Among fears of a stateless society is concern for the environment. If we get rid of government, what will happen to the environment? We need to be sure we are not fooling ourselves into thinking government is doing something positive about it at the moment. What is happening to it now, under the auspices of democratic governments, that protects the environment? Why would a change necessarily be worse?
This post looks at the government’s role in harming the environment. Then, it provides solutions to environmental problems in the absence of government, touching on resources, pollution, endangered animals and land. It concludes with an opinion (of someone much more exxperienced that me) on so-called green jobs and environmentalist entrepreneurship. It goes through each briefly because it is partly a summary of information on subjects that is available elsewhere.
Sure, a government could fix the environment. Enough force could “solve” almost any problem (except the initiation of force, which is the biggest problem). Throwing anyone who drives a car, burns coal or eats beef in jail would clean up our air pretty quickly, notwithstanding any hamburger terrorist movements that might arise. But is a society that trusts all its freedom to an omnipotent clique one worth inhabiting? At the moment, we live somewhere in between the totalitarian state and the free society, and the results are not good for the environment.
Do I blame the government for the poor state of the environment? Is the government the cause of all problems everywhere? Of course not. But it does not help much. Let us be specific.
We cannot farm hemp. A crop with all kinds of benefits, that farmers could be farming, we cannot farm. More plants means cleaner air. But because it can, the government does not allow us to grow natural fibers. In fact, the police and associated paramilitary (like the DEA) burn hemp and marijuana crops they find. They also poison coca plants and poppies in South America and Afghanistan. People still do drugs, of course, so the government is not protecting our health in that way. It is merely adding to the toxins in the air.
The US government contributes to pollution by subsidising coal. Coal! How dirty can you get? And why coal? Because of the coal lobby. As usual, a lobby and a government go hand in hand to take your money and use it to make the world worse off.
Then there are the effects of war. In 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered the US federal government to clean up 17 weapons plants that were leaking radioactive and toxic chemicals—an estimated $100b—and nothing happened. No bureaucrat got fired, no government department was disbanded, and nothing got cleaned up. Depleted uranium leads to birth defects and cancers and has been fired all over Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan. The destruction of ecosystems, War on Drugs defoliation schemes, the effects of nuclear weapons testing, the increased cancer rates–all are products of an institution that wages a never-ending war on non-existent enemies and cannot be trusted to care for something as important as the planet.
It is important to remain skeptical that the government (aside, perhaps, from the toothless EPA) ever actually tries to protect nature. Thomas Sowell, in his book The Housing Boom and Bust, details how land use restrictions, often a bone thrown to environmental groups (even though more than 90% of the land in the US is not developed), did little more than inflate the housing bubble of the past decade. Other policies appear, on the surface, to protect the environment, but in fact have left it wide open to abuse. Aside from direct results of government malfeasance, indirect results need to be taken into account when considering whether to retain or reject government.
The main reason we have polluted air and water is what is called the tragedy of the commons. When something is commonly owned (in other words, unowned), no one has enough incentive to preserve it. If I do not use it for my own benefit, someone else will, so I might as well extract what benefits I can as fast as I can. But since everyone thinks that way, everyone might do so and might exhaust the resource. At the moment, much of the environment is the commons. Governments have done nothing to stop climate change and the pollution of the oceans, and little to prevent air pollution without businesses having voluntarily adopted measures. Likewise, no one owns most wild animals, and as a result, people can hunt them (with no regard to endangered animal laws) wherever they want for little cost. A government that does not allow private ownership of the air, water and fauna has allowed those things to remain common. So what is the anarcho-capitalist solution? Privatise them.
Economist Walter Block has done significant work on the privatisation of the commons. Privatisation has traditionally meant selling partial or whole stakes in government-run enterprises on the stock market. It has never meant a reduction of the government’s power over a section of society, but simply a transfer of the wealth generated by formerly state assets. I do not advocate this kind of rearrangement of power under the guise of freeing the market. Rather, this post is about why a stateless society could protect the environment far better than the government.
