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Kendall Cotton: Toward a new green coalition

Aug 31, 2023

For decades environmentalists have been mostly aligned with the left wing of America's politics, which has long opposed the traditional conservative notions of free enterprise, strong private property rights and the importance of the family.

But as addressing climate change hastens the urgency of action for those within the modern environmental movement, there are signs that this political alignment has started to fracture.

Emerging from this breakdown in the environmental movement, I believe, is the possibility of a new green coalition that is pro-innovation, pro-private property and yes, even pro-family.

The modern environmentalist schism seems mostly rooted in conflict over the proper response to ecological crisis.

One side, the old-school side, contends that the growth and economic progress of human civilization is incompatible with environmental protection. For the past century, disciples of this "de-growth" philosophy have slowly but surely built a regulatory and legal apparatus of state and federal policies that thwart new economic production and blindly reduce our consumption in the name of environmental protection.

The most radical elements of the old de-growth movement go even farther. One recent Montana columnist proudly proclaimed that "ending human population growth is at least one key to fighting climate change." It's not difficult to imagine what cruel and horrific authoritarian policies would be contemplated to achieve such ends.

The other side of the modern environmental movement, the new school side, appears to believe that the growth and progress of humankind is the key to addressing climate change. Interestingly, this is the area of ideological agreement where the new green coalition emerges.

Free market advocates have long pointed to research clearly showing that the most economically free countries — countries with a low burden of regulations and sound rule of law — also have the cleanest environments. Why? Because a system of free, competitive enterprise is the most powerful engine for economic growth. Economic freedom establishes the conditions for innovations to emerge that improve our living standards and allow us to use Earth's finite resources more responsibly and efficiently.

The new school of environmental activists also understand that in order to achieve their climate goals, humans must be free to build, innovate and progress. This positions the new school as diametrically opposed to the paradigm built by the de-growthers for the last century to constrain economic production. They recognize the broken system of federal and state environmental permitting bogs down green projects with endless red tape and litigation. They view outdated local zoning regulations as erecting barriers to the development of denser, more walkable cities that then forces communities into harmful, California-style urban sprawl.

On these issues, both nationally and here in Montana, we’ve increasingly seen new school environmentalists break with the traditional political left and join the center-right in calling to remove permitting red tape for critical energy projects and restore the rights of property owners to build denser, more affordable starter homes in cities.

At the fringes of this new coalition we even see a new alignment over the value of the family. As projected population decline threatens to reduce global living standards and destroy economic productivity, some prominent new school environmentalists are sounding the alarm. Simply put: Fewer people means less capacity for innovation. Therefore, enabling and encouraging steady population growth is a key to human flourishing.

Montana's politics have, in many ways, long been dominated by old school de-growth ideals. By contrast, this new green coalition offers a fundamentally pro-human pathway forward to protect Montana's environment as our state grows.


Kendall Cotton is president and CEO of the Frontier Institute, a think tank dedicated to breaking down government barriers so all Montanans can thrive.

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