Newsflash! Environmentalist sees hope in problem-solving abilities of lawful, free-market economies

In his Washington Post column of this morning, Charles Krauthammer does a very deft job of implying, without actually saying, that environmentalists are really Communists in sheep’s clothing. This is a common theme of self-described conservative writers.

His article asserts that environmentalists support "radical economic and social regulation." The careful reader must note that he cites no evidence for this assertion. Actual legislation to control climate -- such as AB 32 that passed in California with bipartisan support, and the Lieberman Warner bill in the Senate -- are examples of the types of solutions environmentalists actually support: emissions caps with multiple market-based mechanisms for meeting the caps at the greatest benefit (or in a more pessimistic scenario, at the least cost). 

The wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing is a common theme in anti-environmental writing, as I observed in my book Saving Energy, Growing Jobs

Perhaps the most widespread myth about environmentalists is that environmental activists are truly, at heart, Communists, and that the struggle of the business community against environmental activism is actually a struggle to protect private property from Communism.

To equate environmentalists with Communists is seldom done in so many words by the anti-environmentalist authors, but is quite evident indirectly from their writing, and surprisingly widespread. Chapter 1 notes how a number of advocacy articles on climate change asserted that even environmentalists recognized that global climate change wasn’t all that important! Instead, the articles argued, environmentalists recognized that doing something about global warming would require more government control—perhaps to the point of total government control over private industry, as in a Communist country. They asserted that the hidden agenda of environmentalists was not environmental protection, but rather government control of business.

The above speculation is echoed in the Wall Street Journal’s citation of business concerns about global climate change: "Many skeptics contend that liberal environmental agendas are behind alarming global-warming headlines, although often skeptics bring agendas of their own." It is difficult to imagine what so-called liberal environmental agendas might mean if not state-run central economic planning.

In at least one case the linkage is made explicitly and publicly. Nationally syndicated columnist George Will wrote in a 2005 op-ed column that "For some people, environmentalism is collectivism in drag. Such people use environmental causes and rhetoric not to change the political climate for the purpose of environmental improvement. Rather, for them, changing the society's politics is the end, and environmental policies are mere means to that end."

Such a theme recurs constantly on the websites of conservative think-tank organizations, such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, that are widely cross-referenced on other business and political organization sites. The Institute’s president, Fred L. Smith Jr., wrote a paper (available on the Institute’s website) in 2004 entitled "Eco-Socialism: Threat to Liberty Around the World." In it, he states, "the ecology has become the battleground on which competing visions [of the economy] now engage." And the text states clearly that the two competing visions are his Institute’s vision of free markets and the opponents’ vision of "centralized collectivist solutions."

This article above is not an isolated case of this story being circulated. The Institute is well linked on the Internet to other conservative sites, and articles and reports of a similar tenor are widespread. Evidently many people believe, or accept the policies of people who believe, that environmentalism is less important in its own right than it is as a "battleground on which competing visions now engage."

The view above would seem to explain much of the business community’s knee-jerk advocacy against environmental protection. American business has been concerned about socialism for well over 150 years. In fact, much of businesses activism against organized labor in the nineteenth century was based on the fear that labor union organizations were the precursor of Communist revolutions that would expropriate property from business.

The fears of Communism are not completely ill founded: many countries, beginning with the Soviet Union, underwent socialist revolutions and did in fact expropriate property. If a real connection between environmental advocacy and Communism did exist, this would be something serious for business to worry about.

Actually, the facts are almost completely opposite: where socialists have expropriated private industry, they have also operated it in a way that is much more irresponsible environmentally than is the case in market-based economies. Centrally planned economies have the world’s worst record on environmental protection, pollution, destruction of natural environments, and the most hostility for citizen-based environmental advocacy.

The concerns about government control are equally mistaken. My experience in the Soviet Union, and more recently in China, shows that the level of state control over actual production processes in these economies is lower that it is in market economies like America and Europe, often to the extent that even when the country seriously wants to change business practices to protect the environment, as is now the case in China, the level of control necessary to do this well simply doesn’t exist.

In other words, a free-market economy subject to the rule of law is a much more fertile field to implement environmental policies than a Communist country. Based on the facts, environmentalists should be at least as anti-socialist as businesses.

It seems that George Will, Krauthammer, and other conservative pundits must have missed the memo. Colleagues Kate Wing and Andrew Wetzler ably demonstrate the pragmatism of today's environmental advocates in responses to Krauthammer's column and a recent Will column, respectively.