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Earth Day Group Think

April 21, 2000

During a religion class in my junior year of college, our leftist professor showed us a series of films glorifying the communist revolution in China. The "liberation," he told us, had saved the Chinese from a miserable existence and had both raised their standard of living and had given them new spiritual life.

Like so many other stories of regeneration (Lincoln freed the slaves, Castro liberated Cuba, and World War I made the world safe for democracy), this one was a lie. However, like Goebbels’ "Big Lie," it has become standard fare in the American academy and--as one would expect--in the salons of the political classes.

This weekend, Americans celebrate another Big Lie, this one having to do with Earth Day. (Perhaps we should call it, "Worship the Earth Day.") Schoolchildren who "celebrate" this day by doing deeds of recycling and writing letters to politicians begging them to "save the earth" are told that all of us are in immediate peril unless the government acts quickly. Any environmental improvements that we have seen since the inception of Earth Day 30 years ago are due solely to the Environmental Protection Agency and environmental activists.

For example, an 11-year-old fifth grade student at a Greenville, South Carolina, middle schools recently wrote in his Earth Day essay, "If there was no Earth Day, the Earth would rot and die and there wouldn’t be enough trees or oxygen." A classmate writes, "You should save the world and not pollute."

Lest we think this is simply foolishness from the mouths of babes, consider this from David Whitman, a reporter for U.S. News: "At the time of the first Earth Day, America was a place where oil-drenched rivers caught fire, loggers lopped down great swaths of national forests, recycling was rare, motorists routinely littered, and fabled icons like the bald eagle were headed toward extinction in the lower 48 states."

He goes on: "The Environmental Protection Agency did not exist, and industry and government casually dumped millions of tons of hazardous wastes." But like Mao’s China in 1974, all-powerful central government has come to the rescue of the people and the land and has saved us from the greedy capitalists.

Like all stories of salvation by government, this one comes loaded with propaganda of the sort that would have given Goebbels pride of authorship. I will next examine a few of the Big Lies that seem to emanate from the press this time every year.

The first lie is that unless government imposes socialist measures, we will drown in our own wastes or suffocate as deforestation and global warming slowly suffocate us. Each generation, interestingly, has predicted some sort of environmental catastrophe. Near the end of the 19th Century, for example, city planners warned of the impending danger of the streets being covered with dozens of feet of horse manure as the population of humans and animals would surely grow in those imperiled cities. The reviled automobile, it turns out, saved us from that horrible fate.

Who can forget the Club of Rome's screed, Limits to Growth, which appeared in 1974 and warned that unless the world immediately converted to socialism that humanity as we had known it would virtually disappear by the end of the 20th Century? Jimmy Carter’s Global 2000, which environmentalists hailed, was another gloom and doom report that predicted chaos in 20 years unless the madness of free markets was replaced by "orderly" government planning.

The world did not convert to outright socialism, and when the Iron Curtain fell in 1991, embarrassed environmentalists discovered that the socialist nations had by far the worst pollution problems on the planet. In other words, the supposed "solution" to environmental degradation was actually an engine of unchecked pollution.

The second Big Lie is that without the EPA, America’s rivers would be flaming sewers and life as we knew it most likely would have disappeared. The EPA is seen as the regulatory "thin, blue line" that separates the civilized world from chaos.

However, as Bruce Yandle of Clemson University has so eloquently written, "environmental regulation in the United States did not begin with the formation of the EPA (in 1970)." Indeed, as Yandle points out, "America’s pre-federal experience with environmental regulation is as diverse as the country’s population and geographic regions. Almost a century longer than the federal period, it was a time of experimentation with and development of ways to control polluter actions."

The commonly held belief is that there were no attempts to control emissions into the air and water until President Richard Nixon and Congress created the EPA. In fact, people had long acted both through the courts and through the legislatures to deal with pollution problems.

The most effective tool was the appeal to property rights as protected by common law. Citizens who found their property and personal health damaged by nearby factories could find redress from the courts and often were successful. However, as the state authorities began to see industrialization as something in the "public interest," the courts began to side with polluters without proper redress given to those whose health and property were harmed. (See Murray Rothbard’s "Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution" for an excellent discussion of common law and environmental issues, from Economics and the Environment, edited by Walter Block.)

In fact, the destruction of private property rights and the metamorphosis of private property into common property has been a central reason why industrial pollution had reached nearly intolerable levels in some municipalities by 1970. For example, the famous 1969 fire in Cleveland, Ohio’s, Cuyahoga River would never had happened had the law recognized private property rights of waterways instead of having them declared "public" (read that, common) property. The same goes for the air above one’s property.

Instead of continuing strict property rules, which would have allowed for bargaining and solutions that would have satisfied all sides, government resorted to the faulty economic analysis of the Hicks-Kaldor rule. This rule assumes one can know cardinal measures of utility so that a person can objectively calculate both benefits and costs, with the "winners" supposedly being able to compensate the "losers" and there still being a "surplus" of "public welfare" left over.

Yandle notes that states and communities across the nation had experimented with various laws and regulations to deal with problems of emissions, with the results being a "rich diversity." As Yandle and others have also noted, environmental protection, which economists rightly portray as a normal good of which people demand more as their wealth increases, was on the rise even before the advent of the EPA.

What the EPA did, however, was to scrap much of the sensible law that was in existence and substitute the horribly inefficient methods of command and control. What most people do not realize is that the law, in mandating minimum levels of discharge, actually requires private business and property owners and municipalities alike to employ uniform anti-pollution equipment whether or not that equipment actually does what it is supposed to do.

Take automobile pollution gear, for example. For all its costs and impressive looks under the hood of a vehicle, most emissions equipment takes out only marginal amounts of toxic discharges. The greatest improvements in emissions reduction have come from simple measures like the positive crankcase ventilation system (PCV) that was enacted in the 1960s. However, even the most sophisticated anti-pollution devices are of little value if the car's owner fails to have regular tune-ups.

In truth, government has mightily contributed to the problems of air and water pollution by destroying common law property rights, which were the best defense against unwanted discharges into water and air. By insisting upon a rigid and inefficient command and control scheme, the EPA forces Americans to employ wasteful methods to clean up industrial and municipal discharges.

Like Mao's communist state, the EPA is the emperor without any clothes. Of course, since the EPA and other government agencies are the main source of news to media outlets, the larger public will never be told the truth. Thus, the Big Lie continues.

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William Anderson teaches economics at North Greenville College. Send him MAIL.


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