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The Libertarian Environmentalist: A New Beginning of Localism



May 08, 2010 – Comments (5)

True environmentalism is rooted in the individual; it is a movement based on education, connection with nature, and working to show people the sentimental side of nature that only comes through direct experience (not from Al Gore, a president, or some political rally). It is a movement based on individual liberty, responsibility, and localism. In fact, the principles of true environmentalism are nearly identical with libertarianism. However, common mainstream environmentalism does not focus on the education and knowledge of nature nearly as much as it uses the environment as an excuse to push forward a political ideology.

The simple fact is that government cannot sustainably change the way people approach the environment. If you see a logger cutting down a tree on his own property, is it morally defensible to hold a gun to his head preventing him from going any further? Is it acceptable morally if a collective group like government holds the gun to his head? When you approach nature from the standpoint that only the government can protect it, you are essentially giving in to the ridiculous idea that only through coercive collective force can nature be preserved.

“Nature will not be admired by proxy.” — Winston Churchill

This is not to say that all people in the environmental movement want to coerce people into their vision of the planet. However, the movement has become one only rooted in a political movement. And yet, they somehow seem surprised that not many people subscribe to the belief that you must expand government force to keep people in line with the environment. The thinking goes that without preventive collective force, “capitalists” (somehow people exercising their freedom as individuals are separate from everyone else) supposedly would ravage the environment and build as many hotels, stores, and resource-consuming projects as possible on the nation’s most beautiful land.

One of the most frustrating things for me to see, especially with teens and young adults, is the firm belief that government legislation is the ultimate way to bring about environmental change. We had a very kind lady come to my small private high school this past fall to talk about issues like climate change and the usual rhetoric from today’s environmental organizations. At the end of her presentation, this lady tried to get kids excited by announcing the “Declaration of Energy Independence” (a list of energy policies and subsidies for the federal government to undertake) that was to be signed by Barack Obama. This lady’s group and the mainstream environmental movement has it stubbornly implanted in their heads that our environmental fate lies with the government or a president.

I told her clearly that even though I did not believe the science or reasoning behind her presentation, I would certainly work to reduce waste and increase efficiency in my area. No person is going to argue, “Darn it all, I want my waste and inefficiency if it’s the last thing I do!” There is tremendous value in efficiency, and efficiency comes about naturally and most effectively in a free, non-coerced society. Incentives for efficiency do not come from government force, they come from natural free market competition and the God-forsaken profit motive common in a laissez faire society built on liberty.

Unlike a business in a free market, government does not convince you of the value of its product, it coerces you into taking and subsidizing the product whether you desire it or not. It is absurd that people have their heart set on the belief that the market recklessly destroys nature, and they just as easily fall into the trap that noble political servants know the ideal method to provide value and conservation to the environment. The detached and costly process of government intervention is the last thing we need to encourage responsibility, efficiency, and sustainability. We need individuals utilizing the power they carry as human beings! This is a key principle that probably all libertarians agree upon, and it is a principle that true environmentalists should take to heart.

No one can argue against a cleaner planet. The environmental movement would gain ongoing support from individuals of every background if it disregarded political motives and instead focused its resources on bringing education and direct nature experiences to people, as well as using resources (as many organizations have done past and present) to purchase land with the intent of preservation. Consider how much longer lasting an environmental group’s efforts would be in actually purchasing some beautiful land and opening it up to tourists, educational visits, and explaining the importance and benefits of conservation. Given the amount of people who support environmental projects, simple creative solutions like this are hardly implausible. Instead, the environmental movement has fallen into the uncreative trap that is government and politically motivated change through coercion.

The current environmental classes in public schools are so dry and lacking of substance that kids come out with very little experience in nature. My school introduced a new class this year based on the games put together by environmentalist and Sharing Nature founder Joseph Cornell. We are trained to lead small groups in nature activities that bring kids into nature itself to learn to feel, smell, and observe nature for themselves. You encourage connection with nature, rather than viewing it as a foreign object that only disgruntled hippies can find enjoyable. Do you think kids (and adults) will appreciate nature more when they get to have fun in nature or when their teacher recites a lecture of political talking points that the kids will probably forget anyway? Rather than using fear as a motivator for people to sign off on increased government intrusion in the name of the environment, consider the impact environmentalists could have if they worked on bringing this basic understanding and realization of nature to kids and adults alike. It has nothing whatsoever to do with politics and government, it simply awakens the joy of nature on a level that we as individuals can appreciate and value. In short, it would be far more effective than lobbying Obama or other government officials to throw more laws on the backs of the American people.

