Bill McKibben, a virulent environmentalist, was given the job
of reviewing Peter Huber's new, market friendly work on the
environment, Hard Green:Saving the Environment from the
Environmentalists (Basic Books, 1999), for
The New York Review of Books. And he certainly has done his best to
attempt to obliterate Huber's idea that perhaps environmentalists and
their bureaucratic handmaiden aren't the best judges of what ought to
be done where the environment is concerned.
Huber does not
trust the government and the highly partisan, one-sided
environmentalist gang to lead us to some kind of environmental Haven,
so one can appreciate McKibben's efforts.
In an effort to nail Huber good and hard, McKibben tells us, among
other things, that "In the essay on ethics that comes near the end of
his book [Huber] posits a world in danger of sliding into a kind of
relativist paganism. Soft Greens, he says, would probably agree with
Al Gore that nature has 'inherent value,' and would therefore advocate
preserving 'the kangaroo rate not because it is useful to people, but
because nature as a whole is, in some sense, on a a spiritual part with
man.' And this will lead to a kind of ethical free-for-all, where we
are unable or unwilling to distinguish between cougars and children,
and end up condoning the actions of lunatics like Ted Kaczynski."
Now McKibben will have nothing of this insight. As he puts it, "This
is unlikely. A quick glance around contemporary American culture
should suffice to demolish the notion that we are relegating human
beings to some inferior spot in our cosmology. If you were looking for
the hottest moral danger spot, I think you'd have to locate it instead
in the incredible hyperindividualism of the most advanced consumer
society on earth. We are, to coin a phrase, I-dolatrous. and we have
been told by three generations of laissez-faire economists that this is
how we should be, that by our endless pursuit of our own desires we
will enrich the world."
Let me return to this slight against individualism shortly but first
let us notice that McKibben has not even bothered to address Huber's
point, which is a valid one: If nature -- all of it, with no
discrimination allowed among its various elements -- has intrinsic value,
then guiding ourselves both individually and institutionally is impossible.
No priorities can be identified, everything is equally significant.
Yet because of scarcity of time and resources, some ranking of
importance needs to accomplished. Without differences among the
various candidates in nature that could use our attention, what remains
is for some leaders to call the shots, arbitrarily. McKibben has no
retort to offer to this, so he changes the subject and, following a
tried tactic, goes on the offensive.
So what of his attack? Let us consider it by looking first at what
individualism is. That will help us see whether there is anything to
what McKibben claims.
An individualist holds that in a human community each adult member is
to be treated by recognizing his or her sovereignty as, in other
words, possessing the basic rights to life, liberty and property. This
is needed so as to secure for everyone his or her moral space or
personal jurisdiction (or authority) over a determinate sphere within
which the person than is free to make his or her own choices,
commitments, and so forth, for better or for worse.
assumption is that human adults are individuals, that is, unique,
irreplaceable beings for whom the flourishing of their lives is of
supreme importance where they and not uninvited others must be the
guide as to whether they will pursue this flourishing or happiness.
Now a hyperindividualist would probably be someone who not only
believes the above but also believes that no one ought ever be
cooperating with other people in guiding his or her life, that everyone
ought to undertake this task in solitude, independently of any help
from family, friends, neighbors, associations, and so on.
Is this in fact what characterizes American culture? Although there
is a lot of consuming going on in this country, is there not also a lot
of cooperation, philanthropy, collaboration, and community? Moreover,
is there not, in fact, a great deal of anti-individualism afoot in
American society, whereby individuals are not permitted to do their own
thing at all?
Are not all of us in America required, by law, to
support many ventures we do not approve of and which are imposed on us
on the often spurious grounds that they promote the public interest?
Are not businesses regulated by a myriad of government agencies,
federal, state, county and municipal, constraining them in ways that
undermine their individual goals and purposes?
Yes, these are rhetorical questions -- we all know that the answer to
them is "Yes." And there is no question that Mr. McKibben is trying to
pull wool over his reader's eyes, hoping, it seems, that his hyperbole
will obscure the reader's understanding of just how replete our culture
is with ideas, ideals and institutions that are anything but
individualistic, let alone hyperindividualist.
In fact, as Huber's analysis shows, the biggest problem with the
environment is that lack of institutional individualism and the
plethora of public domains that are ripe with the tragedy of the
commons, the situation wherein everyone and no one owns resources, so
they become squandered and neglected. Quite the opposite of what
Too bad there are so many who share McKibben's
prejudices and sad to see The New York Review assign a book like
Huber's to be reviewed by an environmentalist zealot.
Tibor R. Machan teaches business ethics at Chapman University and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. Send him MAIL.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.