David Bier

Many people today believe that environmental conditions are worsening. In The Improving State of the World, Indur Goklany thoroughly refutes this idea. Nonetheless, environmentalists continue to perpetuate the view that increased wealth and prosperity mean a poorer environment, but as this excerpt from Goklany’s work shows, this is not the case.

The Improving State of the World was published in 2007

Clearly, technological change is one key to continued improvement in environmental and human well-being. At least two ingredients are necessary to bring about technological change. First, better technology must be brought into existence. With greater wealth, expenditures on research and development increase. Therefore, the likelihood of developing new or improved technology should rise with wealth, which helps maintain and enhance human capital. This, in turn, not only further enhances the possibility of devising better technologies but it also propagates knowledge about the existence and operation of existing and new technologies, which is a key element for the diffusion of technology.

But there is more to technological change than creating technology or being aware of its existence. Although poor countries (and their farmers) are cognizant of technologies that would improve agricultural productivity, they are unable to capitalize on that information, despite that many such technologies, for example, fertilizer and crop protection measures, are quite mundane. Thus, their agricultural yields are substantially lower as are their food supplies. As a result, hunger and malnourishment are higher, and pressures for deforestation are greater. Similarly, notwithstanding that nowadays authorities in even the poorest countries know how to extend access to safe water and sanitation to 100 percent of the population, they lack the wherewithal to do so. Consequently, 1.1 billion people worldwide still lack access to safe water and 2.4 billion to adequate sanitation, virtually all in the poorer countries.

The missing ingredient, of course, is wealth, without which not only it harder to invent, develop, perfect, and use new technologies, but even old technologies are often unaffordable. Greater wealth increases the likelihood of acquiring, operating, and maintaining new as well as existing technologies. That is, wealth not only helps create technology and conditions favorable for its diffusion but wealth also ensures that technology is, in fact, used to make technological change a reality. It is hardly surprising that in previous chapters, we saw repeatedly that virtually every indicator of human well-being or environmental impact sooner or later improves with wealth. Hence, wealth increases cereal yields, which helps reduce rates of deforestation. It boosts the ability to install air pollution controls and to substitute cleaner fuels for dirty ones. Wealth also increases access to safe water and sanitation, which then reduce mortality due to water-related diseases.

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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.

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Create Wealth, Not Jobs

by David Bier on December 20, 2011

in Blog

Iain Murray and I have an op-ed in The Washington Times this morning that argues that TransCanada’s Keystone Pipeline exists not to create a few jobs from some people, but to create wealth for all Americans:

Spending on construction and infrastructure jobs is a perennial favorite of government stimulus boosters. “There’s no reason for Republicans inCongress to stand in the way of more construction projects,” PresidentObama told an Ohio crowd in September. “There’s no reason to stand in the way of more jobs.” However, the president now wants to block a massive private-sector construction project that would create the thousands of jobs he demands – the Keystone XL pipeline.

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Too Green To Be Transparent

by David Bier on December 19, 2011

in Blog

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On his third day in office, President Barack Obama proposed ways to make government more open. He told the press, “The way to make government accountable is to make it transparent, so people can known exactly what decisions are being made, how they’re being made, and whether their interests are being well served.” Yet the Obama administration has attempted to hide from the public eye significant information about his environmental agenda.

Consider the negotiation of the new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. The New York Times reported, “There was a simple rule for negotiations between the White House and California on vehicle fuel economy: Put nothing in writing. Mary Nichols, the head of the California Air Resources Board, and Carol Browner, President Obama’s point person on energy and climate change… quietly orchestrated private discussions from the White House with auto industry officials.”

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Earlier this month, former-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich met with 63 conservative leaders. In an exchange with CEI’s Myron Ebell, Gingrich said that he “‘was in Congress when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire,’ and thus supports strong government programs to protect the environment.” In his excellent book The Really Inconvenient Truths, CEI’s Iain Murray shows how government intervention actually caused the infamous Cuyahoga fire.

On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland “caught fire.” This fact is indispensible to central-planners and the enemies of industry. The “burning river” is one of the founding myths of big-government-environmentalism—particularly on the federal stage….

The real story is more complex, and a good portion of the blame lies on the shoulders of big government—specifically on the “progressive” abolition of property rights in favor of “common” ownership. In short, one key problem was that nobody had property rights over the river. It was nobody’s “doorstep,” and so everybody was spitting on it.

In early American history, this principle of private ownership supported by common law was the model for waterways. As settlers moved into the drier areas of the country this principle changed, with the “progressive” notion of common ownership replacing it. With water belonging not to individuals, but to the state, the way was opened for pollution. The principle of common ownership contributed to environmental degradation in a way that the tradition of private property did not.

This meant that industrial areas tended to treat their commonly owned rivers as common dumping grounds, hence the mayor’s description of the Cuyahoga as “an open sewer through the center of the city.” The industrialization of the city was viewed by city managers and residents alike as a desirable thing, and the side effects exhibited as the Cuyahoga changed color and odor were viewed as signs of progress. The city moved to take its domestic water from Lake Erie rather than clean up the river.

