Coming Down to Earth Day

COMMENTARY Environment

Coming Down to Earth Day

Apr 22nd, 1999 2 min read
Becky Norton Dunlop

Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow

Becky Norton Dunlop is a prominent leader, strategist, and grass-roots activist in the conservative movement.
This Earth Day, let me begin with a story. In 1992, Anita Cragg bought an existing subdivision in Florida, with plans to expand it and build new homes. Permits were in order, and buyers were ready to build. But then agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spotted two scrub jays flying onto the property. Fearing the planned construction would despoil a habitat "suitable for occupation by scrub jays," the agents halted development.

Neither the federal agents nor the independent environmental engineer hired by Ms. Cragg could find any scrub jay nests on the property. Nonetheless, buyers were stalled for 18 months, paying property taxes all the while on property they couldn't use. Finally, to settle the matter, Ms. Cragg agreed to buy four acres offsite for every acre developed onsite. This cost her more than $100,000, yet the scrub jay, by all available evidence, was no better off.

Common sense says this is bad public policy. Research on environmental regulations tells an even more disturbing story. To cite just one example, Heritage Foundation analysts have calculated the opportunity cost of preventing one death under the Hazardous Waste Disposal Ban at $4.2 billion. This isn't the budgeted cost of the program but a statistical projection of what businesses would have to spend to avert just one fatality. For the same $4.2 billion, America could incarcerate 47,890 criminals for three-and-a-half years.

And what are the opportunity costs of not incarcerating 47,890 criminals for three-and-a-half years? Crime statistics suggest that if left on the streets for that period of time, those criminals would be charged with 22,680 violent crimes, 1,035 homicides, 7,711 robberies, 658 kidnappings, 586 rapes, and 1,191 other sexual assaults. The trade -off: $4 billion to avert one death vs. $4 billion to avert more than 1,000 homicides - to say nothing of the other crimes.

In short, environmental regulations of this type do not save lives or enhance the quality of human life. On balance, they cost lives and diminish the quality of life.

Anecdotes and statistical studies such as these provide the common-sense argument against fringe environmentalists. The thing to notice, though, is that these cost-benefit arguments are moral arguments and, more specifically, utilitarian arguments. Utilitarianism says the action that would yield the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people is the one you are morally obliged to choose.

By this standard, environmental regulations are only appropriate when they would protect human lives. But the growing body of evidence shows that environmental regulations cost lives. Environmentalists lose the utilitarian debate.

That is why they are shifting their argument. They no longer say environmental regulations save lives. They say such regulations are necessary to protect fundamental rights - not human rights but the rights of animals, trees and even majestic purple mountains.

To dismiss such thinking as bizarre would be a mistake. Many who harbor such ideas are serious people with serious objectives. They mean to alter core legal precepts and thereby restrict human freedoms traditionally protected by law.

Return to Anita Cragg and her Florida subdivision. Development was halted because her land was "suitable for occupation by scrub jays." Such a restriction of the landowners' freedom could not be justified by the utility of doing so. But that won't settle the matter if the debate shifts to rights. If animals have rights, our rights are not superior to theirs. Indeed, if jay birds have rights, then their rights trump our utility. Suddenly, utilitarian arguments have no persuasive power.

My point is not to preach doom, but reality. Radicals ideas shouted from the streets in the 1960s entered the mainstream and became embedded in our nation's cultural and legal fabric. By extension, today's thinking that bird rights trump human rights could enjoy a similar elevation, with equally serious consequences.

Common sense is no longer enough to thwart the aims of those who put the Earth First and people about seventh - after snail darters. What we need is a restoration of the legal precept that regulations, environmental or otherwise, must produce some benefit for human beings.

Becky Norton Dunlop, a former secretary of natural resources for the Commonwealth of Virginia, is now Vice President for External Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

Distributed nationally on the Associated Press Wire