The Battle within the Environmental Movement

Published June 9, 1995

The nation’s biggest environmental groups are stuffing the nation’s mailboxes (and its landfills) with fundraising letters claiming that “greedy special interest groups” are out to “repeal twenty years of environmental protection regulation.” They will raise hundreds of millions of dollars through the effort, in the process offering their supporters a veritable smorgasbord of factual errors and spin-doctoring. Contrary to what you’ll read in those letters, the environment is not losing its battles in Congress . . . it’s winning.

For the first time in decades, elected officials are rejecting the hype and junk science of professional environmental lobbyists, choosing instead to carefully weigh the evidence and learn from past experience. The only losers in this battle have been the big, Washington-based environmental lobbying organizations. Groups such as the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, and Greenpeace are the biggest losers. Their use of exaggeration and scare tactics has led them to lose hundreds of thousands of members and much of their political clout in recent years.

A new faction of the environmental movement has emerged, at least for the moment, as the most influential voice on environmental issues in Washington. This new faction supports a more market-based approach to environmental protection. The new environmentalists seek to rely less on government bureaucrats and more on the rational self-interest of consumers, landowners, and businesspeople.

ho are these new, pro-market, environmentalists, and what do they believe? Their organizations include the National Wilderness Institute, Cascade Holistic Economic Consultants, Political Economy Research Center (PERC), and the Evergreen Foundation. Their intellectual ammunition comes from libertarian-leaning think tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, and the Reason Foundation. Compared to the groups they are replacing, they are very small and relatively young organizations. Their funding sources are diverse, and their fierce independence hearkens back to the early days of the modern environmental movement.

Pro-market environmentalists recognize that there are two ways to make people do what we want them to do: pass laws commanding them to act a certain way, or give them incentives to act the way we want. For the past thirty years, pro-government environmentalists have concentrated on commanding. They failed to see the effects that strategy was having on people’s incentives. The command-and-control battle plan has resulted in tremendous costs, mixed results, and a growing popular backlash against the environmental movement. By contrast, creating the right incentives for environmental protection is efficient, effective, and just. Such a strategy requires little enforcement or monitoring, since people are doing what they want to do, not what they are being told to do. And the right incentives are unlikely to produce evasive actions, and therefore unintended consequences.

Pro-government environmentalism relies on commands; market-based environmentalism works through incentives. The battle being waged in Washington these days is a battle between these two different approaches to environmentalism. It is not, as the fundraising letters and many media accounts claim, a battle between pro- and anti-environment forces.

Congress rejected the call for “strengthening” the Endangered Species Act after pro-market environmentalists showed that the proposed changes would have led to less protection of endangered plants and animals. Congress approved amendments to the Clean Water Act after pro-market environmentalists showed that local governments and businesses needed greater flexibility to meet water quality standards. These decisions and others did not represent a setback for the environment . . . only for the pro-government environmentalist groups that were backing the wrong agenda.

True environmentalists ought to celebrate the greater attention now being paid in Washington to science, cost-benefit analysis, and property rights. It is in those areas that incentive-based approaches will be found and further progress made in protecting the environment.

Joseph L. Bast is president of The Heartland Institute and coauthor of Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism (Madison Books, 1994)