The Intellectual Sorcery of Think Tanks by Sharon Beder
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The Intellectual Sorcery of Think Tanks by Sharon Beder
Sharon Beder, 'The Intellectual Sorcery of Think Tanks', Arena Magazine 41, June/July 1999, pp. 30-32.
This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes were subsequently made.
Conservative think tanks have played a central yet largely unexamined role in the corporate battle against environmental policies
and reforms. Think tanks are generally private, tax-exempt research institutes which present themselves as providing impartial
disinterested expertise. However they are generally partisan, politically or ideologically motivated, and practise the art of
'directed conclusions', tailoring their studies to suit their clients or donors.
In recent times a number of think tanks have become more openly ideological. These conservative think tanks aim to influence
government and set the agenda in a variety of policy arenas, including environmental policy. To be effective they insinuate
themselves into the networks of people who are influential in particular areas of policy. They do this by organising conferences,
seminars and workshops and by publishing books, briefing papers, journals and media releases. They liaise with bureaucrats,
consultants, interest groups and lobbyists. They seek to provide advice directly to the government officials in policy networks
and to government agencies and committees.
Think tanks often employ former government officials and politicians as this gives them influence in government and credibility in
the media and provides their donors with access to and influence in the policy-making process.
Australian Think Tanks
In Australasia the largest think tank is the Sydney-based Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), established in 1976. Although
it claims to be independent the Centre is funded by businesses, and its work is shaped by its libertarian/laissez faire philosophy.
It is, in its own words, committed to 'an economy based on free and competitive markets'; and 'individual liberty and choice'
including 'the right to property'.
The Centre deals with 'practical public policy issues' as well as 'more intellectual issues focussing on the way societies work and
the importance of liberty in securing prosperity both economically and socially'. It publishes the work of various conservatives,
including media baron Rupert Murdoch; economists such as Friedrich von Hayek (whom the Centre brought out to Australia in
the 1970s) and Milton Friedman; Nick Greiner, a former premier of NSW, Gary Sturgess former Director-General of the
NSW Cabinet Office under Greiner, and various think tank scholars from the US and the UK. It also distributes, in Australia,
material from US and UK libertarian think tanks.
Another prominent Australian conservative think tank, and the oldest, is the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA). The IPA describes
itself as 'a political organisation in the sense that it influences the political agenda' but claims that it 'avoids political-party
partisanship'. It stands for, among other things, 'less regulation and smaller government generally' and 'rational economic
Almost one third of IPA's $1.5 million annual budget comes from mining and manufacturing companies. It has 700 corporate
members and 3000 individual members, some of whom are subscribers to its various publications. Its council has included
Murdoch as well as other conservative business leaders. Like many of the US conservative think tanks, the IPA has good
connections in the media via right-wing commentators with regular columns in major newspapers. It also has good political
connections. Its staff includes former senior public officials and former politicians. John Stone, a former Secretary of the
Treasury, is a consultant to the IPA and Dame Leonie Kramer, Chancellor of the University of Sydney, has headed one of the
IPA's units. The IPA's current units are on Deregulation, Economic Policy, Indigenous Issues and Environmental Policy.
A number of Australian think tanks are modelled on US think tanks and have close ties with some of them, including the
Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute. The Institute of Public Policy, now amalgamated
with the IPA, modelled itself on the Heritage Foundation as well as the British IEA. The Committee for Economic Development
in Australia (CEDA) was originally modelled on the US Committee for Economic Development and in 1984 it made a
conscious decision to move towards an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) model.
Think tanks have sought to spread confusion about the scientific basis of environmental problems, to oppose environmental
regulations and promote free market remedies to those problems such as privatisation, deregulation and the expanded use of
property rights. Corporations that wish to portray themselves in public as environmentally concerned often fund such think
tanks, whom they are not readily identified with, to oppose environmental reforms.
Corporations have utilised think tanks and a few dissident scientists to cast doubt on the existence and magnitude of problems
such as global warming, ozone depletion and species extinction. This strategy is aimed at crippling the impetus for government
action to solve these problems, action which might adversely affect corporate profits.