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In his book, Contract with the Earth, former-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich writes, “The universality of the recycling phenomenon should be regarded as a turning point in our struggle to revitalize the earth, and one of the most successful mass environmental actions in human history.” Natural resource economist Julian Simon disagrees. In this excerpt from The Ultimate Resource II, Simon argues that recycling and conservation only make sense if they also make economic sense.

Ultimate Resource II was released in 1996

Should you conserve energy by turning off lights that are burning needlessly in your house? Of course you should – just as long as the money that you save by doing so is worth the effort of shutting off the light. That is, you should turn out a light if the money cost of the electrical energy is greater than the felt cost to you of taking a few steps to the light switch and flicking your wrist. But if you are ten miles away from home and you remember that you left a 100-watt light bulb on, should you rush back to turn it off? Obviously not; the cost of the gasoline spent would be far greater than the electricity saved, even if the light is on for many days. Even if you are on foot and not far away, the value to you of your time is surely greater than the cost of the electricity saved.

The appropriate rule in such cases is that you should conserve and not waste just so far as the benefits of conserving are greater than the costs if you do not conserve. That is, it is rational for us to avoid waste if the value to us of the resource saved is more than the cost to us of achieving the saving – a matter of pocketbook economics. And the community does not benefit if you do otherwise.

Ought you save old newspapers rather than throw them away? Sure you ought to – as long as the price that the recycling center pays you is greater than the value to you of your time and energy in saving and hauling them. But if you – or your community – must pay someone more to have paper taken away for recycling than as trash, there is no sound reason to recycle paper.

Recycling does not “save trees”. It may keep some particular trees from being cut down. But those trees never would have lived if there were no demand for new paper – no one would have bothered to plant them. And more new trees will be planted and grown in their place after they are cut. So unless the very act of a saw being applied to a tree makes you unhappy, there is no reason to recycle paper nowadays.

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Government-enforced environmental protection is often based on the notion that the environment is subject to a ‘tragedy of the commons,’ a famous concept in economics whereby goods that “cannot be privately owned” are abused because no one individual has an incentive to conserve. Therefore, conservation must be forced by a state. Matt Ridley in his brilliant book The Origins of Virtue provides a useful correction to this traditional account.

The Origins of Virtue was released in 1996

Scott Gordon, an economist concerned with fisheries, in 1954 wrote, “Everybody’s property is nobody’s property. Wealth that is free for all is valued by none because he who is foolhardy enough to wait for its proper time of use will only find that it has been taken by another. The blade of grass that the manorial cowherd leaves behind is valueless to him, for tomorrow it may be eaten by another animal; the oil left under the earth is valueless to the driller, for another may legally take it; the fish in the sea are valueless to the fisherman, because there is no assurance that they will be there for him tomorrow if they are left behind today.’ ….

An authoritarian biologist named Garret Hardin rediscovered this idea in preparing a lecture on population growth, and named it the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ which term has stuck. Hardin’s aim was not to try to solve the problem but to argue for the necessity of restrictions on the right to breed. ‘Coercion,’ he wrote, ‘is a dirty word to most liberals now but it need not forever be so.’

To make his point, Hardin chose the example of medieval common land, which was widely believed to have been ruined by overgrazing, in comparison to enclosed land. “The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein lies the tragedy. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

In the abstract, this was true: free-for-alls are disastrously vulnerable to free-riding. The problem is, Hardin was wrong about grazing commons. Medieval commons were not disastrous free-for-alls. They were carefully regulated communal property, just like the lobster fisheries of Maine. True, there were relatively few written rights and not many obvious rules about who could graze them or cut coppice-wood on them. To an outsider, they looked like a free-for-all. But try adding your cattle to the common herd and you would soon discover the unwritten rules.

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In October this year, CEI’s Jackie Moreau blogged about victims of EPA’s wetland regulatory regime. “The once lovely face of Lady Liberty,” she wrote, “now wears the quintessential looks of the mean kid on the playground: class bully.” In this excerpt from Mugged by the State: Outrageous Government Assaults on Ordinary People and their Property, Randall Fitzgerald reinforces her point with some more outrageous examples of government environmentalism out-of-control.

Mugged by the State was published in 2003

Most people find the idea of healthy ecosystems and a clean environment to be desirable social goals. After all, the pollution of our collective air, water, or soil resources can potentially affect both our personal health and our individual property values. The broader social question is how do we measure and define environmental harm, and what benchmarks do we use to certify the point at which damage has occurred that adversely affects others. Examples from the regulation of private lands, public lands, endangered species, wetlands, and the record of the Environmental Protection Agency enforcement tactics illustrate how inflexible or misguided policies, relying on warped incentives and enforced by overzealous regulators, can often do more harm than good….

