This Earth Day, bring environmental policy into the 21st century

Look at a map of Washington. There is a simple and obvious fact: the people who embrace the free market are the same people who live nearest to nature. Conversely, those who call themselves environmentalists choose to live in urban areas where nature has been paved over and destroyed.

On Earth Day, environmental activists will gather in places defined by concrete and asphalt and call for politically guided policies on the environment.

The simple truth, however, is that their approach is stuck in a failed 1970s mindset that actively opposes new technology, choosing to focus instead on political control and symbolic gestures.

For many Conservatives, on the other hand, every day is Earth Day, because they are constantly finding ways to become more efficient and to do more with less. Earth Day offers a good opportunity to highlight three key differences between the political approach of the left and the free market innovation of conservatives.

Key Difference #1: Technology or Life Restrictions?

Ask an environmental activist how to help the planet and he will likely lecture you on how to change your life – ride light rail, live in a smaller house, have only one child. A recent editorial in the Bellingham Herald from two activists, including a former PBS producer, noted:

“With changes in the way we use products, greater sharing of wealth, resources and working hours, we can do this. All that is lacking is the will to do it.”

The authors and other activists on the left suggest that we can generate “the will” with government force. The record of that approach, however, has been quite poor. People don’t ride light rail. Housing restrictions have driven prices up while encouraging sprawl.

Conservatives, however, support creating technology that allows everyone to do more with less, while living the American Dream.

The very symbol of the environmental movement, the Toyota Prius, is a free-market innovation that allows people to live their lives while using less gas. Politicians jumped on the bandwagon years after the Prius became a proven success. They followed the trend. They did not create it.

The power of technology is on dramatic display at a timber mill.  Each log is first scanned by a laser to maximize the amount of finished lumber that can be cut from it. The bark is saved and sold for landscaping purposes. Waste chips are turned into particle board. Even the sawdust is collected and used to provide power for the mill. The ethic of using every part of the animal that environmentalists praise in Native Americans is at the very center of running a modern timber mill.

As we look at real environmental improvements, politicians are quick to take credit where private sector technology, not government activism, was the real hero.

Key Difference #2: Results or Symbolic Gestures?

If you listen to Governor Inslee talk about climate change, the word you hear most is “leadership.” Leadership for politicians, however, is just another word for symbolic gesture. The purpose is to show others you care, not to actually help the environment.

Ironically, the more wasteful and futile the gesture, the more powerful it is symbolically. When political projects fail, politicians hold them up as symbols of how committed they are, arguing that drastic times call for drastic measures. Who could doubt their seriousness about an issue when they are willing to risk so much?

Take for example, former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels’ effort to get cities to reduce carbon emissions. In 2005, he encouraged cities to sign the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement – a pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2012. Of the 32 cities that signed the agreement, only 14 even took the first step called for by the agreement. None actually met the promised targets, including Seattle, where the effort began.

The goal of the Climate Protection Agreement, however, was never to help the environment. For more than half the mayors the goal was simply to send a press release showing their concern for the environment.

Conservatives, however, value results over cheap (or expensive) symbolism.

Unlike government, families who waste money on projects that don’t save energy or resources still have to pay for those resources. Failure is costly and there is direct accountability.

When Westin Hotel managers wanted to reduce water use, they didn’t simply put a sign in the room shaming you into reusing your towels. Westin offered guests five dollars for every day they did not have their room cleaned and sheets changed. The result was significant, with hotels reducing water use by twenty percent.

Many on the left go to great lengths to make a public display of how much they care about the environment, but those who truly care about natural resources ensure we actually achieve environmental goals and demand accountability for failure.

Key Difference #3: Personalized Approaches or One-Size Fits All?

The image of pollution the left likes to promote is of a few smokestacks or pipes polluting the air and water. That image, however, hasn’t been true for decades. Today, the impact on the environment is dispersed and the one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work.

Politicians love grand gestures. They require that all schools meet “green” building standards. They provide massive subsidies for solar panels they can point to with pride. They ban plastic grocery bags.

This grand approach, however, doesn’t work.

Schools have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to meet “green” building requirements, even though they admit the schools are often less efficient. The state spends millions to put solar panels on buildings, even though solar energy is extremely wasteful and reduces tiny amounts of carbon emissions. Cities ban plastic grocery bags, even though every alternative uses far more energy and the ban means people must buy alternative bags to pick up after pets and line trashcans.

Contrast that costly and ineffective approach with a system that gives everyone the choice of how to reduce environmental impact in their own life.

Want to use less gasoline? Perhaps you can telecommute. Or carpool. Or buy a hybrid or even electric car. Or you could even use a ridesharing service – the very approach that Seattle is desperately trying to limit.

Worried about plastic bottles? You can buy a Brita water filter and fill up your own bottle.  Brita ads even highlight the benefit of using fewer bottles. Or you could buy a PlantBottle, created by Coca-Cola using renewable resources to reduce the use of oil. Or you could buy an Aquafina “eco-shape” bottle that uses much less plastic, saving money and using fewer resources.

It is hard, however, to take political credit for the free choice of consumers. No politician can take credit for creating the PlantBottle. No bureaucracy can brag about someone who chooses to telecommute.

The environment doesn’t care who gets the credit. The environment only cares about results. In the words of Ronald Reagan, “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit.”

Earth Day was created in 1970. Many of who will celebrate are stuck in a mindset of the Nixon era and the economic downturn of the Carter years.

A conservative, free-market approach can bring environmental policy into the 21st century. An environmental ethic built on creative technology, reducing waste and personal solutions is not only more environmentally effective, it embraces the values at the heart of conservative thinking.

Todd has 14 years of experience in environmental policy and is currently a member of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council and is Environmental Director at the Washington Policy Center. He previously worked for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. He uses his mastery over nature as a beekeeper, tending three hives of honeybees.

 Todd is the author of “Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism is Harming the Environment” which Dr. Jay Lehr of the Heartland Institute called “the best psychology book you’ve ever read.”