A Minarchist Environmentalism

This essay has little (directly) to do with crony capitalism, however I wanted to post it here for our reader’s consideration.
People who read ACC regularly know that we care about the environment. We love the ocean, and hiking, and clear skies on a moonless night. We are saddened by the clear cutting of rain forest, (usually due to a willful lack of property rights) plastic floating in our seas, we care about “sustainability” generally.
We however despise the command and control methods which have traditionally been the weapons of choice for the environmentalist movement. This general disposition toward control has muddied the water on environmental issues. For many outside of the environmentalist movement the perception now is that “environmentalism” is not actually the end. A clean planet is not the end. Instead it is state domination and regulation of every single aspect of life which is the actual end. Indeed that “green” is the new “red.”
I think one can be green and pro-market. In fact being “green” and pro-market is not some quaint contrarian position, but the way forward. It is a radical notion I will concede. 
This essay was originally written for Future 500, a client of mine and a San Francisco environmental organization with legitimate “green cred.” It is a clarification of my position as a libertarian environmentalist (and I don’t shy from the “environmentalist” word). This is my minarchist environmentalism.

Walk in the mist

 A Minarchist Environmentalism

Many of us have heard the saying that “green” is the new “red.” Meaning that environmentalism is the new perturbation of the collectivist political fashion which ran straight through the 20th Century, previously defined by socialism/communism. If you haven’t heard this saying there is a very good chance that you are not a conservative or a libertarian because this opinion is widely held.

This belief is unfortunate though not entirely wrong I think it’s fair to say. There are indeed many within the environmental movement who seem always to list toward statism and command and control. (A way of organizing the world, companies, and communities which is in my opinion antiquated and inefficient.) For some greens there seems to be no end to faith in the state. That somehow “business” is evil, while government (the greatest abuser of the planet there has ever been by a long shot) is somehow a benevolent entity. That business and government are partners is often lost on these people also.

It’s understandable why faith in the state exists for so many. It is widely regarded that without the Clean Water Act for instance, the Cuyahoga River would still be burning. And indeed that may actually be correct. But WHY this may be correct is the vital question. And no, it’s not because of rampant “out of control” capitalism. It’s largely because the river was a commons. It had no real owner. No owner. No responsibility.

This dilemma, the so called tragedy of the commons, is taught in every Econ 101 course. Yet we develop much of our environmental policy in a way which seems ignorant of this basic concept.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Some people reject “labels.” In the realm of politics however I find they can prove useful. I for instance label myself a “libertarian” because it’s good shorthand. It’s kind of like announcing that one is out of the closet. People just have a better understanding of from where one comes.

I use the term “environmentalist” in certain circles less often but for the same reason.

Put the words libertarian and environmentalist together and people get swimmy. Isn’t this a contradiction in terms?

It’s not.

I don’t like central planning. I believe the government that governs the absolute least governs best, as Thomas Jefferson famously said. I believe in the free market and in dynamic pricing. I believe in sound (gold backed) money, perhaps augmented with Bitcoin and its brethren. I am no particular fan of the EPA. I have absolutely no faith in the federal government generally. I think fracking for the most part is a good thing.

And I believe absolutely in sustainability.

I write about the economy every single day at the website I co-founded, Against Crony Capitalism. I love economics. From childhood I have been fascinated. The thing which strikes me is how unsustainable our current economy is – both in economic and in ecological terms.

I won’t go into depth here but I’ll say that the old economic orthodoxy espoused by many (pretty much everyone) on the Left (and regrettably the Right also) is highly destructive to the environment.

We currently exist under a regime of Keynesian economic theory. In a nutshell this school argues that booms can be manipulated by central banks to go on forever. Cheap money will keep the world employed and the economy expanding ad infinitum (they say). It encourages waste in a way that hard money, honest money, gold backed money simply does not.

Gold backed money encourages sane value judgments (for governments, companies, and individuals) and keeps banks from getting too wild. It checks rampant speculation via a natural mechanism. A country spends too much versus its supply of gold? Then interest rates must go up to compensate. This in the short term restricts growth in that country but encourages saving. The economy then rebalances like any natural system and life goes on.

However, if money is fiat, backed only by the government and not gold, silver, etc. (such as we have now) the only limit on speculation is the degree to which people can be convinced, typically via force, that the money will still spend. It encourages a system of debt servitude for people and countries alike. A dollar backed by gold means one has real savings even if one has just one simple greenback. A dollar backed by the Federal Reserve only has value because the bankers say it has value.

I’ll leave it there for the time being but suffice it to say that our current money system, a system widely espoused by many on the Left, encourages waste. It is fundamentally unsustainable. And as I said, I am for sustainability.

Part of sustainability is resiliency, and my belief that resiliency in general is important is also key reason why I am a libertarian environmentalist.

For systems to be resilient they must be spread out. If however everything is centralized, in Washington DC let’s say, when a “black swan” incident happens everyone goes down with DC. That’s the system we have now. Everything, financially and politically is housed in the dual hubs of The District of Columbia and New York City. We have all of our eggs in 2 baskets that are sitting right next to one another. In the effort to control the economy and everything else (nature doesn’t like to be controlled) we have foolishly vested too much power with a small group of people in a small geographic area.

