(Centennial Fellow) The United States is quickly becoming the first country ever to adopt policies designed to ensure its own decline. Ours could be the first society ever to purposely plan its own bleak future. Melodramatic? No. Our nation is actually adopting official policies promoting a lower standard of living for future generations, literally encouraging our people – through taxes, regulations, and higher prices – to travel less, live in smaller and less comfortable homes, give up their cars, and eliminate many other modern conveniences. No nation has ever even considered such a future, much less made it official public policy.
We are rushing headlong into an official course of action based on the view that free enterprise is selfish, that prosperity is unequal and thus unfair, and that our people must stop much of their production, manufacturing, and especially consumption. We are headed in this bizarre direction because of the dubious theory that our pursuit of the good life is destroying our environment, perhaps the very Earth itself.
Americans have done more to improve their environment than any people who ever lived, yet it seems like their treatment of the environment is often used against them. It is not because they quit caring about the environment, but because the conservation movement has been hijacked by a huge industry of dishonest money changers whose agenda has very little to do with the environment.
Every day we see the growing use of environmental laws not for the environment, but against people: ordinary folks denied the right to use their own property, mysterious endangered species used to stop human activity, public access to public lands increasingly limited, even law-abiding citizens hauled into court and accused of outrageous violations.
A bitter “us-against-them” mentality has replaced what was once almost universal support for environmental protection with contention, antagonism, confrontation, and litigation. Legislation, ballot initiatives, and lawsuits have taken the place of community discussion and enlightened debate. Environmental groups raise and spend hundreds of millions on campaigns and litigation. It is a worldwide “industry” with assets and income larger than many of the companies they fight. An in-depth analysis by the Sacramento Bee found that by the year 2000, foundations and corporations in America were giving to environmental organizations at the rate of $9 million a day. A decade later, they are bigger than ever, with legal branches that file three environmental lawsuits in the United States every day.
It is time to take back the high ground on these issues, and that does not require legal partnerships with the national environmental lobby, or giving government agencies control over private land. It does not require legislation, ballot initiatives, or lawsuits. Nor does it require increases in government spending or regulation. It requires a simple shift in thinking, based on one simple premise – we should improve our environment every way we can. We must promote programs that are demonstrably better for the environment than the regulatory overkill that has become the default.
That means promoting hands-on environmentalism, not hearing-room or court-room activity. In a nutshell, recovering endangered fish requires a hatchery, not a government regulation. Restoring healthy forests requires a chain saw, not a committee. Creating energy independence requires a drill rig, not a new policy. Reclamation of the site requires a nursery, not a bond. Conserving water requires a reservoir, not a 50-year plan. Reducing power plant emissions requires a scrubber, not an agency. All of that means private investment, not government spending, and all of it can be done without federal agencies or the environmental industry.
If we want to do the right thing for the environment and reassert our historic leadership, we must work closely with property owners and the business community, not demonize them. We must understand that people are part of the environment and cannot be locked out.
The existing contentious approach – on both sides – has led to divisiveness, and dramatically increased the cost of environmental protection. And because that leads to an anti-business and anti-people regime, it is frequently bad for the environment (witness the growth of catastrophic forest fires). The abuse of the conservation movement by groups whose real agenda is about power, control, and money – and not the environment – has created a vacuum for leadership. And that spells opportunity for leaders who want to put an end to the nonsense, and build a more prosperous future with an even cleaner and healthier environment for the next generation of Americans.
Greg Walcher is a Centennial Institute fellow and a former director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. He will speak at CCU on Nov. 18 about his new book,
Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back.