Ryan M. Yonk joins us this week for a discussion about how we think about ecology and the environment. We talk about various environmental regulations including the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
What counts as a “natural balance” in ecology? Is the ideal environment one with no human impact at all? What is “political entrepreneurship” and how do environmentalists use it to push for their policy goals?
Trevor mentions this Free Thoughts episode, in which Van Doren suggests that the US government gift the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the Sierra Club, effectively assigning them responsibility for any economic benefits that would come from drilling for oil there.
Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Ryan M. Yonk. He’s in the Department of Political Science at Utah State University. He is the co‐author, along with Randy Simmons and Kenneth Sim, of Nature Unbound: Bureaucracy vs. the Environment. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Ryan.
Ryan M. Yonk: Thanks for having me, Trevor. It’s great to be here to talk a little bit about it.
Trevor Burrus: What’s wrong with the way that we think about ecology [00:00:30] and the environment?
Ryan M. Yonk: Well, just about everything, Trevor. Most people, we think about ecology and we have this grand notion, most everyone’s heard of John Muir, and they think about ecology and say, “Ah, these are these great cathedrals in the mountains and we need to get everything into balance so we arrive at perfection.” But it turns out nature, and ecology in particular, have almost nothing to do with being in balance. An economist might call it equilibrium. [00:01:00] But nature doesn’t exist ever in equilibrium and almost always we think about our vision of what we want nature to be as some sort of notion of something static from the past.
Trevor Burrus: That usually does not involve humans.
Ryan M. Yonk: Almost never. It almost always involves somehow how do you separate humans out from what’s going on in the environment? The more you can separate them away, the easier it is for lots of folks that think about environmental [00:01:30] policies, particularly from the environmentalist side, then you have a way to get to this romantic notion of some perfect, almost Edenic state in the past where humans are not influencing their environment.
Trevor Burrus: It’s always struck me as odd, which is why yours in the first book I ever found that dealt with these questions. I remember when I was being taught environmentalism stuff as a kid, of course, indoctrinated might be a better word, but I sat there and I asked the teacher one time [00:02:00] in sixth or seventh grade, I said, “What’s the difference between a beaver dam and a human dam or a human building in terms of environmental effect? Is one of those natural and the other one not?” She got kind of mad at me.
Ryan M. Yonk: Yes, because on its face, the assumption is that, well, it’s patently obvious what the difference is. The difference is that one is constructed by humans to change their environment, and the other is constructed by a natural part. But it turns out that all of these things [00:02:30] are species, and I include humans as I talk about this, their attempt to modify their environment to make their ability to live and live well easier. The beaver builds a dam. Humans engage their environment to make change. I don’t have a clear way to say which of those are natural, which are not. Unfortunately, the shorthand has become, that for something to be natural it needs to be absent man. That’s become almost always what the focus [00:03:00] is that it can only be natural if a human being is not involved.
Aaron Powell: Is there though … It seems like there’s a difference of scale, at the very least. A beaver dam is a rather small thing that impacts a small portion of a lake or stream or whatever, whereas the Hoover Dam is enormous. And that most of humanity’s environmental changes that we have created [00:03:30] throughout our history have been of vast scope in a way that seems, at least on the surface, to far outweigh anything that other species are doing.
Ryan M. Yonk: No, I think that that’s right. But I think that part of the issue there is most of the discussions about these things are not focused on scale. Because I’m very sympathetic to the scale discussion about that humans are able to impact their environment on a much larger scale.
Fundamentally, the discussion starts not [00:04:00] with that question of scale but with the question of whether or not man was involved and as man is influencing his environment rather than what’s the scale or the actual outcomes of that intervention. I think that’s where the discussion about environmental policy, particularly its foundations, would be useful to go because yes, human beings have a profound and sometimes negative effect on their environment. But so to do other [00:04:30] animals, depending on how you measure what a negative impact is. Because a beaver dam that blocks a stream creates new habitat for beaver but it also takes away habitat from other species. That’s the sort of discussion, I think, that would become useful. Not one whether or not man was involved in it, but in fact the actual impact that’s being had in a real meaningful way.
Scale becomes a really big important part of that, but unfortunately, lots of the discussion, [00:05:00] and ultimately lots of the policy requirements and regulations, do relatively little to distinguish actions based on their scale and their impact. Instead, they’re based on how and in what way the action is being taken as their initial place to begin, whereas scale would be, I think, a valuable way to do it.
Trevor Burrus: I had a conversation recently with a friend of mine’s father who is a PhD ecologist, and I spent a very long [00:05:30] time trying to figure out what he did. He studies things, but I was trying to figure out the basis of any normative claim that he would make. It would say, “This is out of balance,” or, I think he studies whales in particular and he lives in Alaska, so the question of we need to fix this or normatively do this. What would an ecologist … How do they conceive of their jobs in the sense of … Because you would be maximizing one thing, say, the elk [00:06:00] or the wolves, but then you’d be minimizing other things and saying that it’s in balance. But, of course, it’s not in balance … What do ecologists think about what you’re saying?
