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Reconciling Economics and Ecology

G. Tracy Mehan offers an insight into the PERC Lone Mountain Forum: “Reconciling Economics and Ecology: The Foundation of Environmental Optimism,” currently being held at the PERC University Campus in Bozeman, Montana.

By Tracy Mehan

We are into the second session on “Reconciling Economics and Ecology,” under the guiding hand of the estimable Terry Anderson with a phalanx of experts and commentators from many disciplines. At this stage attempting any kind of synthesis would be presumptuous at best. The discussions have been informative, wide-ranging and heartfelt on the convergence and divergence of economic and ecological thinking.

The discussion on whether or not human beings are part of nature was truly stimulating if inconclusive. I recall the novelist Walker Percy’s observation that the scientist can know or understand everything but the scientist. Similarly, human beings can be both a problem and a solution to the challenges of reconciling economic growth and ecological function.

The noted writer, Matt Ridley, made what may be the one observation with which most attendees, including yours truly, might concur: both economist and ecologists, at least the right thinking ones, no longer believe in equilibria in either realm and view both systems as being dynamic, not chaotic, systems.

The conversation continues.

Update: Emma Marris, author of Rambunctious Garden, led the forum in a spirited discussion on ecology and future policy directions.  She emphasized the challenge of managing ecosystems in the face of uncertainty in a dynamic world including globalization and a changing climate.

Emma highlighted adaptive management as key along with the recognition that historic baselines no longer occupy any “moral high ground.”  She raised the question as to whether or not regulators will be as adaptive as the changing ecosystem demands which would challenge regulated property owners as well.  She also raised concerns as to whether or not “everyone gets a vote, not just every dollar” and that future generations count, too.  She expressed her bias for longer time scales in ecosystem management which drew many questions as to why this should be normative.

Many other participants raised issues of politically managed ecosystems versus private choice and management.  There was also lively debate over whether costs should be involuntarily imposed on property owners and taxpayers to involuntarily protect endangered species.

Emma expressed her agreement with the idea that richer is generally greener and that would actually impel us toward actions for the benefit of future generations which will be both.

This gives you just a taste of what was a very important discussion and debate over future policy directions.  Emma generally defended collective or community action against a preference of others for individual and voluntary actions or contractual approaches.

More to come.

Update #2: Earlier this week, Steven Hayward sat down with Charles C. Mann to discuss his work on pre-Columbian societies:

G. Tracy Mehan, III, was Assistant Administrator for Water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2001–2003. He is a consultant in Arlington, VA, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.

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Dispatches from “Conservative Visions of Our Environmental Future”

Today I am at Duke to participate in a conference on “Conservative Visions of Our Environmental Future,” sponsored by the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Forum, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, Nicholas School for the Environment, Duke Federalist Society, Duke College Republicans and the Energy & Enterprise Initiative. The conference is being live streamed here, and I’ll be offering comments on the proceedings below.  [Read more…]

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Enviropreneur Showcase: GreenFaith

In an era of increased environmental degradation and strife, PERC Enviropreneur Institute (PEI) alum Reverend Fletcher Harper and his organization GreenFaith offer a unique look at environmental solutions and activism. Established in 1992 as a small and local organization in New Jersey, GreenFaith has grown to national proportions as an inter-faith environmental organization working with diverse religious groups to promote and mobilize environmental leadership.

Although religion and the environment may initially seem odd bedfellows, Harper is one among many* working to reclaim environmental stewardship as an integral part of the world’s religious traditions. Deep connections between religion and the environment already exist. For example, most of the world’s religions recognize the natural world as a source of revelation or site of sacred presence. Although presented in a variety of ways, human stewardship of this divine creation is part of the religious practitioner’s job description.

While hard science is needed to predict and study the physical properties and changes of the earth, anthropogenic environmental problems also require a close study of the beliefs and actions of those driving the environmental change. GreenFaith is calling on environmental leaders to not only preach good environmental standards, but to act on them. Through the GreenFaith certification program, congregations across the nation have reduced carbon emissions by 30 to 50 percent, financed solar energy programs, and decreased water consumption, to name a few.

GreenFaith has used lessons garnered from PEI to attract new congregations to their certification program by touting the benefits of financial savings. Economic incentives are therefore a major driving force in the “greening” of congregations. Harper points out that economics and religion, counter to popular belief, really are working toward the same objective: human flourishing.

