Modern environmentalists are increasingly identifying as socialists, almost to the point where a capitalist-environmentalist is considered a contradiction. This, however, is a dangerous trend. Modern day eco-socialists like Jill Stein and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are woefully ignorant of how socialist economies wreak far more havoc on the environment than capitalist ones. This is because socialism creates an incentive structure which doesn’t give anyone in power a reason to care about preserving natural resources. Free markets, on the other hand, are quite good at solving environmental problems and should be embraced.
The relationship between socialism and environmentalism has been becoming more intense for some time now. The Green Party calls itself eco-socialist, and thought leaders such as Bernie Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez also call themselves democratic-socialists and frequently trash capitalism as responsible for a whole range of environmental problems. Finally, consider the Green New Deal: This massive policy prescription calls for a nationalization of the economy and a restructuring of several huge industries.
If that isn’t socialist enough, the GND also checks off several other items on the socialist wish list that have nothing to do with the environment, including universal healthcare and a union job for everyone. Meanwhile, solutions to current environmental woes that embrace the free market (such as carbon credits), as well as proposals that don’t involve a dismantling of our capitalist system (such as the expansion of nuclear power), are shunned by many environmentalists.
What environmental activists fail to realize is that socialism has an atrocious environmental track record. Consider the Aral Sea tragedy, where socialist planners quite literally caused one of the largest lakes in the world to disappear. In a quest to increase agricultural production, the Soviets drained the lake as part of an irrigation project. The result was an ecosystem and community destroyed. The region is now a desert filled with toxic soil. Similarly, nationalized industries have been a disaster for the environment. Take the state-owned oil company Pemex of Mexico, which has a history of polluting waterways and fisheries and has been responsible for several deadly explosions. All in all, the damage done by Pemex and other nationalized oil companies makes the 2010 BP spill or the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill look trivial in comparison. Furthermore, the evidence that socialist countries are ruinous for the environment goes beyond the anecdotal. Nearly all of the world’s most polluted cities are in either China or India, both of which have a history of socialist government.
Of course, some may claim that this is a case of correlation instead of causation, arguing that socialist countries are heavier polluters not because they’re socialist but because they’re developing countries. On its face, this might seem like a credible rebuttal, but is it really true that developing countries will pollute more than developed ones? For starters, it’s doubtful that the Soviet Union, one of the biggest polluters in history, could’ve been considered a developing country throughout much of its history, yet this obviously didn’t prevent it from mercilessly trashing the environment. Secondly, when analyzing the effects an economic system has on the environment, it’s important to examine the incentive structure it creates. Socialism does not provide a framework with strong environmental incentives; in fact, it provides basically none. Big polluters don’t face any pressure from anyone to clean up the messes they make, because the big polluter is the government, and no one can tell the government to clean up its mess. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter if the socialist system is authoritarian like in China or democratic like in Latin American and European countries—the people still have little ability to correct bad behavior. Don’t believe me? Just think about your DMV office; the service is terrible, but because it’s a state-run operation without competition, it’s difficult to improve even when the government is a democracy.
Free markets, on the other hand, are so useful for advancing environmental goals precisely because they create a useful incentive framework that can encourage environmentally conscious behavior. When a private company pollutes, it faces pressure to reduce pollution on two fronts: its customers and government regulators. That’s why after major environmental disasters in capitalist countries, like the 2010 BP Oil Spill, private firms spend huge amounts of their own money cleaning up the mess. In BP’s case, the company spent $20 billion to pay for damages.
Furthermore, free markets aren’t merely useful for cleaning up toxic waste, they’re also effective tools for achieving sustainable use of natural resources. The American bison was going extinct until ranchers began to buy up remaining herds and raise them for meat. By introducing private ownership into conservation, the ranchers had an incentive to preserve and protect their share of the bison population. As a result, the bison population rose from about 500 to over 31,000 today. Similarly, private ownership of natural resources is a meaningful strategy when confronting the more pressing environmental issues of today. For example, if firms can buy and sell amounts of carbon (or, more accurately, credits to release carbon into the air), we will have a useful method of keeping carbon emissions at sustainable levels. This is because it would no longer be profitable for firms to release more carbon than they have to.
As I write this article, I’m concerned about the growing number of pro-eco-socialist propaganda spread around campus. Given the mountain-load of evidence showing how toxic socialism is to the environment, it seems inadmissible for any environmentalist to support such an economic system. Rather, if we want to protect our environment, we need to embrace the free market. Free market solutions to environmental problems have a long track record of success because they work to create an incentive structure that encourages people to be environmentally conscious. Simply put, any successful effort to address climate change or any other environmental issue will be successful, because it worked with the free market and not against it. Any effort that works against the free market is doomed to fail.
Jacob Marie is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.