Bailey: The Second Wave of Environmentalism

by David Bier on December 21, 2011

in Blog

In The True State of the Planet, Ronald Bailey and colleagues lay out a new environmentalism, one to replace the failed, top-down, government-centric environmentalism of the past. Through innovative and creative thinking, people can solve environmental problems, even ones we don’t know of yet, if they are free to do so.

The True State of the Planet was a project by CEI released in 1995

In 1970, the first Earth Day brought together more than 20 million Americans to launch the first wave of the modern environmental movement. Since then, public concern about the state of the planet has steadily grown. The membership rolls and budgets of leading environmental activist organizations have swollen by millions. The federal government has adopted thousands of pages of environmental regulations. Cities and industries are spending billions every year to clean up pollution…

The first wave has scored some major successes in its twenty-five-year history: in the Western developed world, air and water are much cleaner; automobiles are far cleaner to operate; belching smokestacks are far fewer and generally more efficient than ever before. Clearly developed societies can come together to clean up much of the pollution produced by industries and cities.

But the first wave has also turned out to be spectacularly wrong about certain things. The good news is that many of the looming threats predicted in the early days of the environmental movement turned out to be exaggerated. For example, the global famines expected to occur in the 1970s never happened. Fears that the United States and Europe would cut down all of their forests have been belied by increases in forest area. Global warming, despite so many continuing reports, does not appear to be a major problem. And it turns out that the damages to human health and the natural world by pesticides is far less than Rachel Carson feared it would be when she wrote the Silent Spring in 1962.

It is inevitable, perhaps, that the first wave would begin to run its course and give way to a new strategy… The greatest problem with the first wave has been its solutions, which involve top-down imposition of laws and regulations, some of which, in turn, impair the capacity of people to change their behavior on their own…. Malthus assumed that past behavior would continue into the future. And if behavior does not change on its own, it can be changed only by force—by direct orders from above, as, for example, with gasoline rationing. Americans were ordered to use less oil in the 1970s, and with disastrous results. People hoarded gas; they formed longer gas lines out of fear, and the energy “crisis” was thereby made worse.

A final problem with the first wave has been its priorities. For many pollutants, the industrialized countries have reached the point that Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer calls the “problem of the last 10%.” We have taken care of the first 90 percent of the pollutants, but cleaning up the last 10 percent is exceedingly difficult and expensive. It is at this point of diminishing returns that we must consider whether devoting resources to cleaning up the last 10 percent is better for the natural environment than directing those resources to other problems….

Meanwhile, our most serious instances of environmental degradation have proved hard to fix by law. The deplorable state of global fisheries is a case in point. Overfishing results from the all-too-familiar problem known as the “tragedy of the commons.” The analogy to overfishing is overgrazing of lands held in common. When land is open to anyone who wants to use it, the tragedy of the commons is an almost inevitable result. In the case of commonly held grazing land, herdsmen have no incentives to restrain the number of cows grazing on the commons. In fact, the reverse is true. If a herdsmen does not put a cow on the land, his neighbor will, and thus reap the benefits of raising an additional cow. This “logic” leads inexorably to overgrazing and the eventual destruction of the common pastureland. This is what has happened to many of the world’s fisheries. First-wave environmentalists fail to realize that the problem lies in the commons, not in the herdsmen. They typically want to regulate the herdsmen instead of abolishing the commons. History shows that the better way to avoid the tragedy of the commons is through privatizing resource ownership. If individual herdsmen (or fishermen) can fence portions of the commons and secure ownership rights and responsibilities, their incentives to protect the land (or sea) from overgrazing dramatically increase.

This is precisely why second-wave environmentalists propose private owners, individual or group, commercial or noncommercial, offer the best defense against environmental degradation. Simply by protecting their property—trees, animals, fish, grazing areas, rivers—they incidentally protect the earth for the rest of us…. The key difference for the second wave is how to solve [problems]: not by fiat but by freely available and accurate information; not by doomsaying but by developing new structures of responsibility that allow the vast human resources that we already enjoy to be employed for ensuring the safety and abundance of the natural resources we all desire.

(excerpted from the preface,  pages 1-6)

BobRGeologist December 22, 2011 at 2:48 am

Environmentalism has become the new religion, guided by faith and not by science. Global warming is their latest and probably their most expensive blunder as it has become politically correct policy without the science to back it up and world wide waste of money in the counterproductive effort to reduce CO2. We are still in a glacial prone environment. Our sometimes weak sun requires help from a robust greenhouse gas to prevent the onset of the next Pleistocene Glaciation, an event of serious consequences to man’s civilization.

John Shade December 22, 2011 at 6:48 am

This looks very interesting indeed. Is there any prospect of a new edition of your book? It may well be just what many disillusioned environmentalists, and polticians with the scales dropping from their eyes about CO2 alarmis, need. Back in 1995, the peak influence of CO2 alarmism lay ahead. Now, possibly, it is behind us and your book would more readily find a market.

BobRGeologist December 24, 2011 at 3:58 pm

John, If your comment was aimed at BobR, I have at least 6 excellent books by climate scientists exposing the farce of AGW and we do not need another, but geologists are well equipped with college graduate level courses in physics, chemistry, paleontology and the Earth’s climate history. More than enough to recognize bad climate science when we see it.

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