In 1934, former U.S. Forest Service ofﬁcial Aldo Leopold, a godfather to the modern environmental movement, wrote that restrictive laws had largely failed in their mission to conserve Americas forests, rivers, and other natural resources. Less than forty years later, however, as various events pushed environmental concerns into the public spotlight, lawmakers from both parties championed legislation far more sweeping and restrictive than any Leopold had witnessed.
How well did these restrictive laws work to right environmental wrongs? Why did so many miss the mark? And how should we go about improving our policies?
In Nature Unbound, authors Randy T Simmons, Ryan M. Yonk, and Kenneth J. Sim offer a devastating critique of federal environmental policy by scrutinizing it through the lenses of biological ecology and political ecology. This powerful framework, they show, reveals that environmental policy has been guided since the late 1960s by demonstrably false assumptions responsible for a host of ineffective or wasteful, command-and-control policieson air pollution, water pollution, endangered species, wilderness, renewable energy, and more. The mistakes have also empowered political entrepreneurship in ways that have encroached on property rights, burdened the general public, and degraded the civic landscape.
More than a critique of false assumptions and flawed policies, Nature Unbound offers bold principles to help us rethink environmental objectives, align incentives with goals, and afﬁrm the notion that human beings are an integral part of the natural order and merit no less consideration than Earths other treasures. Ultimately, nothing less can succeed in our efforts to restore natural resources and revitalize our social and political ecosystem.
Table of Contents
1. Politics, Ecology, and Entrepreneurship
2. Political Ecology
3. Environmental Political Entrepreneurship
4. The Politics of Nature
5. The Clean Air Act
6. The National Environmental Policy Act
7. The Clean Water Act
8. The Endangered Species Act
9. The Wilderness Act
10. Renewable Energy Legislation
Appendix: Federal Land Policy
About the Authors
Federal environmental policies have fallen short of the promised goals. The Clean Water Act has not eliminated pollution from every waterway in the United States. The Endangered Species Act has discouraged property owners from protecting threatened species and their habitats. The National Environmental Policy Act hasnt fostered harmony between various policy goals. The Clean Air Act is far less responsible for improving air quality than other factors. Renewable energy legislation has wasted resources, not conserved them.
Many environmental policies owe their existence to an outdated idea that scientific ecologists discarded long ago. The view that, in the absence of human impacts, nature keeps ecosystems in balance is a falsehood. Ecologists and other environmental scientists reject the balance of nature doctrine and embrace the notion that nature is in a state of flux, and that plant and animal populations respond to natural pressures and opportunities with varying degrees of success. If environmental policy is to preserve biodiversity, then we must accept the fact that meeting this goal will require human management of eco-systems, not a hands-off policy based on the view that nature will take care of itself.
State and local governments were getting better at reducing air and water pollution before the federal environmental legislation of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The federal government got involved because the public mistakenly believed pollution was getting worse. Leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties trumpeted federal regulation as a way to win support from an uninformed electorate caught up in environmental hysteria. Also, political entrepreneurs realized that its much easier to lobby one level of government than to lobby fifty states and their local governments.
The Clean Air Act may not be responsible for nationwide improvements in air quality. The data are inconclusive. In contrast, the laws negative effects on economic growth are well established. In its first 15 years, it caused the loss of 590,000 jobs in counties and states that failed to meet EPA standards. Regulations further led to the loss of $39 billion in capital stock and $75 billion in output in industries judged to be pollution intensive. The natural gas industrya chief rival of coal makersmay have benefited from the Clean Air Act the most.
The Wilderness Act has led to restrictions that are not ecologically justified. Under the Act, lightning-ignited fires are allowed to burn, but human-ignited fires are not. Bare ground may be mitigated if humans or domestic livestock cause its condition, but not if the land was made bare by wild elk or deer. Beetle infestations may be deemed acceptable even if they degrade scenic landscapes. The Wilderness Act sees humans and the environment as mutually exclusive concepts. However, quarantining land from human impacts and expecting nature to freeze in time does not work.
