Building an Alliance Between Environmentalists and Libertarians

by Randal O'Toole
  1. The Environmental Movement
  2. Tactically Strong; Strategically Weak
  3. Thinking Like an Ecosystem
  4. The Big Government Bogeyman
  5. Asking the Right Questions
  6. Trading Off Dogmas
  7. For Further Reference

Environmentalists and libertarians have much in common. I know prominent environmentalists who worked on Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign and admired Goldwater's speech writer, the late Karl Hess. I know prominent libertarians who like nothing better than hiking, fishing, or rock climbing in pristine wilderness. Most libertarians place a high value on a quality environment and enjoy clean air, clean water, and beautiful scenery. Similarly, most environmentalists place a high value on personal freedom and support a nonviolent philosophy.

Despite these and other similarities, libertarians and environmentalists have a difficult time communicating with one another. The two groups use different jargon and often apply two different meanings to similar terms. Misunderstandings often lead to rancorous debate with no resolution.

Yet libertarians and environmentalists have much to gain from a possible alliance between them. Libertarians can gain from the sheer numbers of environmentalists: More than two out of three Americans call themselves environmentalists; more than one in five actively work somehow to protect the environment; and perhaps as many as one in twenty are dues-paying members of some environmental group. Meanwhile, environmentalists can gain from a strategy that relies on individuals rather than big government.

The time is ripe for such an alliance. The 1994 election has left the environmentalists running scared. Up through the 1970s, the environment was a nonpartisan issue. But the strongly Democratic Congresses of the 1970s and '80s, combined with the polarization generated by the Reagan Administration, led environmentalists to hitch their star to the Democratic Party. Now that the Democrats are out of power, and likely to remain so for some time, environmentalists need a new strategy.

But an alliance between libertarians and environmentalists can only happen if libertarians make an effort to understand environmentalists, to learn their language, and to emphasize the things they have in common rather than the things they do not. This article attempts to bridge the barrier between the two groups.

The Environmental Movement

The most important thing to know about the environmental movement is that it is extremely decentralized. People who equate "environmentalists" with high-powered Sierra Club or National Wildlife Federation lobbyists see only a tip of the iceberg.

The National Wildlife Federation's Conservation Directory lists close to 1,000 different environmental activist groups in the U.S., most of which have paid staff. The Directory omits hundreds of other groups with paid staff, and I conservatively estimate that for every group with staff there are at least five groups that rely solely on volunteers. All totaled, the U.S. has between 5,000 and 10,000 organizations committed mainly to environmental causes.

The largest groups have hundreds of thousands (a few claim millions) of dues-paying members and dozens or even hundreds of staff members. But most environmental activists believe that the real work is done by the local, volunteer or near-volunteer organizations. Those groups lead the way in finding new issues and provide the backbone for grassroots lobbying.

In this article, I'll use the term "environmentalist" to mean anyone who believes strongly in the need for more environmental protection. "The environmental movement" refers to the collection of organizations that work on environmental causes. "Environmental activist" is an environmentalist who devotes a significant amount of time to lobbying, organizing, or other political activities for environmental causes.

One of the effects of the decentralized nature of the movement is a huge amount of tension between various environmental groups. If you think a Libertarian Party convention is contentious, try going to a meeting of different environmental groups. Groups fight over strategy, tactics, and goals. Underlying the outward differences is a competition for members, media attention, and funding from large foundations.

Most environmental activists think that the main conflicts are between national and local groups. In fact, the real tension is between staffed and volunteer groups. The volunteer groups tend to focus on a single goal: saving a particular scenic area or stopping a particular project. Once a group has a staff, however, it has a new goal: staying alive. This leads it to broaden its range of activities and makes it more likely to compromise so that politicians will view it as someone they can deal with.

The volunteer groups accuse the staffed groups of selling them out. The staffed groups view the volunteers as unreasonable. Meanwhile the staffed groups contend with one another for members and donations, leading to further changes in behavior and further conflicts.