The private sector (not only business but free people) thinks more long term than politicians. A politician’s incentive is to survive until the next election. Voters cannot force otherwise. Most businesses try to survive to bring in revenue indefinitely. And it is well documented that businesses that think long term benefit their shareholders long term; and businesses that focus only on the short term crash and burn. Of course, they might get bailed out by the government; I guess that is the corruption democrats always work in vain to eliminate. Let us look at the economics of privately-run resources.
Wheat exists because there is demand for it. The government does not need to supply wheat or ensure a certain quantity of bread is being made. If we all decided to stop eating wheat, we would stop growing it and it would disappear. The same is true for fish, trees and whatever else. (See more here.) Maybe we should start eating tigers. (More on endangered animals later.)
A rise in prices means that more exploration will take place, and supply might even go up. That is what has been happening since the 1968 book “The Population Bomb” and the 1972 book “Limits to Growth”. Another possibility, some might say inevitability, is that alternatives to expensive materials will be found, hence the current push for research into alternatives to oil. And the research does not need to be subisidised because the potential for profit is huge. Just imagine if you discovered or produced a viable substitute for oil or copper or iron. You would get investors lining up around the block and become a millionaire. So what does the state need to protect?
An owner of a copper mine needs to balance expectations of future prices with concerns about current ones. If he completely strips an area of copper, the supply will be higher in the present, which implies lower prices, and he will have nothing for the future, when prices might be higher. Likewise, the owner of an acre of forest who wants to profit from that forest might strip it bare for now but will probably only cut down some of the trees, then reseed, to ensure the land’s viability as a source of revenue for the future. That is long-term thinking, and that is leadership. Leadership that only thinks four or fewer years in advance is not leadership.
In fact, when it protects resources against “greedy capitalist exploitation”, government does not actually destroy the market for those resources; it does one of two things. If there are already producers of a resource, prices go up and their profits go up. Then, they become an interest group with a stake in the status quo. If no one is producing the resource, but there is still demand for, government protection still drives the price up and drives the production underground. Hence the lucrative trade in endangered animals, for instance. Governments have done nothing to protect the elephant. How could they? Could they get police to follow elephants around the bush all the time to make sure no one hunts them? Some have called for worldwide bans on ivory. But a worldwide ban on drugs has not done much to the drug trade—quite the contrary. Drugs and ivory are still both big business. A government solution is not a solution. It’s just violence.
Am I saying we should not protect endangered animals? Not at all. Let’s protect them through private ownership. NGOs, communities or even individuals could own and protect land. Of course, we could force everyone to pay for it through government action; though sometimes even then governments sell off land to businesses. If you really want to protect it, buy it. It’s yours. You can preserve it however you like. Banning the elephant trade depleted their numbers; privatising the elephant helped them flourish. The main reason we are running out of things that people want, like seals, is that their hunting takes place in the commons. Everyone can do it (well, they need a license, but that doesn’t have to stop anyone), and so overhunting is likely. But if people own the land or sea where the hunting is taking place, they will breed the animals more conservatively, for the long term, because they can make money off it.
Let us make barnyards out of oceans. Farms protect animals—when was the last time anyone said we had to save endangered cows? So let us own sections of ocean and the whales within them. It is possible that the new owner would kill all the whales in his part of the ocean and sell them, but there is nothing to stop anyone doing that right now. Well, except Greenpeace. Let Greenpeace buy up the ocean too. Because of the different incentives at play, it is illogical to think that private owners would not protect the environment and the government would. Take these things out of the commons, let someone own them and they might flourish like the elephant.
