Steve G.

Government: The last thing you want in charge of the environment

In Economics, Environment on January 2, 2007 at 5:06 am

Anytime a problem of seemingly incomprehensible enormity faces a group of people, they tend to run to the most enormous thing they can think of for help. As a general rule, the most enormous thing they can think of is national government, or even larger, international bodies like the United Nations or organizations based around treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol. The solutions offered by these organizations generally include an expansion of the power of the government. This generally does not seem dangerous at the time, because government power is being expanded to accomplish something generally regarded as beneficial.

What this viewpoint fails to recognize is that anytime government power is expanded to accomplish something, no matter how beneficial, that government automatically has the power to the opposite. In a system of government which changes constantly due to elections, policies and opinions can change rapidly. Thus, in national forests established to protect their natural state, logging companies are now encouraged to transform old-growth trees into paper and two-by-fours to build suburbs.

Even so, it is tempting to resort to government power to bring solutions to the most terrifying problems confronting the world. Anthropogenic worldwide climate change is certainly among these, but still, resorting to government leaves open dangerous paths for future administrations to take. For example, artificially curbing carbon outputs through regulation lets the next group of politicians with different loyalties raise caps and rewrite laws and regulations which end up raising carbon emissions above what they would normally be.

Such concerns are not hypothetical; for example, deforestation – essentially the removal of a valuable carbon sink – is encouraged by the United States Forest Service, even including clear-cuts which essentially raze the forest. Clearly the simple existence of a government program that is supposed to take care of something guarantees nothing; in fact, all that can be guaranteed is that the allegiances of its bosses will change.

Even when a lobby is so powerful that changing politicians are frightened to ever change their favorite programs foists an idea on the government on the premise that it will help the environment, frequently the environmental benefits are questionable at bets. The most obvious example of this problem is the huge subsidy on corn ethanol provided by the United States government. Although sugarcane-derived ethanol works in Brazil, making fuel-grade ethanol from corn is highly inefficient and has mediocre results for the environment – though the profits it makes the corn lobby are unquestionable.

Nothing can match the government of a developed nation in centralized power and wealth, which is of course what makes government an obvious choice to attempt to solve problems that threaten our existence as a species. However, as governments are fickle and often backtrack, the dedicated efforts of private groups and individuals are the only thing that can consistently defend the environment.

No one group can cover all aspects of environmental protection and advocacy, but specialization is a positive feature of private environmentalism – groups such as the Nature Conservancy can focus on actually maintaining ecosystems and reserve areas, groups at universities such as our own Solar Decathlon team and our competitors can work towards finding more efficient and environmentally friendly ways to live, along with private-sector innovators taking advantage of the fact that efficiency is, as a general rule, profitable and environmentally friendly.

Another advantage of private-sector environmentalism is that it is better at weeding out poor ideas such as corn-based ethanol: without the altering presence of lobbyist-guided politicians, ideas that don’t work are not drawn out for decades based on political favoritism.
Handing responsibility for our environment to a fickle, huge, and easily confused beast like government is about as sensible and responsible as entrusting an infant to a seemingly friendly grizzly bear: the infant will be secure while the bear remains friendly, but there’s no question that things will change.

  1. Well, that’s post one, folks. Not all of mine will be this in-depth or long, don’t worry.

  2. Hey man, glad to have you onboard at long last! A beautifully-worded post, and I wholeheartedly agree.

  3. Likewise.

    If anyone doubts what Nigel said, look at the environmental disasters created by totalitarian states under “scientific socialism”.

    Coming to understand what you wrote in this post, over a period of a couple of years back in the early 90s, was one of the things most influential in making me a libertarian.

  4. […] Last Free Voice for truth, justice and the american way « Government: The last thing you want in charge of the environment […]

  5. I’d go along with you as far as agreeing that governments are ill-equipped to respond intelligently to challenges like climate change.

    The Stern Review is a classic case in point. The climate scientists on the whole are recommending stabilisation at around 400ppm CO2e, if I recall correctly. Stern airily dismisses even 450ppm CO2e as ‘too expensive and difficult’ and instead selects a target in the vicinity of 550ppm, which he feels is more plausibly reachable without severely impacting returns on capital investment.

  6. But a smiling visitant here to share the love (:, btw outstanding design . “The worst-tempered people I’ve ever met were the people who knew they were wrong.” by Wilson Mizner.

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