Thursday, August 09, 2007

Accidental Environmentalism

Tibor R. Machan

Environmentalists tend to believe that the best way to achieve their ends
is to empower governments to command us all to act as environmentalist
would want us to act. Stop using SUVs, save endangered species, preserve
wetlands, recycle, etc., and so forth.

But this is not a reliable way to deal with environmental problems. Yes,
at some particular time a government may make just the laws and issue the
regulations environmentalist want (although even at their most
conscientious this may fail since environmentalists are not exactly sure
what policies will do the environment the most good, what standards should
be deployed, how to prioritize, etc.). But governments, be they mostly
democratic or more dictatorial, tend to follow fashion. This year it may
be environmentalism but next it will be traffic gridlocks, the following
some health concern, and after that who knows what will take center stage. And all
along, of course, there are the innumerable special interest projects that drive
the politicians’ agenda.

If, however, individuals have something to gain from acting prudently in
their lives, from conserving, preserving, saving, being frugal, having
restraint and so forth, there could well be environmentalism afoot without
folks even knowing they are falling in line with the movement. Some of us
travel a lot, for example, and stay at hotels or motels where efforts are
being made to cut back on the use of amenities. Instead of replacing
towels each day, they are now often reused, with the establishment’s
urgings and with full consent of the guests who don’t mind very much using
the same sheets and pillow cases for several days, so long as in case of
special need they can be accommodated. I have noticed that hot water is
sometimes shut off in the wee hours of the morning, something that can
actually inconvenience certain guests—but then they can go elsewhere,
should it matter to them a lot.

When private property rights are strictly identified and protected, there
is actual economic value in being environmentally prudent. Just as one
may not dump one’s trash on the property of one’s neighbor, other kinds
of pollution, once clearly identified, can also be curtailed and the
overall affect is to make the environment more pristine, user friendly.

Of course such unintended environmentalism rests in large measure on the
belief that people are not intentionally reckless, at least not when the
cost has to be borne by them and if they try to escape it they will be
held accountable. This goes for small estates to massive industrial
firms. Yet, sadly, too many avid environmentalists work toward undermining
the system of private property rights, a system that could be their best
friend. One need but recall the conditions in the Soviet bloc
countries—and, indeed, notice those in some of the states that still
haven’t recovered from their Soviet era mismanagement—to learn how the
tragedy of the commons ruins the environment in many places around the
globe. What happened in most of these places is that some grand, national
plan to promote industrialization overshadowed even the slightest efforts
by citizens to care for their environment. They had no say over the
matter—it was all dealt with from above.

In the approximately free world, in contrast, two things have contributed
to relatively sound environmental policies: the greater respect and
protection afforded to private property rights and the greater wealth, by
far, of the citizenry that can afford to be picky about the environment.
Poor countries, the ones suffering from central government mismanagement,
fail to be heedful of this and their environment is, thus, in pretty lousy

One thing too many environmentalists don’t welcome about this lesson is
that it leaves matters to local control, all the way down to individual
citizens being free to decide how to deal with the environment. Like all
utopian dreamers, these environmentalists trust some superior agency. And
that is how they tend to defeat their very own professed objectives.

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