Writing in The Freeman recently, Roy E. Cordato explains how it is impossible to harm the environment. His conclusion is based on an examination of the so-called "polluter pays principle" from a property standpoint. The polluter pays principle states that "whoever is responsible for damage to the environment should bear the costs associated with it."
Cordato points out that the "polluter pays principle" sounds good because it appeals superficially to people’s sense of justice and fair play, as must every salient political program. As goes the popular argument, people should be held responsible for their actions and polluters who cause damage to others should "pay" for that damage. Now what man in his right mind could argue with that? But on reflection, these questions come to mind: what damage, to whom and by whom? The trouble is these questions cannot be answered in a political context.
In examining this popular principle of justice from a property-rights standpoint, Cordato discovers, naturally, that what is casually referred to as polluting can be the result of definite acts of specific humans that may cause damage. And if it does, it is because it results in harm to other specific humans. As he points out, real damage is harm measurable in terms of specific economic impairment to somebody’s property and the prerogatives that pertain thereto. In this realm of real responsibility and authority, there is a specific, measurable cause of action. In this event, science offers means of connecting causes with effects. Forensic science, in particular, seeks to trace particular consequences to particular acts, human versus non-human.
Ideally, the legal profession and the courts process such evidence to wrangle settlements between interested and affected humans according to tort law in a ritual known as "due process of law." If the settlement is consistent with the evidence connecting cause with effect, the outcome is known as "justice." This is the outcome Cordato has in mind. However, regardless of such an outcome, merely a day in court engaged in the legal ritual passes for justice more often than not.
Since the environment is not a person, either real or incorporeal, the environment can have no property rights that can be damaged by human action and resolved under tort law. Indeed, the environment is not property subject to any human authority. Furthermore, tracing specific human acts to actual permanent effects on the general physical environment — let alone "damages" — is a daunting task riddled with questionable assumptions. If so, “environmental protection” is a myth having no legal or ethical standing. Therefore, laws purporting to protect the environment are invalid, null and void. Prosecutions under them must be considered political scams because there is no identifiable property to examine for damage, let alone specific culpability for the consequences. Without a property issue, there can be no determinate cause and effect in society and, thus, no resolvable question of justice or welfare.
So how does "the environment" become a legitimate concern of government? It is not a constituency that is mentioned anywhere in James Madison’s Constitution of 1787. So the question arises as to how it came to be a province of government with all the legislative and judicial initiatives attendant thereto?
A plausible theory of environmental protection by government is paternalism, immortalized in the expression "papa knows best." The natural history of paternalism shows that "papa" must somehow supersede the bounds of biological kinship if he is to obtain indefinite and unlimited parental authority over his less-mature fellows, thereby to see to their welfare, need it or not. As an opportunistic expedient for implementing the paternalistic regime within a constitutional framework, environmentalists claim jurisdiction over "the environment" (whatever it is) for the government under the “general welfare” clause of the Preamble to the Constitution.
It is doubtful Madison could have imagined such a reach for power within the meaning and intent of his charter of government. That the general welfare of the people expressed as a mere sentiment in a perfunctory statement could be construed as evidence of a beneficent superhuman entity with rights of its own stretches the imagination of even the most modern person imbued with the romance of technology. Actually, personification or deification of the environment is a vestige of mankind’s pagan roots, such as Aztec Sun worship. It follows that environmentalism is the religion that worships the environment, whatever that is. Its "protection" is a sacred trust of the properly devoted, who are rewarded with the celebrity status of moral superiority. If fervent environmentalism is most moral, it is fair to ask how human welfare is enhanced by this religious practice. The answer is surprising. Akin to many ancient religious practices, environmentalism advocates human sacrifice. Human welfare is subordinated to the welfare of the environment as defined by the environmental clergy. How perverse!
But the environment is not a human being that can have moral standing. It can have no property that can be infringed, encroached, injured or damaged. Having no property, the environment has neither legal nor social standing either. This means that it plays no role whatsoever in the multitude of voluntary transactions comprising the market. On the other hand, the market, comprised as it is of the multitude of voluntary transactions between property-wielding-and-owning people throughout the population, constitutes the environment for human action. Protection of this part of the environment is a matter of concern for the general welfare. Such environmental protection consists of the housekeeping, hygiene, conservation, exchange and restitution practices common to proprietors and familiar to all still living on the planet. More specifically, it consists of upholding the integrity of the property principle. Sadly, Madison neglected to make this connection. Perhaps he could not foresee how his concept of "the general welfare" could be perverted.
Populist demagogues are delighted to have the state hold the bag for payments for "damages" to the "environment" because they expect to control the state with its monopoly of political power. The environment is nobody and the polluter is everybody. Goody! Goody! So in the name of the general welfare, legislators create a discretionary program to gratuitously remediate the guilt of others for alleged despoliation, otherwise known as living. Oddly enough, this intervention is called "public service." Never mind the restitution of real injuries. What’s that?
Environmentalists will object to Cordato’s work to resolve environmental issues under the property principle because it relegates the role of the state to tedious due process of law and then only on strictly individual human considerations. Libertarians will applaud Cordato’s work precisely because it is concerned with the fate of individual humans striving to survive and prosper in the mass of humanity. However, some may be impatient with his concentration on legal remedies instead of market alternatives.
Even though Cordato may not be entirely laissez faire in his approach to environmental issues, he succeeds very well in clarifying the nature of them. He makes it plain that environmental protection is nothing more than a political ruse. Without recourse to the property principle, environmentalism has no ethical, common-law or constitutional standing.