Ryan M. Yonk: Well, ecologists themselves … Ecology as a discipline, especially an academic discipline, hasn’t relied on a balance of nature philosophy in a couple of decades. If working ecologists today, when they’re doing their actual studies, what they tend to study is environmental systems and how species interact in [00:06:30] those systems. If you want to get right down to what it is they’re studying. They’ve moved on much more to, not a steady state analysis approach, but multiple equilibria and that there’s continual evolution and flux in those systems as the way they think about it. Now, what gets interesting is, what happens when ecologists leave the academic realm and start to make public policy recommendations, because there’s [00:07:00] a switch that seems to occur where they pivot right back to balance of nature arguments, despite the fact that their own academic work doesn’t focus on it.
Aaron Powell: This puts me in mind of there’s a poster, and advertisement up on the side of a bus stop around the corner from [Cato 00:07:18] that is, I believe, from the National Geographic, and it has a picture of a cute koala bear mom with two koala bear babies holding on to her, and it says, ” [00:07:30] Only 350,000 koala bears left in the wild,” and then has, “Take a selfie with this to show that you support saving the koala bear.” My response when I saw that was, you often see these kinds of things, but 350,000 koala bears is a lot of koala bears.
Trevor Burrus: I’m also not sure how many there should be.
Aaron Powell: Yeah, how do you … [00:08:00] That’s the human population of Iceland. How do you decide … Make that normative claim of what the proper number of koala bears is?
Ryan M. Yonk: Yeah, there’s not a clear answer. If you read, most of what the estimates try to do is they try to figure out what the historical populations were. I have no actual knowledge about koala bears. But some of what we’ve looked at in some detail are things [00:08:30] more like the bison on the American plains, those sorts of things, where for years there was these discussions about what the right numbers were. But they were based on assumptions that Native Americans weren’t having interaction with them, or that the populations that should exist should be immediately before settlement or before contact, as it’s often put, in 1492. There’s no clear reason why that’s the case, and, in fact, most of the [00:09:00] good scientific ecology literature suggests that the right number is a result of complete interactions between the environment, the other species that exist there, the impact of various climate situations, all those things play into it.
There is not a steady state or right number but instead there are trade offs that occur based on these changes. That is, you change one variable, the right number, so to speak, [00:09:30] changes dynamically. Instead of it being, we should be really worried because there’s only 350,000, I don’t have any way of knowing if there should be 100,000 koala bears or 3.5 million koala bears. That’s something that is a much more nuanced discussion. In terms of environmental policy discussions, all that gets dropped out and there gets to be a real focus on some steady state answer. Where it’s easy to get you to take a selfie with the koala bear because there’s only 350,000 [00:10:00] of them left because somehow that’s the right answer.
Trevor Burrus: In one of the lectures I’ve seen you give, and we’ve taught together a couple of times, you tell a story about Yellowstone and the regulation of Yellowstone. Kind of the different eras that we have gone through in trying to decide the kind of question that we’re talking about today. It could be, “What is the natural state of Yellowstone?” Or, “What do we want out of Yellowstone?” Or, “Is it going to be in harmony?” [00:10:30] Or something like that. Can you talk a little bit about that story?
Ryan M. Yonk: Yeah. Yellowstone is like the quintessential American national park. I grew up going there as a kid, has a special place in, certainly at least every person in the western United States and I suspect most every American, and there’s this iconic notion about what Yellowstone is. Part of that is the bison that roam around Yellowstone and the elk. This wildlife that’s been developed. [00:11:00] That’s only the most recent incarnation of wildlife management policies in Yellowstone, because Yellowstone, as it’s evolved, there has been, as you said, these eras of thinking about what it should be like. The current one is something called “natural regulation”. Which is, simply, you work your best to remove humans all the way from the system and let the system just interact together. [00:11:30] What that’s practically done is it’s created very large numbers of bison and particularly large numbers of elk. In the 1980s they saw the rise of those coming in and it started to do damage to other species. The aspens that were growing in Yellowstone were severely damaged by the elk population.
But we didn’t get to those decisions just based on true [00:12:00] natural regulation. Because what came before that was an active management program where they very much wanted to increase the numbers because people like to come and see them. If you look at the information from the ‘50s, the ‘60s and the ‘70s in Yellowstone, we’ve all probably seen the picture of the old … Where they used to feed bears, for example.
Trevor Burrus: Mm‐hmm (affirmative).
