This question explores the nature of the green movement, which is often associated with progressive or left-wing politics. One answer points out that it's not the problem identification that is associated with progressive politics, but rather the policies proposed to solve the problem: for example, Pigovian taxes are by their very nature a government-introduced measure that groups or people favouring small governments may frown upon.

What policies for ecological sustainability have been proposed by groups that favour small governments, such as conservative, or economically libertarian groups? I am particularly interested in policies proposed by major groups that have held power in the real world, not so much in policies proposed by small (libertarian) groups that have never held office.

One point I have heard from the more radical libertarian side is that if everything (including oceans and the sky) is private property, then people are liable to pay for the pollution (damage) they do to others' property. However, this does not appear to be a mainstream point of view and does not appear to be adhered by major groups that hold political office, so it is not really an answer to my question.

(Edit: I explicitly mean ecological sustainability; concepts such as financial sustainability or social sustainability are interesting as well, but distinct from the present question)

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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free-market_environmentalism lists some political groups who support that set of ideas.
    – mikeazo
    Commented Feb 6, 2013 at 20:38
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    @mikeazo Those look pretty minor, I was more wondering about the big groups that oppose many green policies, such as the Republican Party in the US, many right-wing parties in Europe, etc.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 6, 2013 at 20:40
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    @Chad, so my question is what pro-sustainability policies have been proposed by conservative/market-liberal political groups, then.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 8, 2013 at 16:52
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    @Gerrit - And I would say that the libertarian/neo-conservative position is that it is non of the governments business if I live sustainably or not. And that they should be creating policies that make a stable government that can protect its citizens, not dictating how they live or creating an economic climate the promotes anything. Commented Feb 8, 2013 at 17:11
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    @Chad, how is protecting the environment and making sure that the the Earth remains a good place to live not "protecting its citizens"? Is the libertarian/neocon point of view that anybody can pollute the (urban) air as much as they want?
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 8, 2013 at 17:15

4 Answers 4


It is the libertarian position that:

  • It is none of the governments business if its people live sustainably or not.
  • The government should be creating policies that make a stable government that can protect its citizens, not dictating how they live or creating an economic climate the promotes anything.
  • So long as someone's actions are not cause someone else direct harm, and are not costing them money then the government should not be involved, through policy or otherwise.

It is the primary conservative position that(not listed in any order):

  • there is no need for policies to promote sustainability.

  • that the problems envisioned by the "Green" movement are either imagined, exaggerated, or the result of natural forces out of our control.

  • that given time science will catch up and deal with the any problems we are creating today.

    The prime example of this is for example the infamous "Peak Horse Manure" problem in NYC over a hundred years ago. There was too much horse manure due to horse population explosion. People were predicting that the city will drown in it. The solution to the problem arose not out of "environmentalist" policy to stop horse manure pollution, but out of Henry Ford, etc... innovations which replaced horses with cars.

  • That when the technology has matured to the point that it can compete with out policies that promote its use, there will be no need for the government to create the policies. And until it is near that point the government should not be involved in picking the winner.

    In other words, Solar Power is a wonderful idea. Government paying for (or enforcing use of) solar power, on the other hand, is a bad idea, precisely because such actions are a sign that Solar Power isn't a good technology yet.

  • the sustainability policies would have major adverse consequences that aren't currently being discussed, and which could be worse than the problem being addressed.

    The typical example is forest fire prevention policies, which long term, as we found out, cause super-forest-fires.

  • Just a note... These are the positions of the sides... neither of these accurately represent my personal beliefs. Commented Feb 8, 2013 at 18:18
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    Note quite accurate. A large # of conservatives object on the ground that just like many other policies proposed by progressives - the sustainability policies would have major adverse consequences that aren't currently being discussed (such as rising of food prices due to ethanol's usage for fuel and destruction of local agriculture in S.America to promote "natural wonder of the year", be it Quinoa or asparagus, as minor examples. Or super-major fires in forests because environmentalists of the past didn't have a clue how their fire suppression policies hurt long term.
    – user4012
    Commented Feb 8, 2013 at 20:48
  • ... articles.latimes.com/2012/may/08/opinion/…
    – user4012
    Commented Feb 8, 2013 at 20:49
  • Updated the post to include that... I am sure there are many more reason I missed as well. There are so many reasons not to have sustainability policies I was just trying to get the major ones. Commented Feb 8, 2013 at 21:11
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    Actually Private business tends to screw up big projects just as often. The difference is private business makes sure it can afford for the project to fail before they take it on. The government does not have that incentive. In fact government is incentivised to do what ever it takes to make sure it fails less, Which means throwing more money at the fixes instead of cutting losses. Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 0:29

Besides the examples added by @mikeazo in his answer, there's a few other examples I would like to add:

  • First, President **Richard Nixon**¹. The EPA - Environmental Protection Agency - was created in 1970 by his administration. He also supported the Clean Air Act of 1970 (however, he vetoed the Clean Air Act of 1972 due to being, in his view, too expensive), signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973) - the latter after declaring that the level of protection to endangered species was inadequate. I found this very "green" (or at least it seems) piece he sent as a Message to the Congress.

