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Religion & Liberty: Volume 29, Number 4

Luther’s apple tree

    As the story goes, when Martin Luther was asked what he would do if the world were to end tomorrow, he answered, “I would plant an apple tree today.” It’s a lovely anecdote, and it bears within it a kernel of truth about environmental stewardship. The lesson here, from my perspective, is that care of creation begins and ends with you and me. Most of what we hear in the media, and from too many environmental activists, is alarmism and warnings of near-term catastrophe on date certain. (This somehow always gets pushed out again and again. Why don’t doomsayers have any respect for deadlines?) We are told that sweeping plans for reconstructing economic and political institutions are mandatory if we are to survive.

    If you buy into all of this, there’s little that awaits you but the vice of despondency. Its opposing virtue is positive action taken by free men and women. We must, as the saying goes, do the next right thing. I count myself as one of those conservationists who believes that we can grow the economy while protecting the environment and that long-term growth requires us to be good stewards.

    My “trinity” for good stewardship integrates responsible liberty, sustainable ecology, and modest prosperity.

    My “trinity” for good stewardship integrates responsible liberty, sustainable ecology, and modest prosperity. These three elements provide the context for wholesome lives. Within this trinity, communities flourish. Eliminate any one, and life becomes problematic.

    Of the three elements of this trinity, modest prosperity is often underrated, especially by Greens with a woke philosophy. Socialists and other authoritarians fail to understand the linkages among liberty, prosperity, and sustainable ecological systems. They assure us that the looming crisis is a huge threat, be it a new ice age in the 1970s or global warming today. The current threat demands transformational actions mandated by fines, laws, and regulations, such as the Green New Deal. (I was interviewed about this utopian plan on the Acton Line podcast in April, you can listen to the episode below.)

    I believe climate change is indeed real and poses genuine long-term threats. It also has substantial benefits. Unfortunately, the threat of climate change is employed as a rationale to use popular opinion and regulation to cause other people to behave as progressive elites think they should. And it produces resentment and resistance to constructive energy policies.

    Progressives view economics as a subset of engineering rather than a field study for evolutionary biology. Hence, progressives assert that prosperity can be designed and administered by the government through regulations and directives. But this never has worked, and never will. Why is that?

    Bureaucratic knowledge is incomplete, and errors are common. Bureaucracies are also largely unaccountable – not only to voters but also the elected officials who (at least, in theory) oversee them. Further, the sort of incentives in place at government bodies charged to protect the environment often yield perverse outcomes. Federal programs to subsidize the draining of prairie potholes, America’s “duck factories, ”offer clear and destructive examples. Bureau of Reclamation irrigation dams, salmon run destroyers, provide others. Here as elsewhere, political forces trump ecology and economics.

    Prosperity, as contrasted to windfall gains from winning a lottery or finding gold, evolves as individuals discover ways to move resources to higher value. And it’s amazing what you can accomplish with determination, elbow grease, and a vision.

    My own story is what I know best. Two college-professors-turned-ranchers – yours truly and Ramona Marotz-Baden – took their Enterprise Ranch in Gallatin Gateway, Montana, out of development play by placing it in a conservation easement. We bought abused land and water at a low price. Over the decades, we restored agriculture, fish, and wildlife to sustainable full production. (See “Betting the Ranch” in the Winter 2018 issue of Religion & Liberty.)

    Today, due to Ramona’s work and mine, the ranch is a beautiful and highly productive property. Its value is greatly enhanced by America’s changed economy and technology. And its location in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – and between Bozeman and Big Sky, Montana – is a great advantage.

    Liberty permits and fosters environmental entrepreneurship.

    Here is how it works: Liberty permits and fosters environmental entrepreneurship. Consider the progress in stream restoration and solar applications. Liberty also encourages wealth creation over redistribution. Prosperous people often favor, and can afford, policies that promote environmental quality. In contrast, poor people worldwide are more willing to sacrifice ecology for income or basic subsistence – which is a purely rational response.

