Saving the environment during a Republican Congress

Big government doesn't work and making "enemies" doesn't work. The Thoreau Institute proposes a new way.

by Randal O'Toole
y favorite slogan from the first Earth Day in 1970 came from Pogo: "We have met the enemy and he is us." The message was that we are all responsible for harming the environment and we all must work to protect it. This inclusive theme was supported by everyone from President Richard Nixon to people who were then students, such as Newt Gingrich.
But no movement can survive without organization. And one of the best ways to organize and mobilize volunteers, donors, and other supporters is polarization. One of Saul Alinsky's most memorable "rules for radicals" - published just a year after the first Earth Day - was "pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it."
Since 1970, the fastest-growing environmental groups have been the ones that embraced this rule, particularly after James Watt became Secretary of the Interior. In a "how-to" book about direct-mail campaigns, the Fund Raising Institute urges that "villains are good" and commends environmental fund-raising letters that emphasize "enemies" like Watt.
Environmentalists were not the first social reformers to use polarization and they won't be the last. But the portrayal of some people as environmental enemies had two drastic consequences for the environment.
First, calling people environmental enemies was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Americans are no more enemies of the environment than they are enemies of mom or apple pie. But when environmentalists repeatedly labeled people enemies, those people quickly became enemies - not of the environment but of environmentalists.
Second, the focus on enemies led to the wrong solutions. If enemies are the cause of environmental troubles, then the solution is to punish the enemies and make them pay for saving the environment. This led environmentalists to rely on big government because only the federal government could, it seemed, whip the enemies into line.

Big is not better

The exclusive reliance on big-government is as new as the focus on enemies. Henry David Thoreau, the nation's first environmentalist, believed that "that government is best which governs least." As late as 1980, many environmentalists - fresh from anti-war demonstrations - continued to be suspicious of big government. But this suspicion faded as the emphasis on enemies grew.
Set on a big-government course and viewing issues through an us-versus-them filter, environmentalists predictably proposed laws that would make "them" pay for cleaning up the environment that "we" could then enjoy. The Endangered Species Act, clean air and clean water legislation, and the Superfund are all largely based on this make-the-enemies-pay mentality.
But enemies aren't the problem and big government isn't the solution. Laws based on these assumptions have done little to actually improve the environment. Since passage of the Endangered Species Act, far more species have gone extinct than have been saved. The Superfund spends lots of money but cleans up few areas.
Americans in general continue to support environmental goals, but most of them lost faith in big government long ago. The 1964 presidential election was the last clear victory for those who believed that big government could end racism, poverty, and other social ills. Since then, every presidential election has been won by the candidate running against Washington.
In 1994, the Republicans convinced voters to extend this anti-government feeling to congressional races. Suddenly, the enemies that environmentalists worried about are running Congress.
But the new Congress is not anti-environment; it is anti-government. This is a problem for environmentalists because, after two decades of pushing big government solutions to environmental problems, environmentalists don't know how to deal with a small-government Congress.
One predictable response is to make Congress the enemy. I've already received fund-raising letters from major environmental groups calling the 104th Congress "the greatest threat to the environment since James Watt." Treating Congress as an enemy may bring in donations, but it certainly won't save the environment.
A second response is to seem to jump on the small-government bandwagon by pointing to all the subsidies received by environmental "enemies." Certainly polluters and public land commodity users receive many subsidies. But the so-called friends of the environment also receive many subsidies. Moreover, the so-called enemies are friends of the people in power in Congress.

Alliances for the environment

The best approach is to become true, Henry David Thoreau-type small-government environmentalists. This means admitting that big government really doesn't work. This shouldn't be too hard: do you really believe that the Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, or Bureau of Land Management are good for the environment?
Even more, it means realizing that tools like user fees, markets, and incentives will do far more to protect the environment than subsidies, bureaucracy, and regulation. Western environmentalists can start with a "Subsidies Anonymous": "My name is Randal, and I am a subsidized public land user. I am willing to stop taking subsidies and to pay my fair share-provided that all other public land users pay their fair share as well."
To save the planet in the coming new century, environmentalists must stop making enemies and start making friends. We can begin by building alliances with other small-government groups. Such groups are alienated by environmental rhetoric labeling them "enemies," yet they have much in common with a Thoreauvian approach to the environment.
Polls show that more than 70 percent of Americans support the environment and more than 70 percent oppose big government. With support like this, a small-government environmental campaign could be unbeatable - if only environmentalists try it.

About the Thoreau Institute

Inspired both by Henry David Thoreau's love of the natural world and his dislike of big government, the Thoreau Institute seeks ways to protect the environment without regulation, bureaucracy, or central control. The Institute was founded in 1975 under the name of Cascade Holistic Economic Consultants to help environmentalists and others understand and influence public land management.
Since then, the Institute has worked as a consultant to or partner with every major national environmental group as well as numerous state and local groups. The Institute also publishes a magazine, originally titled Forest Planning but now called Different Drummer.
During the 1980s, Institute research on Forest Service and other agencies demonstrated that most environmental controversies on federal lands are due to the budgetary incentives facing public land managers. The budgetary process typically rewards managers for losing money on environmentally destructive activities and penalizes them for making money or for emphasizing environmentally benign activities.
In 1988, Island Press published Reforming the Forest Service, by Institute economist Randal O'Toole, which proposed user fees, trust funds, and other checks and balances aimed at improving national forest management while saving taxpayers $2 billion per year. Since then, the Institute has found similar problems with the National Park Service and several other agencies.
Henry David Thoreau, America's first environmentalist, wrote that in wildness is the preservation of the world. But he also firmly believed that that government is best which governs least.
Institute research has consistently found that big government activities - programs that are centrally planned, centrally budgeted, and controlled by prescriptive laws - do not work. As an alternative, Institute research now aims to find small government means, including such techniques as user fees, markets, and incentives, to protect the environment.
Another important Institute principle is that there are no enemies of the environment - only people with different incentives. The Institute is working with environmentalists, timber company representatives, ranchers, miners, and other resource users to find win-win solutions to environmental problems.

Randal O'Toole is founder of The Thoreau Institute, 14417 S.E. Laurie, Oak Grove OR 97267, (503)652-7049.