President Klaus’s Definition of "Environmentalism"

Well, the man, (who I am reminded is the president of a medium sized country), isn’t shy, really. You can find lots of Czech President Klaus’s opinions on his own website.

I’m particularly intrigued by his catalog of the features of environmentalism in his speech to the Cato Institute. Let’s look at his characterization:

The followers of the environmentalist ideology, however, keep presenting to us various catastrophic scenarios with the intention to persuade us to implement their ideas about us and about the whole human society. This is not only unfair but extremely dangerous. What is, in my view, even more dangerous, is the quasi-scientific form that their many times refuted forecasts have taken upon themselves.

What belongs to this ideology?

disbelief in the power of the invisible hands of free market and belief in the omnipotence state dirigism;

disregard for the role of important and powerful economic mechanisms and institutions – primarily that of property rights and prices – for an effective protection of nature;

misunderstanding of the meaning of resources, of the difference between the potential natural resource and the real one, that may be used in the economy;

Malthusian pessimism over the technical progress;

belief in the dominance of externalities in human activities;

promotion of the so-called “precautionary principle“, which maximizes the risk aversion without paying attention to the costs;

underestimation of the long-term income and welfare growth, which results in a fundamental shift of demand towards environmental protection (this is demonstrated by the so-called Environmental Kuznets Curve);

erroneous discounting of the future, demonstrated so clearly by the highly publicized Stern-Report a few months ago.

To paraphrase an old punchline, well, he may be crazy but he ain’t stupid.

(Compare presidents of certain actually large countries…)

It’s an interesting list. While I don’t really consider myself an ‘environmentalist’ I imagine Klaus would. While I am innocent of some of these opinions many of them do describe my beliefs.

Other than the vile, contentious and almost entirely worthless idea that people who advocate environmentally based policies are essentially totalitarian (“dirigists”) I think Klaus’s list raises interesting points about the role of economics in policy.

The ideas deserve some deeper consideration than the perfunctory dismissal they get here, though. I’m sure dismissing these ideas out of hand flies at the Cato institute, but perhaps the rest of us would like to consider why these are bad ideas.

Some of my immediate reactions

  • Again, my opposition to CO2 accumulation does not originate in a megalomanic desire to stamp out human freedom and dignity, and I doubt this motivation is common among others who have the same concern. That particular piece of the opposition’s model is so much at odds with the real world and so deleterious to civilized conversation that it’s right to call it crazy.
  • I agree with Klaus that the ‘precautionary principle’ as usually stated is unworkable.
  • There is a bit of a polemical parlor trick in his last accusation: “erroneous discounting of the future”, by which he means “inadequate discounting of the future”. The casual reader may take this the other way.
  • Klaus takes no notice of the extent to which a correct (market-driven) discount rate proposed in the last point acts against the validity of his second point, the tired libertarian dogma that private ownership takes better care of land than collective ownership. One can understand how a central European might reach that conclusion, but it’s really quite shallow and doesn’t stand up to investigation. It somehow presumes the underlying dynamics of selfishness, crassness, laziness and secrecy is unique to the Soviet system and cannot happen under capitalism. Mr. Klaus should consult with the residents of Bhopal in reconsidering this opinion. It’s an informed and participatory society exercising its vigilance through regulation and enforcement that protects the environment. That is, the best protection occurs neither in totalitarian societies nor in libertarian ones but in social democratic ones.

That’s not all I might have to say about this list. I think most of these ideas are worth discussing (I can’t quite parse the third one; I suspect something lost in translation which perhaps Lubos can help with) and except for the gratuitous insults in the first point none of them is a slam dunk either way.