“In the end, GreenFaith isn’t just about teaching people that God wants a healthy environment,” said Harper. “It’s about mobilizing the faith-based sector – one of the largest social networks in the country – to make it actually happen. PERC has helped us understand new tools and perspectives on how to achieve this goal.”

*See the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology for further reference

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Is Organic Food Healthier or Safer?

A new study fails to find scientific support for claims organic food is healthier or safer than conventional alternatives and everyone acts as if this is a surprise. It shouldn’t be. Scientific research has fairly consistently failed to validate the claimed superiority of organic food, as I’ve noted in prior posts over the past ten years (see, e.g., herehere, and here). Organic foods do not consistently show higher nutrient levels than conventional foods, nor are there even clear environmental advantages. Organic farming uses less energy and fewer chemicals, but it also tends to be more expensive and requires more land — meaning that a widescale shift to organic production would increase food costs and require putting more acres under plow, with consequent negative effects on species habitat.

For this latest study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Stanford researchers conducted a meta-analysis of over 200 studies looking at the differences between organic and conventional foods, and concluded “the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” Organic foods tended to have lower pesticide residues and were less likely to have antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but the researchers concluded the differences were not significant enough to have any meaningful health impact. If organic food truly is healthier — and it may be — the existing scientific literature cannot (yet?) support such claims, particularly as applied to organic foods across the board. There may be specific foods, however, for which organic production may make a difference (or for which organic production methods tend to correlate with other practices that produce positive results).

The bottom line is eat organic foods if you like. Just don’t believe there’s any scientific basis for claiming you will be healthier as a result. As the paper’s senior author, Dena Bravata, explains: “There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health.”

For more on the study, here are reports from the NYTAP, and NPR.

Cross-posted from The Volokh Conspiracy.

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Does Burning Ivory Save Elephants?

by Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes

This week marks the 62nd meeting of the Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), taking place in Geneva, Switzerland. To coincide with this meeting, the World Wildlife Fund has released a “Wildlife Crime Scorecard” report which lists 23 countries in Asia and Africa that it claims could all do more to enforce trade bans intended to protect tigers, rhinos, and elephants.

But what about WWF’s scorecard? Unlike the governments it assesses, WWF has specifically purported to protect endangered species since its inception in 1961. It has also mostly endorsed the CITES trade ban approach to saving tigers, rhinos, and elephants for more than the last two decades, but the results of this have been unimpressive. Tiger numbers have plummeted, as have rhino numbers in all but a handful of former range states; elephants have fared slightly better since the ivory ban, but poaching is on the rise again. So while WWF can claim some individual successes with certain localized conservation projects, its broader policies on wildlife trade deserve closer scrutiny to see if they make sense.

For example, last month WWF commended the government of Gabon for burning a stockpile of almost 5 tons of confiscated ivory, estimated to represent the equivalent death of 850 elephants. Presumably the architects of this event think they can repeat the performance of the Kenyan government, which famously burned a pile of ivory (and rhino horn) back in 1989.

Kenya’s dramatic gesture had three effects:  First, as a media stunt it caught the attention of many people and helped to stigmatize the use of ivory products in the West. Second, this in turn appeared to reduce consumer demand (and therefore prices and the incentive to poach elephants). And third, Kenya was able to leverage this event as a means to raise significant donor funding.  (The funding benefits did not endure and other African elephant range states did not benefit in this way; instead many had to bear the cost of forgone ivory sales harvested from sustainably-managed populations.)

That was then, this is now. Ivory demand in East Asian markets has a deeper cultural imprint and was far less impacted by any stigma effect from the 1989 ban. With the rising affluence of East Asian consumers, black market prices and elephant poaching levels are increasing significantly.

Economists may disagree about many things, but one thing we do agree on is that if you reduce the supply of a product without a corresponding reduction in demand, prices will rise. In a 1990 peer-reviewed journal article*, economist Ted Bergstrom explains clearly why: If the goal is to protect threatened species, it does not make sense to destroy confiscated stockpiles, but rather to sell them back into the market to satisfy demand and restrain prices. If trade is already banned and consumers are still buying ivory, there is no reason to believe that reducing the supply will change their preferences. So burning ivory stockpiles at this time does not seem like such a great idea. Although intended to send out a message about the acceptability of buying ivory, this gesture may simply send out a different message to the market: that ivory is an increasingly scarce resource worthy of speculative investment.

