On April 22, in cities across America, some environmental activists will celebrate Earth Day, claiming only increased government control can protect the environment. Those celebrations will expose a couple ironies.
First, many activists will arrive in a Toyota Prius, which has become the symbol of environmental consciousness. Ironically, however, the Prius is not a triumph of political planning but of the free market. In the 1990s, while California was requiring “zero-emission” vehicles, leaders at Toyota and Honda saw an opportunity to sell cars to people who want to spend less on gasoline, drive a car that emits less carbon dioxide, or both. Thus was born the hybrid vehicle. Even though it did not meet California’s regulation, it sold well, causing Golden State politicians to change the law.
Jumping on the bandwagon, politicians began to give preferences to hybrids. Politicians did not lead, but followed the innovation of the free market. Most Prius drivers, however, don’t know that history and some will spend Earth Day opposing the free-market policies that created the car they are so proud of.
Many activists on the left will also spend Earth Day complaining that people who see the benefits of the free market don’t care about the environment. A look at the national political map, however, tells a different story.
Across the country, the parts of the nation that most consistently support free-market candidates are those surrounded by stunning natural beauty. The most vocal environmental activists — who are quick to lecture others about caring for nature — tend to live in cities, where nature has been thoroughly controlled, constrained and paved.
How, we should ask, can environmental activists get away with this? How can they continue to advocate top-down policies that don’t help the environment? How can those who live where nature has been subjugated lecture those who live in it and with it every day?
Environmentalism has become trendy and a way to show you are a good person, rather than actually helping the environment. Environmental activists and politicians choose government-mandated approaches not because they help the environment, but because the policies make them feel good about themselves and make them look good to others.
The strategy is as simple as the fourth-grade playground: Build up your own environmental credentials by tearing others down and calling names.
Rather than pointing out these ironies, however, free-market conservatives often fall into the trap of arguing there are no risks to the environment, fitting perfectly into the stereotype imposed on them by the left. Some conservatives fear that by admitting they care about the environment, they must then endorse a range of left-wing policies they oppose.
In fact, a strong concern for the environment is part of believing in personal responsibility and the free market. Conservatives believe people have freedom, but must take responsibility for the impact they cause. If you commit a crime, you don’t get to blame society. A reason conservatives live near nature is that we love to hike, hunt, fish and marvel at the awe-inspiring natural beauty with which our nation is so blessed.
Finally, the free market is the greatest system for allocating scarce resources and doing more with less, both of which are at the heart of a true environmental ethic.
Rather than forcing behavior change, conservatives promote technological solutions that respect the freedom of individuals while reducing environmental impact. Rather than falling for the latest trendy environmental policy, conservatives demand that the government measure success or failure.
Better yet, we promote the creative competition that discovers options that we never imagined. As politicians spend billions on rail and buses that carry few people, the market is creating driverless, fuel-efficient cars that will more efficiently take people exactly where they want to go.
For energy efficiency, clean air, clean water and smart resource use, the free market combines prosperity and innovation to successfully protect natural resources. April 22 may be a one-day event for some, but for those who embrace the free market and its push to do more with less, every day is Earth Day.
Todd Myers is director of the Washington Policy Center’s Center for the Environment. He is one of the nation’s leading experts on free-market environmental policy. Todd is the author of the landmark 2011 book Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism Is Harming the Environment and is designated a Wall Street Journal Expert panelist for energy and the environment.