The modern environmental movement, founded on the very best of principles—protecting people and the planet—is failing.
To put it bluntly, many of the policies promoted to address the most serious and high profile environmental problems—climate change, declining biodiversity, oceanic dead zones, and tropical deforestation—simply aren’t working. Worse, some of those policies have become politically divisive and, in more than a few cases, actually make the problems worse.
It’s time to reconsider what we’re doing.
For the sake of this discussion, we can view environmentalism as a kind of social operating system, akin to a computer’s operating system. Like computer operating systems, environmentalism has proceeded through a series of versions, which can be referred to as Env1.0, 2.0, etc. This essay describes and evaluates Env1.0, which was in operation from about 1900 to about 1970, and Env2.0, which has been in operation since 1970. It then lays out a vision for Env3.0.
Env1.0, that of Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot (sometimes called conservationism), was grounded in the idea of a human-centered conservation of the environment. Env1.0 was primarily about making sure that humans didn’t over-consume natural resources that humanity might want to use later. The rallying cry of Env1.0 might have been, ‘Save the whales! We will want to eat them later.’ I joke, but this was actually a decent starting point for an environmental operating system because it was scaled to our then-understanding of the environment, both locally and globally. It also reflected what we had the ability to influence in any meaningful way at the time. Unfortunately, it didn’t work well enough and didn’t fulfill our evolving ideas about the environment. The passenger pigeon still went extinct.
Env2.0, founded by people such as Julia Hill, Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, and David Suzuki, and now associated with rituals such as Earth Day, non-governmental organizations such as Greenpeace, Earth First!, and Sierra Club, marked a significant departure from Env1.0.
In Env2.0, nature was seen to have intrinsic value outside of its utility to humanity and lie largely beyond the human power of rational management. Thus, the goal of Env2.0 wasn’t about maintaining and preserving the flow of environmental goods and services feeding human society but sought to wall off the environment from human society as much as possible. The rallying cry of Env2.0 might be caricatured as, ‘The environment is more important than us, we can only bung it up, so leave it alone!’
But Env2.0 is also failing on its own stated terms. Nature is neither being conserved via Env.1.0 nor has it been elevated above human needs and desires or left alone in its perfection via Env2.0.
While most of the drivers of Env2.0 were quite reasonable, it is failing—not because it was wrong to sound the alarm about environmental degradation and humanity’s role in that degradation. That was largely correct. Nor have environmentalists been wrong in pushing for environmental degradation remediation and greater ecological and human health protections. That was right as well. Even the fact that Env2.0 wasn’t particularly frugal in its methods (to put it lightly) isn’t grounds for calling it a failure. No, Env2.0 is failing for fundamental physical reasons. And by physical, I mean the fundamental cause-begets-effect, gravity-is-a-bitch kind of physical. Env2.0 is running afoul of the laws of both the physical world and intrinsic human nature. Here are three examples.
First, Env2.0 approaches generally ignore a defining characteristic of life: that living organisms respond to external stimuli. Put simply, human beings respond to incentives. Economics is the study of how humans respond to incentives. And all life is economic in one way or another. Paying attention to incentives when you’re looking at the movement of, say, glucose through an ecosystem but ignoring incentives when considering the flow of money in human ecosystems is a prescription for failure. Simply put, setting people against their own best interests and forcing them to pursue someone else’s interests makes them likely to refuse to go along with the plan.
Second, when Env2.0 concerns turn toward practical solutions, policy proponents seem to lose sight of how living systems actually respond to threats. Nature is dynamic and resilient, balancing the rigid and the flexible, continually evolving, but still highly efficient (ecologically, engineering, and biologically economic). But when it comes to regulation, environmental activists focus overwhelmingly on rigid prescriptions and inflexible regulation, attempting to pin humanity’s relationship to nature down to their specific vision of how an environmental utopia might appear, right down to setting the optimal numbers of polar bears that would constitute a “healthy ecosystem.” This approach has often been self-defeating because it fails to grasp how nature actually works and it conflicts with dynamic number one: people respond to incentives, and people want things like prosperity, liberty, health, opportunity, children, housing, jobs, and other things that are not satisfied by the Env2.0 approach.
Despite the claims of proponents that we can have both Env2.0 and all other human desires met, the reality comes back to science fiction author Robert Heinlein’s universal law: “There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.”
At times, Env2.0 has indeed appeared to embrace policies that are resilient, dynamic, and take account of human desires with some market-based measures, such as emission trading, tradeable quotas for fisheries, and pricing mechanisms such as carbon taxes, energy taxes, and other economically mediated solution pathways.
The usual exemplar of this approach (and nearly the only one that has been given a serious effort in the United States) sought to control air emissions that caused acid rain. Some Env2.0 advocates argued that pollution causing acid rain was addressed efficiently with a market mechanism and that ambient lead pollution, and a few other air pollutants, were also managed with market mechanisms. They usually assert that carbon taxes are a market mechanism as well. However, these arguments are peripherally true but centrally false. What most people think of as market-based environmental control systems may well be resilient, flexible, efficient, and decentralized, giving people a certain degree of latitude to express their preferences through choices in a “market.”