WWF’s approach of constricting supplies is not restricted to elephants. It adopts similar policies toward tiger and rhino products. The same principles apply here and the black market values for such products only appear to be rising over time, with disastrous consequences for wild populations.

* Ted Bergstrom. “On the Economics of Crime and Confiscation.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 4.3 (1990): 171-178.

Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes is an environmental economist based in South Africa and a 2012 PERC Lone Mountain Fellow. He is the author of Who Will Save the Wild Tiger? (1998, PERC Policy Series), a contributor to Tigers of the World: The Science, Politics, and Conservation of Panthera tigris (2010, Academic Press), and author of the recent PERC Case Study “Saving African Rhinos: A Market Success Story.” For more, visit his website: rhino-economics.com.

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Let Freedom Ring

While June brings a great group of students to Montana each year, July brings thoughts of freedom. The two have much in common. Every year PERC and Liberty Fund co-sponsor a program for students. It is a weeklong seminar that provides an opportunity for a group of undergraduate college students to become immersed in ideas about the environment and its connection to property rights, freedoms, markets, and liberty.

Together, these ideas are sometimes considered oxymoronic. But that is, in fact, not the case at all. In concert they create a path toward enhanced environmental stewardship. Secure property rights motivate investment. To steward the environment requires an investment — an investment to maintain conditions or to restore them to a previous state.  And it is the signals from market interactions that demonstrate the environmental quality that is desired.

In the end, freedom is a key. Free to act while not reducing the freedoms of others. Free to interact in the marketplace. These freedoms have enabled our country to be among the richest in the world. Freedoms that have helped us become wealthier and healthier. Freedoms that have motivated a cleaner and more pristine environment. Our ancestors fought to earn us these freedoms hundreds of years ago.

The best way to protect our future freedoms is to ensure generations from today and tomorrow understand how important they are. Help make a difference by imparting the value of freedom.

Go to www.perc.org/support2.php if you would like to help PERC share the value of freedom.

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What in the world is a ZEC?

Written by Dylan Brewer, PERC Summer Intern

Québec’s zones d’exploitation contrôlée (ZECs) are one of the best kept secrets of conservation. Created in 1978 with the Ministère des Ressources naturelles et de la Faune’s (MRNF) launch of “Opération gestion faune,” ZECs are non-profit organizations in charge of managing wildlife resources. Each zone is headed by supervisors elected by paying members. In 1991, Terry Anderson and Donald Leal’s book Free Market Environmentalism looked at ZECs, praising their pricing system as “instrumental in maintaining high quality recreation.” Today, as the program nears its 35th year, ZECs are thriving and now serve more than 250,000 visitors per year.

When ZECs were started in 1978, each zone was charged with managing hunting and fishing within a certain domain. Prior to ZECs, public lands were managed by private clubs. The main criticism of the club system was that it was too restrictive on community involvement — many of the clubs were controlled by non-Canadians and non-residents, and poaching was widespread. The ZEC program began with the instrumental requirement that each ZEC obtain the necessary resources to cover their costs. Because the ZECs must be self-sustaining, there is an incentive to charge a reasonable and profitable price to users. Further, managers are incentivized to protect the flora and fauna of the area as a future revenue stream.

In 1982, the Fédération Québécoise des Gestionnaires de Zecs (FQGZ) was created to represent the ZECs before Québec’s provincial government. With this structure in place, the program grew without major change until 1999 when the FQGZ proposed to the MRNF that ZECs be given the opportunity to manage recreation beyond fishing and hunting. Following the MRNF’s approval of the proposal, activities offered by ZECs have expanded to include camping, hiking, and other activities. This expansion can be attributed to the requirement that ZECs generate their own funds. Recognizing demand for new goods, managers are able to change their business model rather than remain “frozen in time” like other government programs.

Over the course of 35 years, ZECs have been able to both make a profit as well as preserve wildlife. The question now is how to implement this system outside of Québec. While ZECs do not rely heavily on cultural norms unique to Quebec, the Québécios have had a history of paying to access recreational land. In the United States, new fees would be a barrier to the program at the local level, but giving locals the ultimate control of pricing and services may sidestep the problem.

