Free Market—Not NGOs—Best for Conservation, Sustainability Issues

The most productive way to address sustainability and conservation is through economic development based on a system of property rights and market based incentives.

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Two hands holding a mini globe to show conservation on the plant.

The global economy has forged new links between nations at many levels, up and down the supply chain. Taking advantage of new technologies and native resources, many nations all across the globe feed raw materials to others, where they are processed and turned into goods used in manufacturing. Other nations act as transit points. Still others engage in the assembly process, shipping finished good out into export markets where they reach their final point of sale.

That it occurs at all, considering the confusing mélange of rules, regulations, and standards imposed by governments, by international bodies, and by nongovernmental organizations, is something of a miracle. It is not so much that the manner of doing business differs—an Eastern approach being different from a Western one. More often than not the marvel is that these successes occur despite attempts by the developed world to impose its values on developing countries, and in ways that are harmful to economic growth and hurt the very causes they purport to be helping, for instance the conservation of natural resources and the protection of endangered species.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Frequently the driving force behinds these codes of conduct are nongovernmental organizations that, as the National and Legal Policy Center's Ken Boehm recently pointed out, are not necessarily based in free-market principles. For them, the optimal approach is to create barriers to growth and impede the drive toward prosperity. They are often rigid in their focus and, more often than not, come down to the idea that the best way to conserve things is to not touch anything.

This kind of antidevelopment argument is gaining currency. From the development of paper products to the construction of new buildings, from the harvesting of crops to the mining of minerals and the production of reliable sources of energy, these certification organizations sometimes even seek to handcuff industry to the point where it cannot function in the global marketplace. Their formulas do not take into account that the realities in a place like Norway or Canada are different from those in, say, Indonesia or Zimbabwe. They represent a neo-economic colonial attitude that, in the name of doing good, actually works to preserve the competitive advantage the developed economies have over developing nations.

The better way, the more productive way—as Latin American scholar Hernando de Soto and others have written—to address issues like sustainability, environmental management, conservation, and even wildlife protection is through economic development based on a system of property rights and market based incentives.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

Ownership is the most effective guarantor of good stewardship. The collective ownership of endangered species, resources, and land leads to poor maintenance of those items owned for the simple reason that, if everyone is responsible for something, no one is responsible for it.

Global market inter-activity is good for producers and consumers. It leads to the production of quality goods at cheaper prices which, in turn, foster economic growth. Economic growth leads to higher living standards, better education, healthier lifestyles, and all the other benefits typically associated with the developed world. In a poor economy, conservation and species protection is a luxury most people cannot afford. Simply put: When your belly is empty you don’t think about ways to protect endangered species, you think about ways to catch and cook them.

The conflict between the values of the developed world and the developing one need not continue. Both economic spheres value property rights which, when applied appropriately, provide the solution to the problems of sustainability and environmental management. What‘s needed is not more rules and regulations but more creativity in addressing these issues. This is the only way that everyone on the planet will be able to make their way down the pathway toward prosperity.

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