Saving the Earth

Published April 18, 2005

“Earth Day” (April 22) is a good time to reassess the assumptions that lay beneath our support for environmental protection.

Some observers, including myself, believe prosperity and progress have allowed us to make great strides in battling environmental problems. We are in the “things are getting better all the time” camp.

Other observers fall into the “going to hell in a handbasket” camp. They believe Earth is in great peril and that strong actions to restrain economic development and technology are necessary to avoid a horrible fate.

Members of both camps deserve to be called environmentalists, but they can’t both be right.

The doomsday camp’s thinking is guided by three flawed concepts. One concept is “sustainable development.” The idea is to minimize the use of natural resources so there will be more left for future generations.

While the idea sounds good, it does not make sense to achieve it through government restrictions. Markets send signals to producers and consumers to encourage the right combination of innovation and conservation, ensuring a smooth transition to new resources when existing ones grow scarce.

Consider energy used for transportation. For tens of thousands of years, humans traveled on foot. Then for thousands of years, humans relied on animals. For the past 100 years or so, humans have ridden in gasoline-powered vehicles. Governments didn’t dictate when the transitions took place or what the next resource would be.

At some point, gasoline will drop out of contention as the main transportation power source, to be replaced with hydrogen, electric batteries, or something we haven’t thought of yet. What we know for sure is that oil won’t be the transportation fuel of choice forever. Which means saving oil now in anticipation that it will be needed in the future is pretty foolish.

A second concept is the “precautionary principle.” The idea is that activities that may harm the environment or human health should be prevented, even if we don’t know for sure the activity is actually causing any harm. An example of the precautionary principle in action is the protest against genetically modified foods.

For thousands of years, humans have been “tampering” with crops and animals to get the best possible mix of traits. For example, modern milk cows are the outcome of thousands of years of selective breeding that has modified their genetic make-up. There never was a time when the type of cows that produce our milk supply ran free.

Today, scientists use genetic modification to engineer more favorable traits into food. “Golden rice” is one of the products developed via this technique. This genetically modified rice enables people whose diets are heavily dependent on rice to obtain sufficient amounts of vitamin A to ward off blindness.

The doomsday camp overlooks the long history of genetic modification as well as the hundreds of studies showing modern genetically modified crops are as safe or even safer than the crops they replace. (Safer, in some cases, because they require less chemical pesticides to grow and are less likely to harbor dangerous bacteria and other contaminants.)

If precautionary principle zealots had walked among our cave-dwelling ancestors, they probably would have tried to prevent the use of fire. Fire, after all, is dangerous and polluting. It has killed far more people than nuclear energy. Yet, imagine a world without fire! Oddly, environmental alarmists today support allowing uncontrolled fires in public forests while opposing the use of nuclear-generated electricity.

A third concept fundamental to the doomsday camp is that there must be “stakeholder participation” in decisions affecting human health or the environment. According to this idea, opening decision-making processes to everyone potentially affected by a decision promotes more efficient and socially responsible use of resources.

This idea, too, is problematic. There seems to be two ways to organize an activity. One is to put a committee in charge, give everyone on the committee one vote, and try to reach a consensus. Economists who have studied this process have found the decisions made by groups often do not reflect the majority’s interests due to people having different preferences, manipulation of the order in which choices are voted on, and “log rolling.” (I’ll vote for your favorite issue if you vote for mine.)

The other way to organize an activity is to assume people ought to be free to act anyway they want to, but to hold people responsible when their actions harm others. In a typical case, this means a business owner can decide to produce a product without having to get permission from her employees, customers, neighbors, or nongovernment organizations (NGOs) claiming an interest in her decision. In return, the owner agrees to be responsible, under tort law, for any damages the product might unintentionally cause to others.

The second approach, based on maximum freedom and personal responsibility, is the one America was founded on. It has worked spectacularly well, making us one of the richest and freest countries in the world.

Countries based on the “stakeholder participation” approach haven’t worked nearly so well.

All three concepts that form the basis of the doomsday camp of environmentalists are wrong or have poor consequences for the environment and human health. It is not difficult to imagine a different kind of environmentalism that rejects these concepts and understands, instead, that human progress–in markets, technology, and greater freedom–is the best way to protect the environment.

To the extent that the actions demanded by environmental alarmists retard progress, they also endanger the environment.

John Semmens ([email protected]) is an economist and public policy advisor to The Heartland Institute in Chicago.