Regulation bashers

Published: Tuesday 15 November 2005

-- Re-thinking Green, Alternatives to Environmental Bureaucracy edited by Carl P Close, Robert Higgs Independent Institute Press Oakland, usa

The environmental movement that emerged in the us during the 1960s focused public attention on pollution, urban sprawl, and destruction of wilderness. The maze of environmental laws and regulations enacted since then has fostered huge government bureaucracies better known for waste and failure than for innovation and success.

Could the us have done better than this failed environmental bureaucracy? The contributors to this volume answer with a resounding "yes."

The book examines some of the most hotly debated environmental issues in the us: oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, global warming, endangered species, land use and air quality. The editors argue that "environmental quality can be enhanced more effectively by relying less on government agencies that are increasingly bureaucratised and unaccountable, and more on communities as well as on environmental entrepreneurship".

The contributors muster an array of statistics in support of their arguments Let's sample a few: By 1990, 25 years of regulations enforced by the us Environmental Protection Agency had cost the us economy an estimated 22 per cent of the manufacturing output that otherwise would have been produced. Federal and state agencies spent us $529 million per year on endangered-species protection during the 1990s, but haven't come close to saving every threatened species in the us as required by law.

The real intent The book hits the nail on the head of identifying the problem. But the solutions proposed unmasks its real intent: pandering to business. "Free market incentives and property rights protect the environment better than any government regulation," argue contributors. In the section 'Entrepreneurship, Property Rights, and Land Use', James R Rinehart and Jeffrey J Pompe argue private developers on South Carolina's coastal barrier islands have protected sensitive shorelines more effectively. Pierre Desrochers examines privately planned eco-industrial parks in Kalundborg, Denmark and finds that government planners can do little to improve upon them.

The market's tune A critique of environmental bureaucracies doesn't necessarily mean debunking all regulations. But that's exactly what the contributors seem bent upon. Announces P J Hill in the section on 'Debating market-based environmentalism': "Market-based policies that utilize incentives would bring us closer to adopting a genuine private-property rights approach." But what exactly is a genuine private-property rights approach? One loaded in favour of big business? Many contributors seem to think that it isn't. For example, in the section 'Conservation Strategies', Robert H. Nelson argues that both biodiversity and native African traditions of property have been disturbed by imposed Western conservation strategies. Such counterproductive strategies also led to the 1989 ivory-trade ban.

Well said. But let's not forget that neo-liberal anti-regulation theories can bring together a diversity of arguments. In Re-thinking green, the supporter of community-based conservation lies cheek-by-jowl with the votary of private business. There is a Kyoto Protocol basher as well. In the section, 'Global Issues', Bruce Yandle says that the accord might actually give leeway to Shell Oil and British Petroleum because their natural gas and coal preserves allow them to cope with the treaty's restrictions better than their rivals.

Re-thinking green promises alternatives to "environmental bureaucracies". It degenerates into hackneyed neo-liberal bashing of regulatory policies. Lauding private initiative is all too well. But make no mistake. Without regulations, private corporations turn into Leviathans, much more unwieldy -- and unhealthy -- than bureaucracies.

Peter Casper is a Boston, usa -based radio journalist

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