One major defect of mainstream environmentalism is its focus on bringing about massive regulation on a national and even global scale. Basic economic history shows that expensive laws and penalties benefit larger corporations looking to encumber competition from smaller businesses (thus why Dow Chemical, General Electric, and other billion dollar corporations are among the primary groups lobbying for “cap and trade” and other climate legislation). As government expands, so do the beds corporations use to snuggle up with their favorite bureaucracies. Environmental legislation such as Cap and Trade merely provides another outlet for corporations to diminish smaller, localized competition. In other words, it destroys precisely the setting where individuals have the most influence over business practices and products. Legislation of this sort provides a de facto monopoly to the corporations who can afford to jump through the arbitrary legal hoops and regulations created by politicians and unelected bureaucrats. By nationalizing and globalizing governments to such impressive scales, environmentalists are at the same time destroying the power of individuals in their local communities.

Place the power where it belongs: in the hands of the people. People carry their power not through national and global bureaucracies, but in their families, communities, and local environments. Is it easier to influence a $50 billion corporation propped up through government legislation, or a small local business? Is it more sensible to attempt to influence a Congress of 535 individuals representing more than 300 million people, or become active in a local government representing several thousand people? There is no question that we as individuals carry our influential powers over business, government, and the environment, on a local scale. It is the only logical outlet for the environmental movement to focus its efforts of sustainability and preservation.

This power and responsibility of individuals can only be adequately and sustainably utilized on a local level. Sustainable environmental conservation and education must originate through individuals locally, not through unelected bureaucrats nationally and globally. Localism, through empowered individual property rights, gives measure to the effects of responsibility and decisions made by individuals relating to themselves and their property, their respective communities, as well as the environment. Its function can only operate in a society free of bureaucratized laws and central planning.

The true environmental movement begins with the direct experience of an individual and cannot be furthered by governmental law. True environmentalism and libertarianism originate in the same source: the individual. Both believe strongly in individual liberty and the responsibility that comes with that liberty. By providing individuals with the full power of responsibility over their own lives, the environment will take a greater step forward in the minds of people. People won’t feel detached and separated from nature, they will feel a direct connection and obligation in their local communities. Are people not more concerned and responsible about the land, air, and water they see and use on a daily basis?

Return the responsibility of duties to the individual, not unelected bureaucracies promising the wonders of central planning, and you immediately provide the incentive (through property rights) and ability to maintain clean property, engage in sustainable activities, and preserve environmental quality. Returning to the responsibility of the individual on a local level is the only reasonable and lasting method for true conservation and respect of natural beauty.

5 Comments – Post Your Own

#1) On May 08, 2010 at 11:39 AM, kdakota630 (28.92) wrote:

Excellent blog.  +1 rec from me.

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#2) On May 08, 2010 at 1:16 PM, ryanalexanderson (< 20) wrote:

Less-than-excellent blog. -1 rec from me. (Although thoughtfully expressed and well-written.)

I am a moderate libertarian; or, at least, I have been converted to one by the activities of the last few years. But suggesting that education alone will be sufficient to protect the environment is infeasible for multiple reasons:

1) Your idea seems oriented towards local, urban parks. These are aesthetically pleasing, I guess, and environmental groups can purchase them as you suggest and conduct their educational tours. But they can't purchase an entire watershed, which can be polluted far, far away from the eyes of the "educated" public. They can't purchase the entire Amazon rainforest, or the Arctic tundra. And smelly swamps are absolutely critical homes of bio-diversity, but your educational trip will hardly convince him to picket the development of a new set of condos there. Under your plan, how do these condos get stopped? The protesters that would show up to prevent such a development need to have some legal teeth. An unscrupulous organization would otherwise just consider them third-party noise. 

2) We're already screwing up the environment, even with these controls and regulations. You're suggesting that government goes hands-off; no government money for the environment. So we solely rely upon the environmental activists' own resources to protect the environment. I'm sure you can agree that this is a greatly reduced number. While this is laudable from a libertarianism point of view, you've simultaneously emasculated the environmental activists, by giving them less money and less legal authority. Oh, yes, they'll have enough money to buy small bits here and there - little "zoos", if you like. But if they're spending their money on education, they're not even going to be able to do that. 

3) There is definitely a diminishing return for every extra dollar spent on education. Furthermore, unless you make this education mandatory for -everyone- up to the age when they're an adult, you'll end up preaching to the choir. With a few pretty exceptions, environmental impact is only dramatic in complicated charts - and even then, it can look vague to a man on the street. Do you think charts of the Antarctic ozone depletion would force a person to read an aerosol can to check for chloroflourocarbons and get him to completely eliminate it? Especially if it was 20% cheaper?

