Books / Digital Text

Chapter 4: Environmentalism

I am a sinner but unrepentant. You see, I don’t practice environmentalism, and I don’t believe in it. I don’t recycle and I don’t conserve — except when it pays to do so. I like clean air — really clean air, like the kind an air conditioner makes. I like the bug-free indoors. I like development, as in buildings, concrete, capitalism, prosperity. I don’t like swamps (and that goes for any “wetland,” even the ballyhooed “Everglades”) or jungles (“rainforests”). I see all animals except dogs and cats as likely disease carriers, unless they’re in a zoo.

When PBS runs a special on animal intelligence, I am unmoved. I’m glad for the dolphins that they can squeak. I’m happy for the ape that he can sign for his food. How charming for the bees that they organize themselves so well for work. But that doesn’t give them rights over me. Their only real value comes from what they can do for man.

According to modern political and religious doctrine, all these views make me a sinner. The mainline churches long ago became quasi-Manichaean, heralding blessed poverty and swearing never to disturb blessed nature with the stain of human action. And we all know about the vogue of New Age religions. Public-school kids are taught the religion of eco-sentimentalism.

Even the new Catholic Catechism seems mushy on the subject. “Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute … it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation” (par. 2416). I have no idea what this means. It seems like a sop to the new paganism. Do killer bees and killer bacteria have “integrity” worthy of “religious respect”? To my mind, nature is only valuable if it serves man’s needs. If it does not, it must be transformed.

Even in free-market circles, I’m expected to herald the beauty and moral integrity of nature before I discuss property rights and markets. In fact, “free-market environmentalists” insist that we accept the goals of the greens, while only rejecting some of their statist means as the best way to achieve those goals. I don’t buy it. The environmentalists are targeting everything I love, and the struggle between us and them is fundamental.

Only the Randians can be counted on to make any sense on this issue. They assert what used to be the Christian position only a few decades ago: namely, that man occupies the highest spot in the great chain of being. The interests of no animal, no species, no living thing, should be permitted to trump the need for human flourishing. But for such outrageous talk, the Randians have been banished by many libertarians on grounds that their strategy is all wrong.

One wise Randian once implored me to closely examine the word “environment.” What does it refer to, he asked? Well, you can tick through the list of environmental concerns: air, water, animals, trees, the ozone, etc. But where does it stop? What are the boundaries of what is called the environment? What it really means, he said, is: “anything but man.” He was right. A perfect environment would be a world without people. How monstrous to allow the greens to take even one step toward this goal!

Not just Rand, but also St. Augustine believed that the purpose of nature is to serve man:

Some attempt to extend this command [“Thou Shalt Not Kill”] even to beasts and cattle, as if it forbade us to take life from any creature. But if so, why not extend it also to the plants, and all that is rooted in and nourished by the earth? For though this class of creatures have no sensation, yet they also are said to live, and consequently they can die; and therefore, if violence be done them, can be killed. So, too, the apostle, when speaking of the seeds of such things as these, says, “That which thou sowest is not quickened except it die;” and in the Psalm it is said, “He killed their vines with hail.” Must we therefore reckon it a breaking of this commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” to pull a flower? Are we thus insanely to countenance the foolish error of the Manichaeans? Putting aside, then, these ravings, if, when we say, Thou shalt not kill, we do not understand this of the plants, since they have no sensation, nor of the irrational animals that fly, swim, walk, or creep, since they are dissociated from us by their want of reason, and are therefore by the just appointment of the Creator subjected to us to kill or keep alive for our own uses.

How glorious, St. Augustine also wrote, to see human habitations spreading where once unchecked nature reigned. That’s my view too. I don’t care how many homilies I hear about the glories of nature, from the pulpit or Congress or the media, I’m against it, unless it has been changed by man into something useful or otherwise valuable. Things that grow are for food, clothing, decoration, or lawns. All swamps should be drained. All rainforests turned over to productive agriculture.

Not being a do-it-myselfer, my favorite section of the hardware store features bug killers, weed killers, varmint traps, and poisons of all sorts. These killer potions represent high civilization and capitalism. The bags are decorated with menacing pictures of ants, roaches, tweezer-nosed bugs, and other undesirable things, to remind us that the purpose of these products is to snuff out bug life so it won’t menace the only kind of life that has a soul and thus the only kind of life that matters: man.