The only part of the environment that has any ethical significance is the market economy, which is the wholly social institution comprised of volitionally acting human beings. It is not the market but the physical and biological surroundings of the market economy and human population at large that exhibit such phenomena as climate, seasons, storms, temblors, volcanoes, conflagrations, and disease epidemics. These matters are virtually beyond human influence. There is little or nothing for humans to do in this arena of nature but to act defensively. The global physical environment is outside the realm and reach of human action. Adapting to this non-human environment is the subject of human evolution, a biological and technological process of adaptation that has been going on imperceptibly for eons as a matter of survival. Adapt or perish. There is no recourse or choice in the matter.
"Environmentalism" is an ideology that idolizes the Earth as a superhuman entity. Like most antique theologies, environmentalism ascribes to its deity anthropomorphic traits. The phrase "Mother Earth" is an apt expression in the liturgy of this religion.
As a theology, environmentalism is detached from reality. A curiosity of the faithful in this religion is that they worship dirt and disparage humanity. The clergy of the church of environmentalism is anointed with a mission to assuage the guilt of the mere mortals the mere mortals didn’t know they should have.
Fundamental environmentalism is also a form of collectivism. People are lumped together as "humanity," a mindless herd that is held to be culpable for injuries and insults to Mother Earth for which, taken as a whole, should be driven to redemption by those of superior moral standing. Round up all the strays for their own good.
Environmentalism is a political movement. As such, it is naturally anti-property, anti-libertarian, anti-individualistic and anti-social. In other words, it is misanthropic. An example of the environmentalists’ program is their campaign to wipe out carbon emissions by humans. Never mind that carbon is the essential element of all life on Earth, and that the carbon in the environment is from the planet itself (volcanoes, bogs, fires, etc.). Nevertheless, carbon in the atmosphere is demonized as the cause of allegedly impending catastrophic Earth warming.
Regardless of the realities and actualities of global climate, and any changes to it that may be in progress, the environmentalists’ concern with carbon is no conquest of physical nature. Make no mistake — it is the conquest of man. The mantra “catastrophic anthropogenic global warming” presages an excuse for a war of human conquest — a war on spontaneous human life that must be waged by the rabid environmentalist collectivists to empower their politically ambitious cohorts. Their objective is an old one, viz. to enslave humanity by capturing the seat of political power in the human population and suppressing all contenders. What is new in this program for conquest is the idea of mobilizing and regimenting humanity to prevent climate change, which is a fantasy. The rhetoric emanating from the rapturous environmental zealots is full of arrogance. It is mere pretense to control humans regardless of culpability.
If the environmental mystics are clever enough to deify dirt in the minds of the public, they very well might be able to convince them that every human breath is poisoning the environment and threatening the very world they live in. Then the fable of Chicken Little comes home to roost.
Some libertarians assert a continuum of belief in the environment as an entity deserving protection from human nature should be considered. They are looking for a balance in belief between outright totalitarian fascist tyranny involving draconian regulation of behavior and enterprise to some benign pollution taxes or a cap-and-trade regimen in mimicry of the market or enforcement of state court judgments under tort law. This continuum is envisioned as a spectrum in the level of application of the coercive power of the state for protecting the "environment" from allegedly insulting and degrading human behavior. But the Austro-libertarian or laissez faire market approach to the environment would not be found in this spectrum because it does not countenance the use of any state political power whatsoever.
Libertarians should be wary of looking for alternatives courses of action in a spectrum of coercive behavior even if they believe their cause is worthy, like the Earth really is warming and something must be done about it. But means must be consistent with the ends sought or all is lost. Even Cordato’s property-rights-based environmental protection scheme is in the middle of this coercion spectrum insofar as it depends on tax-supported state courts and legislatures having a monopoly in the implementation of his "the polluter pays" policy. This approach is not only hampered by political expedients and distractions but it is doomed to failure in the situations that actually occur.
Apropos of the above, recall Mises dictum:
“The middle of the road policy leads to socialism.”
There is no happy medium between coercion and voluntary-ism. The lesser of two evils is still evil. There is nothing analogous to public policy in the free market. The only notion that comes close in free-market parlance is Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” which is definitely not an appendage on any politician’s arm, or even the long arm of the law.
Free market institutions cannot be introduced into the government’s "environmental protection" game except as corrupt rent-seeking rackets. Such fashionable rackets nowadays include the carbon emission cap and trade schemes. The government caps and you trade on some government franchised and regulated bourse. Trade or quit. Some market, not! A pollution tax is more honest. Tax is a euphemism for theft.
Humans should be alarmed not so much over perceived threats to their shared environment by careless human action, or even from the obvious abuses of opportunistic political government. Their real enemy is but the misanthropy of a righteous environmental movement that seeks absolute control of a strong political state and all who can be brought under its hegemony. If the environmentalists have their way, humanity stands to experience the misery of policide (politically inflicted social devolution). If you think global climate change is threatening, you haven’t considered the consequences of social devolution. The grand alternative to this state of affairs is laissez faire — spontaneous order evolving in free markets superseding political government altogether.
For what other reasons would the environmentalists want uncontested control of the state? Certainly not to control the global climate. They ain’t that stupid. They ain’t that reckless, either. They dread possible genocide of the affluent population of the Earth that pays the taxes they crave. But they risk this outcome in the formulation and pursuit of their policies, which cannot accomplish any of their climate aims because human life has so little to do with that aspect of the environment.
Environmental protection under the rule of statute law is impossible precisely because it does not fit the property principle. Neither law nor politics is relevant to global climate or any other environmental concern. If the Earth is warming, not even preemptive genocide would stop it. Nature would be taking its course and there would be no way for humans to intercede to control it, let alone stop it, with or without the full force and credit of government. The best they can do is adopt the Boy Scout Motto: "Be Prepared."
Al Lowi (send him mail) has been a professional engineer in private practice in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, for the past 40 years.