Sunday, April 03, 2005

Environmental Protection

Of course we all know that Republicans are out to destroy the environment, at least those of us who watch TV and/or read the papers "know" it. That was one of the many themes the Kerry campaign trotted out at various points leading up to the election. More recently, the opening of ANWR for oil exploration provided a new opportunity to cast the issue as Good (Democrats and protection of the environment) against Evil (Republicans and development).

Yet despite having Republicans bent on environmental destruction in the White House for 16 of the last 24 years, Mother Nature seems to be holding up fairly well. Jonah Goldberg lists some of the good news.:
"Seriously, forests are breaking out all over America. New England has more forests since the Civil War. In 1880, New York State was only 25 percent forested. Today it is more than 66 percent. In 1850, Vermont was only 35 percent forested. Now it's 76 percent forested and rising. In the South, more land is covered by forest than at any time in the last century. In 1936 a study found that 80 percent of piedmont Georgia was without trees. Today nearly 70 percent of the state is forested. In the last decade alone, America has added more than 10 million acres of forestland."
Well, the flora seem to be doing OK, but what about the fauna? Goldberg continues:
"The literal greening of America has added vast new habitats for animals, many of which were once on the brink of extinction. Across the country, the coyote has rebounded (obviously, this is a mixed blessing, especially for roadrunners). The bald eagle is thriving. In Maine there are more moose than any time in memory. Indeed, throughout New England the populations of critters of all kinds are exploding. In New Jersey, Connecticut and elsewhere, the black bear population is rising sharply. The Great Plains host more buffalo than at any time in more than a century.

And, of course, there's the mountain lion. There are probably now more of them in the continental United States than at any time since European settlement. This is bad news for deer, which are also at historic highs, because the kitties think "they're grrrreat!" In Iowa the big cat was officially wiped out in 1867, but today the state is hysterical about cougar sightings."
So development and environment are not an either/or choice. Nor is private property incompatible with protection of the environment, since much of these gains are on privately owned lands. In fact robust property rights help maintain and improve the environment. The owner of the land has a strong interest in taking care of his property to maintain or increase its value.

If markets and property rights are so good for the environment, why did "unfettered capitalism" lead to pollution? Markets are great at allocating resources when prices accurately reflect costs. Market mechanisms fail when the price of a product does not reflect its true cost. Preventing the pollution associated with making a product (or cleaning it up after the fact) is part of the cost of the product. If the producer pays the cost, he must recover his money in the sales of the product. However, if the producer can avoid paying these costs by polluting, he passes the costs on to the general public. Good environmental laws use market mechanisms and prevent cost-dodging.

As Goldberg points out, developed countries are in general more environmentally friendly than poor countries for several reasons. Obviously, when you are starving, it's hard to get too worked up about damage to the environment. Developed countries also tend to respect and protect property rights and to have political systems that can keep producers from evading the true costs of their production.

People in Marxist countries lack property rights, and environmental protection is generally poor. Van Helsing at Moonbattery writes of a private-property environmental success story in Venezuela, now about to be destroyed by Hugo Chavez:
"The Hato PiƱero reserve in Venezuela 'has gained support among conservation biologists around the world' by using capitalism to preserve wildlife through ecotourism. For over 50 years, tourists come from all over the world to see tapirs, capybaras, and other exotic animals, including jaguars, in their natural environment. Now the reserve is in deep trouble, because Chavez has pledged to give capitalist land-owning oppressors their due. Evidently the land will be seized, chopped up into small parcels, and passed out to political supporters who have no idea how to use it, as has been done under other enlightened regimes like Robert Mugabe's in Zimbabwe."
Van Helsing also provides this link to another site focused on free-market solutions to environmental problems.

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