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September 24, 2004

Discussing Environmentalism

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

In his latest column, Thomas Sowell portrays environmentalists as vain, self-righteous totalitarians. Sigh: why do righties persist in mocking and putting down many people's concerns about such questions as beauty, nature, and art? Are they, as many on the left would have it, really evil? Or are they simply p-r idiots?

In this case, Sowell has written elsewhere about loving photography and about spending time in Yosemite Park, so I'm certain he isn't unresponsive to beauty, art, and nature. And I do understand that part of a columnist's job is to be polemical and provocative. Still, another part of the job is to win people over. And here I think Sowell is doing his argument an injustice. Note: Sowell doesn't contend in this column that environmental concerns are mistaken or overblown. He's simply calling environmentalists spoiled brats.

Whoops, there goes the sympathy of anyone who's ever enjoyed walking through a quiet forest, or who has ever recoiled from the sight of a polluted river -- ie., 98% of Americans, I'd imagine. There isn't a single sentence in Sowell's column that allows for how 1) there might be good reasons to fret about ecological matters, or how 2) some eco-people may be sincere and well-informed. No, as Sowell tells the story, the eco-concerned are all do-gooding, greedy idiots.

I'm happy to agree that there's much to be mistrustful of where environmentalism goes. Years ago, I spent amateur time out on the eco-fringes, and I met a good number of loonies out there; for some people, environmentalism plays the religion-replacement role that critics accuse it of playing. But for many others, environmentalism is simply a vehicle for an issue they care about -- and are people who are concerned about ecological matters not supposed to try to advance their cause? I met a lot of eco-freaks who were brainy, who knew a lot, whose science seemed to this know-nothing to be solid and modest, whose love of the wild was sincere, who were anything but nature-Nazis, and who weren't fools about politics or economics either. These people have no desire to run anyone's life. They simply respect nature, and think ecosystems are complex and tricky mega-things that need to be treated with respect and care.

I got no problem with that point of view. (I got no problem with arguing from beauty and love either. Are people not supposed to care?) But I also got no problem with critiquing the eco-world -- every movement needs scrutiny. And as far as critiques of environmentalism go, I liked Bjorn Lomborg's approach a lot. In The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg sifted the studies and the evidence, did his best to cut through alarmism and politics, and finally suggested what he thought were more (rather than less) sensible and effective ways to deal with our most pressing eco-worries.

More bang for your buck -- what's not to like? Still, the true eco-believers shrieked; and there's no doubt that Lomborg was violating what he amusingly called the environmental movement's "Litany." But, as far as I could tell, Lomborg is as sincere in his eco-consciousness as the offended partyline eco-people are. He proved a hard one to tar as a pollution-lovin' plutocrat. His own work deserves critiquing too -- but it also deserves treatment as an attempt (successful, IMHO) to advance the conversation, not negate it.

As for the rightie reaction to Lomborg: well, righties were in for some surprises too. Lomborg was embraced by some people who seemed to be under the impression that he was dismissing eco-worries entirely. Au contraire. A personal note. I saw Lomborg speak to a rightie group once. He wasn't what the crowd expected at all. Up at the podium was a good-looking, articulate, blonde, Danish gay guy; his look and manner suggested "bicycles are good," if you know what I mean. And though he certainly presented arguments and facts that cut through eco-groupthink, he spent much of his podium time taking jabs at the the Bush administration, and challenging the sympathies of his own audience. He wasn't about to let them -- er, us -- off the hook.

In today's column, alas, Sowell just mocks. I generally like and admire Sowell, a brilliant and courageous guy who has made a lot of first-rate points; he's an important contributor to the public discussion, IMHO, as well as someone from whom much can be learned. But I think today's column isn't one of his finer moments. Earth to righties: it's about as politically-effective to put down people's feelings about the issues they care about as it is personally-effective to make fun of your wife's feelings. Ie., what are you, nuts? You'll regret it, and you'll pay for it.

Now, what I suspect Sowell is really hoping to battle is the silliness of some eco-concerns, as well as the love many people have for imagining that legislation can solve all problems. If that's so, he's onto a lot that's valid. Some eco-people really are nutcases (I've met 'em), some eco-concerns have been much oversold (I've looked into a few), and too many of us want the government to play the role of all-powerful Daddy figure. But if that's so, why isn't he taking on these points more directly?

Hey, Michael Blowhard's E-Z guidelines for conducting an emotionally-fraught discussion, or at least for writing an op-ed column critiquing environmentalism:

  • Step one: admit that there are legitimate reasons to be concerned.
  • Step two: demonstrate your respect for these concerns, perhaps by demonstrating that you share them, or that you can at least understand them.
  • Step three: venture the thought that, despite the above, you think that the alarmingness of certain "facts" may have been overstated. Supply some evidence.
  • Step four: remind your audience that it's probably wise to resist falling for unrealistic and excessively-tempting "solutions." In this case: let's remember that, however emotionally satisfying it can be to pass flurries of legislation, more government regs aren't always the best answer, and can even be self-defeating.
  • Final step: good lord, man, suggest some better ways of contending with our shared concerns.

On the other hand, maybe righties really are evil. What's your hunch?



posted by Michael at September 24, 2004


I'm a "righty." I checked with my wife. She was annoyed with me this morning, but, after an agonizing pause, was unwilling to go as far as to say I'm "evil".

To be fair, Sowell specifies in the first paragraph he's talking about environmental "extremism". I took it to imply a criticism of a subset of the environmental movement. Further down he refers to "green zealots" and "green bigots". I'm sure you would have been more comfortable if he had included a paragraph embracing your first two steps. That way it would be clear that the epithets were qualifying the category and not the other way around.

