Opinionista Ivo Vegter 4 June 2012

Eco-cronyism is as dangerous as any other

When companies or religious groups lobby the government, they are not always wrong, but citizens routinely treat them with well-deserved scepticism. When environmentalists lobby the government, they are not always wrong, but those who love freedom and prosperity should be equally sceptical of their claims and demands. By IVO VEGTER

The separation of church and state has become a universal tenet of modern democracy and individual liberty. If a ruler can claim supernatural authority for the state’s actions, instead of being forced to defer to the power vested in him by the people, that ruler is only a short step away from becoming an oppressive tyrant.

This is not to say that religions are bad. In fact, some countries that separate church and state, like the UK, still maintain an official state religion, while granting their citizens freedom of religion. In fact, by not imposing a religion or doctrines that are exclusively religious in nature upon citizens by law, they guarantee freedom from religion.

In a free country, everyone, including religious lobbyists, enjoys the right to speak freely and push politicians to adopt policies they support. However, wise rulers who respect the liberty of their constituents will avoid imposing on free citizens those policies advocated by religious lobbies that are merely self-serving.

Likewise, we distrust the influence of corporate interests in government. There are a great many laws designed to prevent bribery and corruption, and while companies have just as much right to advocate their positions as anyone else, citizens are right to be sceptical that they’re merely arguing their own pocket books. Many a corporate argument, couched in deceptively attractive terms about protecting local jobs, or keeping standards up, are merely attempts to keep out foreign rivals, or erect high hurdles for upstart competitors.

We as citizens know this, which is why we’re naturally sceptical of their submissions to parliament, and of their public advertising. We think those who take advertisements at face value to be gullible, and look down on them.

This is as it should be. We ought to distrust special interests, question their assertions, and keep their corrupting influence as far away from legislative power as possible.

Why is it, then, that many of us are so much more willing to trust the bona fides of environmental lobby groups?

Undoubtedly, like many religious people and many companies, they are often perfectly right, and raise perfectly sensible issues that really do need to be addressed. However, in general, it is a special-interest lobby just like any other. Its lobbyists and activists have their own ulterior motives, and will advertise them just as honestly as an insurance salesman, a second-hand car dealer or a New Age healer. That is, not honestly at all.

When they make claims, those claims ought to be questioned, examined and tested. And when they get anywhere near the levers of government power, it should awake in us exactly the same suspicion and revulsion as when big business, worker unions or church groups get to dictate to us.

I’ve often questioned the exaggeration of environmentalists in these columns – most recently as they campaign against shale gas drilling in the Karoo.

Some, like the late professor of environmental biology and global change at Stanford University, Stephen Schneider, openly admitted that to gain public support for legislative action, environmentalists “have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have”. (Although he would later claim that this quote somehow misrepresented his intended meaning.)

James Lovelock, the nonagenarian godfather of the environmental movement, famous for his book The Gaia Hypothesis, and infamous for his dreadfully dire predictions about the fate of humanity, just recently admitted that the prophecies of imminent and inescapable doom might have been a little over-dramatised.

Sometimes, no doubt, the lobby groups are truly well-intentioned, or believe they act in the best interests of society. And sometimes they do raise awareness about very real problems in society. However, this is not always true. Many are dogmatically opposed to development and commerce. They adopt a Lovelock-like religious zeal that venerates untouched nature, and consider even the maintenance of a healthy and productive environment to constitute desecration. Some believe, contrary to all historical evidence, that socialism will somehow be better for the environment than capitalism. Some will gladly concede the misanthropic view that human life – when it’s not their own, at least – is a cancer, a disease, that deserves to be wiped out.

Not all environmentalists are motivated by what will best advance socio-economic development and prosperity growth. That is one reason not to take their claims of good intentions for granted. Worse, many of the claims and predictions environmentalists make are weakly (if at all) supported. There are good grounds to distrust them just as much as the claims and predictions of any other special interest group.

If this comparison sounds harsh, consider that there is a great deal of self-interest at play, too. The careers of environmental activists and research scientists would suffer greatly without official support and public funding. More importantly, environmental regulation creates artificial demand for green services. Many companies provide specialist services, at top dollar, to help companies comply with a myriad of laws and rules. The global environmental and facilities services industry had total revenues of $223 billion in 2010, according to Research and Markets, and growth in the sector is expected to accelerate.

The wind turbine business is expected to turn over $81 billion this year, according to the World Wind Energy Association. The market for photovoltaics is growing and could reach anywhere between $46.3 billion and $96.8 billion by 2014, says the research firm SolarBuzz. In its 2012 report on solar power, Simon-Kucher & Associates, a strategy consultancy, says that “it’s not over for solar”, but identifies a great number of companies that are weak in terms of financial or market power or both. They surely could use some friendly regulation to bolster their businesses, at the cost of competitors or the taxpayer. Rest assured, they’re lobbying like crazy to make it happen.

That’s not to say that none of the regulations, and indeed none of the environmental services and products, have value. But the same is true for any other industry’s pet regulations, goods and services. If we distrust the oil and gas lobby, or the banking lobby, or the manufacturing lobby, why should we trust the renewable energy lobby? They’re self-serving special interests no different from any other, and benefit from targeted regulation just like any other industry does.

Per Fredriksson of Louisville University, Eric Neumayer of the London School of Economics and Gergely Ujhelyi of Harvard University studied the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in 170 countries to determine whether official corruption facilitated environmental lobbying, and published their findings in a refereed paper. Not only did they find that ratification was more likely and more rapid in countries where the environmental lobby was more active, but also that there was a positive correlation between treaty ratification and government corruption.

They write: “Our inquiry is motivated by, for example, the observation that Mexico ratified the Kyoto Protocol almost two years earlier than South Africa, despite both countries having eleven environmental lobby groups and being at comparable levels of economic development. Note that Mexico has a higher level of government corruption (lower government integrity) than South Africa.”

So the stronger the environmental lobby, and the weaker the government, the more likely that laws and regulations friendly to the special interest of environmental groups will be passed. In fact, “a government will be more likely to ratify an IEA the stronger the environmental lobby in the country,” the researchers find. “In turn, we expect this effect to be reinforced if the government is more corruptible because such a government will be more responsive to lobbies’ demands.”

Does this not sound like exactly what you’d expect from crony-capitalism? The stronger the corporate interests, and weaker or more corrupt the government, the more likely that companies will take advantage of this state of affairs to get laws passed that enrich the few at the cost of the majority of customers and competitors.

When companies lobby the government, they are not always wrong. But they do deserve to be treated with scepticism. When religious groups lobby the government, they are not always wrong. But they do deserve to be treated with scepticism. When environmentalists lobby the government, they are not always wrong. But like with any other special interest, those who love freedom and desire prosperity – and the media that purport to have their interests at heart against those who would abuse their democratic powers – will treat them with healthy scepticism. DM