How light rail led an environmentalist away from the left

by Eric Shierman

A very timely ebook has just been released detailing the intellectual journey of former progressives who have become prominent free-market thinkers and advocates of limited government on the local level across the country. The most recognizable name for us Oregonians in this collection of philosophical autobiographies is John Charles, president of the Cascade Policy Institute (CPI). I have heard his bio before, but never in this lucid detail.

Charles grew up in northern New Jersey where as a leader in his Boy Scout troop, he developed a passionate appreciation for the need to keep our rivers clean. The prominent industrial waste in the vicinity of his comfortable suburban life then naturally turned him into the kind of person that might eventually become a serious environmental activist. Before enrolling in the University of Pittsburg, Charles volunteered for a summer at a recycling center. He describes that formative experience as “I found this quite empowering, to be actually doing something to ‘save the environment.’”

As a college freshman, politics were all around him during the Nixon years, but he was largely apolitical until a couple of concepts began forming in his mind to conclude that Capitalism itself was the problem. In an introductory economics course he learned the very real problem of negative externalities, but he began to extrapolate that concept into the idea that “capitalism was an economic system based on ‘exponential growth,’ and with a finite earth, unrestrained growth clearly would not be possible.”

After a variety of casual jobs in both the public sector and environmental groups in college and flirting with the idea of a teaching career, Charles hit the big time in the environmental movement with a job at the Environmental Defense Fund. We know him today, because in the fall of 1979 this young man went west to become a 25 year old executive director of the Oregon Environmental Council (OEC). Like a sponge, Charles then soaked up everything there was to know about the legal, managerial, and political aspects of running an organization like that. He became a masterful fundraiser, growing the OEC from an obscure group into the influential role it continues to play in Oregon politics today.

At the top of his professional game as one of the most successful heads of an environmentalist organization, Charles’ love of the environment superseded the tribal bonds of ideological politics. This allowed him to notice that the command and control approach to centralized regulations were having a diminishing marginal return in improving actual environmental quality. He became interested in a new line of thinking called Free-Market Environmentalism that was beginning to emerge. Together John Charles and his friend Randal O’Toole began to undergo the same intellectual evolution together. The turning point was his observation of Metro’s adoption of Plan 2040 which Charles noticed actually included many unwanted social goals, including an irrational war on the personal automobile. He came to see light rail as an expensive solution in search of a problem.

These views soon became controversial in Oregon’s professional environmentalist community, and Charles began growing increasingly out of step with his board of directors. They agreed to part ways in 1996.

As this was playing out, the CPI was looking for a good manager. Its founder Steve Buckstein wanted to focus on his analytical work rather than be bogged down with administrative tasks so he surprised many of his supporters by hiring John Charles. Given Charles’ background, there was no way he could convincingly pass an ideological litmus test, but that did not matter for none was given. What Buckstein saw was a competent manager possessing a data-driven open mind complemented by the intellectual integrity to ask tough questions in political settings. Could there be any setting more political than the non partisan Metro Council’s advisory boards?

Charles’ leadership at CPI has grown that organization into the prominence it enjoys today. In a very blue state that has largely been governed by one party for more than ten years now, CPI commands a platform to advance liberty in our state regardless of who is in power. As the passage of the open enrollment education reform that Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber signed into law last year demonstrates, legislative success in limiting government does not have to wait until there are overwhelming majorities in the legislature to do so. A well managed think tank staffed with bright analysts can influence the other side too, one issue at a time. Now Charles has shown Buckstein that it is possible to be a great executive and a prolific analyst too. CPI is after all batting 1000 with the Oregon fact-checker.

I strongly recommend this book. At less than $4 on Kindle, it’s a bargain. This is a book about open minds and changing minds, and we need a lot more of both in the State of Oregon.

