Moving Beyond Economy-Sapping 1970s Environmentalism

Moving Beyond Economy-Sapping 1970s Environmentalism
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For the past several years, about 40 percent of honeybee hives in the United States did not make it through the winter, one of the highest rates of mortality ever recorded. During that same time, however, the total number of hives in the United States increased. 

How can honeybees be dying at a greater rate while the overall population is increasing? The answer lies in the power of the free market, personal knowledge and incentives. The story is emblematic of a path away from 1970s environmentalism and toward a stewardship ethic that celebrates individual incentive.  It's also a story of our migration away from bureaucracies that force us to change our lifestyle, and toward technology-based iPhone environmentalism that does more with less, all the while helping the environment and protecting individual liberty. 

From city councils to Congress, politicians have been quick to proclaim their support for honeybees, blaming everything from pesticides to cell phone towers for increased mortality. Lacking personal experience and information, politicians only know enough to offer a grab bag of self-serving policies that suit their ideological biases. 

Beekeepers, like me, do not have the luxury of indulging in feel-good lectures. It doesn’t matter what assumptions I have about the cause of colony collapse. If my bees die, I either change my approach or I don’t get honey. Commercial beekeepers, those with the most to lose from hive death, have mortality rates about half the rate of backyard beekeepers. When people have the knowledge and feel the costs of their actions, they make better decisions – for themselves and for the environment.

Since 1972, our environmental policy has been built on the opposite assumption. We put power in the hands of government agencies far from the problem. We gave control to bureaucrats who do not feel the cost of their failed policies. 

Fifty years ago, there were few alternatives to that top-down approach. To address large sources of pollution, like smokestacks and drainpipes that poured waste directly into rivers, government regulation was the approach most likely to have success. Smokestacks and outfall pipes were concentrated and identifiable, allowing EPA staff to target sources and reduce pollution. As a result, our air and water are cleaner today than in 1970 when the first Earth Day was held. 

Government regulation came with a cost and has its limits. When regulators moved beyond those obvious sources of pollution, they expanded their authority at the expense of personal freedom and economic growth. Significantly, that approach was increasingly at odds with the reality of environmental protection. 

In 2010, Bill Ruckelshaus, the first director of the EPA, described the dramatic changes since the agency was launched. He noted that when the EPA was created, “85% of the problems of water pollution in the country were large, point-source discharges, like municipal sewage-treatment plants or industrial operations.” Today, by way of contrast, 85 percent of remaining pollution comes from “non-point sources,” like runoff from streets, lawns and other distributed sources. 

The EPA and many on the left, however, are stuck in the 1970s. As pollution diminishes and becomes more distributed, their response is to expand the EPA’s reach into every corner of the economy, becoming more expensive and intrusive even as it does less to improve environmental quality. 

The Waters of the United States rule is a dramatic example. Chasing the environmental impact of every ditch across the country, the EPA sought to expand its authority to virtually all bodies of water. Such an approach guarantees abuse but does little to help the environment.  

EPA can never effectively enforce such a broad mandate. Each time agency enforcement officers identified a violation, they would hit property owners with huge fines to make an example of them, knowing that for every one they catch, there are hundreds more they could punish under the expansive and vague rules. That harsh approach - scare people into compliance - does little to guarantee a reduction in pollution but does guarantee random and unjust treatment for those they ensnare. 

Conservatives and the Trump Administration have rightly focused on the unjust nature of the EPA’s expansive regulation. We can’t simply stop there. We need to clearly recognize these regulations are also poor at helping the environment. If we only mention the violations of property rights and economic costs, we risk ceding real environmental concern to the left. This would not only be a mistake, it also doesn’t celebrate the fact that conservatives, who often live in rural communities, are far more in touch with stewardship of natural resources every day than the environmental activists who often sequester themselves in cities. 

It is time to move beyond old-style, 1970s environmentalism and bring it into the smartphone era. In the same way Uber allowed individuals to use information technology to connect people and provide more choice, smartphones and personal technology allow us to live the stewardship ethic that is so much part of the way conservatives already live. 

This new approach to environmental stewardship reaches everyone – from farmers to those who live downtown in major cities. 

While the EPA was attempting to monitor every drainage ditch, farmers found a way to reduce their use of fertilizer and pesticides, saving money and reducing the amount that may end up in streams. Farmers use drones to identify portions of their field needing additional fertilizer or where there is a pest infestation. Rather than apply nutrients evenly across their land – whether necessary or not – drones allow farmers to do more with less, applying small amounts only where necessary. 

Homeowners are also benefitting from personal technology, providing opportunities to become more energy efficient. In many states, the only real-time feedback available to homeowners about their energy use is the spinning meter on the outside of the house – which is totally useless for making meaningful decisions.  

Now, several companies offer technology to monitor a home’s electricity use in real time.  

The Sense energy monitor is a small, orange box that fits in your electric panel and can determine which appliances are driving your energy use. The monitor connects with your smartphone, allowing you to immediately check how much electricity you are using and find ways to economize. 

Tendril is a product that provides a similar technology for utilities, helping them plan future demand and reward customers for conservation. This reduces customer complaints and helps reduce peak demand when electricity costs are highest. 

It doesn’t matter if your goal is to reduce environmental impact, reduce the amount of oil money going to hostile countries like Russia and Iran, or simply to save energy. These new technologies do what government bureaucracies and politicians cannot – cut electricity demand in ways that honor personal freedom, allowing people to make their own choices using their own information. 

Transportation is also undergoing a quiet change, using smartphones to expand opportunities, providing freedom that public transit simply cannot provide, without massive subsidies. 

Car2Go and new competitors like BMW’s ReachNow, let people quickly find cars nearby and rent them for a single trip. Not surprisingly, these have become extremely popular, with thousands of people using the service as their second or even first car. The City of Seattle estimates more than nine thousand drivers have given up personal vehicles as a result. The cars are also fuel-efficient, using about the same amount of fuel per passenger mile as buses.  

While the left’s approach to environmental protection demands we change our lifestyles to conform to their worldview – forcing people onto transit on their schedule – conservatives empower people to make their own decisions, providing options like car sharing. The conservative approach recognizes that personal incentive and liberty are not only consistent with environmental protection, when combined with technology, they are the most effective tools to promote environmental stewardship. 

Instead of relying on expansive government bureaucracy, small-scale technologies make improvements that add up to meaningful environmental results. Many hands make light work, and information, rather than coercion, is the most powerful force not only for the environment but for personal freedom and prosperity. 

For decades, conservatives have rightly been suspicious of environmental claims, seeing them as a Trojan Horse for big-government programs and coercive policies. Those who believe in personal freedom, however, should not confuse the stewardship ethic and reverence for nature they embrace with the counterproductive environmentalism of the 1970s. 

The smartphone era allows conservatives to embrace an environmental alternative that is true to our values. Smartphone environmentalism celebrates the personal freedom that is at the heart of the American way of life, harnessing the spirit that created prosperity to promote conservation. 

Returning the EPA to a more limited role, where it can effectively uphold the basic environmental standards it began with, is only the first step. We now have the opportunity to create an iPhone environmentalism that transfers power from government bureaucracies to ordinary people, so we can leave a legacy of environmental stewardship and the American dream of freedom to future generations. 

Todd Myers is Environmental Director at the Washington Policy Center in Seattle. He is the author of the book "Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism Is Harming the Environment," and serves on the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council.  

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