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game as one of the most successful heads of an environmentalist organization, Charles’ love of the environment superseded the tribal bonds of ideological politics.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.