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Saving Patagonian Grasslands with Market Incentives

Meet Carlos Fernandez, PERC Board Member and the Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia Grasslands Manager. The following is an excerpt from our interview with Carlos in Bariloche, Patagonia:

I am the Patagonia Grasslands Argentina Project Manager for the Nature Conservancy and a PERC Board Member. I had my first encounter with PERC in 2005 when I met Don Leal at a workshop in the Galapagos Islands. Don and I started talking about our passion for fly fishing, both in Patagonia and in Montana. I began receiving PERC Reports and sure enough in July 2005 I attend PERC’s Enviropreneur Institute. It was here that I started to think more seriously about how important markets, contracts, and property rights are if we really want to improve environmental quality.

I moved to Patagonia from Washington D.C. in 2008 to launch TNC’s grasslands program. The purpose of this program is to conserve grasslands on a large scale. Given the fact that here in Patagonia about 75 percent of the land is in private hands, our team is doing a lot of work with private land owners aiming to halt or reverse the desertification of grassland ecosystems. We are working with ranchers, businesses, policy makers, universities, and think tanks. TNC and our partners have a pretty big goal, which is to try to bring sustainable conservation to between 30 and 40 million acres in the next 10 to 15 years.

In 2010, I was lucky enough to be invited to become one of PERC’s Board Members — the first board member representing the enviropreneurs and the first international board member, both of which make me very proud. The Patagonia grasslands program is just one venture where free market environmentalism is working on the ground. PERC’s 2012 Enviropreneur Institute will kick off this weekend. Stay tuned for more innovative ideas from the field.

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Fishy Politics on World Oceans Day

World Oceans Day is meant to bring communities from around the globe together to celebrate the vast environmental, economic and social wealth of our oceans. It is also a day to remember the threats to ocean health and overfishing if we don’t manage our ocean resources accordingly. Apparently some politicians have other intentions. In her latest op-ed, Laura Huggins highlights the political irony of new legislation to protect our ocean resources.

See also PERC’s video “Saving Ocean Fisheries with Property Rights“:

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Access Unlimited, Trout Limited

Image by Angus Mackie/Creative Commons via flickr

The May issue of Outdoor Life carried an article entitled “Can I Fish This Stream?” It included a map of the U.S. showing 45 states with “limited stream access,” 4 with “pending access litigation,” and 1 with “liberal stream access.” The one was Montana, about which the article’s author opined, “Anglers in other states should be so fortunate.” Not so fast.

Since the original stream access cases in the early 1980s, landowners have claimed that the court and the legislature took property rights without compensation. Not surprisingly, the conflict has torn the social fabric of landowner-sportsman relations in Montana.

What the author failed to note was the unintended consequences of Montana’s law, namely landowners who cannot prevent access have less incentive to preserve habitat. The now infamous Mitchell Slough case in southwest Montana illustrates what can happen. When anglers took the right to control access from landowners and created public access to the reclaimed irrigation ditch paid for by landowner dollars, owners rightfully shut off the flow leaving fish high and dry. Not only did this reduce spawning habitat for trout that previously migrated freely into the Bitterroot River over which public access has never been questioned, it reduced the incentive of other landowners to invest in such reclamation projects.

The Outdoor Life article concludes that “although Montanans were able to ward off impingement of their access rights last fall, it’s not likely that the assaults on stream and river accessibility are over.” Proponents of unlimited access fail to recognize that their assault on landowner rights is also an assault on trout habitat.

Access unlimited, yes; trout unlimited, no.

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Celebrating Humanity in the Environment

A curious model for conservation is taking the stage. It is grounded in protecting landscapes and species but adds humans to the mix. Though not a new idea, it is often dismissed, even discouraged, by environmental thinkers. This conservation ethic has the power to enhance resource stewardship and environmental quality.

The new paradigm acknowledges humans as an important part of nature and is grounded in a realistic view of the state of the world. The resilience of nature is recognized with an understanding that some places are more fragile than others. The idea concedes that increased conservation will come when people personally recognize the benefits. This ethic has been supported by three iconic conservation players.

Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, was raised in a logging community and earned a PhD in resource ecology and forestry. “The central teaching of ecology is that we are part of nature and interdependent with it,” writes Moore in his 1995 book, Pacific Spirit. He believes that both protected forests and managed forests involve human action, which can enhance the benefits provided to society.

