Selected Skirmishes: Save the Planet, Dude


Perhaps the zenith of conspicuous ideological consumption dances on that metric of modern society, rock video television. On VH-1, Greenpeace spots now dot the programming day, each featuring a selected rock star and the environmental degradation of his/her choice. The overt message is that The System is using up everything real fast, and the subliminal one, "My, we are a bunch of greedy rotten American capitalists, aren't we."

The truly wonderful flash is that, if one had to define the Consumer Maximus of modem America, it would be Rock Star Idol. A life of uninterrupted fame and adulation, unlimited quantities of cash, liquor, parties, women/men/name it, hallucinogens, penicillin, first-class airfare, and hotel suite trashing. All without so much as three units of college.

As if to over-drive the point home, the Greenpeace spots have been surrounded by a big VH-1 promo contest to select the lucky winner of…36 Corvettes. Now, kids, if you don't get this little joke, you're just not paying drug-free attention. We're talking Vettes; we're talking four mpg; we're talking 36, all to one gluttonous winner, here. Mindless materialistic consumption driving the global environment to the brink of destruction? Vrrrrrrrroooooooommmmmmmm.

That the issue of environmentalism is exploited for the obscene personal consumption of a lucky few is not to say that very real degradations don't loom. Environmental problems stem from a "tragedy of the commons." Where rules of property are not hard and fast, rational people tend to make inefficient choices. Your action may create costs for others that you do not have to pay for (or even be aware of). Incentives for good behavior are screwy where the external cost problem predominates.

Air and water are fouled, for example, because cars and factories can pollute without costs—no owner of the atmosphere or the oceans spontaneously protects these resources from harm. The solution is the development for environmental purposes of market forces that produce the entrepreneurship so solubrious in our consumption-filled lives. Turning environmentalism into a morality play about the "limits of growth" or the vulgarity of middle-class lifestyles is a fraud: Real environmentalism is about producing better goods more efficiently by taking all costs into account.

Property rights are essential because they determine the incentive structure of a social organism. Where there's a payoff associated with conserving and nurturing, we get more of it. The aim of environmental policy, then, should be to fix the defects in our legal system so that environmentally sound actions are rewarded and degrading activities punished automatically, without having to call a rally and a 250-million-person consciousness-raising session each and every time a nasty by-product of modern life is discovered. This is not because I do not like rallies, or because I fail to realize that they remain an excellent place to meet women. It is because mass meetings are public policy Jokers, and political solutions are environmentally degrading.

Take the case of the Clean Air Act of 1977. Brookings Institution economist Robert Crandall has shown that the ecological effects of the measure were microscopic, despite a $3.5-billion price tag, because of the influence of interest group politics. The simple and cheap way to clean up the air would have been to reduce the use of high-sulfur coal in electrical generation. This could be accomplished by simply setting pollutant standards or (better yet) taxing utilities per unit of pollution emitted and leaving it to the profiteers to figure how to efficiently minimize costs. But the power brokers of the House and Senate, prodded by Pennsylvania and West Virginia coal-mining interests and the UAW, held the legislation by the throat. They succeeded in mandating extremely expensive scrubber technology, whose chief virtue is keeping utilities from using relatively clean, low-sulfur coal from Western states.

Skillfully, the lawmakers devised a solution to the typical trade-off problem: Here, the economy and environment both lost. That the "environmental lobby" actually endorsed this ecological racketeering smokes out their desire for power over cleanliness. Save the Planet? "Well, I know that's what my Hard Rock Cafe jacket says, but we've got this deal cooking with Senator Byrd, and.…"

Devising a set of consistent rules that systematically direct human beings to do the right thing, environmentally speaking, is a noble pursuit. But it entails far fewer chuckles than Madonna or even Motley Crüe is generally accustomed to enjoying. Devising efficient, hard-headed pollution taxes and affixing private rules for degradable properties is more than most any Material Girl can handle.

We suffer from two sources of external costs. One is pollution of the environment. The other is pollution of the environmental debate. So long as Rock 'n' Rollers with Vettes and ecology lyrics are the champions of the cause, environmentalism will continue to feel so fine. But the air, land, and water will continue to get dirtier. We'll come to grips with external costs when squirrelly guys in thick glasses get around to engineering ecologically superior mouse traps on the orders of grumpy bosses in biodegradable polyester suits, glaring at their CPAs' bottom lines.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy and the University of California, Davis.