Ryan M. Yonk: They were doing similar things with elk and bison to raise the numbers because the thought was, “Well, the wildlife are an amenity. That’s [00:12:30] going to draw people here, so we’re going to manage for that.” Well, in the ‘80s that changes. If we go back a generation before the wildlife increases, there was a focus on restricting the number of animals. There were large scale hunts of these animals going on. In all these cases, the discussion was largely about, “What is Yellowstone supposed to look like?” It was always anchored against one, for me, I call it a horrific idea, [00:13:00] that there was some right number in the past. That if we could just get back to the right number of elk and bison, before the settlers showed up and started messing with it, we would be able to get it right.
The most recent incarnation of that is get humans all the way out. Well, it turns out humans have always been part of the ecosystem in Yellowstone, at least back to 10,000 years ago. So what we get is we get pretty dramatic responses to the policies that [00:13:30] we put in place and simply trying to remove humans are not exempt from those policies having the impacts. What ends up happening is, as we mess with these things, we end up doing some substantial damage to places like Yellowstone as we pivot from attempt to attempt.
Trevor Burrus: You mentioned, I remember in the lecture, that they removed the Native population from Yellowstone‐
Ryan M. Yonk: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: I think John Muir was not a big fan of humans living [00:14:00] in the environment in that way, too.
Ryan M. Yonk: No, John Muir was not a fan of the Native Americans that were living in Yosemite. In fact, his first order of business in attempting to preserve it was to move the Native American population out of the Yosemite Valley, by force, if necessary,
Trevor Burrus: Then the wolf population goes up.
Ryan M. Yonk: Yep.
Trevor Burrus: At no point, and this underscores the discussion, at no point did anyone go, “Well, the real apex predator in this ecosystem was man.” That would’ve made sense, but they [00:14:30] kind of thought of man as being outside of the ecosystem and what would happen if they took the Natives out.
Ryan M. Yonk: Yeah. Well, that’s the fundamental, I think, issue in all of these discussions are that as soon as you attempt to separate man from the ecosystem, that man is not a part of nature, you lose a historically important part of the environment. It’s at least 10,000 years of human history that have interacted with their environment and [00:15:00] beyond 10,000 years back we have very little understanding of what environment looked like. So we’re almost always trying to target to a time when man was, in fact, a very important player in the environment, but we’re trying to target it now by excluding man from being part of the environment. That sets up some really problematic issues. The apex predator in Yellowstone discussion I think is really emblematic of that.
Aaron Powell: Before we go too much further I just [00:15:30] wanted to ask a clarifying question. You guys, both you and Trevor now have mentioned John Muir a couple of times. Who was he, for listeners who aren’t familiar with him?
Ryan M. Yonk: Well, John Muir was one of the founding fathers of the environmental movement, if you will. He was very active in California, in the Yosemite Valley, was even a mystic about the mountains there. Having been to Yosemite, I am always struck [00:16:00] every time I go back that, in some fundamental way, John Muir was right. Then I have to remind myself that everything he did in response I think was largely not right. He was a big advocate of the true preservation of Yosemite with the exclusion of human beings. He was a big wilderness supporter and advocate. He’s one of the most politically savvy of [00:16:30] the early environmental movement because the way in which he got Yosemite protected was he became convinced that if he could just get President Theodore Roosevelt out to the Yosemite Valley, Roosevelt would use his powers under the Antiquities Act to preserve it. Muir gets him there and that’s essentially exactly what happens. Muir is a big pusher for essentially government intervention to preserve these places and create wild spaces absent humans.
Trevor Burrus: [00:17:00] Getting into some of the more specific topics of the book, laying the groundwork for the way you think about environmentalism, you and your co‐authors, you have a few terms that you employ. One of them is “political ecology”. What does that mean?
Ryan M. Yonk: Political ecology, as we use the term, we mean essentially the politicization of ecological goals and understanding to arrive at some particular end. It’s a little bit of a tongue‐in‐cheek [00:17:30] appropriation of a term from Marxist economists, actually, that speak to political ecology as being what should be one of the end goals of the political state. What we’re really talking about there is that as you start to politicize these ecological questions, these questions of the environment, you’re going to get all of the problems that come along with taking something and putting it into the political or governmental sector. [00:18:00] When we talk to political ecology, what we’re speaking to is this notion that these are ecological decisions that are now being made in the political realm.
Trevor Burrus: Then what about political entrepreneurship?
Ryan M. Yonk: Political entrepreneurship, again, is a little bit of a term of art that we use to talk about the notion that, just like an entrepreneur can work work in a market, political entrepreneurs scan the political system and the policy realm and see openings [00:18:30] to get what they want by taking action through that realm. They may lobby government for regulations, they may lobby government for set a size of Yosemite. John Muir is the quintessential early political entrepreneur because he saw the opportunity to get what his preference was achieved by going directly to Roosevelt and saying, “Hey, you should preserve this incredibly beautiful place.”