  • Another prominent conservative (which became a libertarian latter is his life) who supported environmental policies was **Barry Goldwater**², the Republican candidate to Presidency in 1964, dubbed Mr. Conservative. While he was very conservative in fiscal issues, he was also a supporter of Nixon's environmental policies:

    I feel very definitely that the [Nixon] administration is absolutely correct in cracking down on companies and corporations and municipalities that continue to pollute the nation's air and water. While I am a great believer in the free competitive enterprise system and all that it entails, I am an even stronger believer in the right of our people to live in a clean and pollution-free environment. To this end, it is my belief that when pollution is found, it should be halted at the source, even if this requires stringent government action against important segments of our national economy.

  • A more contemporaneous example, although not a politician but a philosopher with influence in conservative circles, is Roger Scruton. In his book How to Think Seriously About the Planet, he argued for local, voluntary-based initiatives for solving environmental problems, instead of a top-down approach dictated by global bureaucracies or international NGOs.

  • And there's the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Margaret Thatcher. According to this article from The Guardian, she helped to put global warming, acid rain and pollution into the mainstream political discussions, citing these problems in speeches to Royal Society and the UN, among others (however, she became skeptical about global warming after her government). The Environmental Protection Act 1990 was introduced by the Conservative Chris Patten, appointed Secretary of State for the Environment by Thatcher in 1989. In the words of Jonathon Porritt, head of Friends of the Earth during 1980s:

    "Thatcher … did more than anyone in the last 60 years to put green issues on the national agenda. From 1987-88 when [she] started to talk about the ozone layer and acid rain and climate change, a lot of people who had said these issues were for the tree-hugging weirdos thought, 'ooh, it's Mrs Thatcher saying that, it must be serious'. She played a big part in the rise of green ideas by making it more accessible to large numbers of people".

¹Sources: the Wikipedia page of President Richard Nixon and the laws mentioned - they contain links to the laws page. This page summarizes some of Nixon's environmental deeds.

²Sources: the Wikipedia page of Barry Goldwater and "The Skeptical Environmentalist: Senator Barry Goldwater and the Environmental Management State" by Brian Allen Drake, in Environmental History, (2010) 15#4 pp. 587–611, p. 589. It has lots of other quotations expressing his environmental concerns. Unhappily, this article is behind a paywall...


As I pointed out in a comment, free-market environmentalism is supported by the US Libertarian Party and the UK Libertarian party. So there is one proposal that has some backing from libertarian groups.

Unfortunately I am not aware of any specific proposals being pushed by conservatives parties, so instead, I'll point out a few ideas from conservative and libertarian thinkers that will hopefully shed some light on what sorts of proposals we might expect from these groups. I am going to try to refrain from extrapolating too much and let the ideas speak for themselves.

First, there are some who would argue that democratic, free-market capitalism in and of itself promotes sustainability and that without it sustainability is impossible. So, if you accept this premise, then the best policy that can be pushed to promote sustainability would be free-market capitalism.

Second, I quote from Thomas Sowell's Basic Economics:

While there are many decisions that can be made more efficiently through the marketplace than by government, this [pollution in particular, but generalizes to sustainability practices] is one of those decisions that can be made more efficiently by government than by the marketplace. Clean air laws can reduce harmful emissions by legislation and regulations. Clean water laws and laws against disposing of toxic wastes where they will harm people can likewise force decisions to be made in ways that take into account the external costs that would otherwise be ignored by those transacting in the marketplace.

Third, Milton Friedman.

Finally, I want to point out something about the question as written that I think relates to this discussion and might offer some insight into conservative and libertarian policies. The question deals with "solutions", "One answer points out that it's not the problem identification that is associated with progressive politics, but rather the proposed solutions" and "What solutions have been proposed by conservative, neoconservative or..." Some conservatives and libertarians would argue that there are no solutions to this problem, only trade-offs. For example, Thomas Sowell in The Vision of the Anointed:

Moreover, the available resources are always inadequate to fulfill all the desires of all the people. Thus there are no “solutions”... only trade-offs that still leave many unfulfilled and much unhappiness in the world.

Whether specifically stated or not, I think (no citations here, unfortunately) that many conservatives/libertarians share this belief. Therefore, we can expect conservative/libertarian proposals to attempt to balance these trade-offs incrementally. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it

to improve conditions of life and the race is the main thing--but how the devil can I tell whether I am not pulling it down more in some other place?"

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    The libertarian party is different that the libertarian movement just like the republican party is different than conservatism. Commented Feb 9, 2013 at 4:46
  • Can you summarise the Friedman video? We can't all watch youtube.
    – user8398
    Commented Aug 26, 2016 at 10:20

Cap and trade:

People now call that system "cap-and-trade." But back then the term of art was "emissions trading," though some people called it "morally bankrupt" or even "a license to kill." For a strange alliance of free-market Republicans and renegade environmentalists, it represented a novel approach to cleaning up the world—by working with human nature instead of against it.

Despite powerful resistance, these allies got the system adopted as national law in 1990, to control the power-plant pollutants that cause acid rain. With the help of federal bureaucrats willing to violate the cardinal rule of bureaucracy—by surrendering regulatory power to the marketplace—emissions trading would become one of the most spectacular success stories in the history of the green movement.

It has now received widespread support (outside the US), and has been adopted by the European Union to control carbon emmissions throughout all its member states. Unfortunately, due to enormous lobbying spending by Big Coal and others, it is now rhetorically opposed by the very group - free-market Republicans - who would have, and did, support it in 1990.

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