Get Me a Butterfly Net

Julia “Butterfly” Hill is in the news again – suing OmniSky for ads that, she contends, try to capitalize on her counter-culture fame. (Apparently, Miss Butterfly feels that only she should be able to capitalize on her counter-culture fame.)

Miss Butterfly is the young lady who spent more than two years living in a giant redwood that she christened “Luna.” Luna is on land owned by the Pacific Lumber Company, and Butterfly was worried that PLC might, at some point, decide to harvest the tree, what with “Lumber” being so prominent in their name and all. Hill attracted an enormous amount of attention with her sit-in, with web sites and environmental organizations sprouting like mushrooms around her story.

Hill’s lawsuit stems from an ad campaign OmniSky is running that features a young woman living in a tree, using their electronic equipment. “Yesterday’s radicalism is today’s normal behavior,” boasts Darryl Cherney of Earth First!. “To me, having tree huggings in the mainstream of advertising or the Sunday funnies is an indication of our supreme success.” Yes, Darryl, this sort of outlandish stunt does get the public's attention, much like streaking does. So, to the extent that streaking is a “supreme success,” so is environmental radicalism.

It is somewhat ironic that Butterfly is willing to go to court to protect her ownership of the idea of tree-sitting, while being contemptuous of Pacific Lumber’s right to use its own land. The belief that Luna is more valuable than whatever PLC might have been made of her is the personal judgment of Miss Butterfly and her supporters. Perhaps they are, in some ultimate sense, “correct.” However, what Hill did as a result of her belief was an act of violent theft.

It is the mark of fanatics that they believe their value judgments are so superior to those of others that there is no sense even taking others’ valuations into account. Hill’s “poetry” speaks of “our battle cry to war.” To these fanatics, those who value items differently than they do are the enemy, possessed of “stone hearts” and “twisted authority.”

In dealing with such an enemy, the idea that they might have rights and values of their own is absent. Pacific Lumber owns this land, so depriving them of its use is theft. And it is violent because Hill was forcing PLC to kill her if they wanted to use their own property. But instead of reviling Hill as the criminal that she is, the radical environmental movement has made her a hero.

This sort of fanaticism makes a cooperative social order impossible between groups that do not share the same value systems. The great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises said, in Theory and History:

Judgments of value are voluntaristic. They express feelings, tastes, or preferences of the individual who utters them. With regard to them there cannot be any question of truth or falsity. They are ultimate and not subject to any proof or evidence.

Since no such group will ever succeed in convincing all others that its value system is “correct,” if alternate value systems cannot be tolerated, then they must be violently suppressed, by whichever group can gain ascendancy.

It apparently never occurs to people like Miss Butterfly and her friends that there is a perfectly legitimate, legal, and non-violent way to protect Luna – buy the land she stands on! This is, in fact, the way that the free market allows us to express our deeply held values within a system of social cooperation. If Indian tribes feel certain sites are sacred to them, buy the sites. If an environmental group doesn't want a farm developed, buy the farm. Some will complain that sites like these are “priceless,” and that they should not be turned into commodities. But if it is true that they are priceless, than the group in question has made an enormous profit if the site can be purchased, for example, for a mere million dollars. It is precisely a system of freely negotiated market prices that allow us to express our values without stifling the ability of others to do the same. If Miss Butterfly and her friends valued Luna more than Pacific Lumber, they should have expressed that by paying Pacific Lumber for the land.

It is only by accepting the fact that others will go and create their own values, in other words, that they are not our slaves our servants, that we can live with them in a system of social cooperation. Without this acceptance, each value system has no choice but to sound its “battle cry to war,” until only one is left standing, on the ruins of human civilization.

July 18, 2000

Gene Callahan is a regular contributor to