Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Fallacy of "Helping the Environment", Can the Earth be Dirty, and True Human Sustainability

There are several environmentalist claims that are now regarded to be virtual truisms. These particular assertions rest on premises that are never defined, much less challenged, yet function as moral imperatives that urge immediate and continual action. One example concerns the contention that specific actions (or inaction's) are necessarily good if they "help the environment". For example, it is alleged that recycling or throwing a can into a special container (often a different color) so that a special truck will drive to your house, pick it up, and take it to a special place (other than a landfill), while concomitantly leaving a piece of aluminum in the ground in another location, "helps the environment." Such action, it is believed, is unquestionably moral and to take a contrary action would be regarded as tantamount to (if not literally) a criminal offense.

So, what exactly does it mean to "help the environment"? First, what exactly is the environment? Is the environment the totality of all that exists or is it the totality of all that exists EXCEPT man? It seems that environmentalists mean the latter. But why doesn't the environment include my living room, my garage, or my automobile? After all, if I install an air conditioner or a plasma television in my home, haven't I helped my environment? If I cut my lawn, haven't I helped my environment?

The other key concept is that of help. Help is defined as: "the activity of contributing to the fulfillment of a need or furtherance of an effort or purpose." The idea that the environment requires help implies that nature (evidently, the universe sans man) has a kind of preferred state or even a purpose that each person is duty bound to assist in accomplishing. What exactly is this state and why should we strive to reach it? Is this particular state the one nature was in yesterday, last year, last century, or a million years ago? It's not clear.

Of course, it is obvious that nature constantly changes. Climate changes naturally moving from higher temperatures to ice ages and back. Land masses slowly move. Earthquakes, volcanoes, meteors, lightning, hurricanes and other violent, cataclysmic events continually change and reshape the earth. Millions of species of animal and plant have come into and gone out of existence. One day, when the sun burns out, the earth as we know it will be completely destroyed. Naturally, given our short life span, such changes are practically imperceptible, but the point is that the earth constantly changes according to natural law, and no particular state is preferred. Nature, less man, has no purpose - it just is.

To see this more clearly, consider a planet that has no humans, such as Jupiter. Is there any action that would help Jupiter's environment? What would this even mean? For example, should we attempt to maintain the concentrations of hydrogen and helium in its atmosphere as of a certain date? The idea that one can help the environment apart from an evaluation of how that action affects man is utterly meaningless. A particular action can only be evaluated as "helpful" in the context of the fulfillment of man's needs.

Given this, how can one assert that recycling helps the environment? Does aluminum care if it is in a mine, in my refrigerator, or in a landfill? In fact, given that recycling costs money (which is why many cities fine people for not recycling instead of paying for the garbage…), it implies that it takes more effort to recycle than to simply make new things. These costs are comprised of the materials and labor it takes to collect the refuse and reform it into something usable. Since it takes more resources to recycle than to make something new, recycling is actually a profoundly wasteful activity as it relates to man's life. Then why do environmentalists regard recycling as a help to the environment?

Additionally, if someone says we should clean up some land site, it implies that the land is "dirty". In fact, we often hear that some area of the earth is dirty and are admonished to keep the planet "clean". Given that the earth is literally made of dirt, what does "clean" mean in this context? When environmentalists discuss cleaning the earth, often it seems they mean removing man's products from an area and putting them in another area. One good reason might be that a particular material is dangerous to humans. However, dangerous chemicals exist naturally too. A snake's venom is poisonous as is poison ivy as are certain kinds of mushrooms and insects. Water is even dangerous if you drown in it. But, would killing snakes and bugs or digging up poison ivy in a certain area be considered "cleaning the environment"? Would building a home to protect from natural elements be considered a form of "cleaning the environment"? Why not?

Concerns over the byproducts of man's activities or even natural processes causing harm to human life is entirely legitimate. For example, if I dump a dangerous chemical into a stream from which animals drink and then someone eats the animal, perhaps, that person will inadvertently ingest the poison. Clearly, this is a real potential problem which raises legitimate scientific questions and involves issues in property and liability law. Who owns the stream? Was the chemical known to be poisonous? Who owned the animals? Who processed the animal meat and did they test their product for chemicals? Although technology changes, these problems are not new. They are the essence of common law and an objective legal system which upholds property rights is the proper framework to deal with such matters.

Although the above example might count as a subset of what appears to concern environmentalists, is man's health and well being really their concern? When they say we should "help the environment", do they really mean help man's environment? Environmentalists, recognizing some need to ground their concerns in a form that relates to human life, go to fantastic lengths to make this connection and obfuscate their true motives. For example, we are told about the need for biodiversity, sustainability, conservation, and global warming - concepts that allegedly pertain to man's ability to survive.