Conservative think tanks have promoted the views of the few scientists who disagree with the vast majority of atmospheric
scientists that warming is a likely consequence of increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It uses these dissident
scientists, usually not atmospheric scientists, to suggest there is 'widespread disagreement' within the scientific community. This
disagreement is used to make a case against taking 'drastic actions' to reduce greenhouse gases.
Brian Tucker, previously Chief of the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric research, is now a Senior Fellow at the IPA where he
trades on his scientific credentials to push an ideological agenda. In 1996 in a talk on the ABC's Ockham's Razor he stated that
'unchallenged climatic disaster hyperbole has induced something akin to a panic reaction from policy makers, both national and
international'. In the talk he ignored the scientific consensus represented by the IPCC 1995 statement and argued that global
warming predictions are politically and emotionally generated:
There is little evidence to support the notion of net deleterious climate change despite recent Cassandra-like trepidation in the
Australian Medical Association and exaggerations from Greenpeace. Why then has so much alarm been generated? The
answer is complicated. In my opinion, it is due partly to the use and abuse of science to forment fear by those seeking to
support ideological positions, and partly due to the negative and fearful perspective that seems to characterise some
Tucker's article The Greenhouse Panic was reprinted in Engineering World ,a magazine aimed at engineers. The article,
introduced by the magazine editor as 'a balanced assessment,' argues that 'alarmist prejudices of insecure people have been
boosted by those who have something to gain from widespread public concern.' This article, which would have been more
easily dismissed as an IPA publication, has been quoted by Australian engineers at conferences as if it was an authoritative
In August 1997 the Frontiers of Freedom Institute, a conservative corporate funded US think tank organised a conference in
Canberra in conjunction with the Australian APEC Study Centre. The conference, entitled Countdown to Kyoto, was
organised, according to the Australian, to 'bolster support' for the Government's increasingly isolated position on global
warming in preparation for the Kyoto conference. Speakers included US politicians opposed to the treaty, the Chairman of
BHP and the Director of the think tank, the Tasman Institute.
Malcolm Wallop, who heads the Frontiers of Freedom Institute, chaired the conference with Hugh Morgan, the head of
Western Mining. Wallop said in a letter to US conservative groups: 'This conference in Australia is the first shot across the bow
of those who expect to champion the Kyoto Treaty'. He also stated that the conference would 'offer world leaders the tools to
break with the Kyoto Treaty'. The conference was opened by Australian Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fisher who argued that
tough emission reduction targets could put 90,000 jobs at risk in Australia and cost more than $150 million.
Some think tanks are now trying to repeat their success in thwarting effective action on global warming by challenging the
scientific consensus on ozone depletion. For example the American Cato Institute has published Ecoscam: The False Prophets
of Ecological Apocalypse by Ronald Bailey, which argues that scientists working for NASA have promoted the ozone
depletion theory in order to bolster its budget.
Like the critics of the global warming theory, and usually these are the same people, Bailey and others emphasise the
uncertainties surrounding the theory and the natural fluctuations in ozone levels that occur over time:
the impact of man-made chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) on the ozone layer is a complex question that turns on
murky evidence, tentative conclusions, conflicting interpretations, and changing predictions....it turns out that ozone
depletion, like the other environmental dooms analyzed here, is less a crisis than a nuisance.
In this way think tanks and their scholars provided the Republicans in the US Congress with the rhetoric to oppose a more
general CFC phaseout. The Republicans have sought to retract US agreement to the terms of the Montreal Protocol, the
international convention aimed at phasing out CFCs worldwide. And a bill was introduced to repeal the provisions of the Clean
Air Act relating to production and use of CFCs.
In its magazine Facts, the Australian Institute for Public Policy attacks recycling. Drawing on an Industry Commission report it
argues that packaging only accounts for one tenth of the waste stream 'by weight' and that recycling can be costly and produce
pollution problems. In the same issue of the magazine the IPA argues that the amount of pollutants ingested as a result of
pesticide use and water pollution are trivial compared with those occurring 'naturally;' 'enhancing the Greenhouse Effect may be
necessary for our survival' because nature is not providing enough CO2; and that banning of DDT initiated by greens has 'been
accompanied by a blow out of reported malaria cases to hundreds of thousands' in Sri Lanka.
