Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day!

From its inception, Earth Day has been a political event, designed to "raise awareness" about environmental issues and encourage us to be more responsible stewards of our planet. A lot of libertarians bristle at this sort of thing, and perhaps understandably so -- after all, most of the environmentalist rhetoric out there comes tied to demands for increasingly centralized "social" control of the natural resources we need to lead our lives. As many have pointed out, freedom in the absence of the freedom to make use of material goods is not freedom in any effective sense. And it is freedom that allows us to prosper and flourish, not simply existence in a rich natural environment. Jan Narveson put it well in his essay, "Collective Responsibility":
...the idea of collective ownership of the earth is, really, a myth, a dish of romantic political nonsense. And like almost all romantic myths when they are politicized, the results of taking it seriously are inevitably evil. Some general story of the Lockean stripe is all there is, because it is all there can be. Individual people pick fruit from individual trees, dig up particular patches of soil, kill particular deer, grow particular pigs, and the rest of it – up to and including inventing the digital computer and putting on productions of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs. That is how mankind is fed, and clothed, and entertained, because there is no other way. To "collectivize" agriculture is not, because it cannot be, to cause the plants to grow in some other way; it is, instead, to force people to work differently: to work under the direction of others who need pay no attention to the worker’s interests, and to disconnect those workers from the incentives and disincentives that have always impelled people to work. It is not surprising that it does not work very well, but it is important to appreciate what it is and that it cannot be what it appears to pretend to be.

But in this post, I want to briefly consider another side of the issue, which some libertarians seem to overlook in their antipathy towards collectivist environmentalist propaganda. Just as we need freedom in order to plan and lead our separate lives, and just as this freedom is essential to our wellbeing so that taking it away for the sake of the natural world would be a worrisome proposition, so too do we depend on the natural world to make our lives rich and worthwhile. If the freedom to use resources is essential for our effective liberty, it's because resources are such critical elements in the production of our material lives.

David Schmidtz writes, in his essay "On the Institution of Property":
Original appropriation diminishes the stock of what can be originally appropriated, at least in the case of land, but that is not the same thing as diminishing the stock of what can be owned. On the contrary, in taking control of resources and thereby removing those particular resources from the stock of goods that can be acquired by original appropriation, people typically generate massive increases in the stock of goods that can be acquired by trade. The lesson is that appropriation typically is not a zero-sum game. It normally is a positive sum game. As Locke himself stressed, it creates the possibility of mutual benefit on a massive scale. It creates the possibility of society as a cooperative venture.

And Dr. Schmidtz is absolutely right. But so too can we waste resources unnecessarily, and this impoverishes us all. The view that celebrates humanity's capacity to transform the natural environment in awe-inspiringly productive ways must be understood against the backdrop of an appreciation for the role that the environment plays in all of our lives. And it's that backdrop that seems to be missing from so many libertarians' worldviews. (Of course, I don't mean that Dr. Schmidtz is guilty of this, for obvious reasons.)

Another troubling phenomenon that I've observed is a seeming lack of appreciation from libertarians for the value of the natural environment itself as a beautiful and enriching thing in itself. This vulgar-Randian "I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York's skyline"-times-one hundred attitude is embodied in George Reisman's (I think incorrect) intepretation of Menger in his essay, "Environmentalism in the Light of Menger and Mises":
The goods-character of natural resources, according to Menger, is created by man, when he discovers the properties they possess that render them capable of satisfying human needs and when he gains command over them sufficient to direct them to the satisfaction of human needs.

He continues:
...what nature has provided is matter and energy--matter in the form of all the chemical elements both known and as yet unknown, and energy, in all its various forms. I call this contribution of nature "the natural resources provided by nature.

Consider this in light of a different view from Aldo Leopold:
Only those able to see the pageant of evolution can be expected to value its theater, the wilderness, or its outstanding achievement, the grizzly. But if education really educates, there will, in time, be more and more citizens who understand that relics of the old West add meaning and value to the new. Youth yet unborn will pole up the Missouri with Lewis and Clark, or climb the Sierras with James Capen Adams, and each generation in turn will ask: Where is the big white bear? It will be a sorry answer to say he went under while conservationists weren't looking.

This, I think, is absolutely right. Our natural world is not just matter and energy; it is a beautiful and astonishing treasure that we must treat with the care that it deserves. And if libertarians forget this, then it's everyone's loss. So on this Earth Day, let's forget for a moment about the vulgar collectivism that so often comes from the environmentalist movement, and instead take the day to look around and appreciate the incredible gift that has been our birthright: the Earth and its natural environment, in all of its diversity and elegance. We can be libertarians and environmentalists at the same time -- and to be honest, I think we should be.

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