Individuals, Liberty and the Environment
The New Environmental Paradigm
June 1, 1996
Becky Norton Dunlop
Thank you for the opportunity to come and speak to you about the challenges we face as liberty loving individuals dealing with environmental policy today.
Indeed, environmental policy is one area of government across the globe that directly impacts human liberty because the ruling paradigm has been well established and well funded for over thirty years by those who believe that big central government and command and control laws and regulations are the only means by which the environment can be preserved.
What is the future of our world? Are we destined to merely survive in a negative situation where natural resources are static and diminishing, where the only recourse for acceptable environmental quality is to forbid every human activity?
I think not! And I want to discuss with you today a positive future of conservation of our natural resources and the challenges we face.
I come today to share with you a new way of thinking, a new environmental paradigm, if you will, for many of us who care about the environment and who care about liberty. I believe this new paradigm offers the best way of assuring that the natural resources of the world can be beneficially used while the environment is being improved in quality and condition through the arts and science of a free people.
We all want a cleaner, safer, and healthier environment. We cherish the beauty of the natural resources around us. We want to enjoy them throughout our lifetime and we want to pass along to the next generation a world that is better than the one we inherited. Although these sentiments are universal, there are strong disagreements over how to best achieve them.
Unfortunately, in some circles of environmental activists, it is assumed that the best thing we can do for the environment is to set aside the maximum amount of land and lock it up from any human influence, preserving resources from people rather than putting the resources to intelligent use for the benefit of the people. It is assumed by those who assert this view that governments make the best decisions about the use of resources and private citizens make the worst decisions. But these assumptions are not based on sound, objective science, and are not verified by human experience.
Today’s conventional, status quo environmental ideology was formed 30 years ago and has resisted change more successfully than any other public policy issue. The view advanced at the time was that nature existed in a state of fragile balance until Western, industrialized man’s rapacious over consumption of irreplaceable resources overwhelmed nature’s tendency toward stasis. The delicate web of life was destroyed. We were supposed to be out of oil, out of food, out of soil, out of water and out of baby seals. And in the United States, prior to President Ronald Reagan (and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher), as wage and price controls were believed the best way to solve nations’ economic problems, so similar collectivist programs were perceived as the way to solve environmental problems. Today, however, all fair-minded scientists who base their views on empirical data and evidence have come to understand nature to be dynamic, constantly changing, and amazingly resilient.
The fact is that we should go back to first principles as the foundational elements of the new environmental paradigm, a paradigm that promotes individual liberty, takes advantage of the market place, and offers the greatest opportunity for improving the quality and condition of the resources that make up our natural environment: air, water, soil, flora and fauna.
Let me say very quickly that I have some very fundamental disagreements with the greens, the environmental extremists. But I believe that instead of just bashing or lashing out at these extremists whose real agenda often seems to pave the road to socialism with green bricks instead of the more typical brown and red ones, those of us who love liberty and who love the environment must promote a positive and distinct environmental vision of our own. After all, the extreme views about the environment flourished because there was no opposition to them in the war of ideas until very recently. And, I do believe that among the environmental extremists are some who, in fact, deeply care about the environment and simply have chosen a different way to achieve the goal of an improving environment; although, many are political activists with a political agenda that demands bigger more centralized government controlling and planning every aspect of human existence.
Those who employ intellectual honesty in their commitment to improving the environment will respect differences in thinking about the means used to improve the environment and will celebrate our successes. Those whose purpose is to advocate central government control will fear our message, which advances liberty, individual rights, private property, and market solutions. They will choose to attack our leaders in an ad hominem way so as to attempt to discredit the messenger because they know the message we carry will resonate with the people if it is heard and understood.
In my role as Secretary of Natural Resources for the Commonwealth of Virginia, I am a messenger for this new environmental paradigm.