In 1934, former U.S. Forest Service official Aldo Leopold, a godfather to the modern environmental movement, wrote that restrictive laws had largely failed in their mission to conserve Americas forests, rivers, and other natural resources. Less than forty years later, however, as various events pushed environmental concerns into the public spotlight, lawmakers from both parties championed legislation far more sweeping and restrictive than any Leopold had witnessed.
How well did these restrictive laws work to right environmental wrongs? Why did so many miss the mark? And how should we go about improving our policies?
In Nature Unbound: Bureaucracy vs. the Environment, authors Randy T Simmons, Ryan M. Yonk, and Kenneth J. Sim offer a devastating critique of federal environmental policy by scrutinizing it through the lenses of biological ecology and political ecology. This powerful framework, they show, reveals that environmental policy has been guided since the late 1960s by demonstrably false assumptions responsible for a host of ineffective or wasteful policieson air pollution, water pollution, endangered species, wilderness, renewable energy, and more. The mistakes have also empowered political entrepreneurship in ways that have encroached on property rights, burdened the general public, and degraded the civic landscape.
More than a critique of false assumptions and flawed policies, Nature Unbound offers bold principles to help us rethink environmental objectives, align incentives with goals, and affirm the notion that human beings are an integral part of the natural order and merit no less consideration than earths other treasures. Ultimately, nothing less can succeed in our efforts to restore natural resources and revitalize our social and political ecosystem.
Political Ecology, Political Entrepreneuership
Nature Unbound begins by looking at the relationship between beliefs about science and beliefs about politics, and how this has affected environmental policy. Among the most pervasive beliefs is the balance of nature doctrine, which holds that the environment will take care of itself if we simply let nature take her course. This idea is false. Natural processes do not ensure biodiversity; ecosystems are constantly changing in ways that favor some species at the expense of others. Ecologists and other environmental scientists have discarded the balance of nature doctrine, but its influence on policymakers, environmental groups, and the public endures.
Another enduring myth is that the democratic process yields policies that tend to serve the general welfare and are self-correcting when they dont. This view is false for many reasons. Politics favors emotion over science, and it rewards clamoring about ecological crisis even when a problem is mild and limited. Politics also favors the shifting of environmental policy from the states to the federal government, because its much cheaper to lobby one governmental entity than fifty separate ones. These and other factors create opportunities for political entrepreneurs to seek advantages in ways that undermine a sound approach to environmental policy.
Thanks to politics, even our environmental vocabulary has been politicized. Terms like nature, wilderness, and natural invoke images and ideals unfamiliar to earlier generations in American history. Nor would our forbearers have recognized the current approach to managing land use and natural resources.
The Clean Air Act
For most of American history, local governments and the courts set air pollution policies. This changed with passage of the first Clean Air Act in 1963 and the Air Quality of Act of 1967. Those laws authorized the federal government to set air pollution policies for the entire nation, but the policies were not applied in every region. Thus, federal policies were probably not the cause of nationwide improvements in air quality by the end of the 1960s. The likely causes were state and local regulations and the adoption of cleaner technologies.
Despite the improvements, many Americans believed the nation was experiencing an air pollution crisisand both Democratic and Republican leaders hoped to ride that sentiment to Election Day victories. President Nixons Clean Air Act of 1970 empowered the newly created Environmental Protection Agency to set acceptable levels for various air pollutants and to deal with states deemed noncompliant. However, the law failed to satisfy both environmentalists and polluters, and it launched an arms race between competing interest groups jockeying for political advantage.
Amendments to the Clean Air Act, added in 1977 and 1990, increased federal authority, but evidence of its lasting improvements to air quality is scant. Its effects on jobs and economic growth, however, are demonstrably negative. Also, the federal Clean Air Act has crowded out a decentralized, state-led approach to air quality that seemed to have been working.
National Environmental Policy Act
Less familiar to the public is the National Environmental Policy Act, a cornerstone of federal law. NEPA spells out legal procedures for policy enforcement and sets an overarching priority: Environmental policies should encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment. This loose wording is a source of countless problems.
NEPA has failed in its mission to help harmonize human needs and the environment, but it has succeeded in benefitting a small group of political entrepreneurs.
