Earth Day Events Show New Side of Environmental Movement

Published April 1, 1998

As they have done each year on April 22 since 1970, environmentalists across the nation will celebrate Earth Day by staging events aimed at raising public awareness of environmental issues. Their efforts will include public meetings and lectures, press conferences, concerts, clean-up drives, and, in some cases, protest marches.

But this year, at least some of those celebrations will have a decidedly different tone, provided by a growing network of pro-environment and “pro-market” groups that challenge many of the assumptions of liberal environmentalists. Their activities, including a Capitol Hill congressional briefing and possibly a grassroots rally in Washington, reveal their determination to “outgrow” what they say are the mistakes of the movement’s 1960s’ founders.

The Old Paradigm

The national environmental movement began in the 1960s. It attracted many of the same people who at the time were active in anti-war, civil rights, and other liberal causes. As those other causes gradually lost steam in the 1980s and 1990s, many of their professional organizers and donors shifted their attention to the environmental arena, carrying their liberal assumptions and biases with them.

Groups such as Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, say their critics, remain stuck in the ’60s, devoting more resources to attacking “corporate greed” and Republicans than they spend on finding the best way to protect the environment. Liberal environmentalism, say its critics, is too willing to rely on government, preferably the federal government, to protect the environment. Whether the problem is global warming, toxic waste, or clean water, the great majority of environmental groups can generally be counted on to argue that giving governments greater authority or more funding is the answer.

’60s Roots, ’90s Realities

Liberal environmentalism is indeed vulnerable to criticism. Starting in the mid-1980s, public support for popular liberal causes has fallen, and the political climate in Washington and in many states has turned conservative and Republican. Liberal Democrats who once could have been counted on to carry the environmental message have been replaced by moderate and conservative Republicans, many of them still smarting from the partisan criticism of environmental activists.

Slower economic growth and a focus on international competition have made the cost of regulation an issue for many voters. While most Americans are still willing to tell pollsters that they support a cleaner environment “at any cost,” more careful questioning and revealed preferences show that few are willing to pay more than is necessary, and most don’t realize how much environmental protection already costs.

New Voices

Starting roughly fifteen years ago, an assortment of organizations espousing market-based solutions to environmental problems has emerged. Three groups that devote most of their resources to “free-market environmentalism” are the Political Economy Research Center (PERC), based in Bozeman, Montana; the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI); and the Pueblo, Colorado-based People for the USA.

A much larger network of libertarian- and conservative-leaning think tanks and advocacy groups has helped develop the theory of free-market environmentalism and promotes it with a blizzard of studies, essays, speeches, videos, and other devices aimed at journalists and elected officials. Prominent among these groups are the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), the Washington-based Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation, and the Illinois-based Heartland Institute (publisher of Environment News). More than forty other think tanks have taken up the cause of free-market environmentalism at some time in the past year.

As part of the effort to spread free-market environmental principles, NCPA is sponsoring an Earth Day briefing for reporters and government staffers on Capitol Hill. H. Sterling Burnett, NCPA’s environmental policy analyst, says “This event is a gathering of some of the groups that have been at the forefront of the effort to instill fairness, constitutional and economic concerns into environmental policy.”

Burnett is careful to point out that “all of these groups are committed to policies that would maintain a healthy environment for the present and future generations.” However, he adds, “in contrast to most traditional environmental organizations, we believe that the individual’s choices made in the free market, not central government mandates, are the best guarantee of environmental quality.”

A New Paradigm

Several principles form the basis of free-market environmentalism. Angela Antonelli, Deputy Director of Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation, stresses creating incentives for environmental protection and good stewardship. “A far better approach than . . . government attempting to force people to improve the environment . . . is for the government to empower people to take responsibility for the environment and create positive incentives to solve problems locally. It is an approach based on the simple principle that markets stimulate responsible behavior better than do one-size-fits-all bureaucratic regulations of big government.”

Another principle is that a healthy environment requires a healthy, growing, vibrant economy. Burnett points out that the “worst environmental problems are found in countries with socialized economies, stagnant economic growth and where poverty is rife. Citizens in wealthier societies are healthier and spend more on environmental quality.”

Fairer taxes would encourage environmental improvements. Jonathan Adler, Director of Environmental Studies at CEI, says “the estate tax, for example, spurs unneeded development by walloping rural families with large tax assessments on undeveloped land that is passed down. Often, subdividing and developing that land, and destroying whatever habitat is there, is the only way to cover the tax liability. So even tax cuts can encourage greater environmental protection.”

The Cato Institute’s Jerry Taylor highlights another principle that free-market environmentalists rally behind: Do No Harm. Taylor notes, “Many government programs encourage or directly cause environmental harm. In addition, carelessly drawn up environmental laws often harm the economy and/or citizens and their constitutionally protected rights.”

According to Taylor, government “is often the worst polluter and violator of environmental laws. It exempts itself from environmental policies with one hand while establishing laws and regulations and creating bureaucracies to enforce such laws with the other hand.”

Evidence of an Impact

Evidence is growing that free-market environmental principles are helping to shape public policy. The hostile reception that President Clinton’s global warming treaty received in the U.S. Senate was due in part to the efforts of free-market environmentalists, who have pointed out the deficiencies in the science and economics of global warming theory.

The “Do No Harm” principle discussed by Taylor is listed as the first policy priority under “Natural Resource and Environment” in the House of Representatives Concurrent Resolution on the Budget for 1997. The second policy priority of the budget resolutions states that “Economic Growth is a Vital Prerequisite for Environmental Progress,” and the last priority stresses the need to permit state and local government to take the lead in responding to environmental problems.

On Earth Day, Adler argues, environmentalists should shelve their preconceived prejudices against the power of free markets and free minds to improve the environment. “True environmentalists should care more about protecting the environment than protecting outdated environmental regulations.”

The times have changed, and free-market environmentalists are determined to make the national environmental movement change with them. Says Adler, “There is nothing pro-environment about clinging to decades-old laws that are ineffective, inefficient, and, in many cases, anti-environment. Often the best thing that can done for environmental protection is reducing the size and scope of the federal government.”