It’s essentially taking action through the political realm because you [00:19:00] see an opening or an opportunity. For listeners who know anything about Kirznerian entrepreneurship that’s really what we’ve grafted onto there. All that is, is it’s the awareness of unexploited opportunities.
Aaron Powell: Then going back to Yellowstone as our example, if the wrong answer, according to you and your co‐authors, is the we should try to preserve this in some pre-man’s presence state, [00:19:30] but at the opposite end we can stipulate that we don’t want to say just privatize it, sell it off, and let it get turned into shopping malls or, I guess, now it would be like, what, server farms or something.
Trevor Burrus: Maybe want to privatize it, but that might not be what happens.
Aaron Powell: Let’s say that’s not our goal. In between those two, what’s then the proper way to think about, say, Yellowstone? What we’re trying [00:20:00] to preserve, what state, how to get there, how to identify it?
Ryan M. Yonk: Yeah, so my answer to that is a little bit of the standard weaselly economist political scientist answer, and that it, well, it depends. Because our big objection, I think, to the discussion about Yellowstone is the idea that somehow they’re going to be able to achieve all of the ends that they want by going back to this romantic notion. As you try to get to the romantic notion [00:20:30] you have lots of negative outcomes. Maybe the most important value that they’re trying to achieve is the absence of human intervention in the ecosystem. Well, if that’s the case then you’ve essentially designed the system to get exactly the results that you do. The bigger question is what is it that … I’m going to use a term here that drives me bananas when others use it, what is it that we want Yellowstone to be? Then we need to have actual rational discussions about [00:21:00] how do we get to those ends. Rather than this romanticized version about we can just get back to the past that never really existed.
That’s our big objection in Yellowstone is folks are trying to get back to a past that never was. When I was growing up my grandmother had a real affection for the 1950s, but it wasn’t the 1950s that ever actually existed. They were the 1950s that she created in her mind and remembered [00:21:30] through the rose‐colored lenses.
If you try to go to something that never existed, you’re going to end up with all sorts of weird policy outcomes. Because there’s a whole range of solutions we could do in Yellowstone. Trevor indicated it is possible to privatize. I think that’s unlikely. It’s also not my own personal preference for that area. It’s this notion that there is a single right answer that I think becomes so problematic in these things. It’s [00:22:00] trying to anchor that idea of a single right answer to something in the past that gives you a trump card that this is what it’s supposed to be.
Trevor Burrus: I think that that’s a really interesting point that you made throughout the book. You could kind of say that the main thesis is that there is no “scientific”, and I kind of put that into scare quotes, answer to how to regulate the environment. There’s just choices and trade offs and people who want to do different things with it. They might want to have a Jeep trail, or maybe the hikers don’t [00:22:30] want any noise but then they want a wind farm. Trying to figure out what we’re going to do with these areas is fundamentally political, and then we need to realize what happens when you pass laws that allow people to game the system for their preferred use or non‐use of the environment. We can get into some of those laws that you go through, the kind of major environmental legislation pieces which, just as a general overview, when did most of these come about? Whether we’re talking about the [00:23:00] Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, things like this, and how are they animated by this folk theory of the environment, of the balance of nature theory we have discussed?
Ryan M. Yonk: Yeah, so I think a big part of that is, I think, they start to come about in the 1960s. Almost all these acts, they have origins before the 1960s, but their present form and their present thinking really gets solidified beginning in the 1960s. [00:23:30] The Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and then through the 1970s and then on into today. The major legislation comes about in the ‘60s, to my own mind, in response to a couple of things. One of which is the social movements of the 1960s begin to create some opening for these sorts of discussions, and then, simultaneously, you start to have nightly news broadcasts that are able to be picked up across the country. [00:24:00] The made‐for‐TV environmental disaster or concern starts to move these things forward.
Lots of these early acts, Clean Water Act in particular, Clean Air Act comes about as a sideways result, you can trace a lot of the … There were rapid advancement to an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara that started to turn up in the nightly news in this era. It followed [00:24:30] on the heels of the famous example of the Cuyahoga River catching on fire that began to capture people’s minds. As these sorts of things started to get out, that started to create an opening. While at the same time, folks like Rachel Carson, who is the quintessential balance of nature, I wouldn’t call her an ecologist, but she’s writing in this area. She writes Silent Spring, which is the quintessential [00:25:00] book in this regard that says, “Here are all the terrible things the humans are doing to the environment and if we could just get those things out, lots of these problems would go away.”
At the same time, an opening has happened in the ‘60s and ‘70s. You have this thinking starting to happen in terms of public policy, and suddenly as these things go forward we end up hard baking this balance of nature, or steady state vision of what the environment should look like into the regulatory acts. [00:25:30] We have that unfortunate legacy with us today that almost all these regulations are focused on trying to get to some sort of steady state vision of what the environment looks like, whether it’s the Clean Water Act or the Clean Air Act or the Endangered Species Act.
