Saturday, October 15, 2005

Column on what "biologically important" means

Empty Environmentalism?

Tibor R. Machan

In the community where I live, as in many others but a bit more so,
environmentalist are hard at work to put a stop to all developments,
meaning all efforts to increase the available housing and other human
amenities that come from people wanting to live there. Orange County, CA,
is a highly prized area?the weather is very desirable, there is nowadays
an abundance of jobs, and schools are passable, the entertainment and
amusement being offered up better than in most places around the globe and
so forth. So it?s no wonder people want to live there and those with land
find a demand to fill for homes and other amenities?developments, as they
have been dubbed, probably because the designation tends to remove from it
the human element and suggests raw greed.

Just now the biggest land owner in the region, the Irvine Company, has
proposed what is referred to the ?East Orange scheme? which is the nemesis
of the local and other branches of the Sierra Club. The Club and all its
allies are hard at work to try to bring the project to a halt. Their first
line of attack is based on the contention that the new development is
likely to grind the local traffic to a halt. But, in fact, this is only
the first of their salvos. The far more important sounding reason they
offer?when you check out their web site at that
?These lands are part of one of the most biologically important open space
areas in the entire state.?

I admit to not being very eager to go to the defense of the Irvine
Company, mainly because it is one of those huge corporations that has no
compunction about getting into bed with the government so as to enhance
its economic fortunes. (For more on the company, see [
It began in 1864, when James Irvine made a killing in the California Gold
Rush and later bought up 120,000 +/- acres of ranchland in what became
Orange County, Southern California. The land the company owns covers the
region several miles inland from the Pacific Ocean all the way north to
the Cleveland National Forest where I live, in Silverado Canyon.

Anyway, what struck me about the crucial reference to how ?biologically
important? is the land to be used for development is that while it sounds
significant, if one thinks about it a bit that phrase carries very little
meaning. Suppose it said that the land is botanically important? Or
zoologically important? Or residentially important? All these might convey
some nearly clear meaning because they point to an area of life that the
land may benefit. It may help plants, or animals, or people looking for
someplace to live. ?Biologically? is too broad a category and, since the
company?s plans to develop it for human habitation implies that human
beings will be living there, that, too, may well be part of what makes it
important. We are, after all, biological entities and when land is used to
provide us with living space, that could be construed as being
biologically important.

Surely, however, this is not what the Sierra Club & Co., want to convey
by that phrase. But then what? Something, one may assume, that is left
deliberately unspecified in the text on the Web Site.

For something to be important, it must be important to something else.
Water is important for most life, as is oxygen and inhabitable land.
Because, however, there is probably more demand for such land in certain
regions of the world than is available, priorities need to be set.

In a free society the priorities are set by way of the pricing system
because how much things cost shows just how badly people want it. This
amounts to a reasonably sensible rationing process, with how much, and how
good, people get to have dependent on how well off they are, how hard they
have worked to be so well off, how lucky they have been, etc., and so
forth. All this works out without some group of central planners of the
kind they had in the old Soviet Union, groups that are in the end clueless
about how to allocate resources rationally.

My bet is that the Sierra Club people are just as clueless about that as
were those in the Kremlin, although I am sure they fancy themselves very
wise. And this they evidence by using such ambiguous and thus useless
language as exemplified by the phrase ?biologically important.?

Don?t get me wrong?gridlock on Orange County roads can be hellish, in
part because they are build by government which tends to plan much like
those guys did in the Kremlin, without a clear idea what actually is in
demand and how much will it cost. Still, one can appreciate worries about
crowded roads and other infrastructure challenges. What is a mystery,
however, is what on earth ?biologically important? should be understood to

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