Regulatory Watchdogs

Center for Regulatory Effectiveness

Greenpeace International
Public Citizen
Sierra Club

Center for Auto Safety
Center for Science in the Public Interest
Clean Air Trust
Corporate Library
Environmental Defense
Environmental Media Services
FM Watch
Friends of the Earth
PR Watch
U.S. Public Interest Research Groups


Rachel Carson, Meet Adam Smith
"Rescuing Environmentalism" was The Economist's recent cover story. The article begins with a quote from the famous (infamous?) environmentalist-penned article "The Death of Environmentalism," "The environmental movement's foundational concepts, its method for framing legislative proposals, and its very institutions are outmoded. Today environmentalism is just another special interest."

The Economist, a globally-influential economic watchdog, had a simple response to claims that environmental NGOs are "politically adrift and dreadfully out of touch." The charges are correct. The magazine notes that not only have American environmental groups suffered a string of defeats but also their European counterparts, "while politically stronger, are also starting to lose their way intellectually."

Contrary to popular belief, the article points out that the Kyoto treaty "might seem a victory for Europe's greens, but it actually masks a larger failure. The most promising aspect of the treaty—its innovative use of market-based instruments such as carbon-emissions trading—was resisted tooth and nail by Europe's greens. With courageous exceptions, American green groups also remain deeply suspicious of market forces."

Thus comes clear the real purpose of the article, not to reiterate well-known failures, disappointments and mishaps of the environmental movement, but to highlight the fundamental flaw in the green movement's thinking that limits their ability to make a substantive, positive contribution to the environment; their ideological opposition to capitalism.

As The Economist explains if "environmental groups continue to reject pragmatic solutions and instead drift toward Utopian (or dystopian) visions of the future, they will lose the battle of ideas. And that would be a pity, for the world would benefit from having a thoughtful green movement."

Ultimately, it is ideas, innovative yet pragmatic ideas, that are needed to push forward any agenda, regardless of ideology. However, the "Mandate, regulate, litigate" mantra of the greens simply leads to a global "top-down, command-and-control approach to environmental policymaking."

To be relevant, green groups need to recognize that the market provides an effective alternative to old-fashioned command and control regulation for achieving environmental protection.

The article explains that there are "efforts to value previously ignored ‘ecological services', both basic ones such as water filtration and flood prevention, and luxuries such as preserving wildlife. ...advances in environmental science are making those valuation studies more accurate. Market mechanisms can then be employed to achieve these goals at the lowest cost. Today, countries from Panama to Papua New Guinea are investigating ways to price nature in this way."

According to the article, there are three elements necessary for the green revolution to succeed, markets to set prices, proper information so that prices can be appropriately set, and "the embrace of cost-benefit analysis."

The article recognizes that mention of cost-benefit analysis causes greens to "roll their eyes, complaining that it reduces nature to dollars and cents. In one sense, they are right. Some things in nature are irreplaceable—literally priceless. Even so, it is essential to consider trade-offs when analysing almost all green problems. The marginal cost of removing the last 5% of a given pollutant is often far higher than removing the first 5% or even 50%: for public policy to ignore such facts would be inexcusable."

Although an anathema to many greens, cost-benefit analysis, backed by quality data, could be the salvation of the green movement and, more importantly, lead to substantive environmental gains. As The Economist puts it, if "governments invest seriously in green data acquisition and co-ordination, they will no longer be flying blind. And by advocating data-based, analytically rigorous policies rather than pious appeals to ‘save the planet', the green movement could overcome the scepticism of the ordinary voter."

Regardless of whether various green groups provide their support and ideas, "Rachel Carson, the crusading journalist who inspired greens in the 1950s and 60s, is joining hands with Adam Smith, the hero of free-marketeers. The world may yet leapfrog from the dark ages of clumsy, costly, command-and-control regulations to an enlightened age of informed, innovative, incentive-based greenery."

Environmental watchdog organizations have the opportunity to become a valuable part of the burgeoning new environmental movement and help many. Or they can sink further into irrelevancy and help none. The choice is theirs.

  • Click for The Economist article.

    CRE Homepage