Unfortunately, things changed in the early 1990s because of two events: the fall of the Soviet Union and the election of Bill Clinton to the White House.
Polls showed that the fall of the Soviet Union persuaded most Americans that government was a poor solution to most problems. One of the few exceptions was environmental protection, which many Americans still believed needed government regulation. This led many self‐described “progressives,” who believe in more government control, to push their agenda by joining the environmental movement.
Meanwhile, Clinton’s election changed the financing of the environmental movement. From 1981 through 1992, environmental groups raised much of their money by charging that Republicans in the White House threatened the environment. With a Democrat as president, grassroots funding for environmental groups plummeted.
To make up the difference, most groups turned to foundation grants. But foundations demanded that the groups they funded all adopt the same strategy. Progressives took this opportunity to demand that their strategy — transferring power from on‐the‐ground forest managers to political appointees – be the one that was adopted. For example, they opposed recreation fees because, with everything controlled from Washington, they didn’t think they needed to rely on incentives.
The progressive goal was not environmental protection but government control. They believed they knew how every acre of land in the country should be managed, which forests should be cut, which crops should be planted on which farms, and how many urbanites should live in apartments instead of single‐family homes.
The constitutional rights and personal desires of property owners, the expertise of public land managers, and the housing preferences of homebuyers were unimportant compared with the greater good that could be achieved through central control of our natural resources.
When free‐market environmentalists showed that most environmental problems could be solved with better incentives, progressives latched onto climate change as the one issue that demanded complete government control. “Climate change is a collective problem that demands collective action,” enthuses Naomi Klein, and it “supercharges the pre‐existing case for virtually every progressive demand on the books.”
Giving government power to solve a problem is not the same as actually solving the problem. Instead, that government is more likely to make the problem worse as it abuses its power. Klein’s own proposals for climate change — “subways, streetcars and light‐rail … everywhere” and high‐density “housing along those transit lines” — will have practically no effect on climate but devastating effects on our economy.
Air, water, wildlife, forests, and other things we call “the environment” are precious and deserve our care. But freedom is also precious. The most important lesson of my four decades as an environmentalist is that you can’t have one without the other.