The vital role of private conservation: A different perspective on Earth Day

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Amidst the jubilation over government-led environmental initiatives on yet another Earth Day yesterday, it’s crucial to highlight a perspective too often overlooked: private conservation, rather than the top-down variety.

While the media and policymakers hail governmental regulations and green energy policies, the unsung heroes of environmental stewardship are often private conservationists and those fostering conservation through voluntary efforts—along with the free enterprise system itself.

As I highlight at Forbes, contrary to popular belief, it’s not capitalism that inherently pollutes and destroys our environment, but rather the absence or mismanagement of property rights: Not market failure, but the failure to have markets, is often the culprit. Across the globe, in areas where property rights are clear and enforced, environmental degradation tends to be lower. The tragedy of the commons, where resources are depleted due to lack of ownership, is a stark example of this phenomenon.

The work of our CEI colleague Robert J. Smith, who championed private conservation as a founder in that field of inquiry, emphasized among much else the importance of incentivizing landowners to protect vulnerable natural resources and species. As noted in Marlo Lewis’s April 10, 2024 tribute to R.J., and another in the Grand Junction, Colorado Daily Sentinel, R.J.’s legacy reminds us that conservation becomes viable and sustained when it aligns with economic incentives, while government-led initiatives often fall short in delivering tangible results.

Private conservation efforts have a long history of success. R.J. wrote case studies about landmarks like Luray Caverns and Grandfather Mountain, both under private stewardship rather than governmental, preserving natural wonders for generations.

Along with the likes of natural wonders and species, it is also essential to recognize the role of free enterprise rather than top-down solutions in driving innovation and promoting sustainability in policies encompassing more mundane concerns like energy conservation, waste stream reduction and everything else.

Rather than relying on subsidies and regulations as is the default of the Biden administration (see Biden’s Earth Day commemoration here), true progress in pollution reduction and sound energy savings lies in integrating environmental concerns into the framework of capitalism. This approach not only fosters innovation but also ensures that stewardship efforts are themselves sustainable over time.

Subsidizing green infrastructure without addressing underlying market dynamics is a recipe for inefficiencies and failure. Biden often talks of growing the economy and wealth “bottom-up, middle-out.” But if he means it, Biden should recognize that true environmental progress—itself a form of wealth—also requires a bottom-up approach rooted in the rule of law and in harnessing the power ownership, property rights and market mechanisms.

After this year’s Earth Day, let’s not forget the necessity of private conservation and the invaluable contributions of R.J. in that field to our planet’s well-being. From protecting endangered species to preserving natural wonders, these efforts will be recognized as increasingly vital to safeguarding our environmental wealth for future generations. Earth Years, not just Earth Days.