The Clean Water Act
Formally known as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, the Clean Water Act was supposed to eliminate pollution from the nations waterways by 1985. The failure to meet this goal underscores the inferiority of federal involvement in environmental policy compared to the earlier reliance on the common law.
Under the common law, judges enforced clean-water standards based on private property rights. Because businesses and cities knew they would be found liable for polluting their neighbors water, they acted more responsibly. In contrast, political entrepreneurs are able to manipulate CWA to their own advantageoften to the detriment of water quality. Moreover, the courts have ruled that state standards for water pollution could not be set higher than national standards set by CWA.
CWA has had some successesmore U.S. waterways are deemed clean enough for fishing and swimming, and much more tap water is deemed safebut overall the law has resulted in suboptimal policies and lost opportunities for water-quality enhancement at the state and local level.
Endangered Species Act
No piece of legislation embodies the balance of nature ideology more completely than the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (expanded in 1982). ESA attempts to save all endangered species (as well as subspecies and unique subpopulations) regardless of economic cost. It is based on emotion and symbolism, and it creates rich opportunities for political entrepreneurship.
Under ESA, land-use restrictions usually follow after an endangered species is found on a parcel of land. This creates perverse incentives. It encourages landowners to shoot, shovel, and shut up; to preemptively destroy habitat; and to extract resources as soon as possible in order to avoid becoming subject to stifling land-use constraints.
ESA treats all protected species as equally deserving of protection. Thus a keystone species, which plays a large role in an ecosystem (e.g., the beaver, because it builds dams), is to get no more protection than a less critical species (e.g., the kangaroo rat or the grizzly bear) or a naturally rare subspecies (e.g., the Canada lynx and the North American wolverine, whose habitat is far more prevalent above the U.S.-Canada border).
The Wilderness Act
The Wilderness Act of 1964 restricts or completely prohibits most human activity in national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges. Even active management on behalf of wildlife may be deemed suspect. But a hands off approach can yield disastrous outcomes for the environment. A policy of allowing forest undergrowth to accumulate has fueled massive fires; allowing the mountain pine beetle to proliferate has devastated the Black Hills National Forest.
Contradictions and ambiguities in the Wilderness Act also create problems. The federal agencies responsible for implementing the law must somehow mediate conflicts among the laws clashing goals: the elimination of human activity in a protected area, the maintenance of an ecosystems health and biodiversity, and the preservation of natural and energy resources for future use and enjoyment.
Political entrepreneurs routinely exploit these flaws. A prime example is the coalition that succeeded in getting parts of the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin Deserts in Utah designated as federally protected wilderness.
Renewable Energy Legislation
Federal policies on renewable energy are both a product and a benefactor of political entrepreneurship. The case of the solar power company Solyndra is a good illustration of the problem.
The firm began in 2005 with a unique new technology to lower the cost of solar cells. It seemed promising at first, but it failed to make a profit. Less than two years after its founding, Solyndra applied for federal loan guarantees under the Energy Policy Act. Amidst concerns by the GAO and members of Congress, its application was rejected during the last weeks of the Bush administration. During the first year of President Obamas administration, however, Solyndra was awarded loan guarantees under a different program: the economic stimulus package. This occurred despite new concerns about its finances and competitiveness.
Solyndras subsequent bankruptcy embarrassed the White House and the Secretary of the Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, but their gamble of public funds probably seemed like a good political risk at the time. President Obama could make good on a campaign promise to promote eco-friendly products; Secretary Chu could save his joband possibly increase the power of his agency; and Solyndras executives had little to lose and much to gain.
A Way Forward
Environmental policies have failed due to inherent design flaws. How should we move forward? Nature Unbound offers five principles for redesigning and incentivizing institutions to perform as needed. It then applies those principles to the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Energy Policy Act.
Will America enact environmental policies based on sound principles? The authors of Nature Unbound are cautiously optimistic.
We recognize that political pressures work against such redesign, but we remain pragmatically hopeful, they write.