The only problem with pesticides is that they aren’t strong enough. “Fire-ant killer” only causes the little buggers to pick up and move. Why? Some time back, the government banned the best pesticide of all: DDT. As a result, the country is filled with menacing, disease-carrying flying and crawling insects. Whole swaths of formerly wonderful vacation property has been wrecked because we are not permitted to use the only substance that ever really worked to wipe these things out. In the third world, many thousands have died since the abolition of DDT thanks to increased malaria and other bug-borne diseases. All this because we have decided that bugs have a greater right to life than we do. All this because we ignore a key tenet of Western thought: all things not human are “subjected to us to kill or keep alive for our own uses.”

Such thoughts can get you arrested these days because environmentalism is our official religion. Consider the Styrofoam question. I refuse to hold a paper cup with hot coffee, not when a perfectly wonderful insulated cup is available. When I demand the coffee shop give me Styrofoam, they shrink back like Dracula before the crucifix. I explain that Styrofoam takes up less than 0.001 percent of landfill space, and that inked paper is actually more poisonous for ground water, so maybe they better not subscribe to the New York Times, but it doesn’t matter. For them, paper cups are holy and Styrofoam is the devil. Evidence just doesn’t matter.

We know where environmentalism actually came from. The left once claimed that the state could make us better off. The bigger the government, the more prosperous we would be. When that turned out not to be true, they changed their tune. Suddenly, they began to condemn prosperity itself, and the place of the oppressed proletariat was taken by oppressed members of the animal, plant, and insect kingdoms. We have adopted poverty as a policy goal, complete with its own civic code of ethics.

From time immemorial until the day before yesterday, Western man has seen nature as the enemy, and rightly so. It is dangerous and deadly. For the sake of our own survival it must be tamed, cut, curbed, controlled. That is the first task of civilization. The first step to civilization’s destruction is the failure to understand this, or to call this attitude a sin.

It might take a while to sink in, but the global warming cause is on the skids. Two issues are taking the whole project down: it is getting cooler not warmer (and hence the change of the rhetoric to a vague concern over “climate change”), and the email scandal of 2009 proved that this really is an opinion cartel with preset views not driven by science.

Oh sure, people are said that climategate is not really very serious and was only being exploited by Fox News and the like. And it’s true that not all measures of global temperature show cooling and that the science can be complex.

On that basis, the New York Times urged us to ignore the outpouring. “It is also important not to let one set of purloined email messages undermine the science and the clear case for action, in Washington and in Copenhagen.”

Yes, a clear case. Come on. The whole political agenda of these people is now being seriously questioned. It is no longer a slam-dunk case that we are going to have world central planning in order to control the climate and protect the holy earth from the effects of industrialization. Oh, and tax us good and hard in the process.

But you know what is most tragic to me about this? This whole hysteria led to a fantastic diversion of energy on the left side of the political spectrum. Instead of working against war and the police state, issues on which the left tends to be pretty good, instincts were diverted to the preposterous cause of creating a statist system for global thermometer management.

The effort to whip everyone up into a frenzy over this began over 20 ten years ago. Every lefty fundraising letter harped on the issue, and demanded people commit their lives to it, explaining that if mother earth dies, then all is lost. It is a more important issue than all the rest, the litmus test to determine whether you are a friend or an enemy.

This made it very difficult for libertarians to cooperate with the left. Sure, there are some libertarian ideas for dealing with pollution, but none as compelling as central planning, and there was never any way that we would go along with that idea. The costs associated with dismantling industrial civilization outweigh even the worst-case global-warming scenario.

And methodologically, the whole thing was always nuts. If we can’t determine cause and effect now with certainty, how in the heck will we be able to determine it after the world state controls our carbon emissions, and impoverishes us in the process? No one will ever be in a position to say whether the policy worked or failed. That is not a good basis for enacting legislation.

Meanwhile, the left threw everything it had into this hysteria. Protests, letters, billions in spending, frenzy, moral passion, mania, witch hunts — you name it. You would swear that climate change was the issue of the millennium for these people.

Meanwhile, the police state has made unbelievable advances. We all live today in fear of the state’s “security” apparatus. Airports have become living chapters in a dystopian novel. The local police treat us like potential terrorists. Crossing the US border is becoming reminiscent of East Germany. You can’t go anywhere without your papers.

And where has the left been while the whole world is being Nazified? Worrying about my barbecue grill out back.

Then there is the war issue. The scary George Bush started war after war and kept them going to bolster his own power and prestige, creating as many enemies as possible through provocations and making up enemies if he had to. He funded a bubble that wrecked the economy and destroyed country after country in the name of justice and peace.

And what followed Bush? A president who repudiated this ghastly legacy? No, Obama was a supporter of the same wars and continued them, even ramped them up. Did the left consider him a bad guy? Not really. With a handful of exceptions, his critics on the left were friendly critics. They were glad to put up with this because he was willing to do their bidding on the climate change front.

You think Democrat politicians don’t exploit this? They surely do. In this sense, the climate issue is much like the pro-life cause on the right. If a politician pushes the correct buttons, it doesn’t matter what else they say or do. They are no longer looked at with a critical eye.

The American left has long forgotten its roots. As Arthur Ekirch has explained, the left sold its soul to the state with the New Deal. Whereas it once opposed regimentation and industrial management of society, it turned to support exactly that. War was the next issue to go. The New Left in the 1960s held out the hope of capturing some of that early love of liberty on the left, even the anarchist impulse, but the New Left didn’t last long. It was eventually swallowed up by machine politics.

The left today that supports world government to stop climate change bears little resemblance to the left of 100 years ago, which favored civil liberties and social liberality and was willing to do anything to end war. Now it has diverted its energies to a preposterously unworkable scheme based on pseudo-science. This is a terrible tragedy.

The left still has much to contribute to American public life. It can oppose the police state and the militarization of society. It can favor human liberty in most every area of life, even if it hasn’t made its peace with the free market. Most of all, it can oppose American imperialism. But before it recaptures the spirit of its youth, it has to get rid of the preposterous idea that it should support the total state to manage what every generation has always known is unmanageable.

Food regulation is another area dear to the heart of environmentalists. In politics, even a little bit of familiarity breeds contempt. Here we see the state in all its loathsomeness: a class of pandering, mealy-mouthed, grasping special interests all fired up about what they will do with your money once they get or retain power.

Think about this. When people say government should do x, y, and z, they are really saying that these people should be given power to appoint other people to permanent positions of power to tell you and yours what they can and cannot do with their lives and property, and to take a rake-off for their trouble. That doesn’t sound like a very good system, but to put the best spin on it we call it democracy, or simply: the modern state.

And so for the big issue today: should the modern state regulate what we eat? Must the state do so for our own health and safety? Do we owe our health and safety to government regulations or to the responsiveness of the well-capitalized market economy to our preferences and needs? You know my answers already, but consider that most people are all too willing to credit government for all that is good in the world, and equally prone to overlook market freedom as a source of all that we call civilizational progress. For example, they observe the coincidence of available, safe, and delicious food with federal regulations and conclude that the regulations brought about these good things.

History doesn’t support this claim. In every carefully studied case of business and consumer regulation from the late nineteenth century to the present, we find something very different. Typically a large market player will make some improvement in safety, working conditions, consumer product transparency, or what have you, as a means of gaining competitive advantage (all well and good) and then lobby the government to make this wonderful improvement universal across the industry by force. The pretense is the improvement of all of civilization; the reality is the imposition of high costs on competitors. The improvement was brought about by the market, with government only arriving later to claim credit. This is one reason large market players are the main influences within the agencies that regulate them.

Let’s move from abstractions to particulars. I claimed in an article on food allergies that no government regulation on labeling is necessary. The free market will encourage producers to reveal the contents of their products insofar as the consuming public desires such information and producers are free to provide it. They will provide as much or little as consumers desire to know. Even extreme demands concerning ingredient disclosure, ones that serve only a small niche organized around religion or specialized health concerns, can be served better by markets than government. The reason is that food producers profit only from service to buyers, not from fraud, sickness, or trickery (and in so far as fraud is involved, it can be settled through private litigation). If particular producers are unresponsive, there are a host of institutions that provide accountability: stores, consumer groups, special websites, or whatever.

This claim has called down a fury of protest from people who believe that only government can ensure that producers do not lie, trick, cheat, steal, and even kill. The arguments are not so much knee-jerk or absurd as they are highly conventional, just the sort of thing you hear from the TV news or read in the papers. The underlying bias is in favor of government not because the writer loves coercion or trusts power but because there is something that genuinely worries people about the idea of letting the “anarchy” of the market process determine what is produced and how.

Mind you, it is not socialists who are making these arguments but people who believe that they seek the best of both worlds: the productive power of the private economy, nicely curbed and trimmed here and there by regulations that help shape the patterns of production and curb the excesses of greed. This is a position that Mises said was impossible to sustain because regulations generate more problems that seem to cry out for more government fixes: and thus the disastrous march forward of the state through market institutions.

Whenever the government tells companies that they must do something one way and one way only, they are making alternatives illegal. When the German government says that beer can only be manufactured in a certain way, it is excluding all other ways. That leaves no room for innovation, even if innovation would be rewarding to the consumer. In France, for example, wine production must follow a prescribed method, and, as a result, the French wine industry is being destroyed as consumers choose wines from places that permit a free market in wine.

The US has fewer such regulations but we recently experienced the debunking of the government’s preferred diet from mid-twentieth century until the present day, when the bureaucrats told us to eat maximum quantities of carbohydrates and not so much meat. Today, carb-avoiders and meat eaters are huge players in the market. Producers have responded to a very notable extent, and government only lately adjusted its recommended diet. (The very idea of a state-recommended diet strikes me as Soviet or something.)

By universalizing regulations on food, the government prohibits people from profiting by serving niche markets. Thank goodness the US doesn’t prohibit agri-business and trade from improving their products by artificial means (fertilizers and the like), even as a vast market is available for organically grown foods.

Perhaps there’s no accounting for taste, but business is always ready to serve the widest possible variety, provided government isn’t there with its standardization and regimentation. If regulators say that the chaff must always be separated from wheat, it denies chaff eaters the opportunity to buy what they want and prohibits producers from meeting consumer demand.

A correspondent brought up the case of an Indian woman who was shocked that Americans do not have to sift rice to remove gravel, as she did in her native country. The writer said this is because in the US, the government does not allow rice makers to leave gravel in the rice. For this, he says, we should be grateful and say a prayer of thanks to left-liberal statism.

Now, I do not know whether or not there really is a regulation that tells rice makers that they must put no gravel in their rice. But I would hope there is not. In the first place, rice makers have a strong incentive to remove particles on which people might break their teeth. Put two rice bags on a grocery shelf, one that says sifted and the other that says unsifted, and we’ll see which one sells. If no one sells sifted rice, there is an entrepreneurial opportunity for someone. This much we can know: no government bureaucrat has ever conceived of and implemented a viable, life-improving change that an entrepreneur hadn’t thought of first.

What constitutes a life-improving change, we cannot always know in advance: I can easily imagine some rice snobs insisting that the sifting process ruins the flavor. Ultimately we must leave it up to the negotiation of consumer and producer to discover what should or should not be included or disclosed in food. The market mechanism is highly responsive to consumers’ demands for taste and quality — and in fact this is another reason why people criticize the market. People say that it is a social waste to cater to every niche, every whim, every idiosyncrasy. As always, the free market gets blamed no matter what the outcome.

What’s really at issue is a matter of history, causality, and faith. Do we owe our high standard of living to the market or the state? That is the question. The interventionists and statists credit the state because they get their causal connections mixed up (and this is because they have not studied economics) and they take a leap of faith to credit the government for things it cannot possibly do.

The state from the ancient world to the present has created nothing. It has only taken. The market, on the other hand, delivers more miracles every day than we can count. This isn’t dogma; the evidence is so overwhelming that it takes a leap of faith to believe otherwise.

The next time you consider believing that the state can do anything better than the market, imagine a sea of permanent bureaucrats, lobbyists, pandering politicians, and those mad attendees at political conventions, and ask yourself: what can these people do that individuals in society — acting in their own self-interest, coordinating exchange through the market process, constantly testing decisions against economic feasibility and consumer demand — cannot do. The answer is nothing. There is nothing the state can do and that should be done that the market cannot do better.

Before you write to tell me that without the state, there would be a fly in every soup, please read Murray Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State. It is the best explanation of how society manages itself just fine without a band of respectable-looking criminals telling everyone what to do.

Shield icon library