Free-market environmentalism is an oxymoron!

[The following is a response to an editorial that appeared in the July 12, 2010 issue of the Colorado Daily, by a J. Craig Green, P.E., from the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank based in Golden, CO. You can rest assured that the financial backers of the Independence Institute and the Environment Research Center in Bozeman, MT, mentioned in the editorial, are backed by conservative corporations with an interest in privatizing natural resources. I tried to uncover this by accessing their Form 990's online, but was unsuccessful (The Form 990 is a public document that all non-profits that are 501(c)3 corporations must provide, which is supposed to show their source and use of financial funds.)]

Dear Colorado Daily,

I would like to respond to the editorial "Free-market environmentalism" by J. Craig Green on July 12, 2010.

My desire to address this is based on my teaching of environmental economics at Front Range Community College, and holding a masters degree in economics from the University of Pennsylvania. I do not know what Mr. Green's training is in economics, but as a professional engineer, I am sure he should be able to grasp some fundamental concepts from environmental economics which he seems to be lacking -- beginning with a public good.

A public good is one that cannot be easily packaged, whose consumption by one person does not reduce its availability to someone else, and is difficult to exclude others' access to it. The classic example is a lighthouse: no one's "consumption" of the light from a lighthouse diminishes another's consumption. I like to tell my students that environmental quality is the ultimate public good.

The other basic lesson about public goods is that private markets will consistently underproduce them, and do a terrible job of providing them if they try. This is due to the fact that public goods are inherently difficult to package and price, which rather destroys the incentive of firms to enter such markets. Coming up with ways of valuing the environment, such as clean air, clean water, aesthetic enjoyment, and ecological services, in order to develop market-like mechanisms that can be used to protect them, are major and difficult fields of study in environmental economics. Mr. Green's rather glib assurance that "private property owners have more incentive and control to take care of property they own" completely misses the point. No one can "own" environmental quality, Mr. Green's assertions notwithstanding.

No, the hidden agenda of "free-market environmentalists" and their minions is what really needs to be discussed here: the insane and dangerous greed of major corporations to privatize public resources for their own benefit. This is nothing new; it has been going on throughout history. The "free market" system was producing colossal environmental pollution before the environmental movement began to reverse this damage in the Sixties, a struggle which continues today. Mr. Green's other cheap swipes at the Obama administration, and incomprehensible mischaracterisation of excessive public debt as the cause of the 2008 financial meltdown, only further discredits his biased, incomplete and incorrect analysis.

Rick Casey


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