Edited by Tom Garrison, Why We Left the Left is a collection of philosophical autobiographies from Matthew T. Austin, Steve Baier, Scott Bailiff, Keith Barnard, John Charles, Gary Chartier, Dorothy Colegrove, Michael W. Dean, Jennifer Eklund, Elliot Engstrom, Michelle A. C. Goodwin, Ashley Harrell, Lori Heine, Wil Losch, Ron T. Mahnert, Robert P. Marcus, Caroline C. Meckel, Russell Nelson, Hugo Newman, Scott Rhymer, Neema James Vedadi, and Zdrojewski.

Eric Shierman lives in southwest Portland and is the author of A Brief History of Political Cultural Change, and also writes for the Oregonian’s My Oregon Blog.

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Posted by at 06:43 | Posted in Metro | 19 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Bob Clark

    John Charles seems to be starting to move the mountain to bring about more fiscal integrity to TriMet. The local media is finally starting to catch-on to the need to scrutinize TriMet’s rather risky financial moves. Maybe, John and Cascade Policy Institute get a place in the not too distant future at the policy table, locally and statewide. This would be very comforting. I think we’d already be there if it weren’t for the corrupting force of the federal government deficit spending, year in and year out even during good economic times. Local politicians have become addicted to chasing the billions in speciously printed federal monies, trading off good local governance respectful of the day-to-day needs and wants of its citizens and maintaining fiscal balance; trading off good local governanc to placate the sound bite politicians back on the east coast in command of the federal largesse.

  • valley person

    For those of us without Kindle Eric, tell us what this “free market environmentalism” consists of in policy terms. As one example, Mr Charles likes the personal automobile. So do I. What does he propose to reduce pollution, particularly CO2, from personal automobile users?

    • Rupert in Springfield

      Can someone please inform Dean – Kindle is a formatting standard, you do not need a Kindle to read a book published in it.

      • 3H

        Most people do not enjoy reading books on their computers. If you don’t have a smart phone or a tablet, you’re pretty much out of luck. I don’t know VP, but if he is anything like myself, the screen of a smart phone is entirely too small to be of use in using a Kindle app. That leaves only a tablet, and not everyone necessarily owns one, or wants one.

        I think the question is legitimate one, and certainly could result in an interesting discussion.

        • valley person

          I don’t have a tablet, or a smart phone, and
          frankly am not interested in Mr Charles entire book even if it was
          printed on actual dead trees. So my question for Eric still stands. What
          is Mr Charles version of “free market environmentalism?” Does it mean
          free riding, or simply ignoring environmental problems one finds inconvenient or expensive to deal with? Or what?

          • Rupert in Springfield

            >frankly am not interested in Mr Charles entire book even if it was

            Then why in the world did you go on with the Kindle nonsense?

          • valley person

            Um…I didn’t. You did.

        • Rupert in Springfield

          > I don’t know VP, but if he is anything like myself, the screen of a
          smart phone is entirely too small to be of use in using a Kindle app.
          That leaves only a tablet

          Wrong – A computer will do. Dean has a computer.

          • 3H

            My first line covered computers. The comment about tablets should be read in the entire context of that post.
            I would suggest you take your own advice about reading the entire post first.

            Many people do not find reading a book on a computer to be a very rewarding experience. The screen, even when using Amazon’s Kindle App or the Nook app, tend to cause eye strain, and many people don’t feel like sitting in front of their computer for extended periods of time.

    • 3H

      I would also be interested in hearing why he thinks the Free Market can be a sufficient steward of the environment, and how today is significantly different than, say, 50 years ago when the Free Market was insufficient in providing environmental protection.

      • Rupert in Springfield

        Did you even read the article? It sounds to me like this book would cover that. And let’s not do any of this BS about how it’s too hard to read on a computer. Do you literally mean “hear”? You expect John Charles to call you and explain the whole thing because you aren’t will to read the book? Or do you expect him to explain it here on the blog, in which case your nonsense about not reading on the computer is either totally contradictory, or evidence of what I have long accused you of, not reading what you are responding to. Which is it?

        • 3H

          “You expect John Charles to call you and explain the whole thing because you aren’t will to read the book.”