Read this book and learn the diverse ways in which organized interest groups, and prominent individuals, have sought to impose their idealizations of nature as ecological equilibrium on the rest of us. There is no such thing as nature undisturbed, and bureaucratic bad management is often the unintended consequence of our limited knowledge of ecosystem complexity. Improvement, if attainable, must be more marginal, more decentralized, and focused on learning because no one can know final right answers.
Vernon L. Smith, Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences; George L. Argyros Endowed Chair in Finance and Economics and Professor of Economics and Law, Chapman University
In the well written and highly informative book, Nature Unbound, Simmons, Yonk, and Sim develop the twin concepts of political ecologythe idea that in Washington science is politicsand political entrepreneurshipthe notion that every significant political action provides an opportunity for special interest groups to steer the action in their direction. They apply the concepts as they scan the last 40 years of the U.S. environmental saga, stopping occasionally to do in-depth analyses of intentions and outcomes. Theirs is not a normative anti-environment cry for deregulation, but rather a carefully reasoned and documented effort to explain how environmental actions based on faulty but popularized notions of science lead inevitably to botched outcomes that fail to redress true environmental concerns. Nature Unbound should be read, studied and debated by all who take the environment seriously.
Bruce Yandle, Dean Emeritus, College of Business and Behavioral Science, Clemson University; Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Economics, Mercatus Center, George Mason University
Nature Unbound provides a fascinating look at bureaucracy and environment in the context of a new view of ecology. The new ecology rejects the ideologically based concept of a balance of nature and recognizes variability is fundamental in ecological systems whether or not humans are involved. The book examines the role of politics and entrepreneurship in environmental policy, in the context of the new ecology, and provides an absorbing narration of natural resource legislation, legal activities and court decisions as well as management policies. The book concludes with five principles for redesigning and incentivizing institutions to be applied to specific individual resource and environmental programs.
Roger A. Sedjo, Senior Fellow, Resources for the Future
In striving to improve our environmental stewardship, it is important to take off our rose-colored glasses and contemplate the imperfections in our system. In Nature Unbound, Simmons, Yonk, and Sim focus on identifying and explaining deficiencies in long-standing environmental laws. Some readers may find the analysis uncomfortable because it challenges so many deeply ingrained perspectives. Whatever ones view of the authors criticisms, this book is thought-provoking; it forces us to re-examine the basic incentives and motivations underlying our environmental policies.
Gale A. Norton, former Secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior
Nature Unbound is a most timely and important book. We are currently in the grip of a revived regulatory utopianism whereby various market failures will be eliminated by diligent, well-informed regulators who have only our best interests at heart. This belief system has recently transformed government policy toward financial services, healthcareand the environment, which is the subject of this book. In a lively tour through the history of environmental regulation, the authors show how all the elements of the reigning belief are wrong. They tell us how the regulators face information distorted by the interests of the adversaries before them, then how they use the information to pursue personal and bureaucratic interests that ultimately have little to do with improving the environment. I would recommend Nature Unbound to anyone interested in the environment and especially to those inclined to support further expansion of environmental regulation.
Sam Peltzman, Ralph and Dorothy Keller Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Economics, Booth School of Business, University of Chicago; Editor, Journal of Law and Economics
Nature Unbound is a comprehensive discussion of our environmental laws and policies that are conflicted with fallacies and contradictions that cause a reduction in economic output and a damaged natural environment as well. The authors utilize many conceptual tools, but two do much of the intellectual heavy-lifting that drives their analyses and conclusions: equilibrium ecology and political entrepreneurship. This is an important book that hopefully will become influential in producing the legal and legislative improvements needed to increase the environmental quality that will benefit us all.
B. Delworth Gardner, Professor Emeritus of Economics, Brigham Young University
Environmental policies are ultimately about the human relationship with nature. American environmental thinking about this matter has been characterized by wide intellectual misunderstanding and confusion. Combined with the normal dysfunctions of the American political system, the result has been broad environmental policy failure in the United States. Read the outstanding book Nature Unbound to get the details.
