Protecting and Preserving the Environment: Conservation and Stewardship versus Environmentalism

Protecting and Preserving the Environment: Conservation and Stewardship versus Environmentalism

How best to protect and preserve the natural environment for ourselves and for future generations, while permitting economic growth and an improvement in living standards is today’s question.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch.”  We can thank the late economist Milton Friedman for that insightful amorphism.

He also said “Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.”

(Read more at )

The free lunch refers to the fact that there are always opportunity costs or trade-offs.  For example, I am expending time on a Sunday afternoon in writing this short essay.  The time spent on it could have been used in some other activity such as exercising, taking a nap, or making love, etc.  So, I forgo the opportunity to do one or more of these other activities in order to write this essay.  That is an opportunity cost.  One cannot pursue two activities at the same time.  (Please, let’s not get silly here and suggest that this essay could be typed and reviewed, edited, etc. while I was engaging in another activity like making love.)  Another example of an opportunity cost is that the $50 that is in my checking account at the bank can either be left there, or spent on a nice dinner for my wife and I, but it cannot be both left with the bank and used for the dinner.  The same resources cannot be employed in two separate and distinct activities.  (Sure, I could split the $50 by leaving one half of it in the bank and using the remaining $25 on a dinner for two, but that misses the point.)  In other words, as the old adage puts it, “you cannot have your cake and eat it too”.  As we shall see, I will bring this concept back into play shortly.

Now, let us return to the question at the top of the essay.  Conservation and responsible stewardship (of resources) are not new concepts.  These ideas have been around since the beginning albeit they were called by other terms in other languages at earlier times in history.  Early pastoralists learned the negative consequences of overgrazing the same areas and took their herds on tour, and early farmers learned to leave some of their fields fallow so as not to exhaust the soil and learned over time which crops grew best in their fields.  The same basic economic self-interest is in play today, and that is why farmers, industrialists, small businesses, and individuals expend resources for periodic maintenance and replacement of their plant and equipment.  (You could stop changing the oil in your car and not have the transmission serviced at the appropriate interval, but the result is that your car’s useful life will be significantly shortened.  Then you will incur the major expense of having to purchase a new car.  That is not conserving your resources.)  Steven Covey addresses this in one of his books.  (Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, possibly)  He talks about production versus production capacity.  The plant manager could run his factory’s machines 24/7 to greatly boost production in the short run by not allowing any “down time” for maintenance and repairs.  This, of course, will in time, decrease production capacity as machines will breakdown and fail, thereby shutting production down for extended periods of time as major plant overhauls are necessary.

Conservation and stewardship are the approaches, the means, by which we can enjoy a healthy level of production and yet still preserve our production capacity for the future, both ours and for our children’s future.  By these approaches, we can utilize the world’s resources in a socially responsible manner and attain a growing economy, with its attendant rising living standards, and still leave the world a productive, clean, livable place for our children and their children.  A proper balance – that does justice to the current generation and to future generations – is achieved.

Contrast this view with that of environmentalism as it has come to be in practice in recent years (say the past 10 to 15 years).  For many of the proponents of environmentalism, no growth, no further development of the world’s resources is best for the world.  Any development is just too risky, too dangerous, and business people the world over cannot be trusted not to trash the planet, notwithstanding the existing laws in place to protect the environment from just such reckless behavior.

Even after extensive and exhaustive environmental impact studies have been conducted and all the necessary government permits have been obtained, environmentalists continue to block – mostly by their access to the courts – virtually all oil field expansions, further development of coal, new mines (for industrial metals) and expansions of existing mines throughout the United States and in many of the other countries of the world.  (These fanatics pull this crap quite a lot in South American countries.)  We suffer periodic spikes in the price of gasoline largely because of a shortage of refinery capacity, and not a scarcity of crude oil stocks.  We have not built a new refinery in the USA since 1976 because of the success of the environmentalists’ efforts to block such construction.  They would be happy to see all 7 billion of us living in thatched huts and cooking over dung fires.  (Of course, they might still be living in their air-conditioned condos in Florida.)  And, with the help of an out of control EPA, they are now even beginning to fly drones over farmers in Nebraska and Iowa to monitor the evil dust that is being kicked up by farmers’ tractors.  (Seriously, I could not make this up.)

Here is where the opportunity cost concept comes back into play.  The United States is sitting on vast reserves of coal and natural gas.  This is now common knowledge.  There is even much oil in the USA, much of it recoverable from shale oil sands, and offshore of northern Alaska.  The same is true as to great reserves of resources (energy and industrial metals) in many other countries around the world.  We can either leave those resources undeveloped and thereby forgo the current benefits to our economy that such development would bring (not the least in creating many new jobs in the extractive industries), or we can responsibly develop and make constructive use of these bountiful resources.  Even with increased resource development and resource utilization around the world, the world is not going to run out of resources any time soon.  We have enough to go around for many generations.  And, before we run out, necessity, being the mother of invention, will bring us new technologies so that standards of living can remain healthy by using substitutes if any critical resources are eventually depleted.

So, the choice is this: start making greater use of the world’s abundant natural resources in an environmentally responsible way (conservation and stewardship), or stop, or at least delay and frustrate, development of these resources and thereby condemn the world to slower economic growth and lower standards of living.  The opportunity cost of leaving these resources in the ground is a poorer world for all 7 billion of us.

When will Americans say “Enough is enough!” ?

Thank you for your time in reading and thinking about this!  –  Which represents an opportunity cost to you.

btw, I hear my wife calling, she is ready for & desirous of love. ….bye…..😉     Oooops!  She was just calling for an early home-made dinner.  Damn!


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