Each environmental problem presents its own unique challenges to resolve, and not all Greens will agree on what solutions should be pursued. Most Greens support governmental intervention and regulation as at least part of the solution for environmental problems. Leftist environmentalists place much of the blame for environmental harm at the feet of the capitalist economic system, claiming that economic exploitation in the pursuit of profit is at the heart of the despoliation of the natural world. Others see human presence itself as the problem and advocate instead for a process of rewilding whereby human beings stay out of specified natural areas to allow them to recover from the negative effects of human activity. Those who fall more on the rightward end of the political spectrum see market forces as key to solving environmental problems, such as increasingly profitable markets for renewable energy technology, and look to technological solutions to abate the worst effects of environmental damage.
Much of the debate about solutions revolves around two key concepts: the tragedy of the commons and externalities. The tragedy of the commons was an idea explicated by social scientist Garrett Hardin (1968). The general idea is that an individual’s personal incentives will often be in opposition to the general good, especially when it comes to the use of common resources. A typical example is that of a meadow used for grazing sheep. If the meadow remains open for public use, all members of the community can benefit. If it becomes overgrazed, however, the meadow will become barren and will be of no use to anyone. All members of the community, therefore, would suffer from such overgrazing in the long run. Paradoxically, in the face of impending overgrazing and without regulation controlling the number of sheep each person can put in the meadow, it is to each person’s individual advantage to graze as many sheep as possible in the meadow while it is still possible to do so. If an individual reduces the number of their own sheep they graze in the meadow, someone else’s sheep will only take their place. The end result, the collapse of the meadow from overgrazing, will be the same but the individual will have lost the opportunity to graze more of their own sheep in the meantime, thereby leading to the worst possible outcome. The tragedy of the commons is apparent with many environmental problems. Without some enforceable collective agreement, any single individual’s decision not to pollute or to overuse natural resources will only result in someone else doing so, making the individual effort both futile and economically harmful to that individual.
Video 13.1. What is the tragedy of the commons? – Nicholas Amendolare in TED-Ed.
Collective action is often the most practical way to avoid the tragedy of the commons and the negative ramifications of harmful externalities. By coming together as a group and deciding how many sheep each person can graze on the meadow, overuse can be avoided and the common resource can be preserved for the limited use of all. Similarly, those affected by negative externalities may come together and demand, usually through the passage and application of laws, limits on their production. Sometimes such agreements will be voluntarily adhered to by those to whom they apply, but often they must be enforced. In modern societies, collective action is usually the role of government. Especially in democracies, collective action is embodied by the people or their representatives passing and enforcing laws and the regulations intended to limit the tragedy of the commons and negative externalities.
Environmental problems can be approached through government action in several ways. Those on the left tend to be more willing to enact governmental prohibitions and strict regulations that prevent both individual actors and corporations from engaging in activity harmful to the environment. Fines and other civil and even criminal penalties may be enacted to ensure compliance with such regulations. Large governmental bureaucracies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States, may be instituted to implement and enforce such regulations.
Those aligned with the ideological right are more likely to seek solutions through the free market. They may argue, for instance, that if people are truly worried about externalities they may take that into account when purchasing products and buy from more environmentally friendly companies. They may also advocate for free-market solutions such as the invention of technology applicable to environmental problems, such as solar panels and wind turbines, that may bring large profits.
Tax policy can also be an effective tool. Taxing carbon emissions, for example, is one way to force companies to pay for that externality and to incentivize them to reduce it. On the other hand, subsidies or tax breaks can make new and emerging clean technology, such as solar panels, more affordable and enable a more rapid shift toward their adoption. Those on the left are typically more likely to favor the manipulation of tax policy for environmental ends, while those on the right are more likely to consider them unjustified interference in the free markets.
Another option is to give up on solutions altogether and instead focus on mitigation. Instead of trying to stop climate change, build large sea walls to prevent flooding. Instead of not polluting in the first place, clean it up after. While remediation and mitigation efforts may never truly be able to eliminate all the harmful impacts of environmental damage, they can reduce them. In cases in which environmental damage has already occurred, such measures may be the only possible response. A combination of remediating damage that has already occurred or is ongoing while also working to prevent future harms is the position most likely to appeal to committed Greens.
any single individuals decision not to pollute or to overuse natural resources will only result in someone else doing so, making their effort futile and economically harmful
the result, cost or side effect of an economic activity that is not a goal of that activity and the effect is generally borne by the public rather than the producer