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Free Market Environmentalism: Julian L. Simon Memorial Award Remarks

By Robert J. Smith -- February 15, 2013

“We appear to be on the Road to Serfdom, paved with green bricks rather than red bricks…. It is actually likely that the United States is now approaching State ownership of about 50 percent of all its land—a level of socialist land ownership unequalled in the world.”

It is a fabulous honor to receive the Julian Simon Memorial Award. Julian was one of the seminal thinkers of the 20th century—and one of the first to challenge the radical Greens’ attack on freedom and progress.

Simon demolished the limits to growth and the belief that human progress was bound in a Malthusian straitjacket, and limited by the known or presumably known physical supplies of natural resources. He argued that the ultimate resource was the limitless nature of man’s mind—his intelligence, innovation, discovery, and invention, constantly discovering and creating new resources where none had existed before. For instance, the looming scarcity of copper vanished with its replacement by abundant beach sand, by silica.

In the past decade, the doomsayers returned again, gleefully predicting the end of growth and the need to reduce population and living standards because of their long hoped-for exhaustion of fossil fuels and the arrival of peal oil and peak gas. But then to their dismay, they witnessed the ultimate resource, man’s intransigent mind, turn the Earth’s abundance of shale deposits into a potential cornucopia of oil and natural gas, requiring nothing more than a drill and water pressure—hydraulic fracing—to once more shatter the supposed limits to growth.

Private Environmentalism

I’ve been a conservationist and an avid birder (birdwatcher) for decades, as well as an advocate of free markets and property rights. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was president of a nature club and Audubon society chapter [1] at a time when the conventional wisdom—almost all of the environmental economists—argued that capitalism and the profit system were the cause of environmental degradation and the only solution was socialism or communism.

This coincided with the birth of Earth Day on Lenin’s birthday on April 22, 1970, when multitudes of college students, environmentalists, and liberals all argued that capitalism was destroying the planet.

It was then that I was asked to write a book on how to protect the environment without government regulation and ownership. The book, Earth’s Resources: Private Ownership vs. Public Waste, published in 1979 and now out of print, used a new term, “free-market environmentalism,” making a case that  that the institutions of a free society—property rights, markets, and prices—could preserve the environment far better than the state. [2]

During the Ronald Reagan administration, I began a study at the President’s Council on Environmental Quality documenting the history of private conservation, showing that all the things we believe the government must do—own and protect national forests, wildlife refuges, parks, trails, natural landmarks, wilderness areas, even endangered species—have been and can be better protected privately, because private ownership necessarily produces careful stewardship, while government collectivism breeds 9-to-5 bureaucratic mismanagement.

For instance, national forests regularly vanish in catastrophic wildfires or in insect plagues, but private forest owners can’t afford such mismanagement and quickly remove beetle-infested trees and dead and dying trees, thereby maintaining healthy forests.

Land Serfdom

Nevertheless, we appear to be on The Road to Serfdom, paved with green bricks rather than red bricks. [Applause.]

This is because government at all levels—federal, state, county, and local—now owns well over 40 percent of all the land in America, and that total continues to grow regardless of the recession, regardless of the near bankruptcy of all levels of government. So vast is the government landownership that we don’t even have accurate data as to its full extent.

The GAO rejected demands by Congress for a full inventory, arguing that it would be too costly and too time consuming. It is actually likely that the United States is now approaching State ownership of about 50 percent of all its land—a level of socialist land ownership unequalled in the world.

You cannot maintain a free society if the government owns all the land and all the resources. [Applause.] We are returning to the age of the King’s Forests, the King’s Lands, the King’s Wildlife. And we soon may have to become Robin Hoods in order to survive. [Shouts and applause.]

Privatization, Instead

For those of you who will carry the Torch of Liberty on the next lap, our great unfinished task must be to halt and reverse this tide and begin a massive privatization of America’s lands and natural resources. [Whistles and applause.]

We must do that if we are to have a free and prosperous society and a sound and healthy environment—and if America is to remain a Shining City on a Hill.

But in conclusion, even CEI has limits to growth, especially of acceptance speeches. [Laughter.] Thank you. [Applause.]


[1] Monmouth County (NJ) Nature Club and Audubon Society

[2] Smith’s free-market environmentalism now defines a whole school of thought (Wiki here).


Robert J. Smith is Distinguished Fellow, Center for Energy and Environment, and Director, Center for Private Conservation, at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, as well as Senior Fellow for Environmental Policy at The National Center for Public Policy Research.

These remarks were given June 8, 2011, in Washington, D.C. at the annual CEI dinner.


  1. Eddie Devere  

    Earth day was chosen to coincide with Arbor Day and the birthday of Julius Sterling Morton. (Not V.I. Lenin’s birthday)


  2. Matt  

    There is another more pernicious aspect to public ownership of land. The rights to extract resources are sold at below market prices to politically connected. Crony capitalism is another danger of collective ownership.


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