Conservatives should seize the environmental issue

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That might not sound surprising. Conservatives typically have played defense on the environment, criticizing the cost but not offering a positive alternative to the left. For more than four decades, environmental policy has been dominated by a now well-entrenched and well-heeled environmental establishment consisting of the national activist environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, federal bureaucrats and increasingly, academics. With almost exclusive domain over national environmental policy and prevalent public opinion, environmental establishment promotes centrally controlled regulatory control of economic activity and private lives. The establishment’s mantra could be “no risk is too small and no cost is too high because we care so much,” not a viable perspective for maintaining the size and vigor of the U.S. economy!

Over these forty years of ever expanding environmental controls, business e and conservatives have remained on the defensive, perhaps criticizing the high cost of green schemes, questioning the justification or accepting compromised versions of the establishment’s command and control programs. Yet, core constitutional principles of this country – limited government, individual liberty, property rights, and free markets- offer a more positive, effective and ethical  path than the hard-edged statist approach of the establishment.

If a team was only allowed to play defense, victory would be impossible.

It’s time that those who believe in limited government, free enterprise and individual responsibility take the ground on environmental issues. History shows that conservative principles provide the most effective and dynamic tools for both protecting the environment and generating prosperity.

The World Bank’s list of the most polluted cities in the world is dominated by countries with heavily centralized governments, little economic freedom and poverty. The “makers” -manufacturers, electric generators, ranchers and farmers- are the environmental good guys and should not be vilified as greedy, uncaring polluters. It is business and entrepreneurs that have created and operate the now wide array of technologies and management systems that achieve continual environmental improvement and efficiency.

Twenty years ago, I joined a handful of like-minded colleagues to develop such principles. Last year, the Heritage Foundation enlisted the help of former officials and seasoned experts to update these principles and to apply them to current policy debates. The foundation’s Eight Principles of the American Conservation Ethic, “is founded on a deep respect for the wonder, beauty, and complexity and is dedicated to the wise use of nature’s bounty. It reflects every American’s aspiration to make America’s environment cleaner, healthier and safer … and it draws its strength from the most powerful force for improving our environment-free people.”

For example, the first principle of this project is that human beings are the most important natural resource and human effort is the only means by which the environment can be improved. This is why the late economist, Julian Simon, called the human person the “ultimate resource.” In stark contrast, the now ascendant mainstream environmental policy views human beings as the problem, assuming that human ignorance and greed lead to grave environmental degradation unless government mandates intercede. Al Gore noted in Earth in the Balance that mankind is heading toward ecological collapse because “we have tilted so far toward individual rights.”

Yet, the EPA’s own data show continual and dramatic environmental improvements over the last forty years while the U.S. population and the economy ballooned. As one of the principles asserts: the learning curve is green. As knowledge accumulates and prosperity increases, the U.S. produces more but with less input, waste and pollution.

Science is the stipulated driver under federal environmental laws and is recognized as a critical tool for, but not the equivalent of- reasoned policy decisions by elected officials according to the American Conservation Ethic. The environmental establishment, however, typically promotes their policies as mere scientific findings that dictate new regulatory controls. In reality, science can never provide this level of certainty. Nor does the label science guarantee the objectivity or the rigor needed to support policy decisions of national consequence.

The principles of the American Conservation Ethic are drawn from core constitutional principles of the U.S. and when applied to environmental problems they have been more successful than centralized environmental bureaucracies where credentialed experts dictate the controls. The environmental establishment has largely ignored that free markets and individual liberty make for superior policy. The environment can and must become a winning issue for conservatives, but that can only happen if we reclaim the moral high ground and return to the fundamental principles that have proven so successful in other areas.

White is the distinguished senior fellow in residence and director for the Armstrong Center for Energy and Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.