Robert H. Nelson, Professor of Public Policy, University of Maryland; author, The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America
In Nature Unbound, Yonk and his co-authors offer a devastating critique of federal environmental policy by scrutinizing it through the lenses of biological ecology and political ecology. The book makes us rethink environmental objectives. It aligns incentives with goals and affirms the notion that human beings are an integral part of the natural order and merit no less consideration than Earths other treasures. . . . Nature Unbound likewise makes a good case for abandoning the balance of nature myth and rethinking the environmental laws aimed at maintaining the mythical balance. This thinking was present in passing the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, and, more recently, a slew of renewable energy legislation even though laws often fail to meet their stated environmental goals and may lead instead to worse environmental and economic outcomes.
Nature Unbound warns that the frequent use of fear-based, emotional science can have the same effect on humans as a deer caught in the headlights. Simmons, Yonk, and Sim offer an escape from this trap and a step forward for Mother Nature. This book is a must read for those seeking an honest and pragmatic path toward improved environmental quality.
Laura E. Huggins, Chief Executive Officer, Montana Prairie Holdings LLC
Nature Unbound will provide the critical, innovative, and careful evaluation so needed to raise issues and encourage debate over environmental issues, which hopefully will lead to more reasoned addressing of environmental concerns.
Gary D. Libecap, Donald Bren Distinguished Professor of Corporate Environmental Management, Bren School of Environmental Science and Management and Department of Economics, University of California, Santa Barbara
Nature Unbound is a revealing and disturbing book. The authors examine the unintended consequences of five major environmental statutes passed by Congress since the 1960s. They outline the ways in which political ecology and political entrepreneurship have channeled the behavior of actors both in and out of government in directions that are opportunistic, costly, and disconnected from legitimate environmental concerns. Simmons, Yonk, and Sims offer principles by which each statute can be amended to more efficiently and effectively address the concerns prompting the initial passage of these laws.
John C. Brätland, Senior Economist, U.S. Department of the Interior
The U.S. Postal Service is scorned for its inefficiency. Other agencies, such as the EPA, are similarly inept, but it is harder for citizens to observe their poor performance. As the authors explain, we have a political ecology. Politics, not pure environmental science, determines environmental policy. In all areas of the environmentair, water, and landpoliticians and bureaucrats play on misguided sympathies to generate support for more of the same. The environment, like society, is dynamic, but government policy is rooted in a mythical environmental notion of static purity. Whether your concern is environmental or economic, Nature Unbound is indispensable for anyone to understand the destructive impact of environmental politics.
Roger E. Meiners, Goolsby Distinguished Professor of Economics and Law, University of Texas, Arlington
Nature has often been described as complex and delicate but left to its own devices it will maintain itself in balance. And, when irresponsible people design complex technologies, unexpectedly bad impacts on nature all too often whirl out of control. To address such problems, the responsible people employed by governments have been charged to take care of nature and restore the balances that have been disrupted by the irresponsible rest. Some technologies are banned or strictly regulated, while others are promoted to give unbalanced nature a necessary shove back toward its natural state of balance. Or so much of the green community would have us believe. In Nature Unbound, Simmons, Yonk, and Sim challenge this narrative head on and convincingly dismantle it. Time and again, well-intentioned schemes to restore nature to the condition that people come to believe is natural and pre-ordained by some higher authority just make things worse. Their book should be mandatory reading for policymakers, who should have the courage to scrutinize how the environmental laws they promulgate and enforce have worked out and study in depth the many ways in which they have backfired. The rest of us who value the environment as much as they do and marvel at the complex beauty and remarkable resilience of nature should read it too. As Nature Unbound convincingly establishes, good intentions do not sufficeto the contrary, in this context all too often they backfire. We should be backing policymakers who see that their policies are securely anchored in what experience with bad policies has taught, and shunning those for whom environmental protection is a sort of pagan religion and who set out to save the environment with hastily conceived ad-hoc interventions based on superficial impressions of how things once were, vague notions about how they ought to be once again, and a baseless excess of confidence in their own ability to set things right.
Peter W. Huber, Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute; author, The Bottomless Well, Hard Green, and Liability
Laws, by definition, tend to lead to litigation. The vaguer the environmental law, the more the various stakeholders are provided with incentives to litigate or procrastinate, rather than even attempt to try to meet the environmental intent of the law. Nature Unbound exposes these incentives.
