"Blue Environmentalism" is the way we should build on the stunning success of the environmental movement of the past 30 years. We should begin by frankly acknowledging those successes. The rhetorical outlook of some environmentalists functions like blinders on a dray horse: It prevents them from looking anywhere but straight ahead. As a result, the public is seldom encouraged to look back to see how much progress was made in improving the environment during the 20th century, and especially after the first Earth Day in 1970. Some of the most important changes in man's environment are in fact rarely discussed as "environmental issues." Among these are (1) the progress of hygiene, which led in the early 20th century to the sanitation movement for the removal of human wastes; (2) the replacement of the horse by the automobile, which removed the excrement of 3.4 million horses from urban streets; and (3) the advent of natural gas and electricity, which replaced age-old methods of burning wood and fossil fuels in thousands of stoves and open fireplaces in crowded urban dwellings.
These developments created a vastly cleaner America. Consider, for example, the saga of the American horse. In 1900, there were 20.4 million horses in the U.S.; these horses had a combined transport capacity that equaled three-quarters of the carrying capacity of all U.S. railroads. But there were problems: The average horse required about 39 pounds of food per day, or five tons per year; to grow that food removed some 25 percent of all U.S. farmland, or 93 million acres, from all other agricultural use; and each horse produced about 12,000 pounds of manure and 400 gallons of urine per year--with particularly toxic results in congested urban areas. The change in technology from horse to automobile was a great blessing for healthfulness and cleanliness, and it salvaged more than 90 million acres of good land for other productive uses.
In America over the past century, about 500 million acres have reverted to woodland. From an airplane, the stretch of New England from Albany to Boston seems blanketed by forests from one downtown to another, returned almost to its wooded aspect in 1600. One New York State wildlife biologist has been quoted as saying: "Most Easterners don't realize it, but they live in a huge forest." Wildlife species once thought endangered have been prospering. Deer have increased to 20 million, more than in George Washington's day; black bears number 150,000, and elk over 700,000. In a word, the fauna are flourishing as seldom before, even in the parts of America usually thought to be the most urban and densely populated.
Nor should we ignore the immense positive effects the environmental movement has had since 1970. Clean-air legislation went into effect in 1955 and was amended several times, including in 1970--there were not any politicians who were willing to be in favor of dirty air--and from 1976 until 1999, a period of only 23 years, the six types of air pollution proscribed and closely monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency were brought down quite sharply. Lead pollution, for example, was reduced by 97 percent; sulfur dioxide by 65 percent; and carbon monoxide by 68 percent. The Pacific Research Institute has collected other data from the EPA regarding air quality and toxic chemicals that exemplify similar progress.
All this seems startling, because the press seldom reports it. Moreover, environmental activists of the apocalyptic type never report it, and even get angry if anyone else does.
Emboldened by this realistic assessment of the progress we've made, we should tackle the specific key issue I mentioned at the beginning: clean drinking water. There are 1.1 billion persons in the world who don't have it. Helping them is not a speculative enterprise like preventing "global warming"; it's a serious and urgent task.
The problem afflicts the poorest continents worst of all. In North America, 100 percent of the population has a clean water supply; in Europe, it's 96 percent. In Africa, by contrast, only 62 percent--of a population of more than three-quarters of a billion people--have clean running water. In Asia, it's 81 percent; but because that continent is the most populous, it has the largest number of people affected--about 700 million.
Important progress was made on this between 1990 and 2000. Even though world population increased by nearly 800 million during that decade, still, both in Asia and in Africa, the percentage of the population that had access to clean water jumped by five percentage points. Actually, 816 million people worldwide gained new access to water during that brief period (about 224,000 per day for ten years). That is a great achievement, and should be duly noted. Such steady, dramatic progress in only ten years makes it reasonable to plan for even more substantial gains in this decade and the next.
Africa should be the top priority. Given that continent's unusually acute internal variations in water supply, its water system needs to be among the best designed in the world; instead, it is the most neglected in the world. A constant cycle of civil wars, maladministration by fragile governments and kleptocracies, and poorly managed financial resources have penalized Africa's peoples severely. This political deficit prevents Africa from enjoying the economic progress of most of the rest of the world--notably that of Asia, which not long ago was even poorer than Africa but has now leapt ahead of it.
None of the technical difficulties facing the effort to supply Africa with water presents challenges that have not been conquered on other continents. But the political, cultural, and economic obstacles are more serious. By and large, Africa has become accustomed to subsidized and/or non-cost water; at the same time, no one is obliged to pay for polluting existing streams of water--neither farmers whose agricultural runoff damages water use downstream, nor industrial polluters, nor cities and villages that pour untreated effluents into the water supply. There are no incentives to save and protect clean water. As a result, water is too often treated irresponsibly.
There need to be policies that would impose both incentives and costs to encourage more responsible use. For instance, if citizens in certain regions were given water coupons that entitled them to an adequate personal share of free water per year, and had to pay modest sums for any additional use, they would for the first time face incentives to use water responsibly--or else pay for it. In a similar spirit, costs should be imposed on polluters, whether industrial or governmental or familial, in proportion to their spillage of untreated materials into sources of supply for others. Also, financial or other rewards should be offered to any entities that build and maintain treatment facilities.