Tactically Strong; Strategically Weak

This structure has given the movement its tactical power. Each group develops its own tactics: Some emphasize litigation, others organize local volunteers, still others hire lobbyists. When one group finds a successful tactic or issue, others follow; a new, successful tactic often spreads through the movement like wildfire. Of course, "success" is measured more by media attention or funding rather than the ultimate effects on the environment, yet this tactical power has given environmentalists an undeniable political strength.

For all its tactical skills, the environmental movement is strategically inept. With hundreds or thousands of groups competing for resources, members of the movement have little incentive to develop a cohesive strategy. As a result, environmental "strategy" is little more the sum total of individual tactics. Sometimes those tactics work together with amazing success, as they appear to have done (at least for now) in Northwest forests. Most often, the movement can hope to do little more than temporarily stall activities it opposes.

This tactical strength and strategic weakness has backed the environmental movement into a corner. One of the best tactics for any political movement is polarization and demonization of the opposition. This tactic mobilizes supporters, draws media attention, and enhances the fortunes of any group that chooses to use it. For example, in 1980, two groups--the Wilderness Society and American Forestry Association--each had about 100,000 members. When Reagan was elected, the Wilderness Society used the tactic of polarization, while the American Forestry Association tried to position itself as a middle-of-the-road group. Within a few years, the Wilderness Society doubled its membership, while AFA's declined by two-thirds.

Yet polarization carries with it a major long-term cost: It also polarizes the opposition. This is a particular problem for the environmental movement, which really had no enemies in 1970, when everyone from Richard Nixon to Newt Gingrich was an environmentalist. Despite the lack of real enemies, demonization produced such short-run benefits that environmental magazines railed against corporate America, corrupt politicians, inept bureaucrats, and private landowners for harming the environment. By 1994, such demonization became a self-fulfilling prophecy as corporate leaders, elected officials, agency employees, and property owners turned into opponents of environmental causes.

All of these trends were highly visible in 1993 when environmentalists tried to form a coalition to reform national forest management. The problem, of course, was that the groups couldn't agree on a strategy. So they agreed to a "kitchen sink" strategy that combined all of the legislative goals of the individual groups while pretending to ignore the many conflicts between these goals.

The resulting package had something to anger every other forest interest group: private landowners, public land users, public land managers, state and local government officials, even timber companies that don't buy from public lands. It was a strategy that made enemies of everyone but the true-believer environmentalists. The proposal never happened, but it remains no different from the basic strategy environmentalists have followed in any case.

In saying these things, I am not casting aspersions on any environmental leader or group. The tactical situation of the past few years was beyond the control of any leader or group. So long as the Democrats were in power, the benefits of polarization outweighed the costs, so the groups that embraced polarization were the most successful. Today, with a Republican Congress, groups that are willing to make friends rather than enemies may have an advantage.

A libertarian environmental alliance should be particularly powerful, because libertarians deny that the environment has "enemies." Instead, the real environmental problems are institutional: lack of property rights for certain resources and government interference in the market for others.

Unfortunately, the latest opposition provoked by environmental polarization calls itself the "property rights movement," leading environmental activists to be immediately suspicious of anyone defending property rights. This makes it especially important for libertarians who wish to build an alliance with environmentalists to learn and speak in the language of environmentalists.

Thinking Like an Ecosystem

Probably the biggest difference between environmentalists and libertarians is their world views--their intuitive understandings of how the world works. The libertarian model is primarily an economic one, and libertarians probably have the best understanding of basic economics of any political group. By contrast, the environmental model is primarily an ecological one, and most environmentalists pride themselves on their knowledge of ecology and biology.

This shouldn't be a problem because economics and ecology are really the same subjects. "The theory of natural selection is uncannily similar to the chief doctrine of laissez-faire economics," says noted biologist Stephen Jay Gould. In fact, he adds, "the two theories are `isomorphic'--that is, structurally similar point for point, even though the subject matter differs."

If, as most environmentalists agree, a natural ecosystem is best, then what does that ecosystem tell us about the best way to order our political-economic system? The ecosystem has millions of individual plants and animals, all working for their own selfish ends. No central planner told the trees where to grow, no judge decided which deer the wolves could eat, no legislature allocated land to individual species. Yet the system as a whole thrives. In fact, environmental doctrine holds that attempts by humans to interfere with or plan the ecosystem will be ultimately destructive.