But do any of these concepts really have anything to do with man's survival? Doesn't man's survival depend on his ability to think and produce? Doesn't it depend on our ability to continually find better ways of reshaping the environment to fulfill our needs? Doesn't it depend on providing an industrial and technological base upon which we can solve even the most complex natural problems, including protecting ourselves from natural change? Doesn't freedom and capitalism allow man the rule of law and property rights to resolve land use, to produce wealth, and to adapt to changing circumstances, i.e., to effect true human sustainability?

Recently, in an area where I lived, environmental groups sued to stop the construction of a major biotechnology park because it was proposed that the park be constructed in an orange grove containing some wetlands. Their lawsuit wasted time, money and impeded the development and scope of the project, ultimately resulting in less research on biotechnology. If they were truly concerned with human life, wouldn't they recognize the benefit of such a park against the development of an orange grove? Does concern for man provide an explanation for such a suit and countless suits and regulations that stop these kinds of developments across the country? Does it explain why they chain themselves to trees rather than allow the tree to be used for lumber or why they admonish us to make do with less material conveniences in order to minimize carbon footprint?

The only possible explanation for their ideology is that they regard the environment as a value apart from man, i.e., they regard the environment (without man) to be intrinsically valuable which is a contradiction in terms. Nothing is valuable without a valuer. Such an ideology requires environmentalists to see man as an enemy since man must reshape the earth to survive. When they say an activity will "help the environment", they mean it. They see natural processes as some kind of preordained sequence of events which must not be tampered with at any cost. They see their efforts at thwarting human progress to be a step towards helping the earth reach its anthropomorphized "goal." And given the extraordinary destruction to human life that their policies entail from development restrictions, to cap and trade taxes, to calls for global governmental environmental police, we better start understanding what they really mean.


Beth said...

Some environmentalists honestly think they are working to better man's environment. One of their arguments is that the free market fails to account for all of costs and benefits of man's action, or in economic terms, the negative and positive externalities. From this point of view, recycling and pollution controls attempt to counter negative externalities. State parks, habitat and species preservation are attempts to provide goods and services with positive externalities that a market would fail to provide.

But using the concept of externalitiy to justify government interference into the market only appears to make sense because the full context is never considered.

What are the "negative externalities" of recyling and public property? Besides violating individual rights, recycling mandates people spend time on an activity they may value less, as well as using up resources. Public property brings with it the tragedy of the commons and the inefficiencies of state control.

And what about the "positive externalities" of activities which create pollution...things such as an elevated standard of living through providing jobs, cheaper or more advanced goods?

I agree that many environmentalists do not value man as highly as unadulterated nature. But, I also think that there is a subset that does value man but has been co-opted into thinking that free markets fail. It is this subset that we may have a chance of convincing otherwise.

Good to have you back posting again.

Doug Reich said...


Thanks for your great comments as always.

I think the concept of externality is invalid for several reasons. Historically, this concept has been used to justify government intervention into the marketplace based on the idea that "markets fail" by not taking into account negative and positive externalities, and there is a vast economic literature on this topic.

My view (although I'm certainly not an expert) is that this concept arose out of a misunderstanding of the application of property rights. For example, pollution is always cited as the classic example of negative externality, i.e., a cost imposed on a third party that had no choice in the production decision. If property rights are properly and consistently defined and upheld by the government, then pouring waste onto someone else's property (part of a river, air, etc.) would require a negotiation with the third party or the producer would face legal liability.

Practically, in the U.S., the government owns so-called "public lands" like rivers, waterways, etc. and use of these lands is subject to arbitrary fiat or political manipulation.

Another example might be related to public roads, zoning, etc. One might ask: what if someone puts up a factory next to my new house? If all property was privately owned including roads, the possibility of changes or transferability of ownership would be factored into the market cost. Thus, a home lot where the surrounding area was not contractually use restricted (like a homeowner's association) would be worth much less than a lot that was part of an HOA. This would incent developers to purchase larger tracts of property which could be voluntarily contractually use restricted to protect the value of the homes. How much would you pay for a home in an HOA versus a home next to property where it was unclear what the other owner might do?

Markets in practice derive from the political framework intact at any given time. Since the government owns roads, utilities, waterways, etc. it has caused massive confusion and led to this idea that "markets fail" when in actuality, markets are not being allowed to exist.

Here are two links from Mises on the topic which you may have read but sure others might be interested.



I'm interested in your comments.

Doug Reich said...


There is another aspect of your comment that I wanted to comment upon. ( I doubt you were taking the opposite side of my below argument, but I want to use it as an excuse to make the following point.)