Aaron Powell: But, I guess, to take a sympathetic view of them, there certainly was pollution and environmental‐
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, a river caught fire. That’s insane.
Aaron Powell: And environmental destruction. Oil spills are not good for the environment, [00:26:00] no matter what theory we’re laying out. Maybe that steady state was simply, “Let’s pass legislation to prevent people, to prevent corporations, from making the environment objectively worse,” as opposed to just we’re making trade offs here.
Ryan M. Yonk: Yeah, so I’m actually fairly sympathetic to that argument, with a couple of big caveats [00:26:30] in there. In part because, despite the fact that the Cuyahoga River caught fire, most of the reliable evidence about the water pollution in the Cuyahoga River suggested the period in which it caught fire was one of the cleanest periods in the river up to that point. They’d actually been fairly substantial state and local action that had been taken that had started to make progress here. At the same time, you had … Part of the reason why we [00:27:00] knew about the Santa Barbara spill is that it’d become more rare, so you’d seen lots of action for environmental improvement. As that’s going on … Then you graft over this a steady state notion.
I’m not opposed to environmental regulation. I actually think there’s some good that can be done with it if it’s crafted relatively well, is fairly simple, and doesn’t fall into many of the traps that regulation does. But it captures [00:27:30] a moment of thinking that creates this hard anchor about what we’re going to do rather than allowing for more innovative solutions.
One of the great examples of this is, in the the ‘90s, they updated the Clean Air Act to allow for something other than the hard steady state. They allowed for some emissions trading to go on. What that created was an opportunity not to simply say, “Everybody has to reduce and not emit above X level.” Instead what [00:28:00] it did is it says, “We have a concern about air pollution, and we want to engage this in a more creative way to say, ‘Hey, there may be times when some amount of air pollution above whatever we think the magic number is is appropriate. But we want to figure out how to bring down the overall to get there.’ ”
If you think about these things in ways other than a balance of nature that you have to get back to, then you can start to say, “What’s the measurable improvement [00:28:30] that we can make, and how do we get there?” Then that becomes a discussion around how do you craft public policy and what it should look like, rather than a discussion about we have violated some, I’m going to call it mystical, correct state and we have to get back to it. Instead we can talk about what are the marginal improvements we can make in order to make the world better … Here’s where my hard assumption comes in, for the people that live in it.
Trevor Burrus: When we talk about some of these famous laws that are still [00:29:00] in effect with amendments today and are pretty well known, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, for example, would you have voted … I guess we can take each of them in turn, but do you think you would’ve voted for them at the time or written in support of them? Because maybe one thing we didn’t foresee was kind of the level of gamesmanship and abuse that these laws could be put to, especially [00:29:30] when you have political entrepreneurs like the National Resources Defense Council suing all the time. Do you think you would’ve voted for them at the time?
Ryan M. Yonk: That’s a tough counter factual for a critic of these things to have to try to address.
Trevor Burrus: True, true.
Ryan M. Yonk: Let me take it on in this way. I think during that era there was both a political appetite and a recognition that something [00:30:00] should be done with regard to the environment that was already bubbling up in society at large. I’m not going to let you pin me down to say what I voted for or against the individual acts, I simply don’t know. It’s not a counter factual I’m comfortable jumping into.
Trevor Burrus: Understandable.
Ryan M. Yonk: I think that there was a real appetite for legislative action across a number of these areas. I think in general there was [00:30:30] a fair bit of support for these kinds of actions and I believe that I much more am interested in how do you craft societal level responses, where instead of it being imposed order you figure out how to get to emergent order? What that probably meant was eliminating some of the preferences that polluting industries had under lots of the [00:31:00] old regulatory regime to allow for the public’s preferences to express more directly. I think that’s an interesting alternative approach to go at because lots of these things didn’t happen … This is, I think, one of the great misnomers, is lots of these things didn’t happen just because of unfettered market forces. Some of the excesses did, but lots of them happened because industry was able to capture even the preexisting [00:31:30] regulatory state or prevent any looking at them regulation because of their ability to capture the political system in order to get preferential treatment.
We still see lots of this today. The whole fight over renewable energy is essentially a fight between two sets of rent seekers over who’s going to win. It’s not really a question about what works. It’s a question about what privileges will be enshrined in law for the industries and that [00:32:00] ends up creating really bad public policy for us all.
Aaron Powell: That brings up something we … Most of the examples you’ve been giving right now you criticize, say, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, as being in a sense because if this set state that they’re, in a sense, overly restrictive. That they lock us in to a certain way of operating and don’t give us the flexibility. But, we’ve also mentioned ways that they’ve been abused, or mentioned that they have been abused. Can you tell some of the ways that these laws get abused [00:32:30] by various actors?
Trevor Burrus: Throughout the Clean Air Act, for example.
Ryan M. Yonk: Yeah, the Clean Air Act, yeah, you have to pick the hardest example, Trevor.
