Saving the environment during a Republican Congress
by Randal O'Toole
Big government doesn't work and making "enemies" doesn't
work. The Thoreau Institute proposes a new way.
y favorite slogan from the first Earth Day in 1970 came
from Pogo: "We have met the enemy and he is us." The message was
that we are all responsible for harming the environment and we all must
work to protect it. This inclusive theme was supported by everyone from
President Richard Nixon to people who were then students, such as Newt Gingrich.
But no movement can survive without organization. And
one of the best ways to organize and mobilize volunteers, donors, and other
supporters is polarization. One of Saul Alinsky's most memorable "rules
for radicals" - published just a year after the first Earth Day - was
"pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it."
Since 1970, the fastest-growing environmental groups
have been the ones that embraced this rule, particularly after James Watt
became Secretary of the Interior. In a "how-to" book about direct-mail
campaigns, the Fund Raising Institute urges that "villains are good"
and commends environmental fund-raising letters that emphasize "enemies"
Environmentalists were not the first social reformers
to use polarization and they won't be the last. But the portrayal of some
people as environmental enemies had two drastic consequences for the environment.
First, calling people environmental enemies was a self-fulfilling
prophecy. Americans are no more enemies of the environment than they are
enemies of mom or apple pie. But when environmentalists repeatedly labeled
people enemies, those people quickly became enemies - not of the environment
but of environmentalists.
Second, the focus on enemies led to the wrong solutions.
If enemies are the cause of environmental troubles, then the solution is
to punish the enemies and make them pay for saving the environment. This
led environmentalists to rely on big government because only the federal
government could, it seemed, whip the enemies into line.
Big is not better
The exclusive reliance on big-government is as new as
the focus on enemies. Henry David Thoreau, the nation's first environmentalist,
believed that "that government is best which governs least." As
late as 1980, many environmentalists - fresh from anti-war demonstrations
- continued to be suspicious of big government. But this suspicion faded
as the emphasis on enemies grew.
Set on a big-government course and viewing issues through
an us-versus-them filter, environmentalists predictably proposed laws that
would make "them" pay for cleaning up the environment that "we"
could then enjoy. The Endangered Species Act, clean air and clean water
legislation, and the Superfund are all largely based on this make-the-enemies-pay
But enemies aren't the problem and big government isn't
the solution. Laws based on these assumptions have done little to actually
improve the environment. Since passage of the Endangered Species Act, far
more species have gone extinct than have been saved. The Superfund spends
lots of money but cleans up few areas.
Americans in general continue to support environmental
goals, but most of them lost faith in big government long ago. The 1964
presidential election was the last clear victory for those who believed
that big government could end racism, poverty, and other social ills. Since
then, every presidential election has been won by the candidate running
In 1994, the Republicans convinced voters to extend
this anti-government feeling to congressional races. Suddenly, the enemies
that environmentalists worried about are running Congress.
But the new Congress is not anti-environment; it is
anti-government. This is a problem for environmentalists because, after
two decades of pushing big government solutions to environmental problems,
environmentalists don't know how to deal with a small-government Congress.
One predictable response is to make Congress the enemy.
I've already received fund-raising letters from major environmental groups
calling the 104th Congress "the greatest threat to the environment
since James Watt." Treating Congress as an enemy may bring in donations,
but it certainly won't save the environment.
A second response is to seem to jump on the small-government
bandwagon by pointing to all the subsidies received by environmental "enemies."
Certainly polluters and public land commodity users receive many subsidies.
But the so-called friends of the environment also receive many subsidies.
Moreover, the so-called enemies are friends of the people in power in Congress.
Alliances for the environment
The best approach is to become true, Henry David Thoreau-type
small-government environmentalists. This means admitting that big government
really doesn't work. This shouldn't be too hard: do you really believe that
the Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, or Bureau of Land Management
are good for the environment?
Even more, it means realizing that tools like user fees,
markets, and incentives will do far more to protect the environment than
subsidies, bureaucracy, and regulation. Western environmentalists can start
with a "Subsidies Anonymous": "My name is Randal, and I am
a subsidized public land user. I am willing to stop taking subsidies and
to pay my fair share-provided that all other public land users pay their
fair share as well."
To save the planet in the coming new century, environmentalists
must stop making enemies and start making friends. We can begin by building
alliances with other small-government groups. Such groups are alienated
by environmental rhetoric labeling them "enemies," yet they have
much in common with a Thoreauvian approach to the environment.
Polls show that more than 70 percent of Americans support
the environment and more than 70 percent oppose big government. With support
like this, a small-government environmental campaign could be unbeatable
- if only environmentalists try it.
About the Thoreau Institute
Inspired both by Henry David Thoreau's love of the natural
world and his dislike of big government, the Thoreau Institute seeks ways
to protect the environment without regulation, bureaucracy, or central control.
The Institute was founded in 1975 under the name of Cascade Holistic Economic
Consultants to help environmentalists and others understand and influence
public land management.
Since then, the Institute has worked as a consultant
to or partner with every major national environmental group as well as numerous
state and local groups. The Institute also publishes a magazine, originally
titled Forest Planning but now called Different Drummer.
During the 1980s, Institute research on Forest Service
and other agencies demonstrated that most environmental controversies on
federal lands are due to the budgetary incentives facing public land managers.
The budgetary process typically rewards managers for losing money on environmentally
destructive activities and penalizes them for making money or for emphasizing
environmentally benign activities.
In 1988, Island Press published Reforming the Forest
Service, by Institute economist Randal O'Toole, which proposed user
fees, trust funds, and other checks and balances aimed at improving national
forest management while saving taxpayers $2 billion per year. Since then,
the Institute has found similar problems with the National Park Service
and several other agencies.
Henry David Thoreau, America's first environmentalist,
wrote that in wildness is the preservation of the world. But he also firmly
believed that that government is best which governs least.
Institute research has consistently found that big government
activities - programs that are centrally planned, centrally budgeted, and
controlled by prescriptive laws - do not work. As an alternative, Institute
research now aims to find small government means, including such techniques
as user fees, markets, and incentives, to protect the environment.
Another important Institute principle is that there
are no enemies of the environment - only people with different incentives.
The Institute is working with environmentalists, timber company representatives,
ranchers, miners, and other resource users to find win-win solutions to
Randal O'Toole is founder of The Thoreau Institute, 14417 S.E. Laurie,
Oak Grove OR 97267, (503)652-7049.