On this day, often dedicated to genuflecting to Gaia and her regulatory, busy-body apostles, it's worth remembering that capitalism bought us the luxury of having environmentalists in the first place, and the free market has greened large parts of the world without their help.
Don Boudreaux keeps a running log of his observations of this phenomenon under the heading "Cleaned by Capitalism."
Wealth not only breeds environmentalists, it begets environmental quality. There are dozens of studies showing that, as per capita income initially rises from subsistence levels, air and water pollution increases correspondingly. But once per capita income hits between $3,500 and $15,000 (dependent upon the pollutant), the ambient concentration of pollutants begins to decline just as rapidly as it had previously increased. This relationship is found for virtually every significant pollutant in every single region of the planet...
Much of this had to do with individual demands for environmental quality. People who could afford cleaner-burning furnaces, for instance, bought them. People who wanted recreational services spent their money accordingly, creating profit opportunities for the provision of untrammeled nature. Property values rose in cleaner areas and declined in more polluted areas, shifting capital from Brown to Green investments.
It's also a function of our societal wealth allowing us the economic trade-offs of environmental regulation without depriving us of basic needs and wants.
It's been said by critics that conservatives need a message of their own on the environment, that making fun of Earth Day (while fun) won't cut it. I certainly think being critical of scientists who "hide the decline" and bureaucrats who would institutionalize political favoritism and cripple economies with a bogus carbon trading scheme are worthy causes. But I also think critics are right about small-government conservatives thinking outside the box on this issue. As with health care, a conservative opposition without a coherent plan and push on an issue leaves a vacuum for statists.
So, what might be an alternative? How about conservation's small businessmen? Meet John Logan, a Mississippi farmer who turned chicken poop into a power source, and his power source into an international business.
Every year in the United States, 9 billion chickens are raised and sold for food. Their poop has become a problem for the environment.
Several years ago, Logan noticed the phosphorus content in his groundwater had become too high, because of chicken fecal contamination.
"I said, 'I got to do something,' " the farmer recalls. "I can't be putting this on the ground. Now, I have a river right here. What's to happen when that phosphorus overload washes into the river, which then ends up in the Gulf of Mexico?"
Logan considers himself a conservationist.
I don't usually believe the hype from liberals about conservatives speaking to each other in code words, but the word "conservationist" is important. I'm pretty sure Logan just told us he's no nutty, lefty environmentalist. He's not comfortable with the word "environmentalist," but he cares about his land and his business. There are thousands like him, who may share the basic value of environmental stewardship with the greens, but who will not be reached by their emotional and often self-righteous rhetoric.
So, what did this conservationist do? Something that could make him a hero to NPR listeners and Weekly Standard readers alike. Imagine that:
So he turned to the idea of a manure digester, which is something cattle ranchers have been using to turn cow manure into energy. In the past, chicken manure had been mixed with other manure types and then converted into energy, but it had never been used on its own.
Logan worked with researchers and scientists at Mississippi State University to develop and patent the first successful chicken poop digester.
Now, every day, 4 tons of chicken manure are fed into the digester, which resembles a silo. The poop is heated, then mixed with bacteria, which produces the methane gas that is then converted into energy.
Logan now sells the digesters in several countries around the world for $500,000 a pop from his company Eagle Green Energy. A cleaner chicken farm, a richer farmer, and a healthier local economy all with minimal (if any) taxpayer money. (The article doesn't specify whether Logan got federal environmental grants, but we'll count the professors' research time as some state money involved.)
And, how do we spur more of this kind of conservation? Most liberals would say we should start subsidizing chicken poop digesters for everyone and their momma. But the EPA's assessment suggests there might be an easier and cheaper route:
The Environmental Protection Agency has been promoting the use of manure digesters since 1993. But a complicated patchwork of local, state and federal energy policy rules has discouraged people from using them, according to Chris Voell, an EPA program manager. He says with some changes, "instead of 130 digesters around the country, there could be thousands of digesters."
Republicans should be the ones arguing for regulatory structures to be streamlined and demystified so more conservationist small businessmen can help conserve the Earth and the economy.