4) And most important, in times of economic hardship, every individual will do directly what is best for themselves at the time. This is the tragedy of the commons, and will never go away. If a task benefits you 100% right now and will hurt everyone 5% environmentally in the vague future, you will do it, because it's in your personal interest. Classic game theory. There are enough environmentalists already clearly indoctrinated to wear green and go to rallies, while driving a car and otherwise acting as hypocrites (such as Al Gore) to prove this point. 

As said at the top, I'm both libertarian and environmentalist, and was hoping you were able to reconcile the two. But I'm afraid you haven't. You ask if it's morally defensible to stop a logger from cutting down a tree by putting a gun to his head. Well, I wasn't aware that capital punishment was applicable to logging standards. But let me throw this rhetoric back at you: is it acceptable for a single man to buy one million acres of rainforest and clear-cut it, selling it to China, with nothing to worry about except for a bunch of hippies whom you would relegate to the level of mere trespassers? 

There's got to be a middle ground on this issue.


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#3) On May 08, 2010 at 9:15 PM, ChrisGraley (28.51) wrote:

An extremely excellent blog!

I hope I don't overstep here, but I'd like to respond to ryanalexanderson 

ryan, I appreciate that you consider yourself to have Libertarian views and also environmentalist views. I'm sure that you get attacked by many people for having that combination of beliefs. I'm not going to attack you. The fact that you march to the beat of your own drum shows me that you a capable of independent thought and that is in short supply in this era.

While I don't think that pencils2 ever suggested that education alone would ever solve the problem, better education is probably one of the highest things on my list for solving most of our problems. We wouldn't have a housing bubble if home buyers were fiscally educated. We would have less crime if people were ethically educated. We would have less government if people were educated to the point of being independent. 

We would have a near Utopia if people were educated to the point of being responsible!

ryan I think if you re-read his above statement, you might read it differently the second time. I think that you came into the thread looking for something that was closer to your own viewpoint of reconciliation. (I also would really enjoy it if you to post that unique viewpoint.) I'm sure that you have a perspective that most of us need to hear. Pencils2 has a viewpoint that differs from mine as well, but I looked more at perspective and reasoning than if it matched my own beliefs. Here are my takes from the post and responses to your numbered items.

1) I don't think Pencils2 mentioned anything about local government buying parks, especially not urban ones. He did mention an importance for children being introduced to nature.  I really agree with this. Children need to understand a value for nature. This is important in education. If you don't understand the value of what your are losing in any transaction, you are bound to sell the family cow for the magic beans.

2) I think that you answered your own question here and didn't know it. We are failing miserably, precisely because we are counting on government control rather than an educated voter. The more control a government has, the more bribes a politician can get. He can only get bribes if he's in office though. Our voters have been voting for politicians stating "Don't worry, let me take care of it!" for way too long! What will stop Japan from killing whales quicker? Greenpeace spending millions of dollars each year stalking them with boats, or a voting population that thinks that whales are valuable enough for our country to invade them? Somewhere along the way, someone thought that if you can't change the hearts and minds, it was better to control the hearts and minds. That's when we started going down hill. That special interest money that you think might be spent on zoos, is more likely to be spent on commercials of people with milk mustaches with the quote "Got prostate cancer?" or on naked supermodel ads saying that they won't wear fur, or even worse, domestic terrorism under the guise of environmental responsibility

3) I'm not about to beat anyone over the head to tell them that they have to get smart. I'd prefer to provide everyone the same opportunity and allow the people that take advantage of  the rewards of their efforts. Once others see what they are missing from not taking advantage of their opportunities, they can make a better choice. Do you honestly prefer people that trust you to do the right thing over people that understand the problem?

4) I'm sorry, but with this one I have to argue a little bit. I hope you can forgive me as I'm trying hard not to be antagonistic and to create discourse, but this last statement touches a nerve for me. If you honestly think that it's, "Every man for himself!" it's already hopeless in this country! If you think that I'm the only one that I think about when I wake up in the morning, and I don't think about my family, my town, my beliefs, or my country, we are all doomed. I wake up 2 hours before the rest of my family 5 days a week. After the morning ritual, the rest of that time is spent watching the news. I watch it because I'm worried about my family, my town, my beliefs, and my country. I don't believe what I see on TV, but I watch it because I know it's what most people will believe, and I have to react in a way that protects all of the above. There is no greater man in this world than my father and there is no man that put more effort into providing for his family than he did. Providing for my family came easier to me because of his efforts. The man slept very little in my childhood. I can't match his sacrifice, but I can strive to match his purpose. I don't struggle to provide for my family, but I do struggle to protect them. I will eventually be a man, when I'm half the man that my father was. An undereducated son of a coal-miner was the wisest man I ever met, and he happened to be my Dad. Dad cared more about all of the above then he cared about himself. 

