September 30, 2003
When the media interview "environmentalists" such as Elizabeth May (Sierra Club of Canada), Paul Muldoon (Canadian Environmental Law Association) or David Suzuki (David Suzuki Foundation), they invariably obtain quotes or sound bites that suggest the solution to almost any problem is regulation, more intrusive government, and larger budgets and staff for environment ministries. These pundits usually play up the most sensational aspects of environmental scares such as global warming, and their ideas often fit with what could loosely be characterized as a left-wing political ideology (often shared with the environment beat reporters themselves). Business and capitalism are vilified, public ownership is the only virtuous model, and complex issues tend to be dumbed down for public consumption, then politically spun. (For instance, we were told that the drinking-water contamination tragedy in Walkerton that left several people dead and hundreds ill resulted from budget cuts at Ontario’s environment ministry and that the incident illustrates the danger of privatizing water utilities, whereas the tragedy arguably shows the danger of public ownership in the absence of competition.)
So, it’s reassuring to learn that another brand of environmental activists not only approve of free markets and private property, but see these as part of the solution to many environmental problems.
Tom Adams, Elizabeth Brubaker and Lawrence Solomon are three leading intellectuals in an umbrella organization – Energy Probe Research Foundation (EPRF) – that is influencing the views of a new generation of policymakers about a host of interrelated issues that include environmental protection, energy, urban planning and foreign aid. These folks can’t be dismissed as politically left or right of centre; they’re comfortable with free markets, property rights, competition and smaller government, about which they talk in a fresh way.
If you don’t know about them you need to get up to speed as their ideas will eventually impact many aspects of business and the environment.
Tom Adams is executive director of the Energy Probe division that deals exclusively with energy-related issues. He joined the organization in the 1980s shortly after leaving grad school at York University where he studied public policy as it relates to siting nuclear facilities. At Energy Probe he first worked on issues related to Ontario Hydro’s supply/demand hearings in which the giant utility sought to justify a huge publicly-underwritten nuclear expansion. Adams learned that the planned expansion was unwarranted, and something else.
"I saw the cozy arrangements that can develop between regulators and public utilities, and how these work against the public good," he says. In the 1990s the organization increasingly advocated accountability.
After Margaret Thatcher privatized energy utilities in the United Kingdom, nuclear plants demonstrated that they couldn’t compete in a real market. Ontario is now struggling with middle-aged nuclear plants that have become more and more expensive to operate, if they can be operated at all. Adams’ insights stem from his observation of the giant utility, and also fit with the ideas of Julian Simon, the professor who won a famous bet against Paul Ehrlich about the limits of growth. Simon argued that human ingenuity is the overwhelming variable in sustainability.
"The energy monopolies are non-ingenious organizational structures," says Adams. "Energy Probe favors policies that allow decision-making and choice at the level closest to the individual, where decisions tend to be complex and nuanced."
Adams distinguishes his group’s ideology from that of other activists who subscribe to the Paul Ehrlich model who seek to limit population and economic growth. He also cites Jane Jacobs, the famous urban planning critic (who has sat on Energy Probe’s board for twenty years), who advocates "using your own eyes" in place of received academic wisdom. Doing this while studying destructive practices in Canada’s forests led Adams and his co-workers to discover that government policy and public ownership was fundamental to the problem.
"It’s the ‘tragedy of the commons’," says Adams, referring to a famous essay which demonstrated that people are encouraged to pillage resources in which they have no ownership stake. "We found the most sustainable forestry model in Northern Europe where private owners have an economic stake in protecting the renewable resource."
Adams thinks that Ontario and most of Canada is experiencing a kind of "tragedy of the commons" with respect to energy, with the price of dwindling natural gas reserves climbing ever upward, and Ontario’s rate freeze blocking the evolution of a true energy market. (The province has teetered on the edge of brownouts for two summers in a row, and imports large amounts of high-priced electricity from south of the border). He sees the solution in cogeneration (which captures heat as well as power from fuel), distributed generation, new technologies for stationary fuel cells, and certain "biofuel" applications. He’s skeptical of government programs to subsidize energy efficiency and create a hydrogen economy.
"There’s a role for renewables like wind, solar and geothermal," he says, "and for alternative energy systems, but the consumer must be brought meaningfully into the equation. In the absence of markets, the potential for misallocation of resources remains enormous."
