Environmental False Alarms

The Weekly Standard
April 25, 2005

By Terry L. Anderson

In his new book Collapse, Jared Diamond begins with a chapter on my home state of Montana. Although painting a romantic picture of "Big Sky Country," he decries environmental tragedies including toxic mining waste, forest fires, soil exhaustion, water shortages, and invasive species.

Diamond blames these environmental perils on miners, loggers, and farmers who "behaved as they did because the government required almost nothing of them" and because they were business people maximizing profits.

Reading his gloom and doom chapter, one wonders why Ted Turner, Charles Schwab, and friends are buying land in Montana. The reason is that Montana's environment is not as trashed as alarmist Diamond would have us believe.

Here are the facts about Montana. You can drink from almost any stream without concern for toxic wastes, though you might worry about giardia from burgeoning elk herds. You can view millions of acres of spectacular forests—many on private lands. Farms remain productive, and lands mined at the turn of the century are being reclaimed. In short, Montana's environment is getting better not worse.

The same holds generally in the developed world. From 1970 to 2000, for example, concentrations of carbon monoxide fell by 75 percent in the United States and by 95 percent in the United Kingdom. From 1975 to 2000, nitrogen oxides declined by 35 percent in the United States and by 40 percent in the United Kingdom.

Furthermore, we in the United States are actually sequestering as much carbon through improved agricultural techniques, healthy forests and sealed landfills as we are adding to the atmosphere's greenhouse gasses

Why is this so? First, as incomes rise, people demand and can afford a healthier environment. Study after study confirms that "wealthier is healthier."

Second, societies with a strong rule of law, private property rights, and market systems have better environments that those that do not. As more countries have adopted these institutions following the fall of the Iron Curtain, incomes and environmental quality have improved.

Diamond has it backward when he blames environmental problems on a lack of government regulation and too much private enterprise. On Montana's frontier, cattlemen formed voluntary associations to prevent overgazing of the range. Farmers developed water rights to efficiently allocate water. In addition, mining companies compensated landowners if the companies' pollution spilled across their boundaries.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof likens environmentalist false alarms to car alarms that become "just an irritating background noise." It is time to turn off the alarms and recognize that our economic and environmental futures will be brighter if we rely more on private property and markets than on governmental regulations.

Terry L. Anderson is the John and Jean DeNault Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the executive director of PERC—the Property and Environment Research Center located in Bozeman, Montana.

Type: 
Media Source: 
Terry Anderson is president of PERC and the John and Jean De Nault Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He believes that market approaches can be both economically sound and environmentally sensitive. His research helped launch the idea of free market environmentalism and has prompted public debate over the proper role of...
Read More > More Articles by Terry Anderson >