The Heritage Foundation publication, Environmental Conservation: Eight Principles of the American Conservation Ethic.

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