My leadership has brought me into conflict with our national government’s Environmental Protection Agency, which ardently advocates central government control, a diminution of individual liberty and private property rights and extols the view that the end justifies the means. This has also brought me into conflict with environmental extremists who are not interested in the empirical evidence demonstrating that we have an improving environment by virtually every measure. Instead of celebrating the success, our collectivist critics have chosen to take the rather unseemly role of trying to frighten our citizenry by promoting fear about the future of our environment and engaging in ad hominem attacks so the message about this new method for maximizing liberty while improving the environment will never reach the hearts and minds of the citizens.
I relish the challenge, however, because we all know that ideas have consequences. My role is to champion these ideas of market-based solutions, less government control and more individual liberty as the best way for future improvements.
This brings me to the important underlying principles that constitute the new paradigm. These are the principles that I share with individuals who love liberty and care about the quality of the environment in which we live, because these principles represent a new approach to achieving a cleaner, healthier, and safer environment. In bold, positive language they provide a new, more effective conservation and environmental policy than the command and control model preferred by the utopian elitists who represent the status quo.
These principles reject the mistaken notion that support for government regulation and ownership is an appropriate measure of environmental commitment and instead call for an approach of using the creative forces of free markets and personal responsibilities of good stewardship.
The first principle is that people are the most important resource. The foremost measure of the quality of our environment is human health and well-being, both improving. Human intellect and the use of the art and science of conservation management will guide effective public policy to improve the quality and condition of our natural resources. It is human intellect that employs new technologies. In fact, human intellect devises new technologies that allow improvements in use of resources or in enhancements of the resources themselves.
An important aspect of this principle is that personnel is policy... if you want to solve problems, you recruit onto your team people who also want to solve problems, not those who view their role as “gotcha police” or those who need crises to make a living. Whether government employees, academics, or private sector citizens, we must seek out those who will use their talents to help find and implement solutions.
An example of the important role people play is the significant technological advancements in agriculture that allow us to feed more people at lower prices using less land and fewer inputs to benefit people and the environment. Another is the creative way in which private citizens brought about the recovery of (National Wild Turkey Federation) wild turkeys and bluebirds in the United States employing sound scientific research and recruiting private property owners to allow conservation practices to be employed on their properties. A final example is remote sensing technology developed by a liberty loving professor who believed it important to identify polluting automobiles remotely so “polluters could pay” while freeing other citizens from time consuming, burdensome and expensive emissions tests which required them to take their vehicles into testing facilities.
Principle number two is that renewable natural resources are inherently dynamic, resilient and responsive to conservation management. This is proven by all empirical evidence and yet is in direct conflict with the conventional wisdom of those who have driven environmental policy for thirty years. Their view is that natural resources are static and diminishing and must be protected from human use in order to survive. This view necessarily gives rise to the command and control of human behavior limiting activities and use of resources that could improve the quality of life and perhaps save lives. Examples include the Chesapeake Bay, trees in Virginia, air, water, soil, and eagles.
Three, the most promising new opportunities for environmental improvements lie in protecting and extending private property and in unleashing the creative powers of the free market. Ownership inspires stewardship. Private property stewards have the incentive to enhance their resources and the incentive to protect them. Polluting another’s property is to trespass or cause injury and polluters should pay for the damage done to others. Where property rights exist, these applications of personal responsibility are most clear. Where they are absent we must work to extend them. And, we must seek to bring the forces of the market to bare.
There is a direct and positive relation between modern market economies and healthy environments. This is also demonstrated by empirical evidence across the globe. Markets reward efficiency, which is environmentally good. Markets also cause the costs of unwise actions to be borne privately rather than subsidized by the general public. It is true that environmental extremists never fail to point out the exceptions to the rule but it is the overall record of the evidence that demonstrates that growing economies and healthy environments are mutually dependent.
One only needs look at the old Soviet Union to see the truth of this principle -with the government in charge of virtually everything, a controlled economy, no markets, no competition, and no liberty, no rule of law, and a devastated environment. Africa presents another example. In many countries, people are desperate for food and clean water, shelter, and personal safety. They have no time and no resources to devote to improving the environment because they must be focused on survival for themselves and their children.