          Why no I don’t Rupert. I have absolutely no expectations of him at all. What an odd thing to think. I simply said that it would nice to “hear” (a colloquialism, which I assume most people understand. I didn’t mean it literally, and I’m sorry if I confused you) on this forum what he means and what sort of free market solutions he intends. He is free to respond, which he did. If he doesn’t have time, or doesn’t wish to engage in debate in OC, he is perfectly free to decline. He doesn’t even have to say he doesn’t want to. It really is that simple, and I’m not quite sure what got you so upset at a simple request.

          If you read my whole post, I was commenting, and it was limited to that topic, on reading Amazon Kindle books without the benefit of owning a Kindle. If you would take a deep breath, and not react emotionally when you see me post, you will be a much happier person. There were no personal attacks, there was no anger. How you respond reflects entirely upon you, and not on me.

          Perhaps I’ll read it when, and if, it is available at my local public library.

        • 3H

          The eBook is 240 pages in length with 23 articles. Roughly 10 pages per person. With such short space, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask about the specifics of John Charles’ ideas for using Free Markets responses to environmental concerns. And again, he is perfectly free to decline.

    • jim karlock

      CO2 is NOT a pollutant – it is plant food and nature emits 96% of it.

  • I need to make a correction, but rather than have the content above edited, I will make the correction down here because I deserve the humiliation for not being more careful. I misread the timeline of Charles’ account for the rather dyslectic error of mistaking which century he was talking about when in different paragraphs he talked about his leaving OEC and taking on management responsibilities at CPI. I got my 90s confused with my 00s.

    John Charles was not hired directly into management; he was hired as an analyst and moved up into management in 2005. I struck out on this fact and am clearly not batting 1000 anymore. My apologies to the folks at CPI and my readers.

  • John Charles

    A quick response: free-market environmentalism recognizes that incentives always matter, and that command-and-control laws like the Endangered Species Act incentivize people to destroy habitat preemptively because they fear that the government may prevent them from doing anything with the land if endangered species are discovered living there. A market-oriented approach would be to abolish the ESA and encourage private parties to buy up key pieces of habitat and actively manage them, as the Nature Conservancy has done for decades. Remember that Sea Lion Caves was created as a privately-run refuge for sea lions at a time when the state of Oregon was paying a $5 bounty to anyone who killed sea lions. The market was a bit ahead of the government on that one.

    Lowering the gas tax and using electronic tolling with variable pricing on highways would be another free-market approach. Direct user fees with time-of-day pricing would provide a better driving experience (no congestion), lower total pollution from cars formerly stuck in traffic, and ensure that those who pay the most benefit the most.

    De-regulating the transit industry would be another approach, and converting subsidies to user-based subsidies (transit vouchers, basically) would encourage many service providers to enter the field while encouraging lots of competition.

    Replacing Oregon absurd statewide land-use regulatory scheme with strict enforcement of property rights (including trespass and nuisance law) and elimination of government subsides for development would be another approach.


    • valley person

      Mr Charles. I do a lot of work with the Nature Conservancy. Great group. Best conservation managers in the nation in my book. And they have nowhere near the resources needed to take care of the land they already have, let alone more. They just laid off some of the best natural resource expertise in Oregon because they can’t rise enough private sector funds to do the job.

      If we take forest habitat as a surrogate for conservation as a whole, nearly 100% of remaining old forest habitat in the Northwest is on public sector, not private sector forests. Private foresters logged their old growth forest many years before there even was an endangered species act, so your proposal makes zero sense.

      Your proposal for lowering pollution is to charge people to use roads? I suppose that would work if we charged ourselves so much that we would drive very little. But politically, I don’t think its feasible. And by then we would be building more light rail.

      What do you mean by strict enforcement of property rights? Would that mean my neighbor could not build an apartment building because it would be a nuisance to me?

      With due respect, your ideas sound half baked.

      • guest

        Varmit Person, are you aware The Nature Conservancy takes monies from the bilkfold$ of scape and rape interests like Centex Homes? Didn’t think so.

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