What Lessons Can We Draw From The Dover Forest Saga?
The most recent spat in Singapore’s media sphere involves local environmentalists and NGOs pushing back against the government’s decision to clear a 33-hectare forest for residential housing. As I write this, a viral change.org petition appealing to the state to reverse its decision has garnered an impressive 37,802 signatories.
Students of Singapore’s environmental policy might find these circumstances familiar. In 1993, the very same environmentalist NGO Nature Society of Singapore (NSS) pushed back against the government’s plans to clear forestries in northern Singapore Senoko. That saga too, generated a petition that racked an impressive 25,000 signatories in a pre-Internet era.
The arguments on both sides are almost identical too. The Senoko forest was argued in 1993 to be a nesting site to at least 180 birds species, and therefore too environmentally valuable to clear. The NSS report of the Dover forest making its rounds in the media now similarly extols this forestry to be thriving with “native trees and shrubs” and teeming with “wildlife richness” including critically endangered bird species.
Those in favour of the government’s plan to construct more residential estates too, echo the same arguments of years past. PAP parliamentarians lament the need to erode Singapore’s few remaining forestries as one borne out of economic necessity. The popular pro-PAP Critical Spectator blog makes this point forcefully.
This dichotomy between environmentalists and economic pragmatists is all-too-common in environmental policy. But more than just commonplace, it is false. The former places a higher premium on the environment, whereas the latter values economic progress and industrialisation. We need to preserve the environment for future generations to come, claim the environmentalists. No, forget the forests — affordable housing is more pressing to the needs of Singaporeans, argue the other side. The rhetoric of both sides are couched in the name of the “public interest”. Who gets their way? That depends on who successfully sways the government to their favour. The philosopher Ayn Rand had an apt quote for this:
So long as a concept such as “the public interest” is regarded as a valid principle to guide legislation — lobbies and pressure groups will necessarily continue to exist. Since there is no such entity as “the public,” since the public is merely a number of individuals, the idea that “the public interest” supersedes private interests and rights, can have but one meaning: that the interests and rights of some individuals take precedence over the interests and rights of others. If so, then all men and all private groups have to fight to the death for the privilege of being regarded as “the public.” The government’s policy has to swing like an erratic pendulum from group to group, hitting some and favoring others, at the whim of any given moment — and so grotesque a profession as lobbying (selling “influence”) becomes a full-time job. If parasitism, favoritism, corruption, and greed for the unearned did not exist, a mixed economy would bring them into existence.
In other words, through the political machinery of the state, both sides attempt to impose their own personal, subjective values on the other. They both claim that their way is the one that is “good for Singapore”, and both assume that values and priorities can be reconciled in a neat, communitarian manner. We’ll play the guitar and sing Kumbaya around the campfire when we’re done.
But what if people cannot come to agreement? It’s difficult for both sides to imagine why the other side simply cannot value Mother Nature or economic progress the way they do. Why is it so hard to believe that people might prioritise nature, or economic gain more? We don’t have the same type of indignant, outraged reactions when a single parent sacrifices family time in pursuit of a high-paying corporate position, or when certain cultural lifestyles eschew the material benefits of a globalised economy for a slower, laidback pace of life.
Similarly, when we think of policy goals in a society, we should not assume that economic development or preserving nature is the go-to assumption. The dichotomy between “treehuggers” and “greedy bastard capitalists” is misleading.
It is from this premise that environmental values and priorities are
difficult to resolve that free markets emerge as a valuable solution. Insofar
as people have differing opinions and economic priorities, we need policies that coordinate these conflicting ends.
Market-oriented policies strike this middle-ground where both nature-lovers and economic pragmatists can get a piece of the pie. I try to make this point in my recently published book. In market economies, nature-lovers are free to privatise forestries and support civil societies that want to develop them into nature reserves as they deem fit. Carbon trading quotas enable environmentalists to pay off energy producers to pollute less, or even purchase them to tear up! On the other hand, those of us hopeless consumerists who would prefer a new skyscraper and posh cafes are free to have our way too.
A large body of research in free-market environmentalism has applied this thinking toward understanding how market institutions resolve environmental conflicts. A market system that allows prices to function, profits to be made, and respects property rights enables environmental actors to evaluate the opportunity costs of their activities. This theoretical lens allows us to study an economy that is enabled to move towards a positive-sum game of environmentalism where both economic development and environmental preservation can coexist, as opposed to the status quo where democratic politics decides the winner of a negative-sum game.
The key lesson is that we should not assume away the subjective preferences of the other side. A serious policy solution would avoid the kind of paternalistic one-size-fits-all thinking that simply assumes them to be universally agreeable, in favour of market institutions that facilitate a positive-sum game that allows for both environmental goals and economic growth to be pursued simultaneously.