To Save the Environment, We Need Less Government, Not More

Many people who are concerned about degradation of the environment tend to imagine that answers to environmental problems will take the form of government action: whether that means stricter and better laws, or government subsidies for environmentally-friendly economic activity, or what have you.

People tend to underestimate how much environmental benefit might come from reducing or eliminating government action. Coincidence has dropped into my lap some recent examples that demonstrate this.

The first example concerns some organic farmers who want to reap the environmental and economic benefits of harvesting the rainwater that falls on the roofs of their farm buildings. This way, they could water their crops with stored rainwater rather than using water that had been processed for potability somewhere else and pumped out to their farm.

So [Kris Holstrom] asked the Colorado Division of Water Resources for a permit to collect runoff from building roofs — and was denied.

“They felt that the water belonged to someone else once it hit my roof,” she says. “They claimed that the water was tributary to the San Miguel River” — which runs some three miles from her place and is fully allocated to other users downstream.

The article this comes from also quotes “the proprietor of Utah’s first LEED-certified car dealership, who wanted to capture rainwater that fell on his property to use in landscaping and to wash the cars on his lot. “The state said no.” Across the country, rainwater harvesters are operating underground, illegally, without permits, like bootleggers during prohibition, just to use the rain that falls on their own property.

A seminary in New York is trying to go Green. They’re drilling a quarter-mile down into the rock beneath to get at some geothermal energy:

The wells are a source of energy because the water is 65 degrees year-round, so it is being used to cool seminary buildings in the summer and heat them in the winter. Once all 22 wells are running, the seminary will shut down its boilers. By replacing fuel oil with geothermal energy, the seminary will reduce its annual carbon dioxide emissions by 1,400 tons.

But it wasn’t easy. “We had to answer to 10 agencies,” [seminary executive vice president Maureen] Burnley said. “It took three times as long as it should have. The left and the right hand did not know what the other was doing.”

[T]he people at the seminary are, in Ms Burnley’s phrase, “institutionally exhausted” by the four-year siege of red tape, and after spending 50 percent more money than they had expected.

“At a certain point we became angry, and determined, and wouldn’t give up,” she said. “But you can’t create public policy that depends on having obsessed, hardheaded people to get these projects done.”

At one point, the seminary waited three months for the city Department of Transportation’s permission to drill into the sidewalk, Ms Burnley said. “The conversation went like this: ‘What is the status?’ ‘It has no status.’ ‘Do you need more information?’ ‘No, we have what we need.’ ‘Then how can we get it moving?’ ‘You can’t get it moving.’ ”

The on-line service PickupPal enables people to coordinate ride-shares anywhere in the world. Are you driving from Phoenix to Albuquerque? Check PickupPal and see if anyone needs a lift. “PickupPal’s objectives are to reduce carbon emissions, combat road traffic congestion, fight high gas prices and enable people to connect and improve the environment.”

And then the government stepped in.

It’s good for the environment. It’s good for traffic. It just makes a lot of sense. Unless, of course, you’re a bus company and you’re so afraid that people will use such a system rather than paying to take the bus. That’s what happened up in Ontario, as earlier this year we wrote about a bus company that was trying to shut down PickupPal, an online carpooling service, for being an unregulated transportation company. TechCrunch points us to the news that the Ontario transportation board has sided with the bus company and fined PickupPal. It’s also established a bunch of draconian rules that any user in Ontario must follow if it uses the service — including no crossing of municipal boundaries — meaning the service is only good within any particular city’s limits.

Remember Joel Salatin, the “beyond organic” farmer who played the hero in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma? Everything He Wants to Do is Illegal.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a farmer?

Anyone familiar with me would have to smile at this question, knowing that my answer would be and continues to be the food police. The on-farm hurdles we’ve faced, from drought to predators to flood to cash flow, are nothing compared to the emotional, economic and energy drain caused by government bureaucrats. Even in the early 1970s when, as a young teen, I operated a farm stand at the curb market, precursor of today’s farmers markets, the government said I couldn’t sell milk. The first business plan I came up with to become a full-time farmer centered around milking 10 cows and selling the milk to neighbors at regular retail supermarket prices. It would have been a nice living. But it’s illegal. In fact, in I finally wrote Everything I Want to Do is Illegal, documenting my run-ins with government officials.

And things like this don’t even touch on the fact that the nation’s worst polluter is the government, which exempts itself from its own regulations when they become inconvenient. (That Strontium-90 in your milk didn’t come from any greedy, heartless corporation, folks.)

As Henry D. said, “this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way.” That goes double for environmentally responsible enterprise.