But environmental trading systems to date haven’t tapped into the critical part of what lets markets genuinely manifest the truc cost of something by allowing individuals to assess the costs and benefits of trade without artificial constraints. Rather, in current environmental-trading practice, some third-party makes the value assessments, imposes its preferred outcome in accordance with its view, and allows for a subset of the range of choices individuals might make freely.
In other words, sulfur trading, lead trading, and carbon trading are pseudo-market systems, not genuine ones, and they do not embody the resilience that is missing from Env2.0. That is not to say that they did not achieve benefits: they most certainly did. However, they do not disprove the fact that Env2.0 was primarily a system of command-and-control, not one that embraced true market-driven or even market-based environmental policies.
A third reason why Env2.0 is failing is that it didn’t live up to its original mantra: think globally, act locally. Rather than allowing for a diversity of environmental protection approaches to flourish at municipal, state, or regional levels, the environmental movement quickly moved to centralize such regulations, first at the state level (in places like California), and then increasingly at the national level, and ultimately at the global level (through the United Nations).
Each step toward centralization was a step along a primrose path. Yes, it was a predictable and readily-available approach—after all, governments have regulated for as long as we’ve had governments—but the further removed from the needs of people at their own local levels, the less uniform were the costs and benefits allocated to different people and different communities. All of this led to decreasing support in environmental policies from different segments of the public for various regulatory regimes, and the subversion—overtly or covertly—of those regimes.
One example of this would include the alienation of states that were heavily invested in coal production or power generation versus those states better endowed with lower-carbon sources of energy and economic growth. And another example is the one-size-fits-few problem with designating broad brush carbon targets that, by causing energy prices to rise, disproportionately impacts lower-income earners more than it does higher-income earners.
That’s not to say there have not been important and notable environmental successes.
Nobody wants to return to the pollution levels of the 1960s and 1970s. I know I don’t—I carried an asthma inhaler ever since collapsing from an asthma attack during high school physical education while running laps in California’s notoriously smoggy San Fernando Valley. And, only a cretin would not celebrate the resurgence of whale populations, the protection of migratory bird populations, and our most iconic raptor species. Successes of Env2.0 make up a fairly long list.
But as I mentioned at the outset, the rigid compulsory/engineering approach of Env2.0 is increasingly running into dead ends. For example, we are continuously failing to achieve emission targets, reduction deadlines, treaty obligations, measurable improvements to climate stability, biodiversity targets, and so on. National and International environmental protection targets have been missed far more than they’ve ever been hit. Virtually all national targets for greenhouse gas emissions have been missed, and almost no serious people think current greenhouse gas control targets (net-zero by 2050) are in any way attainable, much less compatible with the living standard achieved in developed countries, and desired around the world.
In the meantime, technological breakthroughs promised by Env2.0 (which were to have spontaneously arisen because, ironically, markets) have stubbornly failed to appear. Despite subsidies, electric vehicles still make up a tiny fraction of the automobile market. Wind and solar power are intermittent, as California was recently reminded, and, because of the need for scarce materials and redundant backup systems, renewables are still more expensive than fossil fuels. The long-promised super-batteries that would let people power their homes off the grid, and even power entire cities, states, and countries using wind and solar are nowhere to be seen. And now the public hears rhetoric that asserts a “climate emergency” that dispenses with the very idea that humans can sustain the quality of life they’ve worked so hard to achieve, instead cautioning us to prepare for a dystopian future while still futilely plugging away at the same failed policies that got us here.
So what’s the answer?
If at first you don’t succeed, revise and resurge. Now that Env2.0 is crashing painfully against the unyielding shores of reality, it’s time to turn toward approaches that work with fundamental human nature, economic incentives, fundamental ecological system characteristics, and fundamental physical reality by moving away from the static, non-economic, physically impossible approaches of Env2.0.
It’s time for Env3.0.
Doing this efficiently requires differentiating between two broad classes of environmental problems. One class consists of those environmental problems we know can be successfully managed with the resilient and dynamic systems to accurately manifest, and efficiently distribute property rights, which include the right to property in and of your own body, as well as to things outside of it. The overwhelming majority of environmental problems fit into this category, with the limits mostly being a matter of whether or not a given jurisdiction has a market-compatible policy environment. Local air pollution, local water pollution, local chemical exposure, local resource over-utilization, local wildlife endangerment, can (and sometimes have) been managed through markets and the rule of law. And by “local,” I mean “within one geopolitical region,” which can be cities, states, or even countries, but are virtually never transnational, trans-economic, or trans-environmental-boundary problems.
