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Why do so many 21st century environmentalists ignore the lessons of the 20th century?

Planning works when everyone can agree on their aims, but decentralised systems reconcile different interests better. 
Political decision-making favours short-term solutions and the interests of well-organised groups. The poor, and those who care about the future should trust the market. 
Collective ownership is usually wasteful – the tragedy of the commons. Conservationists should avoid creating new commons and where possible turn natural ones such as fisheries and forests over to private ownership. 
If politicians refrain from interfering, the market will ensure that the eventual users make the best use of resources. 
Rights to compensation for pollution should be freely marketed.  Under relatively simple institutional constraints the person who comes to own the rights will be the one who can reduce pollution most cheaply. 
Much environmental wisdom is bound up in traditional institutions and practices which may appear cruel or wasteful to modern eyes. Well-meaning efforts to improve things often have environmentally harmful consequences.

Few environmentalists have taken these lessons to heart. Even governments that have painfully learnt the virtues of the market for the rest of economic activity all too easily backslide to an easy collectivism on the environment.

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth advocate planned limits to fossil fuel burning rather than markets in carbon quotas.   The latter would achieve the same effect more cheaply or a larger benefit at the same cost.  
Populist politicians try to prohibit traditional hunting practices both in rural Tory shires, and by primitive peoples in Greenland. 
Tax-funded roads, rural bus services, childcare subsidies*, common agricultural policies, foreign aid, national health services, and state parks, all create new commons. Whether or not they are desirable for other reasons they are harmful to the environment.  

iGreens aim to maintain the environment by reminding people of these lessons, and ensuring that they are applied by those in power. Since iGreens respect the legitimate interests both of the present generation and of all economic and social groups, they are likely to have greater long-term effect than environmentalists who advocate more radical simplistic solutions. ran for about ten years.   We wrote about the East Midlands with snippets of geology and geography.  We loved poetry, canoeing, and the cathedrals of England.  We loved Israel, the USA, Pakistan, Poland and Australia.  The iGreens site remains here but it is no longer updated.   All new iGreens thoughts and updates now appear here, on

* People keep asking how childcare subsidies might harm the environment.  The short answer is that state childcare subsidy lowers the cost of rearing children. This increases the birth rate and more people damage the environment.    

Of course it is not quite as simple as that.   Complicated effects roll out from a policy like childcare subsidy.  More people might be good for the environment.  Freeing women to work may have good or bad effects.  But ultimately, government expenditure prevents the economy from achieving the best balance between environmental damage and the benefits of human activity.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 29, 2011 1:19 pm

    Whom do I contact regarding an information request relating to

  2. September 29, 2011 11:01 pm


    Its probably a long shot but there was a contribution by a certain Alan Vickers in these articles:

    I was just wondering if you were able to give me the contact details of him, so that I could find his sources and retrieve extra information.

    Like I said, a long shot, but it would certainly help my dissertation if I were able to get in touch.



    • September 30, 2011 11:18 pm

      i remember all this. I think this is his email.
      get back to me if he doesn’t reply. actually get back even if he does. I’d love to update the whole Lumley park burn story on ripe-tomato.

      Good luck Paul.

  3. Alan Vickers permalink
    December 6, 2011 11:19 am

    I have tried to give an update on the igreens website on a few occasions but without success and it was only yesterday that I found this website.

    I believe that the Coal Authority ceased pumping underground minewater a few years ago at the two pumping stations that discharged into Lumley Park Burn. This was to allow the underground minewater levels to rise in that general area so that the water could be taken out at another site called Chatershaugh that is close to the River Wear but further downstream than where Lumley Park Burn joins the river.

    I am not aware of what the current position is regarding Chatershaugh, however it was/is intended that the minewater would be treated so as to remove the ochre from it and to improve its quality, possibly by it passing through a large reed bed, before entering the river.

    In recent times there has been quite a lot of work carried out in the Breckon Hill Wood area of Fence Houses through which the burn passes, by the local conservation group and other organisations, in order to improve the area and also to increase the level of oxygen in the water in the burn in that area.

    I have known this burn for many years now and have always felt sorry for it because of the number of discharges of minewater and sewage effluent, together with water from a coking plant, that it had to receive and I am very pleased to read and hear about all the work that has or is being done to improve the water quality there.

  4. December 7, 2011 9:53 pm

    Great to hear from you Alan. I’m afraid got too big for me to run as a live website a few years ago. Hence this blog. You can still read material there, but please post any updates here.

  5. May 6, 2012 7:03 am

    Hi Jim,
    I’m interested in what you have to say about the ‘tragedy of the commons’ debate, and I disagree with you strongly on a number of issues but I think you’re site does a useful job of outlining the complexity of the environmentalism/shallow/deep ecology debate. Personally, I’m not sure that politics can give many answers now (or indeed, whether it ever did). But the first thing I’d have to say about Garrett Hardin’s work is that in many senses his arguments were floored by Elinor Ostrom’s research work into the management of ‘commons’, which showed irrefutably that groups of interested individuals are perfectly capable of managing what they need to be able to share. It seems to boil down, of course, to what your underlying view of humanity is: if you’re a Hobbsean (and perhaps Larkin was one too….) you probably think that humans are bastards who need a firm, controlling hand – a benign dictator of the Thatcherite hue, for instance. If you’re a Humean (perhaps – I’m not sure if Hume’s my man for this…) – or better still, an evolutionary ethicist, you probably think that humans are generally capable of acting in their own best interests, individually and collectively (though the evidence for this demands that you also believe that dominant paradigms can develop to screw this inherent ability up – and that is what’s wrong at the moment). Since most folk like some other folk most of the time, the idea that we’re a nasty bunch doesn’t hold much water: Hobbes was wrong. Put people in a reasonable situation where they are not overly stressed by the demands of financial or other constraints (they have enough) and develop their critical thinking capacity so that they become what they evolved into anyhow – thinking things – and your problems begin to dissolve. Simple. In principle. Creating these conditions and developing critical thinking are, of course, far from easy aims. The alternative is to focus on one’s own tiny sphere of action, thought and intention and work towards simplicity, and the development of an impartial attitude, following an authentic monist tenet to realise the interconnectedness of one’s own actions with whatever else is going on around one.
    All the best,

  6. May 6, 2012 8:23 am

    Lucy, good thoughts. Where to start? Ostrom is right that commons can be made to work, but I think even her supporters only advocate quite small ones limited to rather homogeneous owners. I guess she’d say Icelandic fishery good, EU common fishery bad. I’d agree.

    The key environmental problem is minimising harmful externalities efficiently. Governments are bad at that because they tend to over-regulate, and get captured by special interests (of both left and right). The alternative is allowing parties to negotiate privately (Ronald Coase). To make that work we need stronger private property rights – which is doable so long as people like me win the argument. Most people say that transaction costs derail most private solutions in practice,but the internet and all that sort of social networking stuff should solve that, if we give it a chance.

    I’m all for working towards simplicity. I just think that simply “going back to the land and living on a smallholding in Wales” is not really very environmental, and if followed through for all would impoverish us all. But I’m sure you’re not advocating that.
    Good to chat.

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