Donald H. Stedman, John Evans Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Denver
In Nature Unbound, Simmons, Yonk, and Sim may have put the final nail in the coffin of the naïve yet abiding notion of the balance of naturethe idea that a place has some unique, ideal natural ecosystem, defined out there, distinct from humans. Commentators since Aldo Leopold have fought this notion, yet it has become more and more entrenched in environmental policy, to the detriment of creation as well as man. So why does a false idea, inevitably leading to bad policy, endure? Using their academic and real-world expertise in politics, Simmons et al. show how groups have perpetuated this notion as a way to promote their own special interests. The book persuasively argues that the balance of nature idea must be replaced by a frank acceptance of the management of nature by humans andmoreoverthat it be managed in ways that are robust to special-interest politics. Nature Unbound is essential reading in opening our eyes to the reality of present-day environmental failuresand the alternatives.
H. Spencer Banzhaf, Professor of Economics, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Georgia State University
Nature Unbound makes a compelling case for abandoning the balance of nature myth and rethinking the environmental laws aimed at maintaining that mythical balance. Simmons, Yonk, and Sim explain why the highly centralized, one-size-fits-all approach to environmental conservation is doomed to failure, and they identify several opportunities for political entrepreneurship that all serious conservationists should consider.
Reed Watson, Executive Director, Property and Environment Research Center
Environmental policy in the U.S. is based on an incorrect scientific understanding of the balance of nature and the characteristics of a natural equilibrium. Even well-intentioned decision-makers will make incorrect decisions if they start with incorrect premises. Actual decision-makers may be somewhat well-intentioned, but they are also political agents subject to political pressures and special-interest lobbying. In Nature Unbound, Simmons, Yonk, and Sim do a very good job of showing how this combination of an incorrect understanding of the world with self-interested decision-makers leads to bad policy, and they have some useful suggestions for improvement. Citizens interested in environmental issues should read this book before advocating further counterproductive policies.
Paul H. Rubin, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Economics, Emory University
Nature Unbound should be required reading for anyone truly interested in policies that will improve environmental quality. It is an insightful and very readable story of why mostly well-intentioned environmental policies have often led to bad outcomes. After carefully documenting the underlying reasons for the lack of environmental success, it offers a set of guiding principles along with constructive and pragmatic suggestions for getting more from key environmental statutes.
Susan E. Dudley, Director, Regulatory Studies Center, and Distinguished Professor of Practice, Trachtenberg School of Public Policy & Public Administration, George Washington University; former Administrator, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, U.S. Office of Management and Budget
Nature Unbound is the best treatment I know of economics and ecology. The application of Austrian and Public Choice insights to environmental policy explains many complex and emotional policies. Environmental sensitivity increases when people become prosperous and well educated. However, environmental issues are scientifically complex and carry heavy emotional baggage. These are ingredients for error and acrimony. Better than anywhere I know, Nature Unbound explains the associated rent-seeking, with its lost productive opportunities and environmental damage, and the much needed reforms.
John A. Baden, Chairman, Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment
Nature Unbound is a smart, serious book offering crisp thinking about environmental issues that seldom get the critical examination they deserve.
Jerry Taylor, President, Niskanen Center
Nature Unbound is not only an excellent introduction to the perverse incentives created by the Endangered Species Act and other environmental regulatory schemes, it is a brilliant introduction to the public choice theory of why government so often fails to do what we hope and expect. The books meticulous scientific evidence, along with its thorough analysis of political failure, make it must-reading for everyone who is concerned about environmental quality as well as for those who want to improve our political system.
Randal OToole, Senior Fellow, Cato Institute
Nature Unbound will be required reading for individuals interested in the protection of endangered species as well as environmental policy more generally. The book is a top priority for scholars, policy-makers, and the general reading public interested in the economic, legal, and political dimensions of environmental policy, drawing from a variety of real world examples to buttress and illustrate the principles of property rights and public choice.
Rodney T. Smith, Ph.D., President, Stratecon Inc.