Skip to main content

Religion & Liberty: Volume 28, Number 1

A conversation about the best policies for the environment

An environmental policy expert explains difficulties with environmental concerns and gives examples of the triumphs and failures we, as a society, have made to protect the earth.


"Science” doesn’t have the answers: Case of the marbled murrelet

The marbled murrelet is a small seabird from the North Pacific that nests in oldgrowth forests or on the ground at high latitudes. After an increase in logging in the 19th century, murrelet populations shrunk. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the marbled murrelet is globally endangered.

Todd Myers is director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center in Seattle. Curious how to address the issue of protecting this bird, Myers spoke to a biologist who’d spent her life studying and writing on the marbled murrelet. She explained that to protect it, a buffer should be put around the type of habitat it needs to ensure humans don’t encroach upon it. There should also be a buffer around the buffer in case of a natural disaster.

Next, Myers spoke to a forester and asked the same question, “How can we protect the marbled murrelet?” The forester explained that the forest is an ecosystem. “Everything is part of the system,” he said. “Everything plays a role.” It would be impossible to squish everything into one box – that would throw things out of balance and give you unhealthy forests. You can’t separate the endangered birds because they wouldn’t live in the right habitat and it would affect everything else.

Two expert scientists who know the marbled murrelet and its situation were asked the same question and gave opposing answers. They both followed the “science.”

In this case, the difference wasn’t science but rather risk tolerance. The biologist had spent her life studying this bird and has a low risk tolerance for murrelets. The forester had spent his life studying the forest and has a low risk tolerance for forests. He wants to manage them in a way that is healthy for the entire ecosystem. Both follow the science, but their choices reflect their own values and risk tolerances. “That is the key role of values and economics that gets overlooked in the environment,” Myers concludes. “People pretend they’re making logical, scientific decisions, when in fact they’re making values- based decisions.”

Trojan horses

It’s important to understand, Myers notes, that conservatives aren’t necessarily “antienvironment”:

There are very clear examples of where anybody, any conservative, any free market, any libertarian would agree. For instance, you would say that you shouldn’t pour your sewage out into a stream and kill all the fish, because the fisherman downstream won’t have any fish, right? Nobody is going to say, “Well, I get to do what I want. I get to pour my sewage into a stream.” Unless that stream is entirely owned by you, right, you’re impacting other people. So you can be the most libertarian person in the world and recognize, yes, you’re imposing cost on others. You shouldn’t do that.

He mentions that a possible reason why many limited government advocates are hesitant toward environmentalism is because “protecting the environment” is often an excuse for social engineering. Environmental bills can be a “Trojan horse” for bigger government and social engineering. “This is bad,” explains Myers. “It’s bad for the environment because it uses the environment as a tool to get something else. So conservatives and free-market advocates say, ‘I don’t want to do anything to help the environment.’” He also says you can tell conservatives show their care for these issues in other ways:

I mean, look at a map. Conservatives don’t live in the city. They live near nature. It’s the environmentalists who live surrounded by concrete and steel and asphalt. It’s the conservatives who purportedly hate the environment, who actually live in the environment. But you talk to some of those same conservatives, ask them about environmental protection, and they will often give you a very skeptical answer. They’re afraid that if they say, “Yes, this is important,” that they have to buy into a whole series of big government solutions. That is the problem. I think that’s something that conservatives and free-market advocates need to get over – to be able to say, “Who are you to tell me what to do for the environment? You live in Seattle. I live in Walla Walla.” Who knows the environment better? Yes. I work with it every day. It affects my life.

Conservatives and other free-market advocates have good reason to be skeptical, but they also shouldn’t give up on environmental causes.

A hierarchy to protecting environment

The market does not have all the answers. “We do need regulation,” Myers argues. “There’s a hierarchy.” The best solution is where a group of people (such as a town or collective of farmers) agree to a solution to protect something. He gives the example of a forest in Japan that is owned by dozens of people. Loggers go in and steal trees from the forest. The owners decided that they would hire someone to guard the forest and if anyone got caught poaching, that person would be fined. The fine was a bottle of Saki for the guard. This created a good incentive for the guard, it was cheap for the owners, and – without being too dramatic – was a good deterrent for the thief.

Not every problem can be solved with cooperation. Sometimes the group is just too big or can’t agree. The next step in the hierarchy is pricing. Myers gives the example of a park. People either pay every time they enter or pay an annual fee. That way everyone involved in the park pays for the impact they cause.

If those two can’t work, then a regulatory approach needs to be taken. Leaded gasoline (discussed later) is an example of this. Again, the hierarchy is cooperative, then pricing and finally regulation.

The market saves dolphins

One of the best examples of the market solving an environmental problem is “dolphin- free tuna.”

If you go to the canned meats aisle of your local grocery store, you’ll find that just about every brand of canned tuna, from the cheapest private label to bigger names like Chicken of the Sea have some sort of “dolphin safe” seal.