For over 20 years, I have been hearing this argument to the effect that "some environmentalists are really crazy...but there are many that really concerned with man..."

Yet, all I have seen over this time is a trend towards policies representing ever more radical and more extreme violations of property rights and towards less economic freedom. In other words, I have observed the logical consequences of the view by which I characterize environmentalists - their view that man is the enemy and that the goal should be to thwart economic progress.

I liken this to the fact that I'm sure there were many who voted for the National Socialists (the Nazi's) in Germany in the 1930's who were "well-intentioned" and didn't grasp that its ideology would lead to genocide and world war.

Environmentalism, like Nazism, is an ideology, and in practice, a movement is driven by the most extreme and logically consistent elements. The wishy washy people will have only a marginal effect. The essence of environmentalism is hostility to development, economic progress, and any activity that reshapes the earth for man's benefit based on this idea of intrinsic value. The "environment" functions as a sort of pagan deity to whom we must sacrifice...

Consider these so-called environmentalists that are allegedly and perhaps, legitimately concerned with man. Any honest person concerned with man's life would recognize the enormous benefit of industrial civilization and would evaluate any policy in the context of this enormous value. Truly legitimate environmental issues (problems concerning harm to human life) are generally marginal in the grand scheme of things and virtually always have a technological solution or could be simply solved through private property. In cases where in reality, public land is in play, the issues could be resolved with a minimum impact on development and growth.

The orientation of even the average environmentalist is completely contrary to this idea. The milquetoast environmentalist is generally hostile to economic growth and development. There is an entire generation of kids who have grown up being taught that man's insatiable greed is "destroying the planet" and is the enemy of nature which is pure and holy.

This movement has turned into a moral crusade. It has infected the sciences as we have seen in the global warming debate where politicized research and government funding drives priorities and skews findings. We have gone from Woodsy the Owl urging us to pick up litter to swarms of environmental police quashing development in the courts or ruining businesses through EPA regulatory mandates and taxes as well as power lusting politicos with pretensions of global government environmental powers.

This is a serious movement, and we should look to the fundamental ideology to guide us in how to properly oppose them. As you have pointed out, it is really not a scientific argument, as the science per se tells us nothing about how to act based on scientific facts. This is why I continually beat this drum, because I think very few people recognize the essentials of this movement and how it manifests in these insanely anti-human policies.

Beth said...

On Externality:

There is a valid concept if simply defined as "an effect experienced by someone other than the transacting parties." Some effects are positive (jobs, standard of living, the aesthetics pleasure of viewing of your neighbor's well-kept yard....) and some are negative (soot particles in the air you breathe and on your house from a nearby factory, the decline in your home price b/c too many neighbor's defaulted on their loans).

The problem is the invalid application by failing to take into account all externalities of a particular action and then justifying action based on this partial calculation.

The concept of property, properly understood and implemented, will go a long way toward improving the situation, but even with `100% property rights, externality can be misapplied--claiming resotation must be paid for some negative while ignoring the balancing positives.

I aggree with you that lack of a proer view of proerty and property rights is a significant factor in many claims of m"market failure" but so is not holding the whole context (Hazlitt's One Lesson).
Once you try to account for all externalities, it quickly becomes obvious that the concept is useless as a tool for justifying action. There is simply no way to objectively account for all externalities.

Instead, as you know, actual harm objectively attributable to an action must be demonstrated to be violating someone's right to life, liberty or property before counteraction can be justified.

An article you may find interesting is "Law, Property Rights and Pollution" by Murry Rothbard.Even with his anarchist bent, he still provides some fascinating history and thoughts on how the subversion of an improper view of property rights has led to many of the problems and much of the confusion facing us now in regards to pollution and other harms and nuisances. He discusses such concepts as "strict causality" "strict liability" "vicarious liability" "nuisance" and others. It's been a while since I read it, but I recall it helped me clarify my thinking on the subject, even where I disagreed with him.

Oops. Gotta go. More later.

Doug Reich said...

"it quickly becomes obvious that the concept is useless as a tool for justifying action. There is simply no way to objectively account for all externalities."

Exactly. In principle, every action anyone takes could be said to "indirectly" affect everyone else. It would be impossible to attempt to ascertain these effects much less to determine whether an action is "beneficial" to one party or another.

This entire concept seems like an effort to give government carte blanche to regulate and interfere in the market based on "market failure."

Grant said...

The irony I always point out whenever the topic of externalities is raised is the fact that, amongst all of the "negative externalities" industrial activity causes, the biggest "positive externality" of it all is the fact that you (the average person) are able to exist to complain about them.

That usually shuts them up.

Doug Reich said...

Grant, that about sums it up!