The nation state is a very new invention. It originated in Europe in war and conquest, as armies conquered some tribes and massacred others. It has expanded and grown and continues to do so to this day. The state was forged in war to subdue others. This basic form remains constant, though the scope of the state has grown, along with expectations about what it can and should do.
The nation was shaped by other processes. Benedict Anderson famously explains that print capitalism was the strongest driver of the forming of the nation and nationalism, as it spread a common language within the borders of the state that did not exist prior to conquest. Since then, the idea of a common culture has taken hold and the nation grows more certain of itself. The advance of media technology in the twentieth century continued this trend. Anderson called nations “imagined communities”, because they were huge groups of people who would never meet with a communitarian identity.
From a different angle, Ernest Gellner writes,
nationalism is, essentially, the general imposition of a high culture on society, where previously low cultures had taken up the lives of the majority, and in some cases of the totality, of the population. It means that generalised diffusion of a school-mediated, academy-supervised idiom, codified for the requirements of reasonably precise bureaucratic and technological communication. It is the establishment of an anonymous, impersonal society, with mutually substitutable atomised individuals, held together above all by a shared culture of this kind, in place of a previous complex structure of local groups, sustained by folk cultures reproduced locally and idiosyncratically by the micro-groups themselves.
In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the 30-Years War (yes, the history of the state is of chaos; it is hard to think one’s idea of “anarchy” could be as bad), effectively baptized the nation state. State borders grew stronger. It was assumed among states that sovereignty, meaning the mutual acceptance of the other’s monopoly on crime within its boundaries, was to be respected. Of course, the urge to use an army at one’s disposal is too great, and the fighting continued until the number of states in Europe shrank and the power of each one to kill grew.
Around 1789, the idea that the state should represent the people, preserve liberty, equality, fraternity, or other revolutionary slogans, caught on. National education systems were erected, inculcating everyone in the logic of the state and the primordiality of the nation. The nation state became timeless, obvious and unassailable. The nation state expanded beyond its borders, as European empires built big ships and conquered the globe. To reach their goals, they killed whomever they had to kill, on any continent they felt like taking.
Ultimately, what the empires left their conquered peoples with was the nation state. The nation state has broken down old social structures and erected new ones. It groups millions of disparate people and assumes they can be represented by a ruling class. It assumes rule by a ruling class is preferable to whatever it has destroyed. It has institutionalised theft and slavery. It has militarised the criminals and disarmed their victims. And even though it legally covers every inch of land in the world, its power over the people within those lines continues to expand. One result of modern state expansion is a war on the native.
Indigenous people all around the world have been persecuted since the inception of the state. They have been forcibly moved so they could be taxed or so the powerful could gain access to land and other resources. They have been killed when they have resisted. Many groups we have never heard of have been wiped out over the years. Others have been decimated and pacified and pushed onto “reservations”. In recent years, much of this wanton violence has been at the request of large extracting corporations. Such corporations, oil and gas concerns, for example, function almost as the right arm of the modern state. The state is a vehicle for accumulating power; the corporation is the most powerful modern tool for accumulating wealth. Heads of state and corporations work together to extract wealth and repress those who challenge them.
Under the nation-state system, the real owner of all land (and thus resources on that land) within the borders of the state is the state. Some states afford a measure of land or property ownership to those not connected to the state, but not many. Even Canada has seen a number of oil spills on supposedly-private land in recent months. Perhaps the people living on the poisoned land will be compensated. But the fact that someone else could ruin their land and they will need to petition the state for restitution is evidence they did not own the land to begin with. Moreover, secession is an option for free members of a federation, but not for citizens of the modern nation state.
A number of indigenous groups in the Amazon, such as the Kayapó, above, have protested the state’s plan for the Belo Monte Dam. This dam promises to flood a large area of land, dry up other land around the river, devastate parts of the rainforest and hurt fish stocks. Tens of thousands of people in the Xingu River basin are in danger. The locals have protested since the initial proposal of the dam in the 1980s and their demands have been ignored. They are now being attacked and moved. The dam will be built. The people with deep, spiritual ties to this land never had any recourse because those in power did not recognise their claim to the land. The state treats those it can use as tools and those it cannot as waste.
Similarly, in Indonesia, conflict is growing as large corporations have been tearing down forests and erecting palm oil plantations. Henry Saragih, founder of the Indonesian Peasant Union says
The presence of palm oil plantations has spawned a new poverty and is triggering a crisis of landlessness and hunger. Human rights violations keep occurring around natural resources in the country and intimidation, forced evictions and torture are common. There are thousands of cases that have not surfaced. Many remain hidden, especially by local authorities.
Naturally, no one is ever consulted or compensated when their habitat is stolen from them. Local security forces protect foreign corporations. The beneficiaries of globalisation and economic growth do not need to pay its prices.
Unsurprisingly, some people have resisted with violence. Under modern state parlance, they are called terrorists and insurgents. People who once farmed land in much of India until they were kicked off have formed a loose movement known as the Naxalites, led by Maoist intellectuals. Companies such as South Korea’s Posco Steel have appropriated other people’s land for their own purposes, with the help of local police. A peaceful anti-Posco movement has arisen, but protests have gone nowhere. Politicians are under pressure from the companies they have already promised to let build and the villagers who will lose their land; they make more money off the corporations so they just repress the villagers. The Naxalites oppose the advance of the state, and have killed civilians and security forces alike.
