Monday, June 27, 2005

These Are The Kind Of "Scholars" Passed Off As Experts By John Tierney

When I wrote my post questioning John Tierney's interpretation of western history the other day, something struck me. His most important experts were people at the Property & Environment Research Center thinktank in Montana. As someone who has spent years thinking and slowly writing about environmental and western history, I had never run across this institute. So I took a look online.

Not only does the PERC serve as experts for John Tierney, but they also happen to have right-wing views toward the environment that just happen to coincide with Tierney's. What a coincidence!

Among the tenets for their "market-based environmentalism" are the following:

Private property rights encourage stewardship of resources

Government subsidies often degrade the environment

Market incentives spur individuals to conserve resources and protect environmental quality

The first assertion is highly questionable at best. I'm sure it sounds good to right-wingers to say that private property rights encourage stewardship of resources. Only one problem. It kind of lacks any evidence.

Now yes, you can find private property owners who do take care of their land well. There are many ranchers who don't try to kill every prairie dog and who care about diversity of species and don't want to denude the land of every living thing. And you can find a hell of a lot more who do just the opposite, who want everything but their cows dead and who don't give a damn what kind of damage those cows do to riparian areas.

And then there's forestry. We had market-based forestry for a long time in this country. It's what the collusion between the timber industry and the US Forest Service was for the first 40 years after WWII. It led to rapid deforestation and destruction of all but the very last of our old-growth forests. It led to cuts that were way, way above sustainability because the market could absorb every tree that grew in this nation. Many of these lands were nominally owned by the federal government, even if the Forest Service bent over backwards to encourage rapid cutting. But the worst of the environmental damage was done on private lands where there was no government regulation to enforce even the most basic environmental responsibility.

I could go on about private property and the environment in the American West. Mining, fishing, agriculture. The Dust Bowl was an excellent example of how private property can lead to some real disastrous environmental conditions.

But that doesn't sound good to free market ideologues.

The claim that government subsidies often degrade the environment is just hogwash. Well, actually to be more specific it's true when those subsidies serve to further the interests of private property. But government subsidies to Great Plains farmers to not grow excessive numbers of crops, while an outdated policy, certainly has not caused greater environmental damage. Neither has policies to buy out farmers on the western plains and create the National Grassland system. The federal government is the most powerful tool we have to protect some semblance of the western environment.

In other words, government collaboration with private mining companies after World War II--bad for the environment.
Government subsidies to buy out farmers degrading their land--good for the environment.

Finally, the third point that market incentives spur environmental protection. In theory, this is possible. And of course that's the world that the right-wing economists behind the PERC live in. But it's only possible with a strong central government providing reasons for those incentives to work.

If you get rid of the federal government presence in the American West, you are asking for the widespread destruction of our western lands and resources. The Progressives knew this in 1900, FDR and Henry Wallace knew it in the 1930s, even Richard Nixon had some clue about it in 1970. The federal government has done a lot of damage to western environmentalists through its policies, but not nearly the damage that would have occurred without its strong hand.