Americans have witnessed tremendous environmental improvements over the past several decades. At the same time, they have enjoyed greater economic prosperity. These parallel developments counter popular perception, which suggests that increases in population size and economic growth are inherently at odds with environmental quality. In other words, U.K. broadcaster Sir David Attenborough’s suggestion that “humans are a plague on earth” is wrong.
Highlighting the disconnect between big-government policies that restrict economic growth, and the reality that economic prosperity and environmental protection go hand-in-hand, is key to making further environmental improvements and respecting property rights and individual freedom.
Technological advancements and economic growth are catalysts for environmental progress. In the words of economics writer Warren Brookes, “the learning curve is green.” The Heritage Foundation put forth Eight Principles of the American Conservation Ethic to guide policymakers in encouraging effective stewardship.
Among them is the insight that as people accumulate more knowledge, they make better use of productive resources. Gains in producing goods and services more efficiently mean that people are able to grow more food on less land, for example. This translates into less waste and greater conservation.
Nevertheless, policymakers continue to follow an outdated regulatory approach. Major federal environmental laws, starting in the 1970s, opened the door for rigid regulations and stifling mandates that hinder entrepreneurship. They leave little flexibility for technological and policy breakthroughs that could yield greater economic and environmental benefits.
This approach results in policies that empower large, ineffective bureaucracies to trample property rights and choke free markets. They remove the precise elements that are necessary to effectively accomplish conservation. Harmful consequences for individual liberty, economic freedom, and conservation are brushed aside as collateral damage.
Take the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The nation’s predominant law to conserve species takes private property from law-abiding landowners with no compensation. ESA’s stringent land-use restrictions turn the nesting of red-cockaded woodpeckers in a landowner’s pine trees into a liability instead of an asset.
The landowner faces restrictions disallowing ordinary land-use activities such as farming or site development, which represents a taking of some of the value and use of private property. This encourages preemptive habitat destruction on private land and other adverse strategies to avoid the ESA’s punishment. “Shoot, shovel, and shut-up” is well-known as another coping strategy in the face of regulatory takings for ineffective species protection.
This is in stark contrast with the economic and recreational benefits that arise from hunting, which provide the incentives to preserve and grow populations of endangered species in the U.S. (Notice, for example, an antelope, which is extinct in the wild in its African birthplace, flourishes on hunting ranches in Texas.)
It was because of these benefits, in fact, that activities associated with the captive breeding of the scimitar-horned oryx have been exempted from onerous ESA permitting requirements. Until now, that is: a recent court case reversed this successful rule which could lead to a significant decline in the population of the species over the next decade.
Today, the greatest opportunities for environmental progress lie in protecting and extending private property rights and enabling market innovations. Absent property rights, valuable natural resources may be degraded and depleted by individuals unconcerned about the resource's future condition. In the past, this communal resource challenge -- also known as “the tragedy of the commons” -- led policymakers to conclude prematurely that federal management of the resource was the solution.
Such a view neglects that the politicians and bureaucrats in Washington making and implementing government policies often have interests very different from local populations whose lives and livelihoods are directly connected to natural resources. Politicians are often ideologically motivated and prone to prioritize policies with visible benefits that make good politics but fail to effectively advance conservation.
Even if federal regulators act benignly, policies originating from the federal government usurp power from local populations. Local knowledge is critical to understanding site-specific challenges, as well as the risks and rewards of different policies. A one-size-fits-all federal strategy fails to recognize that state and local governments are better positioned to effectively manage resources through policies that account for local economic and environmental interests.
A major threat to private property rights and economic freedom today arises from policies that restrict CO2. A colorless, odorless, nontoxic gas and a byproduct of, or necessary nutrient for, all living organisms on Earth, CO2 has none of the characteristics of conventional pollutants. The list of enacted and proposed constraints on emissions of CO2 is long, and the costs are certain and enormous for the economy, individual liberty, and the environment. Yet the benefits are uncertain and the expected impact on climate negligible.
As environmental problems become ever more complex, the limitations and vast costs of political solutions centered in Washington will become ever more apparent. The most promising solutions to environmental challenges will arise from a greater reliance on local knowledge and property rights. These would encourage a more efficient use of resources, responsible and effective stewardship, and technological innovation.
The key to unlocking even greater environmental improvements lies in adopting an environmental agenda that spurs policies based in individual liberty and economic freedom.