Clearly, there are powerful parallels between the libertarian and the environmental world views. Many of these parallels are presented in Michael Rothschild's excellent book, Bionomics, which completely recasts classical liberal economics in the language of biology. This book is a "must read" for libertarians who wish to work closely with environmentalists--and vice versa.

The Big Government Bogeyman

In addition to thinking of the economy as an ecosystem, libertarians should keep a few other things in mind when talking with environmentalists. First, environmentalists are end oriented: they want a cleaner environment. The libertarian argument is that the best means to this end are markets and property rights, not big government.

While environmentalists are suspicious of markets, they are also suspicious of big government. Few feel happy with any of the federal agencies originally created to protect the environment; these agencies have become environmental destroyers, not saviors. The hard part is to convince environmentalists that markets will do any better.

The answer lies in a basic understanding of environmental issues. Every environmental problem consists of a market resource that threatens a non-market resource. The conclusion that environmentalists erroneously reach is that markets caused the problem. The reality, of course, is that non-markets caused the problem. The solution is to create markets for environmental goods. This isn't always possible, but it is possible more often than not.

Asking the Right Questions

A second point is that environmentalists often confuse symptoms with problems. But this doesn't mean that the problems aren't real. There may be considerable debate about global warming, the toxicity of dioxin, or the threats to species like spotted owls or grizzly bear. Rather than dismiss these problems, libertarians who want to work with environmentalists should treat them as genuine symptoms of a serious underlying problem.

This means focusing on environmental problems not as technical issues but as big government and property rights issues:

Nearly all environmental problems are rooted in society's failure to adequately define property rights for some resource. An ecosystem doesn't solve such problems by passing a prescriptive law or creating a regulatory agency; it relies on individual self-interest to produce a balance. The important thing is to show environmentalists how thinking of the economy as an ecosystem leads to decentralized free-market solutions to environmental problems.

Trading Off Dogmas

A third point is that libertarians and environmentalists will never reach an accord if they each tenaciously stick to their respective dogmas. Libertarians who want to work with environmentalists are going to have to give up at least one of their cherished goals: the privatization of federal lands. I would rate such privatization as more politically feasible than repealing social security--but not by much. Even if it were feasible, privatization is neither necessary nor sufficient to improving public land management.

The real key is not "Who owns the land?" but "What are the incentives facing the land managers?" Both public and private resource managers have incentives to seek subsidies from Congress. Environmental problems will be resolved--and taxpayers will save billions of dollars--only when a new political philosophy becomes dominant that rejects such subsidies, no matter who owns the land.

My solution for all federal lands is to decentralize them into individual units--forests, parks, or whatever--and fund them exclusively out of a fixed share of the net income they earn from a broad range of user fees. Each unit might have a board of directors elected by users, but each would be expected to return funds to the Treasury each year as "rent" for using public land. This arrangement should satisfy both libertarians and environmentalists who are familiar with the current state of public land management.

Finally, don't expect to successfully reach every environmentalist you meet. Some environmentalists are more rational; others more spiritual. The spiritual ones will be the harder sell; even the rational environmentalists have a difficult time talking with them. Other environmentalists are dedicated extremists, seeking to polarize the situation by taking more radical positions than anyone else.

The great majority of environmentalists, however, are open to new ideas. Not surprisingly, those most willing to embrace libertarian ideas have operated their own businesses or worked in the private sector at some time or another. So if at first you don't succeed, try again.

Some libertarians worry that the environmental movement threatens liberty. While this is true of some of the tactics used by some of the environmental groups, it is not true of environmentalists in general. Treating environmentalists as threats will have the effect of polarizing them into an anti-libertarian stance.

Libertarians will be much better off if they work with, rather than against, environmentalists. To do so, libertarians must:

For Further Reference

Michael Rothschild, Bionomics: Economy as Ecosystem (New York, NY: Holt, 1990).

Randal O'Toole, Creating the Environmental Supermarket (Oak Grove, OR: CHEC, 1994).

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