Environmentalism

Apocalypse, No

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Environmentalism has a split personality. Its outgoing side, the one most people know, likes tall tales of global destruction and demands absolute solutions—eliminate fossil fuels or die. Its periodic warnings that the end is near are always overtaken by events, but in the meantime they make good covers for Newsweek and good fun for a scare-hungry public.

A wild man, no matter how entertaining, isn't much good at drafting regulations, however. So when it comes to making policy, environmentalism's other personality takes over. This is the smooth operator, principled but not too principled, able to logroll with the best of them and smart enough to leave visions of apocalypse to the prophet.

As long as the environmental debate keeps to its usual terms, the two personalities generally stick to their respective spheres. Only when someone like James Watt threatens the bureaucratic status quo does the prophet rally his followers to root out sin in the EPA.

This arrangement sounds tidy in theory but, like Sybil, environmentalism is seriously disturbed. Its split personality has left the public misinformed and the environment mismanaged.

Take this summer's drought, for instance. It was caused by the greenhouse effect, right? Probably not. While there is a pretty broad scientific consensus that the earth is getting slightly warmer, that trend is by no means definitely proven. And assuming the effect is real, it has nothing to do with something as transient as one summer's rainfall. The drought is just a news peg that lets reporters justify apocalyptic cover stories.

On the policy side, ill-conceived rules, lax enforcement, and special-interest politics reign supreme. A few years back, for example, environmentalists conspired with eastern coal interests to foist smokestack scrubbers on all coal-burning plants—whether they needed them or not. Many plants would have found it cheaper, easier, and, yes, cleaner simply to burn low-sulfur western coal in the first place. But environmentalists were dead-set on the scrubbers, and eastern mines wanted the extra business; politics being politics, they cut a deal.

The next administration has a unique opportunity to play shrink to environmentalism and get us out of the mess created by its split personality. A bland campaign does have its advantages. Both George Bush and Michael Dukakis clearly established themselves as garden-variety environmentalists, folks who think clean is better than dirty. But they weren't very specific about what they'd do.

This vagueness enrages the doomsayers. "The two candidates have only skirted the edges of a few truly fundamental questions about how we continue to do business as an industrialized society," writes Rochelle L. Stanfield, in the usually dull-but-important National Journal. "Ultimately, the combined effects of different air pollutants could necessitate abandoning the use of fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine. The only cure for hundreds of years of fouling oceans and streams could be stringent land use restrictions and unprecedented revisions in agricultural practices. The complexity and expense of toxic waste disposal and cleanup could mean wholesale changes in the kinds of raw materials used in manufacturing and in fabrication processes." In other words, if the candidates were serious about the environment they would have told us to abandon industrial capitalism.

Fortunately, they didn't. They kept things vague. And that means the new administration can do pretty much what it wants, short of selling Yellowstone or outlawing automobiles, as long as the public is convinced that the environment will benefit.

For starters, policymakers might try to think clearly about what exactly makes environmental problems problems. Contrary to popular rhetoric, the issue is not a matter of good and evil. And in fact, only a few people hold the mystical view that technology is evil, pollution is a sign that we have sinned, and polluters are by definition criminals.

We all benefit from industrial civilization, and only a few fanatics want to give it up. It's just that ordinary, nonapocalyptic citizens don't like smog and dirty water, and the fanatics promise to do something to fix things.

There is a better way. Pollution is an economic problem, caused by ill-defined or undefined property rights. Nobody owns the air over Los Angeles, for instance, so there is nobody to charge drivers for the exhausts they generate. (The roads are free, too, which only exacerbates the problem.)

If this economic analysis sounds too ideological or technocratic (take your pick), consider an exception that proves the rule. This summer, the EPA released a study indicating that dangerously high levels of radon are much more common in homes than previously thought. Radon is an invisible, odorless, tasteless, insidious gas whose radioactive decay products lodge in the lungs and cause cancer. By usual standards, this is pretty scary stuff. But the EPA report generated little hysteria.

Radon, you see, is a private matter. Homeowners can check for it themselves and deal with it themselves—as reporters, even TV reporters, explained with remarkable calm. Over the years, all sorts of companies have sprung up to cope with radon; some sell detection devices, others find ways to to get rid of the stuff. Ordinary markets work.

The challenge for the next administration is to make other environmental problems look more like radon—to encourage individual responsibility and foster innovation. Traditional environmental regulation has had exactly the opposite effect.

Take air pollution. Environmentalism's apocalyptic side has its "solutions": ban automobiles, power factories with windmills, restore the Middle Ages. Totalitarian and politically absurd. So the policy side takes over, and we get smokestack scrubbers.

More generally, we get laws that dictate specific technologies—you will install a catalytic converter in every new car—and forbid innovation. We get laws that push environmental responsibility as far away from individuals as possible; it's easier to tell General Motors what to do than to give each car owner incentives to drive less or buy a car that puts out less pollution. And we get laws that don't recognize regional differences, that force drivers in rural Nebraska, for example, to buy the same pollution-control equipment as drivers in Atlanta.

What would a more individualistic approach look like? Since no one owns the ocean or the air—the relevant property rights aren't defined—individuals can't just make contracts to pay the owners for the water and air they pollute. But we can find ways to encourage individuals to bear the costs of their actions and to make their own choices and tradeoffs.

In the case of auto exhausts, for example, drivers might pay the government an annual emissions charge based on where they live, the number of miles they drive, and how much pollution their cars produce. So people who caused more pollution would pay more than people who caused less. And the system would reward individuals for using creativity to solve environmental problems, just as higher gas prices led drivers to look for ways to conserve fuel.

Similar plans, based on costs and incentives, could be worked out for industrial air and water pollution and toxic waste. They would not be perfect. They would use the government as a collection agency for the public at large. They would create some bureaucracy. And they would undoubtedly entail a lot of regulations known by their abbreviations.

But they would be preferable to the current maze of purely coercive regulations. And they would represent a step away from moralistic environmentalism that looks for villains to punish instead of problems to solve.

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