It makes sense to set aside a day to celebrate our planet. Unfortunately, that is not what Earth Day is about. Instead, it is a day to celebrate public policies that have had disastrous consequences—both for humanity and for the environment. If we want to celebrate the environment and humanity, then let’s celebrate Free Market Earth Day and promote the principles of Free Market Environmentalism (FME).
In the 40 years since the first Earth Day, command-and-control environmental policies (many well intentioned) have racked up a shocking butcher’s bill of unintended consequences. From the ban on DDT, which led to millions of malaria deaths in Africa, to ethanol mandates, which have increased food prices and led to hunger around the world, the impacts of environmental policies often go unacknowledged—and unaddressed.
The ban on DDT was the environmental movement’s first great triumph. The ban stemmed from a legitimate concern over the effects of the agricultural overuse of DDT on birds, but it went far beyond what was necessary to address that problem.
DDT is still very effective against the carriers of diseases like malaria, as the World Health Organization acknowledges. However, a de facto ban on its use has come about because any contamination of agricultural produce by DDT can lead developed nations to impose trade sanctions.
This means that a Ugandan farmer, who typically stores his produce in his house before shipping it, cannot spray DDT inside his home in order to protect his family unless he wants to give up his livelihood. This has led to widespread malaria in Africa and needless deaths of hundreds of thousands—all because of the demands of the so-called environmental movement.
The large gap in political and economic development between wealthy nations and developing ones has created a two-tier global system that has rightly been termed “eco-imperialism.” Western fears—often exaggerated or unfounded—end up disparately impacting the lives of families thousands of miles away.
In addition to the unconscionable longtime ban on DDT for malaria prevention, unscientific opposition to genetically modified agriculture—again fostered by the environmental movement—now threatens to disastrously set back the race to feed a growing world population.
The solutions to many of these problems need to come from two areas.
First, donor nations must abandon the idea that a small elite of international bureaucrats knows what’s best for every country in the world—that the same risks and trade-offs that make sense for the United States and Europe are equally valid in Senegal, Paraguay and Bhutan.
Second, we need to create a far greater role for private ownership and property rights in environmental policy. Allowing individuals and local communities to exercise legal ownership of natural resources gives them a potent motive to act sustainably. There’s a reason why Bengal tigers are critically endangered and domesticated cattle are not, despite high levels of demand for products from both animals.
Ownership is key to stewardship. That is the central insight of Free Market Environmentalism. The Cuyahoga River did not catch fire because someone owned it and misused it, but because no one owned it and so no one could stop others from misusing it as a dump.
Time and again, collective ownership leads to environmental degradation. Yet collective ownership is the preferred solution of the environmental movement. Large swathes of land in the United States have been brought into public ownership, ostensibly to protect them. The result is all too often mismanagement and wildfires that destroy the land which private owners had previously managed sensibly and beneficially.
The only plausible explanation for why so-called environmentalists cling to this model is ideology. It is an ideology that pays well. This year, the group Freedom Action took out advertisements in Washington, D.C., newspapers that detailed the salaries of the leaders of major environmental groups. They ranged from $300,000 to just under $600,000. For some people, Earth Day is Pay Day.
The time has come to jettison the stale ideas of 1970s environmentalism. We need to celebrate the Earth without wrecking human lives. Free Market Environmentalism is an idea whose time has come.
This year should see the first Free Market Earth Day. April 22 is Lenin’s Birthday. To clearly draw the contrast, a great day to celebrate FME Day would be June 16, the baptismal day of the father of free market thinking, Adam Smith,
It is time to wrest the holiday from the control of ideologues who have grown rich from exploiting people’s environmental fears. Free Market Earth Day would be a holiday the whole world could enjoy.
Iain Murray is Vice-President for Strategy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.