Most of the conservative think tanks also attack environmentalism in some way. In its journal, Policy Review, the Heritage
Foundation has labelled the environmental movement as 'the greatest single threat to the American economy'. Several equate
environmentalism to religious belief. For example, John Hyde, executive Director of the IPA, claims 'Nature worship is not
new, and environmentalism is a religion that may currently have a greater following than any church'. In 1991 Ron Brunton,
Director of the Institute's Environmental Unit in Canberra, gave a paper entitled, Environmentalism and Sorcery:
Sorcery beliefs involve the attribution of misfortune to the evil machinations of other humans. These beliefs
invariably worsen the problems they are meant to be addressing. They drive people to an obsessive search for
scapegoats, to a focus on the wrong causes and the wrong solutions. They create and perpetuate distrust, and so
corrode the basis for social co-operation.
Brunton suggests 'greens' are ambivalent about environmental improvements: 'How else can we explain what has happened to
John Todd, the director of Ocean Arks International, who developed a process for transforming toxic sludge into drinkable
water? Greens are furious with him, and some of his old friends no longer speak to him'. This would indeed be an extraordinary
process if Brunton's claims were true, and many waste experts would be astonished to find that such a solution exists!
Perhaps the most pervasive influence of the ideas promoted by conservative think tanks in the environmental policy arena has
been in the adoption of elements of free-market environmentalism, particularly market-based approaches to environmental
problems, in many countries. In the name of free-market environmentalism, conservative think tanks have enabled the
conservative, corporate agenda of deregulation, privatisation and an unconstrained market to be dressed up as an
Conservative think tanks have consistently opposed government regulation and promoted the virtues of a 'free' market
unconstrained by a burden of red tape. They have recommended using the market to allocate scarce environmental resources
such as wilderness and clean air and replacing legislation with voluntary industry agreements, reinforced or newly created
property rights and economic instruments.
Think tanks have sought to discredit environmental legislation, giving it the pejorative label 'command and control', and
highlighting its deficiencies and ineffectiveness (ineffectiveness that corporations and think tanks have done their best to ensure).
Some think tank economists also argue that there is little incentive to protect environmental resources that are not privately
owned. Their solution is to create property rights over parts of the environment that are currently free. Rights-based economic
instruments such as tradeable pollution rights, according to an Australian government report, 'create rights to use environmental
resources, or to pollute the environment, up to a pre-determined limit' and allow these rights to be traded.
Although economists have long advocated economic instruments for environmental regulation, their popularity today owes much
to the work of think tanks, who have effectively marketed and disseminated these policies. Think tanks have popularised and
promoted the work of environmental economists and many of the leading scholars in this area are associated with think tanks,
including one of the foremost proponent's of tradeable pollution rights, Robert Hahn, a resident scholar of the American
Enterprise Institute, Terry Anderson, who has written for several think tanks in Australia and the US, Robert Stavins and
Bradley Whitehead, authors of a Progressive Policy Institute study as well as Alan Moran, from the Tasman Institute, an
Australian think tank, and Walter Block from the Fraser Institute, a Canadian think tank.
Many environmentalists have been persuaded by the rhetoric of free market environmentalism. They have accepted the
conservative definition of the problem, that environmental degradation results from a failure of the market to attach a price to
environmental goods and services, and the argument that these instruments will work better than outdated
'command-and-control' type regulations. The US Environmental Defense Fund has been at the forefront of the push for
tradeable pollution rights and the Natural Resources Defense Council has also supported them.
Economic instruments are being advocated as a technocratic solution to environmental problems which is premised on the
conservative think tank's view of the problem&emdash;that environmental degradation is caused by a failure to 'value' the
environment and a lack of properly defined property rights. By allowing this redefinition of the environmental problem,
environmentalists and others not only forestall criticism of the market system but in fact implicitly agree that an extension of
markets is the only way to solve the problem. Yet the market, far from being free or operating efficiently to allocate resources in
the interests of society, is dominated by a small group of large multinational corporations which aim to maximise their private
profit by exploiting nature and human resources.
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