It’s a common misconception that a tradeoff exists between economic growth and environmental cleanliness. For decades Gallup has been conducting a poll asking about this very tradeoff. According to its latest one, “53 percent said economic growth should be the nation’s top priority, even if the environment has to suffer. Just 38 percent put their priority on environmental protection, even if it limited growth. The share of Americans favoring the environment over growth is the lowest since 1984.”
In 1990, the results were 71 percent preferred protection of the environment even at the chance of curbing economic growth compared to only 19 percent suggesting economic growth should be the priority. Clearly this is indicative of the current state of our economy but the trend in the Gallup chart shows more people favoring the economy. This year’s results should send a strong signal to Congress that now (but not ever) is not the time to implement policies that would raise the price of energy and stunt economic growth, especially when these policies produce negligible or detrimental environmental effects. Legislation that aims to cut CO2 reduces resources available to grow our economy and become more energy and environmentally efficient. John Tierney from the New York Times says,
In dozens of studies, researchers identified Kuznets curves for a variety of environmental problems. There are exceptions to the trend, especially in countries with inept governments and poor systems of property rights, but in general, richer is eventually greener. As incomes go up, people often focus first on cleaning up their drinking water, and then later on air pollutants like sulfur dioxide. As their wealth grows, people consume more energy, but they move to more efficient and cleaner sources.”
The market yields economic and environmental outcomes people desire by allocating scarce resources and inviting competition. Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute provides an example:
Consider, for example, the fears expressed in the early post-war era that copper would soon be in short supply. Copper was the lifeblood of the world’s communication system, essential to link together humanity throughout the world. Extrapolations suggested problems and copper prices escalated accordingly. The result? New sources of copper in Africa, South America, and even the U.S. and Canada were found. That concern, however, also prompted others to review new technologies, an effort that produced today’s rapidly expanding fiber optics links.
Such changes would be viewed as miraculous if not now commonplace in the industrialized, and predominantly capitalistic, nations of the world. Data assembled by Lynn Scarlett of the Reason Foundation noted that a system requiring, say, 1,000 tons of copper can be replaced by as little as 25 kilograms of silicon, the basic component of sand. Moreover, the fiber optics system has the ability to carry over 1,000 times the information of the older copper wire. Such rapid increases in communication technology are also providing for the displacement of oil as electronic communication reduces the need to travel and commute. The rising fad of telecommuting was not dreamed up by some utopian environmental planner, but was rather a natural outgrowth of market processes.”
And the importance of well established property rights cannot be stressed enough. When property rights cease to exist, people do not have the proper incentives to devote their own resources to protect and improve their land. It also allows for a conservation market to thrive. Pacific Forest Trust, for instance, makes payments to a tree farm “in return for an agreement to never subdivide its land and always maintain a sustainable forest.” Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited purchase land to create and protect habitats and establish wildlife preserves, and billionaire Ted Turner is attempting to restore bison wildlife by buying property in Montana.
In today’s economy, it’s no surprise Americans are prioritizing the economy ahead of the environment, but these two issues are not mutually exclusive. We can have our cake and eat it too.