Google is celebrating Earth Day with a doodle of sunny skies, mountain peaks, hills, and blue waters. Sure, it’s appropriate to celebrate this wonderful planet we call home. But Google—along with too many others—forgot the most important part of Earth Day: people.
The best, most interested, and invested stewards of the environment are not distant bureaucracies but the people closest to a resource or source of pollution. They stand to gain or lose the most from management. American individuals and businesses show this leadership every day.
Take Steven Lathrop from Illinois, who protected himself and his neighbors from storm flooding by converting a dump into a lake. Or Brett Howell, who has started his own innovative business saving coral reefs off the coasts of Florida. Or fracking companies tapping the Marcellus Shale that have found how to make using recycled water profitable for their drilling operations.
Keeping the hands and innovative ideas of Americans free to protect and manage their environments requires an approach that upholds private property rights, free markets, and individual liberty and responsibility.
The Heritage Foundation’s American Conservation Ethic aims to do exactly that with policies that put the responsibilities and privileges of environmental stewardship on states and individuals. It proposes that all environmental legislation should follow these basic principles:
- People are the most important, unique, and precious resource;
- Renewable natural resources are resilient and dynamic, responding positively to wise management;
- Private property protections and free markets provide the most promising new opportunities for environmental improvements;
- Efforts to reduce, control, and remediate pollution should achieve real environmental benefits;
- As we accumulate scientific, technological, and artistic knowledge, we learn how to get more from less;
- Management of natural resources should be conducted on a site- and situation-specific basis;
- Science should be employed as one tool to guide public policy; and
- The most successful environmental policies emanate from liberty.
Sadly, most environmental legislating today doesn’t recognize the ingenuity, interest, and initiative of Americans and their communities to take care of the places they live, work, and play. Washington assumes that the best approach to conservation is through agency regulations.
For example, under the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency claimed authority to regulate water as a pollutant in Virginia, a determination that would have cost the state $300 million. Not including the cost of lost economic activity, the Endangered Species Act cost federal and state governments $1.4 billion in 2010. And the National Environmental Policy Act is a costly, complicated process hampered by bureaucratic self-interest and judicial activism that had deadly consequences when Hurricane Katrina breached the levees in New Orleans.
Newly confirmed Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell seems to be carrying down this same path, today promising that federal fracking regulations will come “fairly soon,” even though states have been safely and agilely regulating the practice for years.
Ultimately, free people and free markets are the engine of superior environmental stewardship. Today should be as much a celebration of nature’s most valuable conservators as it is of nature.