What if a law existed requiring every American who possesses a piece of Revolutionary War furniture to preserve the piece in perpetuity? They cannot actually own it, but they must protect it and care for it, at their own expense, under the supervision of a federal regulatory agency. If they fail to protect and preserve the furniture to the government’s satisfaction, they can be heavily fined and sent to prison. This is the sort of situation confronting who find part of the wetlands, or a plant or animal belonging to an endangered species, anywhere on their land. Under wetlands protection provisions of the Clean Water Act, landowners must sacrifice any use of their property that might impact wetlands or rare species and their habitat. Failing to do so subjects the owner to criminal penalties.

States have enacted similar regulations modeled after the federal laws. Homebuilder Lin Drake got bludgeoned in 1996 by both a Utah State wildlife agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when he bought land near Enoch, Utah, for a housing subdivision. Employees from these two agencies found no habitat or holes made by prairie dogs on Drake’s land, but a federal wildlife employee claimed to have seen two prairie dogs scurrying away too quickly for their presence on the land to be documented by a camera. With only the testimony of this one employee about a single instance of prairie dogs being spotted, Drake was charged with violating the U.S. Endangered Species Act by “harming” prairie dogs and their habitat with his home building preparations. He was fined $15,000 in 1998.

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The Billionaire’s Bailout

by David Bier on December 13, 2011

in Blog, Features

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Billionaire natural gas tycoon T. Boone Pickens says he wants an energy plan that will benefit all Americans. After Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced the NATGAS Act, Pickens praised the effort. “On behalf of the American people,” he said, “I ask the Senate to do what is unquestionably in America’s best interest: seize this unique and powerful opportunity and pass this bill.” While NATGAS is not unquestionably in America’s best interest, it’s definitely in Pickens’s interest.

T. Bone Pickens is major shareholder in Clean Energy Fuels—a natural gas company—that stands to reap a windfall from the bill. The NATGAS Act “would allow consumers purchasing natural gas vehicles or investors developing natural gas refueling stations to claim between $5 billion and $9 billion in federal tax credits over the next five years.” Pickens’ Clean Energy Fuels is counting on the bill’s passage. According to their SEC filing, “Our business plan and the ability of our business to successfully grow depends in part on the extension of the federal fuel excise tax credit for natural gas vehicle fuel, the reinstatement and extension of the federal income tax credit for the purchase of natural gas vehicles and the passage of legislation providing for additional incentives for the sale and use of natural gas vehicles.”

Pickens derides the “special interests that only care about themselves [who] will attempt to create false arguments and false choices to stop this legislation.” Yet this portrayal to a word describes Pickens himself. As the Washington Examiner reported: “Pickens owns options to buy 15 million shares of Clean Energy Fuels at $10 per share…. The NATGAS Act might drive Clean Energy shares to at least $17. Pickens, in that case, could exercise his 15 million options at $10 per share, and make more than $100 million risk-free on the options (plus another nine figures on the shares he already owns outright).

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Yesterday’s excerpt from Energy & Climate Wars showed why increasing energy consumption in poor nations is essential for any quality of life improvements. In today’s post from Clearing the Air: The Real Story of the War on Air Pollution, Indur Goklany argues that the United States’ economic gains improved not only their wealth, but also their environment, and primarily without government intervention.

Clearing the Air was published in 1999

The real engines for progress on the urban smoke problem in the United States as well as in England were economics and technological change—forces that began in the late 19thcentury and have continued, for one reason or another, to the present day. New, cleaner energy sources such as natural gas, oil, and electricity became increasingly available as substitutes for coal and wood in homes, businesses, and industries. Urbanization, while responsible for many environmental woes, accelerated the process of substitution because higher population densities reduced access to wood and increased cost-effectiveness and economics of distribution systems for natural gas and electricity.

New technologies entered the marketplace that increased the efficiency of all types of combustion equipment, reducing the amount of soot produced and fuel burned for a given amount of usable energy. Those technologies included more efficient and cleaner furnaces and boilers for homes, businesses, industries, and power plants. In some places, underground and street railroads powered by steam were electrified; in others, electrification replaced horse-powered street cars, reducing another, but no less real, form of pollution. The automobile, which would later be viewed as an environmental villain, was still a relatively little-used luxury; in 1910 there were two automobile registrations for every 100 households. In fact, the use of motor vehicles in urban areas served as environmental purpose by reducing the horse population and associated wastes, as did the electrification of street railways.

The realization that smoke signified unburnt fuel led industry, railroads, and even households to make efforts to reduce it. It was thought to be not only good economics but also good citizenship. That notion was clearly incorporated in the Ohio statute, which allowed municipal authorities to “compel the consumption of smoke.” In time, even the Great War would be pressed into service against this foe; as the Pittsburgh Bureau of Smoke Regulation exhorted, “it must never be forgotten that loss of black smoke means loss of heat and that every unit of heat thrown away is so much aid given to the enemy.” On the other hand, the Bureau of Mines, part of the U.S. Department of Interior, suspended  its smoke abatement “campaign” during the war years. At the other extreme in Milwaukee, the war was used as justification to go, literally, full steam ahead; as a result, “smoky” days increased from 47 in 1916 to 212 in 1918.

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