- The Washington Times - Friday, April 1, 2005

The United Nations isn’t the usual place for enviro-capitalists. But this week’s U.N. Millennium Ecosystem Report contains enough unexpectedly market-friendly conclusions to suggest that capitalism’s earth-saving possibilities are starting to get some well-deserved respect, even in the environmental movement’s most statist quarters.

The report paints a stark picture of the earth’s ecosystems — nothing unusual there — and concludes that humans have polluted or overexploited about two-thirds of them. But its recommendations diverge from the usual enviro-speak. There, a bombshell scenario is found in which “trade barriers are eliminated, distorting subsidies are removed, and a major emphasis is placed on eliminating poverty and hunger.” Translated from the bureaucratese, the U.N. is suggesting two things: Governmental overreach and market distortions harm the environment, and prosperity can fix things. “Problems of ecosystem management have been exacerbated by both overly centralized and overly decentralized decision-making,” the report concludes. When the U.N. is citing “overly centralized” management as a culprit for environmental degradation, something interesting is going on.

What’s even more interesting are the means the U.N. proposes to fix it. Among the remedies it envisions: ending subsidies for agriculture and fisheries; allowing private-sector players to finance conservation schemes around new developments; trading of pollution rights; allowing the carbon market to grow; creating better markets for water; letting consumers pressure industries on certification schemes; and streamlining bureaucracies to function more efficiently.

To be sure, plenty of new taxes and other statist proposals abound; after all, these are the people who gave us the Kyoto Protocol. But the new ideas show how far environmentalism has come in its divorce from statism.

The context for all this, of course, is a debate within leftist environmental circles over whether environmentalism is “dead.” When former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach made waves in December by arguing that the movement is in fact dead — murdered by conservatives — he said its death is “a sympton of the exhaustion of the liberal project.” He laid its death at the feet of George W. Bush.

Mr. Werbach is wrong to say environmentalism is dead, of course. The likelier possibility — that the left-wing version Mr. Werbach and his colleagues espouse is dying — is one conclusion suggested by the type of free-market environmentalism in the U.N. Millennium Ecosystem Report.

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