Trevor Burrus: Is that the hardest one? I mean‐
Ryan M. Yonk: Oh, by far.
Trevor Burrus: All right, there’s some pretty good rent seeking going on there.
Ryan M. Yonk: There’s a ton of rent seeking going on there. Really, it’s about … If you think through the scrubber requirements in the Clean Air Act. For listeners that don’t know what a scrubber is, lots of emissions, particularly power generation emissions, had a requirement [00:33:00] put in place under the Clean Air Act that they had to install scrubbing technology to remove sulfur compounds and others from the emissions that they were putting out. The Clean Air Act, as it was finally promulgated, the most recent large scale incarnation of it, ended up requiring these sorts of scrubbers. Basically what it meant was that you had to use one particular approach and the way the regulation [00:33:30] ended up being implemented was that it made it very, very difficult to replace the technology and comply. So you ended up locking in this specific set of essentially power plants that were able to continue with the scrubbers and made it tougher for different power plants to come online.
Now, I think the more abusive example is NEPA. Because NEPA is‐
Trevor Burrus: That’s the National Environmental Policy [00:34:00] Act.
Ryan M. Yonk: Policy Act. NEPA has been heavily used, especially by the environmental community, because it’s not actually an environmental protection act. That is the greatest misnomer about NEPA. Almost everyone who talks about it that doesn’t have a lot of specific issue area knowledge refers to it as the National Environmental Protection Act. It’s not that. It’s the policy act that lays out the procedures that have to be done in order to take actions [00:34:30] that could adversely affect the environment.
What’s happened with NEPA is because it’s a procedural act, it’s become the central focus of almost all litigation. If you look at the litigation that’s gone on, most of the litigation about environmental questions on public lands or these things, they almost always start with an appeal to NEPA. Because as NEPA governs the process, if you can show a NEPA violation you can shut down the whole overall [00:35:00] process. It became a way in which that you could have a procedural fight in order to get to the end you wanted if you were an environmental group.
Trevor Burrus: How does this work … Just in terms of more like a hypothetical or a real situation, so someone wants to do X and then what happens? How do they try to shut this down or gum it up?
Ryan M. Yonk: Sure. One of the prime examples of NEPA fights [00:35:30] that have developed are over the siting of roadways in areas that have not previously had them, especially on federal lands. To put a roadway in, either for recreation use or for accessing resources, you have to undertake a NEPA study. The goal of a NEPA study is to determine the environmental impact. What NEPA does is it lays out the specific processes that have to be done in order to arrive at a determination. Those [00:36:00] include everything from the sort of review that needs to be done by scientists working in these places, the public comment requirements, and how the process has to go to get to the decision‐making.
Often what happens is, rather than attacking the desire to not have the road, they attack how the decision was made that the road would have little environmental impact. If they can demonstrate that the NEPA process wasn’t followed at [00:36:30] any step along the way, it allows them to essentially litigate over that and shut down the final approval determination which then prevents the project. One of the things that’s happened is there’s been a whole cottage industry that’s developed on both sides to engage the NEPA process to say whether or not the procedural requirements have been met. If they’re not met, it’s an opening [00:37:00] and in fact places like the Natural Resources Defense Council, WildEarth Guardians, litigate substantially over questions of NEPA. If you read some of the cases, there’s very little reference to actual technical violations of the regulations that would likely happen. Instead, they’ve attacked the determination process of whether or not there would be an impact. If they can do that, they create the ability to end the product without have to actually demonstrating an underlying violation.
Trevor Burrus: [00:37:30] Is this working on the theory, do you think, that they say, “Okay, they’re building a road through a forest and we regard that road as tainting the forest, so we’re going to do everything we can to stop there from being a road.” Is that why they go after these things?
Ryan M. Yonk: Yeah, I think that’s in large part. I think they have a set of preferences and this is one of the ways in which they are able to actualize those preferences. Specifically the two [00:38:00] groups I just mentioned, although WildEarth Guardians even more than NRDC, have a real image of what we want to do is minimize or eliminate the impact of humans on the environment to whatever extent is possible. I think that’s large scale what the motivating factor is. I actually think most environmentalists are very genuine in their beliefs. I think they’re-
Trevor Burrus: Oh, I’m sure. Yeah.
Ryan M. Yonk: These are things [00:38:30] they strongly hold as beliefs. I have a different understanding of what I think is important and what’s allowed to happen is you’ve essentially created the opportunity for rent seeking in terms of the policy rents, as opposed to our more traditional understanding of rents, which are monetary benefits they can get. Instead of rent seeking for subsidies, groups are able to use NEPA to rent seek for their preferred [00:39:00] policy outcomes.
