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TBT: Busting the Myths of Free Market Environmentalism

  • Hannah Downey
  • Paradise Valley, Montana.  Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of the Interior.  Photo by: Jen Epstein.

    Throwback Thursday: From the Archives

    PERC has long worked to share our perspectives on environmentalism, opening up platforms for debate and discussion over free market environmentalism. We long held an annual conference in Montana for journalists, with panelists ranging from the director of environmental quality for the Sierra Club to the founder to the American Property Rights Association.

    In 1996, Carol Estes, a freelance writer, attended the conference and described her subsequent views on the shortcomings of free market environmentalism in National Parks magazine. PERC scholars responded to her comments in the December 1996 edition of PERC Reports:

    PERC’s arguments reveal an almost mystical faith in the market. Allocate resources to those who will use them wisely by making a profit, and those resources will live forever. History tells a different story. People act in their own interest – usually the short-term-profit kind.

    Yes, whether in government or the private sector, people often have short-term goals. However, when land is privately owned, short-term goals include the protection and enhancement of the land now. Preventing erosion and taking other future-oriented conservation measures increases land value right now because the value of land (or a standing forest or a building) is determined by the expected future benefits of that land, net of the costs required to enjoy those benefits. Conservation is an investment that produces future net benefits. – Richard Stroup

    Recreationists use public lands in a renewable way, as members of a nonexclusive club – U.S. taxpayers.

    Like it or not, hugging a tree entails costs. Recreationists may not damage trees, but if their use of a forest means that those trees cannot be used to produce homes, paper and other goods that society values, recreationists are imposing a cost. If recreationists don’t have to pay a market price, as commodity users do, they send a misleading signal to society about how scarce wood products and recreation are. – Don Leal

    Fifty years ago, Aldo Leopold gave us a better standard: “Quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

    Like so many followers of Leopold, Estes ignores Leopold’s pragmatic “conservation economics.” Leopold also wrote about the limits of government: “We tried to get conservation by buying land, by subsidizing desirable changes in land use, and by passing restrictive laws. The last method largely failed and the other two have produced some small samples of success.”

    Leopold understood that “if it pays, it stays.” He wrote: “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.” If those of us who value environmental amenities are willing to pay either private landowners or public land managers, we will get better land stewardship. Without economics as the guiding principle for public land management, we can only hope that enlightened bureaucrats will do what is right. In the modern world of political land management, I will put my eggs in the economic basket. – Terry Anderson

    Free market environmentalism has stood the test of time. Amidst countless debates and environmental changes, PERC has continued to demonstrate how markets, property rights, and the right incentives are the most effective way to protect the environment. Our scholars have found that a market-based approach works for everything from wildlife preservation to energy development. For the past 35 years we have stood on these principles and continue to expand their application. Through it all, we have encouraged the debate and challenged people to consider new perspectives on solving environmental issues.

    Read the original correspondence in full here.

    Written By
    • Hannah Downey
      • Policy Director

      Hannah Downey is the policy director at PERC, helping to bring PERC ideas to the policy world.

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