Property and Emerging Environmental Issues—The Optimists vs. The Pessimists

Carol M. Rose

Over the last generation, market-based or property-based mechanisms have been much discussed as a means to deal with environmental problems. A turning point in this discussion came with the United States’ acid rain control legislation of 1990, a cap-and-trade program that has been widely heralded as a model for other kinds of market-based environmental programs. While it was not the first environmental legislation of its type—New Zealand instituted a cap-and-trade program in fisheries in the mid-1980s—the scope and apparent success of the U.S. Acid Rain Program breathed life into suggestions that economists had been making for many years. More recently, market-based measures have been proposed for many other environmental resources, including not only other fisheries, but also wetlands, wildlife, grassland and forestry. In particular, ideas for controlling greenhouse gases have steadily raised the possibility of property rights and trades in carbon emissions.

Can property-based or market-based measures cure our environmental ailments? Some say yes, and some say no. In fact, some have been saying yes and others saying no for quite some time now, although they have said yes and no in different ways over time. This Article will recount several of the early cycles of the debate between the Optimists and the Pessimists, because even the early discussions laid out some of the important possibilities—and the caveats—for property solutions to currently emerging environmental problems.

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