Is privatising the environment purely theoretical? A publicly-traded company named Earth Sanctuaries, Ltd. saved several species from extinction and brought many back to their pre-colonial levels by owning about 90,000 hectares of land in Australia. Unfortunately, this company went bankrupt. Nonetheless, it did its job while it existed. Like other failed ventures, it provides a model for what not to do. One failure does not mean it could never work: it means another try might get it right. (Find more examples of free-market conservationism here.) Same goes for such practices as fish farming. Privatising oyster beds has brought oysters back from the brink of extinction. Fish farming is a potential solution to both the extinction of fish stocks and the satisfaction of our cravings for fish. Some fish farming is unsustainable, but again, if we keep trying, we can get it right. We’re a smart bunch that way.
Privatisation of land and waste disposal would likely reflect the true costs of dumping garbage. Let’s say you want to dump your plastic bags somewhere. If they are very bad for the soil, the people on whose land you dump them will expect you to pay a proportionally high price for dumping them, because that land would not be useful for a long time to come. The waste disposal companies would pass those costs onto the people who use and buy plastic bags, who would thus consume fewer in favour of less environmentally-damaging alternatives such as paper. (Walter Block on the subject here.) Another free-market solution to an environmental problem.
Air pollution is the kind of challenging question that some economists love to search for solutions to. Milton Friedman finds that there are usually free-market solutions that do not require government intervention, and pollution is one. Murray Rothbard provides an elaborate theory on the subject, based on private law. Stefan Molyneux has some practical ideas; and if you do not like them, as he says, “no problem – in the free market, there are as many solutions as there are interested parties!”
Oil spills often upset indigenous people because oil companies do not care about those people. The oil companies move in, protected by the government, and anything they leave, they do not bother to clean up. Property rights—nothing more than people protecting the land they live on—would enable the people of those areas to decide if they want the companies to enter or not, and hold them to account for everything they do. They would have contracts, regulated by dispute-resolution organisations. And the people would no longer be called terrorists for wanting to protect their holy land.
One way to deal with such corporations is the boycott. More and more corporations, either in reaction to consumer pressure or proactively, are pursuing green strategies. And before you say “that’s just greenwashing”, bear in mind that if you can recognise a company that is harming the environment, you can recognise when its actions are only superficial. Companies know you know, and that’s why so many are going beyond the superficial to real attempts to make their businesses sustainable. (Learn more here.) Unfortunately, consumer boycotts work far less well on corporations that produce for the government, because the chance of their being punished by their customers is almost zero.
The entrepreneurs who developed most of the “green technologies” we have today were not funded or directed by governments. Julian Morris gives the examples of the transistor, which enabled the mass production of high-tech electronics; the integrated circuit, which enabled mass production of personal computers, and the automation of all kinds of things; the fiber optic cable, which revolutionised high speed telecommunications and enabled the internet. “Why do I give these three examples?” he asks. “These are green technologies. They weren’t developed as green technologies, though. And this is important. No government official started a programme in the 1920s saying, ‘We’ve gotta develop some green technologies, let’s invest in green jobs. I’m going to invest in the transistor, the integrated circuit and low-loss fiber optic cable.’ This is not how innovation takes place.”
Innovation relies on local, independent knowledge, specific understanding of the gizmo. The innovators did not know when they started what problem they would end up solving. Through innovations, products have become more efficient, which might mean smaller, using fewer resources to make and dispose of; consuming less energy for greater output; or simply costing less, which aids wealth creation. Morris also points out that cars are lighter, cheaper, safer and pollute less than they did 20 years ago; pop cans have much less than half the metal they had in the 1970s thanks to aiming to reduce costs and raise profits. And when you raise profits, you raise productivity, making innovation possible, growing the economy and reducing poverty. When the economy grows, we have more wealth to spend to reduce environmental damage further. Some venture capitalists and angel investors are always on the prowl for new green technologies, and if you can show you can make them money, you can get funding.
The state’s record of environmental stewardship is not encouraging. The free market, on the other hand, the truly fair and accountable system, has potential for sustainability that the world under centralised authority does not.