Aaron Powell: How do we then begin to push back against this if it’s such a ideologically driven … We can’t say like, “Look, you’ll be …” In a lot of policy areas, you can say, “Look, the policies that you’re pushing for aren’t going to work as well,” or, “You could become wealthier if you did it this way.” With this, if the goal is very clear, which is to prevent mankind from spreading into the environment more than we already have, there’s not really … [00:39:30] You can’t say, well‐
Trevor Burrus: How do you negotiate with them?
Aaron Powell: How do you negotiate with them? If you can’t negotiate with them, how do you begin to lessen their influence over the existing processes? I guess, let me ask you, are these really fringe beliefs? It’s just a handful of super ideological people who because the laws were structured the way they are can exercise enormous power? Or is it that these views are also fairly widely shared among [00:40:00] Americans so it would be harder to shift the policies? How do we begin to push policies in the right direction?
Ryan M. Yonk: Yeah. There’s a real two‐pronged response to that. The first is, in terms of the hardcore balance of nature folks, that’s relatively fringe. You wouldn’t pick up a whole bunch of that, I don’t think, in the American population. I think when push comes to shove if they have to make marginal decisions between environmental [00:40:30] benefits and humans, generally humans probably win out in that scenario.
I think the policy question then is, how then do we start to talk about policies like this in such a way that we can acknowledge that we want to do something … The environment’s important and we want to set up the best opportunity to have a clean and prosperous environment while at the same time recognizing that we live in a world of trade offs. It’s not possible to have everything [00:41:00] that we want, so partly that’s a matter of helping to dispel some of the romantic notions. I think that’s the real, in terms of policy work with the general public, is starting to figure out how to talk about the fact that this isn’t actually … This isn’t what ecology is. Ecology is dynamic in these sorts of ways and we have to … We should be thinking about it in terms of that, rather than the sort of [00:41:30] bedtime stories we were taught in elementary school.
To be frank, that’s going to be a longterm tough sort of change, but in part it suggests to me, at least, that revising and reviewing some of the major policy acts could be useful. The simple one, I think, that, based on our NEPA discussion, is having a procedural act to make these determinations, I think, is valuable [00:42:00] but NEPA has become so complex that it becomes an easy way to have the most extreme position put into policy, as opposed to actually weighing out the environmental costs and benefits of it. Reforms to NEPA that push it in that direction, I think, would be useful. Reducing the ability to heavily litigate over these things, I think, could also be useful. That’s some of the places to start.
Trevor Burrus: [00:42:30] It’s interesting because it’s kind of underscoring the point of the book about political entrepreneurs or groups using these laws to achieve their non‐negotiable preferences. It reminds me of a great comment that has been made. It was made by our colleague, Peter Van Doren, who’s a favorite guest here on Free Thoughts. He was asked about ANWR, when they were talking about the Arctic National Wildlife [00:43:00] Refuge and whether or not there should be drilling in ANWR. It’s very easy for someone to say, let’s say the Sierra Club, to say, “Absolutely not. We’re not going to compromise on this. There’s no drilling in ANWR,” then you give them the ability, via some of these laws, to gum up the works.
But Peter had the suggestion to give ANWR to the Sierra Club. Give them the actual land and then they can actually decide with costs and benefits that they have to experience [00:43:30] whether or not they care that much about letting oil drilling happening in a very arctic, unvisited national wildlife reserve, or maybe they’ll allow some oil drilling there and then use that money to save, oh, I don’t know, like the Florida Everglades, someplace where people might actually go more often. Actually try and get these groups to make trade offs about what they value as opposed to just stating, “This is infinitely valuable to me.”
Ryan M. Yonk: Yeah, what’s interesting about that suggestion is, for awhile, [00:44:00] there were some groups that were trying to do something like this. What they found was it became very difficult for them to operate in sort of the environmental sector when that was their approach. I’m thinking particularly of the Nature Conservancy who had done a lot of really good work about putting together private solutions to these things and who got extreme pressure to go back to a more traditional political entrepreneurship model as opposed to lots of the things they were doing. One of [00:44:30] the most interesting things they did early on when they listed the wolf in the western United States as endangered, Nature Conservancy started a program basically to compensate ranchers for livestock that were killed by wolves. It worked okay for awhile but there started to be lots of cross pressures about that why are you compensating them for something that is the right part of the environment‐
Trevor Burrus: That’s natural. Yes.
Ryan M. Yonk: That’s natural. [00:45:00] Then, at the same time, you started to see gaming of the system on the other side. It became hugely problematic and ultimately Nature Conservancy is doing much … They still have these sort of impulses to want to do it this way, but they’re much more the traditional environmental group model.
Trevor Burrus: That being no, no, no, no, no.
