Seizing the Ecomodernist Moment

Photo Credit: Getty

I recently had the good fortune to attend Ecomodernism 2022, a conference hosted in northern Virginia by the Breakthrough Institute. The theme was “Deregulating Abundance,” and it brought together an impressive range of experts, activists, researchers, and businesspeople. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson opened things by speaking on a topic to which he has attracted much attention recently, the “Abundance Agenda.” As he wrote in January of this year:

We say that we want to save the planet from climate change—but in practice, many Americans are basically dead set against the clean-energy revolution, with even liberal states shutting down zero-carbon nuclear plants and protesting solar-power projects. We say that housing is a human right—but our richest cities have made it excruciatingly difficult to build new houses, infrastructure, or megaprojects. Politicians say that they want better health care—but they tolerate a catastrophically slow-footed FDA‪ that withholds promising tools, and a federal policy that deliberately limits the supply of physicians.

At the conference, Thompson recounted his failed attempt to write a book about the history and importance of inventors. He ended up realizing that many of the problems we face in the U.S. today aren’t about a lack of invention and innovation as they are about institutional restraints on effectively deploying and scaling up the technology we already have. This fits well with what we at the Competitive Enterprise Institute have been saying for many years, from the “Liberate to Stimulate” agenda back in 2011 to our “Never Needed” campaign in 2020 to turn the regulatory suspensions during the COVID-19 crisis into permanent reforms. It also recalls one of my old boss Fred Smith’s favorite sayings about deregulation: You don’t have to teach the grass to grow; you just have to move the rocks off the lawn.

In terms of specific policy proposals, attendees were particularly excited by the prospect of reforming the process for federal permitting of major construction projects, in particular making changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the environmental impact statements that it requires. My CEI colleague Mario Loyola knows a fair bit about this, and his August 2022 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal Renewable Energy? Where’s Your Permit?” is a great quick read on the issue. Not only does the expense and uncertainty of the NEPA process hold back industrial progress in general, it is ironically now holding back environmental progress in particular:

If the climate crisis really is “code red for humanity” as [President] Biden claims, Congress needs to take permitting reform seriously. Otherwise, the U.S. won’t meet his clean-energy goals. Federal red tape is depriving American communities of the modern infrastructure they need and deserve. Congress should stop tinkering at the margins and fix this problem.

I also wrote my own analysis of this conundrum for Law & Liberty last year in at article titled “Self-Defeating Environmental Activism,” which originated as a lecture to a seminar hosted by the Law & Economics Center at George Mason University:

The anti-nuclear and anti-development campaigns [of the 1970s] were both driven by an effort to stop as many of the offending projects as possible, rather than measure and weigh their marginal costs and benefits. We did not, of course, end up with zero nuclear power plants or zero new infrastructure projects, but only because the environmentalists who pursued those goals were less politically powerful than they would have liked to be.

The real goal should be energy and environmental policy that provides clear benefits to everyone. Policies should be based on a reasonable standard by which marginal preferences for environmental amenities are weighed against preferences for things like dividends, salaries, innovation, and growth. Smart managers and policymakers will avoid, to the greatest extent possible, commitments based on appeals to naturalistic purity rather than wealth creation and human flourishing.

This same theme—environmental laws standing in the way of environmental progress—is on display again this week in The Atlantic, in which Jerusalem Demsas (a presenter at Ecomodernism 2022) quotes various experts, including the Center for Growth and Opportunity’s Eli Dourado (also a presenter at Ecomodernism 2022):

The economist Eli Dourado has studied NEPA’s failures for years, and he is skeptical that thoroughness and time spent should be read as a policy success: “If every review were done so thoroughly that it took 100 years to complete and the resulting lawsuit rate were zero, that would be a failure, not a success.” The problem is “the threat of litigation continuously increases the burden of NEPA review, rendering our agencies unable to make speedy decisions even in cases where it is obvious there is no significant environmental impact,” Dourado told me.

Dourado also pointed to the aforementioned case of a solar company suing to block a wind project. Even if the case is decided in the defendant’s favor, it has raised the cost of producing renewable energy—to everyone’s detriment. Evidence also exists that public officials try to avoid conflict with neighborhood groups by selecting suboptimal places to site mass-transit and renewable-energy infrastructure.

We need to reform the laws in the United States that are currently making it expensive, difficult, and sometimes impossible to build the things that Americans need to be happy, healthy, and successful. Everyone who cares about those things should get on the Ecomodernism bus—we have a lot of work to do.