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Enviro-Capitalists

Aldo Leopold, one of the fathers of the modern American conservation movement and author of A Sand County Almanac, in his essay “The Farmer as Conservationist” described conservation as “harmony between men and land.” Leopold envisioned the practice of conservation as “not merely a negative exercise of abstinence or caution” but “a positive exercise of skill and insight” whereby the “pure fire of intellect” is made manifest. In defining conservation in such terms, he consciously placed the burden of responsibility for it not in the hands of government agencies but with individual landowners. Why? “Government cannot own and operate small parcels of land,” he wrote, “and it cannot own and operate good land at all.” Government approaches tend to be too clumsy, its solutions too general, and its policies too monolithic; only private, individual owners have the local knowledge needed to manage land wisely and conserve its wealth and beauty. So, for Leopold, responsibility for land management rests not with the state but at “the farmer's doorstep.”

It is in this spirit that Terry Anderson and Donald Leal have written Enviro-Capitalists: Doing Good While Doing Well. Anderson and Leal, like Leopold, value private and creative initiatives toward the achievement of environmental goals, with the added virtues of markets, private property rights, and rule of law.

Enviro-Capitalists builds upon Anderson and Leal's book, Free Market Environmentalism. In that earlier work, they describe the heart of free market environmentalism as “a system of well-specified property rights to natural resources.” Property rights are important because incentives are important. In such a system, “the wealth of the owner of the property right is at stake if bad decisions are made,” so it follows that people acting in their self-interest will tend to make better decisions about the use of their property. The converse is also true: “The further a decision maker is removed from this discipline--as he is when there is political control--the less likely it is that good resource stewardship will result.”

Enviro-capitalism, then, in the words of the authors, is an approach “that begins when environmental entrepreneurs discover new opportunities for improving environmental quality and then figure out how to produce it in the private sector.” Enviro-Capitalists tells the stories of how individuals and organizations, because of this institutional arrangement, apply their entrepreneurial abilities to such areas as wilderness and wildlife preservation, development, and water conservation. In the process of telling these stories, we see some fascinating examples of a private ethic of conservation at work.

We meet, for example, Tom Bourland, wildlife manager for International Paper. Responsible for 1.2 million acres of ip forests throughout Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, Bourland was faced with a cluster of problems: In the thirty years it takes a forest to mature, ip expended much revenue but received no profits. Further, the existing wildlife and recreation program was geared more toward keeping the locals happy than turning any kind of profit. Moreover, as hunting, fishing, and hiking grew more popular, ip incurred costs from litter, arson, poaching, and off-road traffic. Bourland was eager to improve wildlife conditions on ip lands, but his efforts were stymied by its status quo policy.

Utilizing his entrepreneurial acumen, Bourland realized that a fee-based recreation program would solve many of these problems while adding to ip's bottom line. And he was right. Asking users to pay for these resources limited demand and instituting a creative system of leasing recreational amenities linked the self-interest of the users to the health of the land. Further, the program was wildly profitable and gave ip the incentive to provide even better wilderness experiences, which meant forestry techniques that promoted wildlife growth. Through the application of the “pure fire of intellect,” Bourland turned wildlife from a liability into an asset.

We also visit the Huron Mountain Club in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. As virgin forests became increasingly scarce at the end of the nineteenth century, recreationists began to discover the beauty of the Huron Mountain region, located on the Lake Superior side of the Upper Peninsula near the Pine River. One of these wilderness enthusiasts, Horatio Seymor of the Marquette-based Michigan Land and Iron Company, envisioned establishing a private club that would offer such amenities as hunting, fishing, and camping. The organization, initially named the Huron Mountain Shooting and Fishing Club, was established in 1897.

Since the continued solvency of the organization was dependent upon the health of the woods and wildlife on its land, preservation was taken seriously. The club limited the amount and types of development on its land and even enlisted the services of Aldo Leopold to make recommendations on how to best manage the Club's environmental assets. As a result of the organization's foresight and stewardship, the Huron Mountain Club continues to be a wilderness gem, as well as the steward of one of the last tracts of untouched climax maple-hemlock forest in the Midwest.

Through stories like this, Anderson and Leal show the great diversity of approaches to the preservation of environmental amenities that results through free market environmentalism. Some are motivated by a purely conservationist ethic. Others desire to profit from people's desires for environmental amenities such as uncrowded trout streams or unobstructed views from their homes. Still others have a particular environmental problem that they want to solve--overfished oceans or overburdened water supplies, for example--and utilize the incentive structures of markets to achieve their goals.

If Leopold is right--if individuals have the responsibility to exercise an appropriate stewardship ethic toward their land, and if such exercise must be done in a creative and entrepreneurial manner--then the task at hand is to ensure the preservation of an institutional arrangement that enables and encourages such creative and ethical activity. Enviro-Capitalism is a persuasive argument that such an environment is not that of the heavy-handed approach of state regulation but a regime of markets, private property, and rule of law.