According to FOR SEA Marine Science Curriculum, during the 1960s the American tuna industry found a new way of capturing tuna. Tuna fishers realized that tuna seem to stay close to dolphins in the wild, so boats would look for groups of dolphins, encircle them and lower a giant net into the water. The net captures both the tuna and the dolphins, though most dolphins are able to swim out before the net is pulled on board. Thousands of dolphins were killed and injured during this process. The International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) argues that more than seven million dolphins died in pursuit of tuna, so in 1990 they established guidelines for Dolphin Safe tuna and encouraged consumers to boycott canned tuna. Chicken of the Sea, StarKist and Bumblebee, the three biggest names in consumer tuna, all adopted the label and refused to work with fishers who still engaged in intentionally chasing and netting dolphins.

Later Congress adopted IMMP’s standards for what is considered Dolphin Safe tuna. Thanks to conservationists, consumers and large companies, dolphins were protected long before any governments took regulatory action. Today it’s difficult to find tuna without the Flipper-approved label.

The government steps in to stop lead

Sometimes the market doesn’t move fast enough to stop environmental problems. Todd Myers gives unleaded gasoline as an example of this. “The Secret History of Lead” by Jamie Lincoln Kitman for The Nation traces the long, complicated history of lead in gasoline. In late 1921, an engineer working for the General Motors Research Corporation discovered that tetraethyl lead (TEL, a compound of metallic lead and an alkyl substituent) was able to reduce engine knocking, allowing the car to run more smoothly as well as improving vehicle performance. People were well aware of the dangers of lead poisoning in the 1920s, but TEL in gasoline was still pursued. By 1923, it was manufactured in Dayton, Ohio, with 160 gallons being shipped out daily to be added to pure gasoline. By Memorial Day of that year, gasoline with lead, called ethyl, fueled the top three cars at the Indianapolis 500. The group manufacturing this fuel was able to sign exclusive contracts with four of the largest oil providers for distribution of leaded gasoline in the East Coast, Midwest and South. Kitman points out that the benefits of adding lead to fuel “were wildly and knowingly overstated,” and lead “is actually bad for cars” and is terrible for the planet as well as the beings on it. In 1985, an EPA study found that an estimated 5,000 people died each year from lead-related heart disease before lead was banned in gasoline. “The leaded gas adventurers have profitably polluted the world on a grand scale,” Kitman explains, “and, in the process, have provided a model for the asbestos, tobacco, pesticide and nuclear power industries, and other twentieth-century corporate bad actors, for evading clear evidence that their products are harmful by hiding behind the mantle of scientific uncertainty.”

“Lead is bad. Leaded gasoline is bad. It needed to be banned . . . this was an instance where the government had to step in and stop it.”

Lead is bad. Leaded gasoline is bad. It needed to be banned. Myers explains that this was an instance where the government had to step in and stop it. “The easiest way to remove the lead is simply to have a regulation that says, ‘No more lead in gasoline,’” he says, “In that circumstance, there was no way to get everybody in America to agree.” The horrible effects of lead were too far removed from the manufacturers adding lead. Myers explains:

It would be hard to put a price on it, because the impacts are so dispersed. So the easiest way is simply to say, “We’re going to get rid of lead,” and do it . . . So it is possible, because we have disposable income, and to use the market in that way to give preferences without government regulation to phase out a practice that is bad. So it’s not impossible. But in the case of lead in gasoline and a few other areas where there are clear problems to be solved and you need big scale, the most immediate way to do it is through regulation.

He also acknowledges that the market certainly has a place, just not always:

If the problem is very simple and very clear, it’s not all that much more expensive than having the market do it. Somebody could say, “Well, Todd, what about this? And I could give you an example of it”–fine. Of course there are going to be examples, but I’m not an anarchist . . . I recognize the value of regulation and standards. Because sometimes the incentives just are not there for people.

The U.S. government outlawed lead as an automotive gasoline additive in 1986.

Beauty products harming fish

Microbeads, or microplastics, are a common ingredient in beauty products, especially exfoliants and body washes. The tiny pieces of plastic are used to add sparkles or shimmers and as abrasives to strip away dead skin and dirt. They’re so small they wash down drains, slip through all treatment plants and end up polluting waterways. Fish often think the plastic is food and ingest it.

Many private companies were already phasing them out, but the government also had to step in and ban them when the industry as a whole did not. While Myer lauds the several cosmetic companies that found better alternatives, he points out that many others kept them in their products because “the cost of the impact was not borne by the companies who make the cleansers or the people who use the cleansers.” Myers sees it as an incentive problem:

They’re borne by the environment or other people. So nobody has an incentive to phase them out because they’re not bearing the cost. Now, theoretically somebody could have said, you know, “Hey, buy our cleanser because it doesn’t have microbeads,” and people would have switched. But that’s not always going to work. Meanwhile the impact is growing. So Washington state banned microbeads from the cleansers because it recognized that the incentives are misaligned. So that’s what economics, free-market economics and free-market environmentalism is about: recognizing and aligning the incentives. And if the incentives are such that somebody doesn’t bear the cost for their environmental impact, they will continue to impact the environment.

The United States passed a ban on microbeads in personal care products and cosmetics in 2015 (that went into effect in 2017). Without regulation, microplastics will undoubtedly still be making their way to waterways.


Sarah Stanley is the former managing editor of Religion & Liberty.