Free Market Environmentalism for Religious Leaders
Religion & Liberty Online

Free Market Environmentalism for Religious Leaders

Our friends at the Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment (FREE) in Bozeman, Mont., have put together another strong slate of summer programs for clergy, seminary professors and other religious leaders with the aim of deepening their understanding of environmental policy. In its description of the program, FREE notes that many in faith communities “see an inherent conflict between a market economy and environmental stewardship.”

Major religious groups assert that pollution, deforestation, endangered species, and climate change demonstrate a failure of stewardship that requires reform. And of course they are correct—what, however, are the incentives and information generated by alternative reform policies? Some policies can have profoundly negative impacts on social well-being.

FREE’s goal is to help increase the understanding of religious leaders as they approach environmental policy. These leaders are influential nodes in a network of congregations, providing a conduit to disseminate market-based environmental ideas, potentially to millions of Americans.

FREE will help religious leaders understand the political economy dimensions of environmental policy reform. We will explain how basic economic principles can help achieve green goals with minimum sacrifice to social welfare. Together we will explore how a culture that values America’s founding ideals, secure property rights, and responsible prosperity, can also foster a healthy environment and promote social justice.

I’ve been to a number of these FREE events and have been impressed with the content — and that’s from someone who has grown “seminar averse” over the years. At FREE, faith leaders get the economic insights that are necessary for a deeper understanding of environmental stewardship. On the other side, policy analysts — including some of the FREE lecturers — get the faith insights that they do not ordinarily have access to in their own specialized fields. Yes, it is possible to bring together economic and moral thinking.

In a Bozeman Daily Chronicle piece titled “Environmental Stewardship and Social Justice,” FREE Chairman John Baden writes:

Many religious leaders have adopted environmental quality as an important moral obligation. The problem then becomes one of designing arrangements that produce high quality information and incentives to act responsibly on them. Business and governmental agencies commonly distort or restrict information in efforts to increase their revenues, for example Green energy today.

We explain how various systems have differing consequences as they generate and evaluate information and guide behavior. If, for example, the costs of pollution are discounted or ignored, pollution is overproduced. Likewise, subsidies mask opportunities foregone and foster overproduction. Consider corn ethanol and its impact on the world’s poor.

Our seminar speakers rarely advocate specific ends, but rather offer intellectual tools to help analyze problems. The most important is simply asking, “And then what?” What are the predictable consequences of proposed policies or admonitions?

Two seminars have been announced for 2012:

  • “Faith, the Economy & Social Justice: Lessons from Butte, America” (July 16-20). This seminar includes a showing of the documentary Butte, America (trailer at the top of this post) and an excursion to the historic pit mine.
  • “Stewardship Parables and Principles from Greater Yellowstone” (August 13-17). This seminar includes a field trip to America’s first national park.

In this column, Baden explains why he thinks free market environmentalism — as opposed to “sylvan socialism and related bureaucratic schemes” — has captured the “intellectual high ground.”

… FME is sometimes misunderstood, even among intelligent, attentive Greens. Actually, FME practitioners understand why sound regulations are beneficial. Governmentally enforced rules are often required to control pollution, an obvious trespass on property rights. Also, state, federal, and even international monitoring and regulating can protect common pools and fugitive resources. Migratory fish and waterfowl are obvious examples. There is an immense amount of economic research and publishing on these topics, much of it by Bozeman political economists.

Another misunderstanding involves entrepreneurship and profits. Much FME writing, especially mine, explains the value and great importance of social or non-profit entrepreneurship. Consider the work of Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, GVLT, and hundreds of similar non-profit conservation and environmental organizations. DU alone, working with private landowners, has preserved more acres of waterfowl habitat than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The most compelling advantage of FME is its success in harmonizing liberty, environmental quality, and responsible prosperity. These features will be increasingly important as federal, state, and local budgets are evermore stressed, a certain outcome.

If you’d like to apply for one of the FREE seminars, or know someone you’d like to recommend, please contact Mary Roloff in Bozeman at 406-585-1776 or

John Couretas

is a writer and editor based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.