Fifteen years after its founding, Moore parted with Greenpeace. He was disturbed by the misinformation that was being disseminated and the unwillingness of organization leaders to compromise to work toward realistic solutions. Abject opposition to logging is one case in point. Stiff regulations can make forests a liability by decreasing permissible harvest and increasing management costs. Moore sees the forest and the trees that provide habitat, ecosystem services, and wood products. Trees are renewable and through proper forest management we can harvest timber while enhancing environmental quality.

Using statistical information Bjorn Lomborg, a statistician, has systematically analyzed global environmental issues. As a student, Lomborg was pessimistic about the future of the environment. He also was once a Greenpeace supporter. Following years of data collection and analysis, Lomborg changed his tune. “We are not overexploiting our renewable resources,” he writes in his 2001 book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. Though we often hear otherwise, his analysis shows that global forest coverage has not changed much in the last 50 years. He also believes that “there do not seem to be any serious problems with the nonrenewable resources.” Although some regions are better cared for than others, there are more reasons for optimism than pessimism. Lomborg concludes that we are living in a healthier, wealthier, and cleaner environment than ever before thanks to human innovation.

Similar to Lomborg and Moore, Peter Kareiva puts humans at the center of conservation. Kareiva is the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation organization. He sees a global landscape that has been touched by humans. The only conservation that makes sense to Kareiva is one that considers human needs and desires. “Protecting biodiversity for its own sake has not worked,” he co-writes in the Fall 2011 issue of Breakthrough Journal. To enhance conservation in today’s world requires us to “embrace human development” and “to integrate the value of nature’s benefits into [corporations] operations and cultures.”

It is time for conservationists from all walks to shed old paradigms of doom and gloom and look at the world as it really is. Though humans have touched nearly every place on earth, our increased prosperity has brought enhanced environmental quality. We are all a part of nature and nature will be as we steward it. Therefore, incentives for conservation must be aligned with human needs and good stewardship.

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Silent Spring at 50: Reexamining Rachel Carson’s Classic

After 50 years, Silent Spring is rarely read, but it is routinely cited as a canonical work in environmentalism. Rachel Carson is hailed as a near saint in the environmental movement. There is no doubt the book played a major role helping to spur the environmental movement in the 1960s.

A careful reading of Silent Spring, however, will leave one dismayed at the relentless negative view Rachel Carson had of a time of unprecedented prosperity and improved health standards. We joined a group of authors from various disciplines who looked at different aspects of the book in historical context. That book, Silent Spring at 50, will be published in September. PERC’s latest publication, “Silent Spring at 50: Reflections on an Environmental Classic,” gives a sample of the full work.

Among the issues discussed in the book are the following:

1. Pesticides often benefit both human well-being and the environment. When discussing the effects of pesticides, Carson was entirely negative, failing to consider how these products greatly expand agricultural output, thereby allowing less land to be dedicated to cultivation, as well as having saved millions from starvation in the decade before her book was published. Her claims, such as that one might die from exposure to one molecule of a pesticide, are presented as if scientific fact. Carson ignored the reductions in habitat loss, increased no-till farming, reduced erosion and agricultural runoff that can be attributed to increased use of pesticides.

2. Bird populations were not decreasing.  Silent Spring is most famous for what its title evokes—a spring with no birds, as they have all died due to pesticides. Yet Carson ignored well-known Audubon Society data that indicated increasing, not declining, bird populations in some locations she identified (see brown thrasher chart below). Could she have been unaware of the data? Not likely, since she was a long-time active member of Audubon.

3. There was no cancer epidemic. Carson asserted that one person in four in the United States would die of cancer, and that cancer was becoming epidemic in children, despite public health data to the contrary. American life expectancy had risen more than 20 years in the 20th century when Carson was writing, but she only discussed impending doom. It is true that more Americans were dying of cancer when her book was published than had in previous decades, but that was because Americans no longer died of other diseases. They were lucky enough, as we are now, to have lived long enough to die of cancer and other diseases that mostly afflict the old. Despite the furor in those days of the impending Surgeon General report on tobacco, Carson ignored the role of smoking in cancer. She never mentioned the widely-available evidence about tobacco, preferring to blame man-made chemicals for cancer.

Like her successors who consistently forecast doom for the planet and its inhabitants, Silent Spring is alarmist and suffers from technophobia. It resolutely refused to recognize the billions of people, us among them, whose lives have been so greatly improved by the blessings of modern technology.