Ryan M. Yonk: Yeah. Exactly. I should say that this book presents only one side [00:45:30] of the issue. There’s a whole other book that eventually I’m going to write that talks about industry’s pressures in these same way. Because it’s not as though industry is exempt from these things. Industry, the extractors lobby for the same sorts of preferences because they have a different preferred outcome they tend to be more willing to negotiate on the particulars so long as they’re able to engage in their trade. They’re also perfectly willing to try to get preferential [00:46:00] treatment through political entrepreneurship when that’s the avenue that maximizes their preference.
Trevor Burrus: We’re almost out of time but I do want to get to one thing before we go, about the Endangered Species Act.
Ryan M. Yonk: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: Maybe that’s a good way of kind of finishing out the show because it is classic, about as extreme of this is how things should be, we have to keep nature in the balance, all species are equal, we [00:46:30] need to stop building dams in order to save the snail darter. And you think, A, it’s wrong headed, some species maybe should not be saved, and B, it might actually harm endangered species.
Ryan M. Yonk: Yeah, it certainly can harm endangered species. I’ll circle back to that in a second. I think the dynamic story of what ecology is, if you look across the history of the planet it is a history of [00:47:00] struggle and extinction. It is not a history of every species continues indefinitely, which is the premise of the Endangered Species Act. There are some species that, as they’ve evolved, have adapted to the their environment. If their environment changes they’re no longer well equipped to continue. They no longer evolutionarily match up and extinction is both a natural and an important part of ecology. Now, that having been said‐
Trevor Burrus: Especially at the extent [00:47:30] of their range, which is a thing you point out in the book which I never really thought about before. That there might be a bunch of Canadian lynx in the Canadian Rockies but getting down into the southern Rockies, that’s right on the edge of where you’d find any of them, so calling them endangered there is a little bit silly.
Ryan M. Yonk: It is. Again, that’s part of the problem of the arbitrary lines that we draw on maps and call countries or states or wherever, that yeah, so what is the population [00:48:00] like in another location? Or, what is a species? How different do you have to be to actually be a species? Does simple local adaptation to a particular place mean that you’re an entirely new species? Well, those are tougher questions to answer. Lots of these things … Species have gone extinct for the entire history that there have been plant and animal life on the earth, and [00:48:30] they will continue to go extinct forever. The bigger question is are we doing things that could irrevocably harm the cores and we don’t know that. The answer can’t be every species has to be protected. Probably some should. But there are some that are so micro‐adapted to their local situation that they probably are going extinct. That, I think, is a really tough thing to get your head around [00:49:00] but it’s the natural order.
One of the things I do in the lectures, I think, one of the ones you’ve seen, Trevor, is I put up two pictures. One of a very orderly garden and one of the backyard jungle that occurs in the American south if you let it go for very long. And talk a little bit about the fact that what’s going on in the garden is man has tended that, and each species is given it’s opportunity to grow in it’s particular place. In the jungle [00:49:30] environment that’s grown up in the backyard that’s left alone, every species is competing with one another in an attempt to propagate its own species forward and they are ruthless in that competition. They’re pushing for other species to not get resources and that is actually the story of ecology. Not some story about a steady state in the past.
Trevor Burrus: How does the Endangered Species Act actually hurt the species?
Ryan M. Yonk: Well, [00:50:00] this one … Endangered Species Act has the ability to create different incentives for folks that find species on their property that no one else knows about. It’s often referred to as “shoot, shovel and shut up”. That if you find an endangered species you shoot it, you bury it, and then you never talk about it because of the restrictions and the problems that can come from having that species on your land and the heavy regulatory restrictions [00:50:30] that come into play. The term really evolved from a bunch of ranchers in the west as their solution to the endangered species problem on their lands. As a corollary to that, what you often see happening is, even if you don’t have species but you could that are endangered on your property, you engage in preemptive habitat destruction to prevent them from ever getting there, so that you don’t fall under it. It creates these perverse incentives that do a lot of damage.
Trevor Burrus: [00:51:00] Just sort of wrapping up what we’ve been discussing and some of these we’ve already touched on, but what do we do? Or maybe how do we have to start thinking about these things if we’re going to do a better job of both protecting the environment and allowing for different interests to use it?
Ryan M. Yonk: I think that the primary thing is figuring out how to shift the discussion from the world of absolutes and a focus on the balance of nature [00:51:30] to a discussion about the relative costs and benefits of these actions I think is the paramount thing to start to do. Doing that is very, very difficult. But in the shorter run, reviewing these sorts of policies and making it explicit that the questions that we want to ask here are what are the impacts of what’s going on, not whether or not they are changing it from some mythical state [00:52:00] in the past. So shifting from a discussion about a sort of retroactive comparison to a belief about it was, to a discussion about what are the current impacts of what we’re doing would improve the implementation of these acts. And allow us to really have a discussion that I think could move forward both the environmental goals and at the same time let us have a rational basis for thinking about what the impacts of those regulations are.
Aaron Powell: Thanks for listening. This episode of Free [00:52:30] Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. To learn more, visit us at www.Libertarianism.org.