Though many of my environmentalist friends believe that wise managers trained in the best schools, who can leverage the power of the centralized state for environmental good is positive, that a “capital city” which keeps the rednecks out in the hinterlands in line is good, I believe that such centralization is very unwise.

One size does not fit all. This is probably more true for environmental management than almost anything. And yet so many have no problem with the decrees handed down from on high in DC, a place which is completely separate (in my experience) from reality. The environmental movement has become overly enamored with the man-made hammer of federal regulation.

There is too much trust in authority in much of the environmental movement.

I saw this first reflected starkly for me when I was in college. The head of a widely known international environmental organization sat in on a seminar as a favor to one of my professors. With time discussion turned to the plight of the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda. Rwanda had just been rocked by widespread genocide and war of the most vicious kind. I asked the visitor to our class how the gorillas had fared during this time.

She responded that they had fared quite well during all the human bloodshed. The humans it seemed were too busy killing each other to focus on killing the gorillas. I agreed that this was a kind of silver lining. She lamented the human loss of life and then said that she thought the world and the environment would be so much better off if only we had a “benevolent dictator” in charge. She smiled. I did not.

Even though I agreed with her in spirit on a whole host of issues, fishery depletion, fighting the clear cutting of rain forests, the welfare of mountain gorillas, her faith in power – you know the kind which corrupts – told me that she and I were two different species. As a sophomore in college I could see that this esteemed NGO president was naïve.

The “benevolent dictator” was still a dictator and no stretch of rain forest to me was worth humans living under the yoke of a tyrant, benevolent (to whom?) or not.

And this is where I diverge from many of my friends in the environmental movement. Some of my friends – I know – would choose a preserved rainforest protected by an all powerful king versus a free society where the rain forest was in potential peril.

This is simply unacceptable to me. I believe that a powerful state is actually more of a danger to the environment than a seemingly messy, complicated, often anti-green, republic style political system. We have seen over and over that where politicians have power they abuse the environment. From the scarred wastes of the former Soviet empire, to China’s “state capitalism” which turns city days into night because of soot and ash, to America’s own Hoover dam which has killed one of the worlds great estuaries in only 3 generations, it is big government which has enabled the greatest environmental crimes of the last century.

Add in the irradiation of large swathes of the South Pacific. The draining of the Aural Sea. The subsidization of ever more powerful fishing vessels in the American North East and in Alaska. The subsidizing from birth until death of every single US nuclear power plant. The wholesale disenfranchisement of Native Peoples throughout the New World (not to mention the government encouraged extermination). Chernobyl. The Japanese nuclear plant disaster. (A public/private partnership.) The list of government facilitated environmental destruction goes on and on.

And yet because the government facilitates national parks (often taken from poor property owners at the point of a gun by the way) and the EPA is supposedly made up of a bunch of smart people “who want to do the right thing” I am supposed to as an environmentalist believe that government management of our environment is best? Sorry if I have a hard time agreeing with this.

I believe that property rights and not command and control from DC or Brussels or wherever is the best way to do the most environmental good. When people own things they tend to take care of them. Why do rivers catch fire? Why are our oceans full of waste? Why are our skies full of pollution? Why are rainforests in Indonesia and in Brazil clear cut? Because no one OWNS these resources, these “commons.”

rain forest 2

It’s as simple as 1+1=2. Where there is no ownership or alternatively collective ownership without rights (which in most regards is basically the same thing) that commons will be abused and likely destroyed so long as there is economic value to be squeezed from the commons. Get all your cattle to eat as much grass as possible so you can get them to market good and fat before your neighbor. So what if there’s no more grass or even roots for next year. That’s next year. And anyway, if I don’t binge my cattle, Joe down the road will. Might as well take as much as I can while I can.

Alternatively if a commons is owned in part by participants, with the right to sue, suddenly the commons is cared for because there is an interest in preserving the resource. The rancher, or fisherman, or whomever has an ongoing stake in the commons and so the looting mentality that a non-ownership commons encourages is killed.

One of the problems with this concept of environmental preservation is that it affords ownership to certain people and some other people find this unseemly. For some the very idea of private ownership, of property rights is abhorrent. That somehow the world is less wild when owned by individuals. Why areas are more wild when they are controlled by the state or left to be raped in a commons style situation has never made sense to me. Check that, I’m going to say that it just doesn’t make sense – period.

I don’t think that “green is the new red.” I think green is green but that it is past time for my fellow environmentalists to begin considering how private property rights, and a less amorous relationship with government would serve the planet and all the residents of this planet, flora, fauna, and human alike better. I am committed to continuing the dialogue with my environmentalist friends even if we do not see eye to eye on many things, at least right now.

Being a good steward of our ourselves and our affairs, our families, our communities, our countries, and our planet is the duty of every individual. I believe this. And I believe it starts and ends fundamentally with the individual.