    Forty years ago, most Greens were allergic to economic thinking. In contrast, my colleagues and I in the free market environmental movement understood that people’s sensitivity to ecological quality increases with education and income. This is especially true of rural places blessed with the Gallatin Valley’s qualities of wildlife, scenery, and topography.

    Our Bozeman-area population is not a random sample of America. People elect to live here, often at some cost in foregone opportunities and comfort. Montana remains the most remote of the contiguous 48 states. It’s also largely arid, having only half the average precipitation of the Midwest. Further, it long had an extremely harsh climate with subzero temperatures common throughout the winter – which seemed to last several months too long. 

    However, geography is no longer destiny. For historical and technological reasons involving communication, culture, education, and transportation, the costs of necessities have declined throughout the Gallatin Valley area – some dramatically. Consider the internet, Montana State University’s $100 million research programs, Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, Fed EX and UPS, Gore-Tex for clothing, and Tyvek for housing. A conjunction of improvements has made our valley increasingly attractive. It’s a magnet for high human capital. Today’s problems involve crowding, congestion, and fears of losing paradise. This stands in sharp contrast with towns and counties in the greater region, the great majority of which are losing population.

    Dangers lie in the fruits of success. Americans with high human capital, or those who simply desire to live closer to the nation’s unparalleled scenic beauty, are moving not just to Bozeman but other western magnets like Salt Lake City, Boise, Denver, and Albuquerque. Salt Lake, with its easy access to skiing, mountain biking, and fly fishing, also offers low corporate tax rates, utility prices, and rents. Because of its burgeoning tech sector, the Wasatch Front is garnering attention as “the next Silicon Valley.”

    A student of economics will not be surprised that there are tradeoffs in the form of pressure on housing prices, traffic congestion, work force skills, and the social strain that attends an influx of new arrivals unfamiliar with a region’s culture and history. It’s an old story.

    In Bozeman, housing affordability is a major issue. The median sales price for a home in Gallatin County is $465,500, according to the Gallatin Association of Realtors. City planners – by definition a profession fond of central planning – are looking to control sprawl with urban densification and mass transit, among other measures. But millenials, like most Americans, favor spacious, single-family housing for themselves and their young families.

    How Bozeman and other western cities manage this problem will determine how well they preserve the best of what they have to offer. California’s housing policies are in large part responsible for its current crisis of affordability. (A typical million-dollar, single-family home offers just 1,150 square feet of living space, in a state with vast undeveloped lands.) It’s a huge problem for the state’s middle class. As the demographer Joel Kotkin recently put it, “The Golden State used to be a rising tide lifting all sorts of boats. Now it’s a rising tide lifting a few yachts."

    Citizens of Ramona’s and my generation are great beneficiaries of progress. Many of us enjoy responsible liberty, a sustainable agricultural/ecological system, and at least modest prosperity. We are doubly blessed to live in America, clearly the world’s most successful, large-scale social experiment.

    America harbors the fragile trinity of liberty, ecology, and prosperity. I urge you to appreciate, understand, and defend this trinity. It’s recurrently under assault by authoritarians of several stripes – people who demand ever more government control, which they identify or manufacture threats to justify.

    There is no easy cure for the progressives’ naivete about our economy, ecology, and energy. America is evolving toward their green energy ideal, but we can’t legislate unicorns on treadmills as sources of pollution-free power. Recall the shepherd boy who falsely cried wolf. He repeatedly tricked villagers into thinking wolves were eating their sheep. When a wolf actually appeared, and the boy called for help, the villagers thought it was another false alarm.

    Instead of crying wolf and throwing the village into a panic, let’s do something that will actually improve the environment. Let’s grab a shovel and plant an apple tree.

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    John A. Baden, Ph.D., is founder and chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment in Bozeman, Montana. FREE’s focus is environmental economics and policy analysis.