25 August 2008| Little Green Reasoning
Five Points on Environmentalism
1. The denial of global warming's existence, from the perspective of the free-market advocate, is foolish. If global warming indeed exists, the solution will be the same as the solution to other well-established negative environmental externalities - technological development toward cleaner, more efficient technology. If it doesn't exist, the market would still move in an identical fashion to combat the other (proven) environmental cancers. Technological development will answer the question of how much global warming is controlled by man, not Al Gore and his lame movies.
2. Hate development and want open space? Move to Africa. A hobby of rich idealists with greenish sympathies is to oppose human development for the sake of preserving undeveloped land. Undeveloped land, for those urban dwellers who don't know what that means, is land that hasn't been "spoiled" with streets, civil infrastructure, comfortable housing, and other modern conveniences. Interestingly enough, this development is still voraciously consumed by the very anti-development advocates around the world I just mentioned. They are, one assumes, fine with development and urban sprawl as long as they are the ones living on it.
But inquiring minds ask, shouldn't they be living in unspoiled grandeur of nature, if they like it so much? In Third World Africa, there is plenty of land with no freeways, suburban sprawl, or other evil First World detritus. You have open space to grow ears of corn and lay out in the sunshine. Of course, you are also dirt poor, have malaria-carrying mosquitoes buzzing around your sub-tropical paradise, enjoy no legal rights to your agrarian utopia, and pay homage to a military dictator who might randomly decide that he'd like to kill you (and then do it, legally).
Leftists aren't even truthful enough to move to Canada after Mr. Bush won his election (or re-election, for that matter). But if they really wanted a taste of their own prescriptions, they'd reject Western/capitalist environmental exploitation and move to Zambia - the most pristine, undeveloped country in the world. But they won't, partially because they are hypocrites, but mostly because development is better than nature - and they must recognize this somewhere beneath their intellectually-suffocating layers of Luddite ignorance.
3. Want trees and parks? Get rich. Coastal Orange County, California, is an instructive example of what obscene local wealth can do for the local flora and fauna. Despite the socialist myth that wealth breeds environmental destruction, the area offers myriad parks, open land and other beautifully-protected areas. Why is this? Aren't capitalists the ones who are plundering God's Green Earth and ruthlessly paving over bunny rabbits?
The reality, children, is that people only really care about open space (i.e. the environment) after they've established somewhere to live themselves (see point 2). And once they have done so, massive wealth makes it much easier to plop down fat tax payments to develop public parks, natural areas and protected resources. Even more than that, people have much easier time wanting willow trees and hummingbirds once they've got a plush job where they don't have to worry about finding something to eat or where to live.
Environmental protection is Maslow's self-actualization - defining the human experience in a pleasing environment. But the path there is hierarchical - and every other social step on his ladder requires societal wealth and prosperity. That's why environmentalism is a present-day, rich country phenomenon. Up until recently, humans were trying to escape starvation, protect themselves, and generally stay alive by exploiting their land and dominating the natural environment. They certainly weren't camping out to bond with coyotes while their productive societies subsidized their hippie existence.
4. Stop subsidizing alternative fuels. Internal combustion engines through petrol fuel, in their early days, were thought to be a technology with no future. A well-respected 19th century patent office boss reasoned that everything of use to have been invented was invented. In the 1950s, we thought flying cars would be the future because no one imagined that silicon chips would create machines to fly data across the globe in a matter of nanoseconds. What is the point of those disparate anecdotes? The point is that only the market can determine the future technological advancements to facilitate sea changes in our lifestyle.
Despite this, it is a fashion in 21st century politics to impute to government the omniscience to support the (yet undetermined) replacement for fossil fuels. Subsidies, tax breaks and other tried-and-useless methods are assiduously proposed as a legitimate means to save us from our evil polluting fuels.
Learn from history, squire. Only the market (i.e. the people) knows what technology is best.
The myopic statist asks, Well, why can't we just subsidize everything equally, that way we can maintain state support while all alternatives are still on an equal playing field? The answer is two-fold. First, there is always the likelihood that the replacement for petrol has not been invented yet, in which case it would be put at a severe disadvantage by such a policy that assumes the future solution already exists. Second, even if the replacement is one of the existing alternatives, blanket subsidies mean that every dollar spent on the inefficient alternatives were entirely wasted - in other words, the taxpayers paid for 5 alternatives and ended up with one.
5. The market can solve the problems of environmental damage. The individual business or individual has little incentive to curb pollution. Example: EnviroScrew, Inc. dumps obscene amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to run its factory. The company profits; everyone else is harmed. No one should be surprised that EnviroScrew, Inc. doesn't give a damn. It's human nature for them to be unconcerned - they are selfish, just like everyone else.
But everyone else is harmed. Luddites around the world seize upon this apparent market failure as proof of the free-market's uselessness. Such a position is childish and absurd. It needs to be said: PI is pro-market, not pro-business. We support only the rights of businesses to operate within a well-regulated free-market - we do not always sanction their profits or justify their behavior.
The market, despite the claims to the contrary, has solutions for these damaging side-effects - called externalities - that individual businesses will oppose. Once such solution is called the Pigouvian tax, conceived by a French economist named Arthur Pigou. It is a tax that is simply levied against those who create externalities, directly charging them for the worth of the damage they create for the whole society.
This is a brilliant idea, despite its being French, for several reasons. First, contradicting the screeching of the more verdant activists among us, environmental damage is not entirely bad in itself. In reality it is quite necessary. Its full cessation, as all graduates of kindergarten can tell you, would grind the global economy to a halt, leading to widespread poverty, insecurity, famine and death. (See Exhibit A: Sub-Saharan African Countries With Zero Economic Growth for a nice mental picture).
The world must produce, and to produce, it must pollute. The only question, among rational people, is of the extent to which we should allow pollution. A Pigouvian tax on all form of pollution forces polluters to directly reimburse the world in which they live for the damage they cause to it. The transaction is always zero-sum. If the value of their production can afford them the luxury of the pollution, then the market has shown itself to be sanctioning a worthwhile activity.
As such, all international environmental efforts should be directed to the eventual goal of the implementation of a Pigouvian tax on global pollution, whose proceeds will be used for environmental protection, repair and research. The tax should be levied as close to the point of consumption as possible for all who pollute - from factories to automobile drivers, and from developers to shoppers who buy aerosol cans.
The effort, in contrast to the benighted proposals of present-day "environmentalists", should not be to deride environmental damage as the secular Satan, but rather to intelligently analyze its quantifiable harm in the interest of reconciling growth with preservation. A per-unit tax on pollution and other environmental maladies should be adjustable and under constant oversight to ensure optimum efficiency.
Surely this is superior to protecting spotted owls for the sake of protecting every useless species, castrating growth through misguided treaties such as Kyoto, or ignorantly adjudicating development as evil while transcending its nonpareil benefits for the people of the developed and developing world.
Make people pay for the harm they cause, and let them do it as long as they can pay for it. It's a French idea, forwarded by one of the passionately pro-market think tanks on the planet, for the purpose of intelligently protecting the environment and the value it creates. Amazing, huh? So where's our movie deal?
The above work is the opinion of the author, and not necessarily that of the Prometheus Institute.