If my father had a proper education, he would have probably been the greatest President to ever live. 

ryan if you are going to call out Pencils2 for not being able to reconcile the 2 beliefs, then please present what the interpretation should be. I thought he did a good job myself.

As far as the single man buying 1 million acres and clear cutting it to sell the logs to China, that happens all the time because of global politicians being bought by industry. If you really want it to stop, you'll need strong local control and educated voters. 


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#4) On May 09, 2010 at 3:28 AM, ryanalexanderson (< 20) wrote:

Hi Chris - Always enjoy reading your posts. And I'd like to apologize for the first line of my post - pencils2 did indeed write an excellent blog to begin with. 

Now, responding to your points: first, sadly, I don't have my own view of reconciliation. Libertarians acknowledge that certain issues, like the military, cannot be solved with a minimalist government structure, and I believe the environment to be one of them. My main thesis for this is, as described above, that individuals can solve the problems in their own backyards, but not the ones that require country-wide coordination. Just like a bunch of local militias will not solve national security problems, a bunch of local environmental initiatives will not solve global environmental problems. 

An example. Take the ocean. Daily activities out there are beyond the regulation of any individual country and out of sight of the average person. The result is overfishing. Everyone agrees on it. Nobody can do anything about it.

You cite the example of Greenpeace being less effective then education - a perfect example. Greenpeace is a private environmental organization with private money, exactly who pencils2 looks at to do what they do. Greenpeace is the libertarian solution! An educated American public already shuns whale products. But other countries still kill them. We can't educate the entire world, even if we could educate ourselves. In fact, I think Greenpeace may actually be a reasonable counterargument to my post.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Some short responses to the numbered points:

1) Neither Pencils2 nor I said that local government buy land - he suggested that local environmental groups buy land. This is a good idea, and I think Ducks Unlimited is a successful example of this, to preserve local wetlands. But it's not enough. There's just not enough money to do this effectively, and too many greedy individual developers who can buy the rest and get around the system. Blanket greenbelt laws are anathema to libertarians, but we need them. Look at any third-world country who is laissez-faire on urban planning to see what an urban sprawl is produced in its absence. More importantly, it's the land that isn't local and can't be seen that gets exploited the most, like the tar sands of Alberta. They're draining the water table of the entire province! No local group can stop this. You would state that greedy politicians are corrupt and can't stop it either. You would be absolutely correct. I'm certainly not defending the status quo. Just stating that the assertation of individual rights solves many problems, but not necessarily environmental ones. 

2-3) I feel very reluctant to argue against increased education. But how exactly is education being restricted now? Anyone can get on to the Internet and use Wikipedia. Why don't we have this environmentally aware population already?

4) First, excellent tribute to your father - sounds like an excellent man! 

When I say "every man for himself", I misspoke. I should have instead said "every local community for themselves". Again, this refers to the inability of local groups to solve national problems. Local problems, certainly. But world history is littered with examples of communities that maximise the happiness of their local surroundings at the expense of land and people they can't see. Chinese sweat shops, tar sand oil, dolphins in our tuna...people who know these things still buy Nike shoes, purchase fuel, and buy canned tuna. It's the NIMBY factor.

I'm afraid you dropped the critical word in your response - Utopia. Communists and pure libertarians have one thing in common - they think that if one key goal can be acheived - equal property for the communists, maximal individual rights for the libertarians - man's inner nobility and selflessness will suddenly shine through. Well, libertarianism will indeed go a long way towards solving much of the US's current problems. I just don't think the environment is one of them. As stated above, access to self-education is now relatively universal, but not solving the problem. 

So, yes, my solution - pursue libertarianism vigilantly alongside folks such as Ron Paul, but please leave in a few greenbelts, and environmental restrictions with some teeth, as a safeguard if your educated population turns out to be a bit less proactive than you'd like.

Might not be able to write a response for a few days now, I think, as I'll be sitting in a Budapest airport looking morosely at an ash-cloud restricted flight. But thanks for the good discussion! And thanks again to pencils2 for writing an articulate blog - even if I don't agree with it.

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#5) On May 09, 2010 at 8:32 PM, ChrisGraley (28.51) wrote:

There's nothing wrong with education as long as the government isn't put in charge of it.

I agree that it's a good discussion though I think you'd be surprised on how many people vote that don't know who the country's first President was, along with the 3 above topics that you mentioned. 

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