Adams believes that electricity is about to become permanently more expensive in Canada, and that energy-intensive industries like smelting, steel making, and certain kinds of food and chemical production will pack their bags and move to other countries where energy is cheap.
Elizabeth Brubaker has excellent activist credentials, having worked in the United States in the 1970s on social housing and peace campaigns such as the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. Yet her philosophy has evolved into one that is very different from that, say, of Maude Barlow and her Council of Canadians.
Brubaker joined EPRF in 1987 and worked as a researcher, government liaison, newsletter editor and coordinator of nuclear campaigns. She’s now executive director of the EPRF’s Environment Probe division, which evolved from the organization’s work on environment issues related to the founding of the NAFTA. Like Adams, she worked on hearings for Ontario Hydro and developed expertise in dam and water issues. She’s written two fascinating books: Property Rights in the Defence of Nature and Liquid Assets: Privatizing and Regulating Canada’s Water Utilities.
"I agree that property rights don’t cover everything, like cumulative effects," says Brubaker, "but people don’t realize the extent to which regulations can be a ‘right to pollute.’"
Her books spell out how regulation can actually interfere with people’s right to a clean environment, the quiet enjoyment of their property and freedom from nuisance and trespass.
Brubaker’s most recent work promotes privatization and competition in Canada’s water utilities; these exhibit the same kind of "non-ingenious" monopoly thinking as the energy utilities. Like Adams, she points to the benefits of the U.K.’s privatization experience where investment has reduced pollution dramatically and public beaches are clean enough for swimming for the first time in living memory. She notes that Canada’s provincial and federal governments are reluctant to take action against cash-strapped municipal water utilities that may be significant polluters, and that involving the individual in a real market is central to requisite changes.
"Customers must be metered and water consumption and wastewater treatment must be properly priced," she says. "If people aren’t able to pay the full true cost, subsidies should flow to the consumer, not to the [wasteful use of] resources."
Brubaker believes that property rights should be enshrined in the constitution. In the meantime, she points to another division of the EPRF – the Environmental Bureau of Investigation – as a resource that individuals can use to protect the environment and hold government and corporations accountable. Through the Bureau, individuals can initiate site cleanups and prosecutions of polluters where government has not been effective. (Several prosecutions under the federal Fisheries Act have been successful, and the law allows for individuals or groups initiating the actions to share in cash awards.)
Lawrence Solomon described pollution as an infringement of people’s property rights back in 1978 in his book The Conserver Solution, published when Energy Probe was still part of Pollution Probe. (The groups parted company over administrative differences, including fundraising, and, no doubt, differences of philosophy. Under the leadership of Dr. Donald Chant, Pollution Probe spent the next 20 years pursuing a futile central-planner’s dream to build a large toxic waste treatment plant that no community wanted.) The Conserver Solution identified the use of the courts as a way to make polluters pay (or to internalize costs). Such arguments were continued in Solomon’s later book, Energy Shock.
Solomon believes that ordinary citizens around the world passionately defend their lands, waters, forests, and fisheries – if they have the tools to do so. These days Solomon heads up the Urban Renaissance Institute division of EPRF and writes a regular column for the editorial pages of the Financial Post. His articles have effectively skewered government folly on a range of issues, including ludicrous schemes to subsidize ethanol production. One article series that was as original as it was devastating, exposed the way agricultural subsidies sustain uneconomic farms in rural areas that should be allowed to return to the wild.
Removal of subsidies and the opening up of protected markets to competition is a major theme in Solomon’s work and his ideas permeate across all the EPRF divisions. Solomon is currently working on a monograph that he says will demonstrate how urban sprawl is the direct result of government policy and hidden subsidies.
"Without the subsidies," Solomon says, "cities would evolve with greater density and efficiency."
Asked about other areas the EPRF is addressing, Solomon points to the ongoing work of Patricia Adams, executive director of the organization’s Probe International division, the work is an extrapolation from the ideas Adams presented in her 1991 book Odious Debts which exposed problems in foreign aid and recommended remedies for various loose government lending practices.
Asked whether he feels discouraged by society’s slow pace in adopting the EPRF’s ground-breaking ideas, Solomon replies that he feels quite the opposite.
"I’ve been around long enough to see many of our ideas take root and have an effect," he says. "I’d say we’re a pretty optimistic group."
Guy Crittenden is editor-in-chief of HazMat Management Magazine.