In Asia, the water problem affects China most of all. Shortages are becoming acute, with worse to come; and the country's governmental structures aren't equipped to cope with the issue. But China is rapidly growing in wealth, and has a profusion of technical talent; for this reason, we can reasonably count on the Chinese to solve their own water crisis. (We would, of course, provide any necessary help and advice at their request.)
Bringing water to all the world's people will require imagination and enterprise, capital and high skills in organization. The institutions best equipped to bring these requisites to the table are in the corporate business sector. In some places, public utilities may be best for supplying water, if they can be both efficiently run and kept free of corruption; in other places, well-regulated private companies will be best; and in still others, public-private partnerships. But in all cases, Blue Environmentalism encourages the highest possible level of practicality, and private enterprise.
And that principle doesn't apply just to the clean-water issue; it has lessons across the environmental spectrum. Blue Environmentalism is based on the crucial insight that nature is meant for man, not man for nature. Human beings are made by their unique endowment of liberty to be provident over their own destiny. One important way to exercise this providence is to take care not to foul our habitat. Henry Adams saw that science and technology were the masculine "Dynamo" of our progress--but he intuited that they needed to be balanced by a feminine nurturing of nature, which nurturing he expressed in the symbol of the "Virgin."
There is now a battle under way in Western culture as to the precise meaning of the symbol of the Virgin. The pristine mountains, waterfalls, lakes, forests, and rivers have come to be seen, in and of themselves, as Virgin surrogates. Nature is envisioned as a sublime, purer order that rebukes the order man has made. The fact that nature has through most of history exerted cruel and killing dominion over man has been repressed; Nature is now viewed, implausibly, as simply beneficent. This is the great psychic drama being played out in the modern environmental movement. Mythic elements of great power are involved in it. Those who choose to proceed with critical intellect intact must pay due respect to realities of that kind: The underlying arguments are not about policy only, but about quasi-religious visions of the pure, the good, and the nurturing.
The first guiding principle of Blue Environmentalism, therefore, needs to be realism. This means we need to gain the most accurate, non-politicized, and independent view of the hard reality of environmental trends that is possible, and to promote the development of expert techniques to cope with them. To the neo-pagan deification of nature, we must respond by proposing courses of action that actually promote the well-being of the environment in measurable ways, within defined limits of time.
The second guiding principle must be liberty. While some environmentalists of the past have preferred to castigate and punish, Blue Environmentalists should choose a method of greater proven effectiveness: creating markets in which both positive and negative incentives function well, in the interest of the environment as well as that of individuals. When human beings make free choices, they normally calculate the costs and benefits of their actions fairly carefully, in order not to suffer the consequences of not doing so. Therefore, these costs and benefits should be so aligned as to promote the common good, while respecting free choice. By helping to promote the common good, individual citizens will benefit directly: For example, incentives paid to homeowners to improve energy efficiency at home save the whole community energy use, and simultaneously reduce annual costs for the individual homeowners. The ideal outcome occurs when the personal good overlaps with the common good; as much as possible, policy ought to aim at that outcome.
The third and final guiding principle is that we must focus on raising up the poor. The world's worst pollution is in the poorest countries; it arises from primitive methods of heating and cooling, inadequate sanitation systems, and other causes rooted explicitly in poverty. In August 2002, a huge brown cloud gathered over Asia--the result, experts said, of an air inversion fed by fumes from burning peat, firewood, and other primitive materials in millions of homes and kitchens. Deforestation and desertification are other consequences of reliance on traditional methods of heating. All of this should make poverty a core environmental issue.
Our deepest motivation for trying to help the poor gain a more becoming affluence is for their own liberation and basic dignity--so that they might become all that God has given them the potential to be. Blue Environmentalists hold that the best way to help the poor of the distressed continents rise out of poverty is the way that has been working spectacularly in India and China during the past 20 years. It is to recognize the strict relation of the right to private property to the right to personal economic initiative, and to take the necessary political and institutional steps to give these basic rights realistic support in practice.
It is fundamental, for example, that the right to enterprise not be criminalized--yet most entrepreneurs in Peru and many other Latin countries are forced to work as informales or illegales. The right to incorporate a small business follows from the right of association. The state has a right to regulate such registration, and may charge a small sum to cover its expenses; but such registration must be cheap and quick. In addition, it is crucial that a large supply of micro-loans be made available for poor persons who have promising business plans. New institutions that specialize in making such loans, as well as in providing technical support to help borrowers succeed, will need to be started from scratch, since most existing banks in Third World nations lend little or nothing to the poor. Borrowing is the mother's milk of infant businesses, since poor people have no pre-existing capital with which to launch, or to expand, their businesses. All they have are their ideas, their sweat, and their good habits; but since these are the main cause of the wealth of nations, that is quite enough to justify establishing institutions that will promote them.
Blue Environmentalism, therefore, stands for the spreading of those institutions of empowerment that promote private property and creativity. It is not the natural endowment God gave the poor that is currently at fault, but the inadequacy of political systems and social institutions that fail to nurture and support it. Liberty releases the eminently realizable hope of bringing every woman, man, and child into the circle of universal affluence, which this planet has been fashioned to support. The goods of the earth have been given a universal destination, and that destination is the freeing of everyone on earth from the prison of poverty.
Freedom, too, has its own ecology. Blue Environmentalism cherishes the ecology of liberty.
Michael Novak is the George Frederick Jewett Scholar at AEI.