I was dismayed to read Todd Myers’ April 17 opinion piece lauding the free market as an effective mechanism for protecting the environment.
History shows this to be not true.
Myers points to Toyota’s Prius as an example of free-markets’ power to produce green results.
Fair enough, but Myers neglects to note that gasoline taxes are partly responsible for the cost of gasoline, and as such, government policy increases demand for efficient cars.
Meanwhile Myers ignores history when he criticizes “top-down” policies as unhelpful to the environment.
Eliminating gasoline-caused lead toxicity was done through EPA regulation during the 1970s.
In the 1990s, it was again government action, not market forces, which eliminated ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons.
It is the proper role of the free market to come up with alternatives in such cases, but it remains the purview of government to outlaw activity reasonably expected to be harmful.
Myers also ignores economics when he asserts that free markets protect natural resources.
Free markets are good at some functions, such as producing inexpensive consumer goods and bringing down the cost of elective surgeries like Lasik.
But localities that have tried free-market solutions to public services such as fire protection have often abandoned such attempts.
There are many reasons that free markets fail to protect the environment.
Consumers seldom know which of their choices are greenest because such information is complex and hard to find.
Second, consumer choices often have little effect on a person’s susceptibility to health hazards.
For example, a family choosing a gasoline truck over a sootier diesel truck cannot be certain that doing so will keep their children asthma-free. It is only in the aggregate that we know that policies reducing environmental soot, such as requiring low-sulfur diesel, lower asthma rates.
Third, markets are notoriously bad at pricing “externalities.”
The price of your hamburger rarely covers the cost of the roads you traveled to get to the restaurant.
Fourth, many environmental benefits are not obviously economic.
What, for instance, is the market value of a clear mountain view?
Finally, much of the full value of today’s clean environment accrues to people not born, and therefore unable to vote yet.
Those advocating for an unborn’s right to life ought just as quickly impute these unborn with a preference for clean water and air.
It remains up to today’s politicians to act with foresight and courage; they must stand up to today’s profiteers to protect the environment for both today’s and tomorrow’s voters.
Market forces have thus far proven wholly inadequate to address that singular environmental problem which outweighs all others.
Global warming and ocean acidification, two symptoms of the same problem, constitute a genuine planetary emergency.
Fortunately, we have a reasonable way to prevent carbon pollution — a straightforward tax based on the carbon content of fuels, is expected to simultaneously nudge people toward low-carbon energy and engage market forces to build more of the goods like efficient cars and bio-based fuel which will be necessary in a sustainable economy.
Still, make no mistake: minimizing carbon pollution requires coordinated world-wide action, led by governments and informed by ethics and science.
Market forces can create alternatives once a carbon tax is in place.
After all, the stone age did not end because we ran out of stones — it ended because we found something better.
In the meantime do not believe those like Myers who insist that you can get something for nothing through the magic of free markets.
As long as fossil fuels remain both cheap and plentiful, market forces alone, without strong government direction, will lead the world to certain environmental disaster.