India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has called the Naxalites “left-wing extremism” and “the single biggest internal-security challenge ever faced by our country”. Bolstered by the advent of 9/11 and the War on Terror, the Indian government has arrested and killed thousands of Naxalites and their supporters in order to maintain its monopoly on crime. On the violence committed by both sides, Arundhati Roy opines
I think you’ve got to look at every death as a terrible tragedy. In a system, in a war that’s been pushed on the people and that unfortunately is becoming a war of the rich against the poor, in which rich put forward the poorest of the poor to fight the poor, [security forces] are terrible victims but they are not just victims of the Maoists. They are victims of a system of structural violence that is taking place.
In some places the Naxalites enjoy popular support. As with other violent, persecuted groups, however, some Naxalites have used violence against unarmed locals, and have been less popular. As with the War on Drugs and countless other cases of aggression, violence begets violence.
At the same time, the Indian government has pursued a hearts-and-minds campaign of offering “development”, such as roads and schools. The simultaneous application of force and the promise of economic incentives has been praised by the Economist and others of similar persuasion. Vandana Shiva, on the other hand, believes “If the government continues its land wars in the heart of India’s bread basket, there will be no chance for peace.” This strategy is bound to fail as it does not address the roots of the problem. Indeed, it has failed. The people are not interested in being absorbed by the nation state. Explains BD Sharma, “[f]or them, development means exploitation.” This should not be surprising. The nation state views incorporation into its ambit a step up, from barbarism to civilisation. The discourse assumes a model of progress from life outside the state, thought of as unhealthy, backward and hostile to life as part of the state, meaning education, health and higher culture. It defends displacing people from their ancestral homes with its offer of schools, hospitals and integration into the wider economy. But the state always achieves its goals with violence.
James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed explains the logic of the state and escape from it through the case of the highland people of Southeast Asia. The evidence is strong that many or all of the people living in the mountainous region recently dubbed Zomia are there because some time over the past thousand years or so they have chosen the life of barbarity over forcible incorporation into the state. One of a number of groups Scott considers is the Karen.
Many of those we now call the Karen consciously fled the predatory state to escape appropriation of their land and agriculture, forced relocation or slave labour. The Burmese military government has attempted to subdue and incorporate the Karen. They fought back for many years, but eventually, technology caught up and the last major Karen base was destroyed in 1995. The people continue to hold out, however, in small groups. The Burmese military continues to wage its campaign against them. It burns down fields and lays mines there. Soldiers fighting Karen guerrillas, conscripted and paid a pittance, take whatever they want from villages on the front lines, and end up terrorising their inhabitants. Like other persecuted groups of Zomia, the Karen have adopted flexible agricultural techniques, mobility, shifting ethnic identities and social structures that split easily over political, social or religious issues. But the state advances and the Karen get easier to destroy. Scott believes it is only a matter of time before the people of Zomia become tax-paying subjects of the state once again.
Nigeria has also seen terrorism as natives of the Niger Delta have defended themselves against oil companies. The campaign to defeat the locals long enough to extract oil and dump waste has involved police and military, who have done their best to turn ethnic groups against each other. As a result of two decades of conflict, the entire region has militarised. Royal Dutch Shell was implicated in the murder of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. As with other corporate malfeasance punished by a monopolist court system, it cost a trifle and enabled the firm to return to business as usual. Shell is not the only company working the area, as Chevron and Nigeria’s national petroleum company are involved as well. The struggle for freedom from the state in the Niger Delta is not over.
Is there hope in democracy? Under Rafael Correa, the government of Ecuador sued Chevron for billions for the destruction of the environment of thousands of people. Of course, a few billion is a drop in the bucket for such a firm, but at least a symbolic victory is possible. Says Andrew Miller of Amazon Watch, Chevron
left hundreds of toxic waste pits. It dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste. And really, the whole time that this trial has been going on over the course of 18 years, the communities continue to live with that legacy, and they continue to suffer the impacts, the health impacts, the cultural impacts, the environmental impacts of that destruction. And so, this is an important day for the communities. It’s just one step; it’s not a victory. But it is very crucial for them. It’s also an important day for the broader struggle for corporate accountability around the world, for broader struggles for environmental justice and human rights.
Perhaps. Will it set a precedent? An example for other indigenous people? The damage has been done. The environment has been wrecked. And it might just leave the same people open to abuse from Petroecuador, which has caused its share of oil spills. And other Andean people are even less fortunate. (See here and here.) The people have been forced to work through state structures, further integrating them into the nation state, and have been lucky enough finally to have someone in the state who will fight for them. None of these things will last if their sovereignty, over their land and their labour, is not recognised.
It is important that we learn the history of both states and nations. On the history of the state, I recommend Franz Oppenheimer’s The State, James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed, Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Democracy: the God that Failed, Martin van Creveld’s The Rise and Decline of the State and Bruce D. Porter’s War and the Rise of the State. For more on the nation, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Ernest Gellner’s Nation’s and Nationalism and Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism since 1780 are basics of the canon.
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.