In 1991, Terry Anderson and Donald Leal published Free Market Environmentalism, an excellent book that summarized and expanded our understanding of why environmental problems exist and how incentives, markets, and property rights could help solve those problems. Their answer was not, as the prevailing orthodoxy of the time held, that humans were just selfish and thoughtless despoilers of the world that had to be regulated into submission to what the environmentalist elites demanded of them. Unfortunately, some Env2.0 aficionados who distrust people’s inclination to prioritize Env2.0’s particular view of what it means to have a healthy environment (often meaning one untainted by human hands) have resisted this property-based approach to environmental management and protection.
But sometimes we can’t use property rights and a legal framework for pollutants we really care about, pollutants that cross borders, that cannot be traced to a responsible party, that persist beyond the time when the original actors can be held responsible for remediating their harms. Greenhouse gas pollution is one of these problems. So is conventional air pollution that moves between jurisdictions, even at the continental level. Plastic pollution is another, and biodiversity (especially of migratory wildlife) is still another. Ocean mammal protection would be such a problem (save for some revolutionary technology that would allow for private management of animals like whales), as would the risk of polar bear extinction. And those critics of environmentalism based purely on property rights are correct: some environmental problems simply won’t yield to that framework.
That’s where a different approach from Env2.0 needs to be brought to bear. What is needed is a management approach that shifts away from viewing the goal of environmental protection as the meeting of fixed, often arbitrary and unattainable targets and timelines for the reduction of single sources of environmental concern (such as, say, greenhouse gases) toward a focus on building the overall resilience of our integrated, globally shared, social-ecological system that is actually compatible with those stubborn laws of physical reality and human behavior mentioned above. This is a framework that treats nature and the human economy as an integrated social-ecological system, of the sort described by economist Elinor Ostrom in Governing the Commons.
Before going further though, we need to define what we mean by “resilience,” which has, unfortunately, become something of a code word lately for “more government” in all sorts of realms—from infectious disease recovery to managing climate change to any number of other perceived social ills.
The kind of resilience we’re talking about here is not about preventing any or all changes to a social-ecological system or imposing a pre-defined vision of exactly what that system is supposed to look like, it is about managing such systems in such a way that they can bounce back from disturbance, to return to a desirable base state.
In the case of the United States, one might define that desirable base state as consisting of a society based on the principles of the Constitution, and the other documents of America’s founding as well as the strong environmental protection ethic that has come to permeate American sensibilities
But what are the elements that make a social-ecological system (SES) resilient? More importantly, what elements of SES organization or management can make an SES less resilient, or more fragile.
Identifying the components of SES resilience was the goal of researchers David A. Kerner and J. Scott Thomas (Kerner and Thomas) in “Resilience Attributes of Social-Ecological Systems: Framing Metrics for Management.” Kerner and Thomas break SES-resilience determinants into three broad categories: those which promote or compromise system stability, those which promote or compromise the system’s adaptive capacity, and those that promote or compromise the system’s readiness, which can be seen as the system’s speed and scope of responsiveness. Let’s consider a few examples.
Among the things that might compromise SES stability, Kerner and Thomas identify the presence of “single points of failure” which might cause the entire system to fail:
- System balance, or “The degree to which a system is not skewed toward one strength at the expense of others;”
- And system dispersion: “The degree to which the system is distributed over space and time”.
Among the things that might compromise SES adaptive capacity, Kerner and Thomas identify:
- System response diversity, or the ability to employ alternative components to withstand stresses;
- Collaborative capacity, or the “potential of system managers to work cooperatively to ensure system function in a timely and flexible manner;”
- Connectivity, or how readily a system can exchange resources and information internally and externally to ensure continued function in the face of existential threats;
- And learning capacity.
Finally, Kerner and Thomas identify some of the system attributes that might compromise SES readiness, including:
- The absence of simplicity or understandability;
- The presence of False Subsidies that may do more harm than good;
- And the presence or absence of autonomy, the degree to which “an organization, operation, or function can self-select alternate actions, configurations, and strategies to achieve the specific mission or function—essentially, control over its destiny.”
Astute readers will readily recognize that market systems or, as a second-best alternative, market-based environmental protection measures, will likely perform better on the various parameters of building SES-resilience than would either the conservation approaches of Env1.0 or the command-and-control approaches of Env2.0.
We should be concerned about the failure of Env2.0, that, through its lens of humanity as being somehow outside of the environment, dismisses the physical and evolutionary laws that govern human behavior, and produces an utterly dysfunctional environmental protection regime of political antagonism which fails at its self-proclaimed priority: protecting the environment.
What is needed now, 120 years since the advent of Env1.0, and 50 years after the advent of Env2.0, is a new system. We need an Env.3.0 that recognizes most environmental problems, especially localized problems, can be fixed most efficiently, and with respect for human needs, with genuine, bottom-up market-based management systems.
Env3.0 would also move beyond the limitations of Env2.0 by managing systems not as either “human” systems or “environmental systems,” but as integrated social-ecological systems that require more integrated thinking and accommodation of different people’s needs and desires, with a focus on resilience, rather than static, arbitrarily defined targets, timelines, quantitative goals, and inflexibility.