Property Rights Improve Environment, Book Says

Published February 1, 2006

Re-Thinking Green: Alternatives to Environmental Bureaucracy
edited by Robert Higgs and Carl P. Close
Independent Institute, 2005
480 pages, $22.95 paper, ISBN 0945999976

The American public has shown significant concern for environmental quality since the first Earth Day in 1970, yet the maze of environmental laws and regulations enacted since then has fostered huge government bureaucracies better known for waste and failure than for innovation and success.

In Re-Thinking Green, 22 economists and political scientists explain how environmental quality can be enhanced more effectively by relying less on government agencies, which are increasingly politicized and unaccountable, and more on environmental entrepreneurship and the strict enforcement of private property rights.

The environmental bureaucracy has grown in size and scope because of a misguided belief that unless mankind reduces consumption of natural resources, cataclysmic environmental disasters will occur. “Sustainable development” is the fashionable but nebulous term associated with proposals to deal with the limiting of growth the environmentalists call for. It focuses primarily on limiting, if not eliminating, private land ownership.

The authors of Re-Thinking Green brilliantly describe the fallacy in this type of thinking, and along the way they completely defrock unfounded concerns regarding population growth and the biggest environmental scam of them all: global warming.

Policies Counterproductive

Re-Thinking Green does an excellent job of explaining, for example, the total failure of the Endangered Species Act. This 1973 law not only has a dismal record of reinvigorating endangered species populations, but in the process of failing it confiscates private property without offering any compensation to the citizens whose property rights have been violated.

The authors contend that a law rewarding property owners for acting as stewards of endangered species would be far more successful than one that encourages property owners to do everything possible to avoid having endangered species take a liking to their land.

Similarly, the authors deftly expose “smart growth” as a semantic fraud that subsidizes high-density urban living while creating the undesirable side effects of unaffordable housing, air pollution, and increased traffic congestion. The book focuses largely on Portland, Oregon, which has adopted many of the failed central planning techniques of the old Soviet Union.

Bureaucrats Extend Own Power

Environmental bureaucrats, the authors say, have adopted creative means to expand their regulatory reach. Most deplorably, bureaucrats frequently dole out tax dollars to agenda-driven activist groups who engage in their own form of regulation-by-litigation through excessive and obstructionist lawsuits.

Additionally, the authors shed light on the undesirable actions of environmental bureaucrats who turn their backs on the tools of capitalism and the free market, such as common law of trespass and nuisance, instead embracing command-and-control concepts that hinder efficient environmental protection.

Another strong chapter includes philosophical support for the much-maligned automobile. The authors intelligently and convincingly chronicle the automobile’s many positive contributions to the American lifestyle, living standards, and culture. They say the environmental activists’ attempts to force Americans into high-density urban living to maximize urban mass transit or low-tech transportation such as bicycles and walking hold little economic or environmental merit.

Intrinsic Value Debated

The authors also present a very interesting and lucidly argued chapter on the fallacy of the so-called “intrinsic value of nature.”

Re-Thinking Green is a magnificent collection of essays by experts in free-market economics and related environmental issues. If you find yourself arguing, or yearning to argue intelligently, these issues with friends, colleagues, or opponents, no other book will give you better information and ammunition.

Jay Lehr ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute.