Who should control “the environment”?

Published: 
Thursday, November 5, 2015
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Throwback Thursday: From the Archives

Photo from Beth Scupham courtesy of Flickr.com

In the summer of 1994, Charles T. Rubin attended PERC’s conference on Liberty and Environmentalism.  Scholars in philosophy, ethics, and economics gathered in attempt to understand the philosophies underlying the environmental movement, to determine whether these philosophies are favorable or inimical to liberty, and to seek common ground with environmental philosophers.  Following his experience at the conference, Rubin shared his thoughts on the term “environment” in the December 1994 edition of PERC Reports:

We have come to think about problems of man and nature as "environmental problems." But what, exactly, is the environment?

Over the past thirty years, neither mainstream nor radical environmentalists have answered that question with precision. They started with the modest notion of an environment, the physical and biotic factors that define a given organism's world. But when Barry Commoner, a founding father of environmentalism, popularized the “law of ecology” that “everything is connected with everything else,” an environment became the environment.

In short, anything and everything is included in "the environment." We would do little conceptual violence to "environmentalism" if we simply replaced the word "environment" with the word "everything," and likewise spoke of "everythingists" and "everythingism." But when anything and everything is, as we are so often told, tied together in a fragile web of life, there is no event to which it is not possible to attach global significance.

This immense scope leads to the possibility that, in the interest of evading one or another portended disaster, any aspect of human behavior might arguably need to be controlled. We can see now why so many environmental activists and popularizers have put forward global schemes of economic and political control in the name of such goals as safer technology, a "no-growth" society, or radical population reduction.

Thus do dreams of socialist utopia, in which resources are managed by government to maximize the good of humanity, give way to dreams of ecological utopia, in which resources are managed by government to maximize the good of all life on earth. As utopian visions always do, this vision makes "the best" the enemy of the better, creating dissatisfaction with everything we have achieved, or indeed with anything we could possibly achieve.

The total control necessary to set a new direction for life on earth would require total information. Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek convincingly demonstrated that total information cannot be obtained in the economic sphere, and thus explained the superiority of decentralized market economies over planned ones.

Yet environmentalism requires complete information not only about the economy but about the ecology of every species of living thing. Complete ecological data are even more scarce than economic facts, but that has not stopped the U.S. government from regulating everything from the largest corporations to very small landholders.

It is a fundamentally different approach to reject the totalizing and ultimately totalitarian perspective of "the environment" and instead address problems singly, as they emerge close to home. The price of attempting to "solve" "environmental problems" is control of all our behavior.  But, in contrast, if we see how important it is to maintain the freedom to clean up our own backyards, then we will be less likely to be distracted by visions of a global utopia.

Focus on the particular, the local, and the possible will conduce to a shared sense of individual responsibility, and not to the evasions that result when we define problems in such comprehensive terms that only a powerful government can even begin to deal with them. "Everythingism" creates a will-o-the-wisp that we pursue at the cost of solving real problems, and probably at the cost of our freedom as well.

As Rubin explains, the idea of an all-encompassing, global environment is debilitating.  Relying on government to use incomplete information to create sweeting legislation only covers up environmental problems while the root causes remain.  Countless time, money, and energy are spent enacting policies that are too generic to make any lasting difference.

Take, for example, the issue of wildlife trade.  Wildlife trade and the poaching associated with it threatened many animal species around the globe in the 1900s, leading international leaders to ban animal trade in hopes of restoring endangered populations.  Founded in 1973, CITES is “an international agreement between governments.  Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.”

CITES, however, has backfired.  Instead of saving animals and stopping animal killings, the War on Wildlife Trade incentivizes their destruction through poaching.  Because trade is illegal, purchasers of animal specimens go through the black market and are willing to pay high prices.  Poachers hope to collect these high prices, and continue to kill animals to sell their parts.  This has led to huge losses in animal populations – it is estimated that 95 percent of the world’s rhino population has been lost due to poaching in the last 40 years.

Luckily, a few countries have allowed local landowners to take over management of endangered species that are commonly targeted by poachers and have been met with great success.  In South Africa, private ranchers were allowed to own rhinos and even sell rhino trophy hunts.  Ranchers suddenly had a way to benefit from rhino populations, as opposed to CITES simply telling them rhino populations are important.  They managed their land to provide rhino habitat and could use the proceeds from trophy hunts to fund protection from poachers.  The ranchers had an incentive to apply their firsthand knowledge of the animals to increase rhino populations.  South Africa’s approach worked, and their rhino population flourished, whereas countries that just relied on CITES saw their rhino populations continue to drop at the hands of poachers.   

Clearly, it is when local peoples and private landowners, those who have a vested interest in the wellbeing of their own backyards, have the power that an actual difference can be made.  They are the ones who know what their environment needs, and are capable of implementing and monitoring those changes from conception to completion. 

Read the original article in full here.


Hannah Downey is a research assistant at PERC, helping to move projects along from conception to completion.  After being introduced to PERC her freshman year of college, she pursued the ideas of free market environmentalism and became a research assistant as a senior. She graduated from Montana State University with degrees in economics and...
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