A fourth principle is that our efforts to reduce, control and remediate pollution should achieve real environmental benefits. We must rationally weigh risks to human health and safety and rationally assess and measure other environmental impacts. Science provides a means of considering the costs and benefits of actions designed to reduce, control and remediate pollution so that we can improve our environment without wasting resources. Excessive government regulation is injurious to the environment because the more centralized management is, the more likely it is to be arbitrary, ineffectual or even counterproductive.
The United States has numerous examples to illustrate why this principle is vital but I will just mention two: The Superfund program is a federal government program created to clean up the most dangerously polluted locations in the country and the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. Both have enormous real costs to society, minimal environmental benefits, and no scientifically based risk assessment.
Fifth, the Learning Curve is Green. We must encourage the accumulation of knowledge and technology for as we learn more we are able to conserve by substituting information for other resources. We get more miles per gallon, more board feet per acre of timber, a higher agricultural yield per cultivated acre and more GNP per unit of energy.
The U.S. experience in agriculture and forestry demonstrates this principle. In 1910, to feed and clothe a population of 92 million people, 325 million acres were harvested for crops. Today, we provide for 246 million Americans with 297 million acres and have more than tripled food exports at the same time. This has occurred because of the development of agricultural chemicals, farm mechanization, and timber management and production practices. Without using knowledge and technology, at least 925 million more acres would be needed for cropland. Where would this leave wildlife habitat? Where would the endangered species live? Would there be any wilderness left at all? There are more trees in Virginia today than in the 1920’s.
And in the manufacturing sector the reduction in the use of raw materials as technology advances is quite apparent to see.
The sixth principle is that management of natural resources should be conducted on a site and situation specific basis. This principle seems to be common sense on its face since one can readily see that there are differences between each geographic location, soil types, in-stream flows, air movement and other resource factors. But when you look at the government’s regulatory schemes, it is quite apparent that the one-size-fits-all mindset is firmly in place, which is the exact opposite approach to managing resources. A site and situation approach takes advantage of the fact that those closest to a resource are best able to manage it and avoids the institutional power and ideological concerns, which dominate, politicized central planning.
Examples include clean air issues in Southern California versus Northern Virginia, farm run-off and soil erosion, wildlife habitat management, grazing of livestock on private versus public lands.
Then, of course, science should be employed as a tool to guide public policy. Societal decisions should employ science but ultimately are the product of ethics, beliefs, consensus and many other unscientific processes. Science cannot be substituted for public policy but public policy on scientific subjects should reflect scientific knowledge.
I won’t go into any detail on this point but let me just share with you for the record that some decisions in the United States are made based on the expert testimony of such notable pseudo-scientists as Meiyl Streep, actress; Ted Danson, bartender on TV sitcom; and other such luminaries. This is decidedly not the kind of scientific knowledge on which public policy should rely.
And finally, environmental policies, which emanate from liberty, are the most successful. Our chosen political environment in the United States is liberty. And liberty is the central organizing principle. May I remind this audience that genius of the United States Constitution is not so much that it is a charter to create a government, but rather it is a charter to protect the people and their cherished liberty from government. As I stated previously, there is a direct and positive relationship between free market societies and the healthiness, cleanliness, and safety of the environment. Free people work to improve their environment, and I might add, the environment of others. And liberty is the energy behind environmental progress. Freedom unleashes forces most needed to deal with problems. It fosters scientific inquiry, technological innovation, entrepreneur ship, rapid information exchange, accuracy and flexibility. Liberty has powerful environmental benefits.
And so, as I close my remarks today, let me encourage you to adopt and champion this new environmental paradigm that maximizes individual liberty, expands free markets, private property and responsible environmental stewardship, and results in greater improvements to our environment.
Seek opportunities to advance these ideas: among those who love liberty; among business executives; among those in government. Identify government employees or appointees who share these views or at least are open-minded. Communicate with them regularly. Offer them ideas and real-world policy initiatives. Include them in your conferences. Write opinion pieces for media outlets so the citizens learn about this new way of thinking. Look for opportunities to introduce legislation advancing these principles. Ideas have consequences.
Support private groups like: Liberties Institute, The Heritage Foundation, NWTF, and NWI.