The Complicated Truth Behind Environmental Activism

The definition of "environmentalism" has been stretched to justify suspect goals.
By Scott Beyer | Oct 05, 2020 |
By Scott Beyer | Oct 05, 2020 |
Image Credit: Senate Democrats, Wikimedia Commons. [Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.]

[This article was originally published by the Independent Institute.]

The definition of environmentalism seems straightforward: encourage the long-term health and availability of our natural resources.

In America, the concept is more complex. Much like the word “science,” environmentalism links to politicized agendas that don’t necessarily seek the stated goal. Progressive Era environmentalism was partly inspired by eugenics and population control; today’s version has words like “green” and “sustainable” that could just as soon be code for modern left-wing economic and social agendas.  

This has weakened the movement, making it a point of suspicion for conservative America. But it should not weaken environmentalism as a concept. The key is to separate the good, bad, and ugly aspects of the movement, as I aim to below:

The Good

The best environmentalism is that which preserves natural ecosystems long-term. Otherwise these systems can be cannibalized, even by the people who benefit from them.

The Depression-era Dust Bowl, for example, was caused in part by the over-cultivation of land by inexperienced Great Plains farmers. When the region suffered drought, the winds kicked up dust, making the land uninhabitable for everyone.

Many extreme environmental problems have this “tragedy of the commons” quality. Millions of individuals acting in self-interest spoil a larger environmental commons. It is the defining factor behind air pollution, water contamination, overfishing, and much more.

Since the 1960s, the federal government has enforced powerful environmental laws—such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act—meant to stop private industry from externalizing its costs. There have been debates about how effective such legislation is. A movement around “free market environmentalism” argues that these laws produce unintended consequences, and that the environment is better preserved through economic concepts like pricing uses and externalities.

But whether enforcement is government- or market-driven, the point remains: some environmental problems are serious, and addressing them is needed for human flourishing.

The Bad

A less noble version takes this collectivist mindset to non-essential environmental issues. There’s a habit in the movement of chasing goals that sound nice in theory, but don’t pass the cost-benefit smell test.

The logging industry is an example. Activism against it often comes from people who want mature growth forests and uninhibited fauna. But the timber industry is important: it generates $144 billion in annual revenue, employs 433,000 people, and makes products we all use. To complain that it disrupts the natural state of America’s forest land is purist, and somewhat “cheap,” in that its demands would inflict costs on landowners and workers, but not on the people complaining.

Another example is the California water wars. For years, farmers have been denied adequate water to run their farms, because that would disrupt a small fish called the delta smelt that is nearing extinction. Saving the fish is a mild benefit compared to undermining a statewide industry that produces 13% of the nation’s agricultural value and on which millions depend for nourishment.

The answer to these issues may boil down to the free-market environmentalism cited above, specifically Coase Theorem. The theory calls for negotiations between two affected parties in a dispute, with side A paying for the damages it wishes to inflict on side B.

Regarding the California water wars, if activists had to pay farmers for the lost output caused by denying them water, it would give a better sense of how much they even care about saving the fish. The price mechanism would allow them to put their money where their mouths are, or decide that delta smelt restoration is not a prime environmental goal after all.  

The Ugly

The worst environmentalism is that which has nothing to do with the environment. Instead it’s a “lifestyle environmentalism” that becomes a smokescreen for larger complaints against economic growth and capitalism.

One notable local-level example has been environmentalist groups that block development, such as the many California ones I profiled here, like San Francisco’s Sierra Club and Green Party. There’s nothing green about blocking dense infill development, since it means people must locate into environmentally-harmful sprawl. But you get the sense these are NIMBY front groups and don’t care about the environment anyway; they pepper their commentary with left-populist slogans like “luxury condos” and “wall of gold” development.

Perhaps the ultimate example is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. The measures don’t seem geared towards environmental outcomes—at least not in any practical, cost-effective way—and her chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, later admitted this.

“The interesting thing about the Green New Deal,” he said, in a conversation recounted by the Washington Post, “is it wasn’t originally a climate thing at all…we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.”

This “ugly” environmentalism—where the term gets politicized and distorted for ulterior goals—is bad for the movement. Sincere environmentalists should call it out. That way the movement will be taken seriously, and there will be broader support for measures that are actually needed.