Jeb Blount Financial Times February 12, 1990 NB: The conversion of this document to a digital format may have introduced errors. To see the document in its original form, click here.
AT FIRST GLANCE Larry Solomon seems like the answer to a businessman’s prayers. An environmentalist who believes passionately in the free-market system, his call for the privatization of Crown land and public utilities has won him the praise of the conservative Fraser Institute — and the wrath of fellow environmentalists. “The positions Larry takes seem to me very conservative,” says Stephen Shrybman, executive director of the Canadian Environmental Law Association. “They go against what the environmental movement says: the government must have a stronger role.”
But if business is looking for an uncritical supporter in Solomon, it is badly mistaken. A 41-year-old founder of Energy Probe, the Toronto-based energy-policy lobby group, Solomon refuses to be labelled as a pro-business, free-market ideologue. In fact, his ideas may lead to a far more radical critique of industrial practices than traditional environmentalism.
At the root of his philosophy is the belief that government and business have colluded to exploit Canada’s resources, despoiling the environment in the process. While giving lip service to the free market, Canadian industry has accepted billions in government subsidies and exploited government land for ridiculously low prices. Unleash the market, Solomon says, and the current practices of Canada’s forest industry would become untenable. So, because of its high costs, would the nuclear power industry. At the same time, government would be in a better position to enforce strong regulations. “Government has a conflict of interest when it is owner and promoter of industry and resources,” he says. “Privatization will result in better regulation, more economical industry and a cleaner and wealthier society.”
Solomon’s latest proposal — the sale of Canada’s vast forest lands to private industry — is a logical extension of his free-market beliefs. If forest-products companies were forced to buy their own land, he says, they would be reluctant to over-log because they would be reluctant to over-log because they would lose security of supply. In the United States, 72% of forest land is under private tenure, in Sweden, 75%, and in Finland, 72%. All have more forest than in 1920.
By contrast, less than 6% of Canada’s forest is privately held; the rest is owned and managed by government. “We have as bad a record as many Third World countries and a worse record than any First World country when it comes to forest management,” Solomon says.
Energy Probe’s privatization proposal calls on the government to settle all native land claims and make land grants to people in small, remote, resource-based communities, then auction off the remaining Crown land to the highest bidder. Solomon has submitted his proposal to the Ontario government, so far without response.
Business, meanwhile, has been lukewarm. Adam Zimmerman, chairman of Noranda Forest lnc , agrees with Solomon that private lands are better managed than public forests. But he believes that Canada has been well served by its system of public forest ownership. “Public ownership is less likely to be overbuilt.” he says. “I can’t see anyone disputing the free market, but from my way of thinking, the forest (in public hands) has been easy to regulate. For the life of me, I don’t see how Canada has been shortchanged by the major operators on public land.”
Solomon says it has. Without public ownership, he contends, Alberta would never have been able to grant – without public hearings – forest leases for territory the size of England and Wales, dishing out several hundred million dollars in grants and infrastructure improvements to Japanese pulp and paper companies.
Not surprisingly, environmentalists have a hard time knowing how to react to Solomon’s ideas. Many are offended. His proposals clash with a sacred tenet: like crude oil and sea water, business and environmentalism don’t mix. Shrybman, for one considers Solomon a right-winger who wants to hand control of the environment to big corporations.
Others arc more sympathetic. Michael Manolson, the executive director of Greenpeace Canada, says Solomon and Energy probe indicate the evolution of environmentalism in Canada. While he doesn’t embrace Solomon’s zeal for the free market, he says environmentalism is now so mainstream that such opinions can be taken seriously.
Colin Isaacs, former executive director of Pollution Probe, agrees: “He realized before most of us did that the free-enterprise system was firmly entrenched and you won’t get progress without it. We now realize that all political philosophies must incorporate equal and high concern about the environment. The strict alliance with the left is now weakening.”
Isaacs, who split with Pollution Probe after he teamed up with the Loblaws grocery chain to launch a line of “environmentally friendly” Green Products, says the environmental movement is becoming more diverse. “The important thing about Larry is that you can’t pigeonhole him. In the U.S., environmentalists range from tree-huggers to 100% died-in-the-wool free-marketers. If you’re looking for easy categories, you won’t find them anymore.”
If Isaacs is correct, environmentalists will be launching their attacks on corporate polluters from both sides of the ideological divide. And if Solomon is any indication, the new breed of free-market environmentalists will be no less vigilant than their forerunners.