Posted by: Mike Hill on September 24, 2004 12:59 PM

I haven't read Sowell's piece yet but I have heard so much distorted right-wing anti-environmentalism of the type that Michael describes -- mocking environmentalists for silly excess by a fringe minority and then refusing to acknoweldege any real underlying concerns with environmewntal issues-- that literally right in the middle of writing this comment I went to the Sierra Club home page and joined.

Posted by: David Sucher on September 24, 2004 1:15 PM

This discussion reminded me of an article I once read in David's favorite mag, CITY JOURNAL:

See what you think.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on September 24, 2004 1:43 PM

I'm a rightie. I'm evil.

Actually, I'm just reading a book by Douglass C. North & Robert Paul Thomas called "The Rise of the Western World" which discusses economic history since around 1000 A.D. It focuses on the evolution of various property rights, and points out that many arrangements that you might think weren't "economic" in the obvious sense (like serfdom, like the development of modern agriculture in the Netherlands during the 14th and 15th centuries, and like the failure of Spain to develop a modern agriculture during those same centuries) all end up being quite rational behavior in response to the presence or absence of various types of property rights in those societies. In most cases, as the authors note, it is cheaper and more effective for governments to develop and enforce such property rights. However, as they also note, governments often get such property rights wrong, with catastrophic results (such as the blocking for hundreds of years of Spain's internal economic development.)

I believe that the discussion of environmentalism is enormously impeded by a failure to consider the problem in light of property rights--not just those that exist today, but those which might be created. I think the current style 'command-and-control' environmental regulation has, in fact, created many such property rights, but by vesting them in a wide variety of players (environmental activists, governmental bureaucrats, etc.) is probably confusing, rather than advancing, a rational solution to the problem.

We are a large, and rich, country, and we can stand a lot of bureaucratic excesses, but I suspect that a better system of property rights in the environmental sphere would result in better outcomes and at a lower cost.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 24, 2004 1:45 PM

BTW, I think Sowell is brilliant. His best column was an anti-P.C. one about how he had written a history book and you could only find it in the "African-American Studies" section of the bookstore.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on September 24, 2004 1:50 PM

Hmmm. I'm definintely a rightie. I also use a bike for everything, and like I suspect many bicyclists feel, despise cars as gas guzzling road hogs. I even use canvas shopping bags when I go out shopping. I'm certainly eco-concious, but I'm not an enviromentalist. As a rightie, I despise environmentalists as enemies. So maybe I am evil:)

I don't think those of you who live in the big cities can appreciate just how damaging the enviromental groups are. Out where I live, they're literally out to destroy our way of life. If they had their way, they'd have destoryed our dams, causing utilities to skyrocket and irrigation in many areas to become impossible, making all the towns and cities in our area wither away, leaving many without jobs, and reverting the land, land our ancestors worked so hard to settle, back to a desert.

That's the problem with environmentalism. On the whole, they have that leftist "humanity and civilization is evil" mindset. They also have the "Big Government is the way to regulate how things ought to be" mindset of the left. I detest both of those, so I detest environmentalists.

The big clue is the "ist" on the end. That suffix shows that your world view revolves around whatever precedes. While the enviroment is important, it's not important enough to make the center of your world view. Sorry, but I'll pick the good of people over animals every time.

As for Sowell's tactics, vitrol sells. And it can be very effective at helping the undecided middle view your target with contempt. Frankly, those who would seek to tear down civilization for their idealogy deserve it.

Posted by: Zetjintsu on September 24, 2004 2:00 PM

Mike -- Or maybe Sowell might have dropped in a sentence distinguishing between reasonable eco-people and nutcase enviromentalists? A few weasel words can often be a help.

David -- I've driven you into the arms of the Sierra Club! Actually, and FWIW (not much: I'm quirky, as well as 15 years out of date here), after some fairly-serious years poking around the eco world, I wound up thinking that some of the more effective and worthwhile ego-groups were outfits like Ducks Unlimited, Save the Manatees, and the Nature Conservancy. The Sierra Club at that point seemed to me to be morphing into an all-purpose leftie outfit, and was becoming more political than eco. I wonder if they've changed since.

Winifer -- Gelerntner seems demented to me, how does he strike you? I dunno, it seems to me that any discussion of something like environmental problems needs to sort out a few things. For starters: the concern itself; the various groups involved; the policies proposed. An example might be what this blog normally concerns itself with, art. 1) I genuinely love art. 2) But I disagree with the way it's usually imagined and discussed. and 3) I try to offer some different (and I think better) ways of picturing and discussing art. (And, very occasionally, 4) I try to make a suggestion or two about public policy where art's concerned.) Gelerntner seems to me like someone who wants to say that not only am I wrong about 4, 3, 2 and 1, I'm a sicko even to be concerned about art in any way. It's a point of view, I guess, but I'm left with the impression that he's the sicko. Sowell I generally love. Talk about brave. Have you read "Vision of the Anointed," or "A Conflict of Visions"? I think I've got those titles right. They're both head-clearingly great. Maybe I shouldn't have picked on him today.

FvB -- Fascinatin'. Explain to me again why you aren't blogging? And you're reminding me of something, which is that there are eco-people who are very concerned about stuff like property rights. But you don't hear about them too often.

Zetjintsu -- I know what you mean. And you're making a good point about about how unfair it is to portray all eco-conscious people as card-carrying "environmentalists." At the same time, I also think it's worthwhile to allow for the fact that even environmentalists come in many flavors. I ran into people who'd be angry if you didn't consider them environmentalists, yet who had big quarrels with the standard partyline-environmentalist way of going about things. It's like the confusion over who's a "feminist" and who's not. A lot of people are for fair play. But today's official "feminists" expect you to subscribe to a l long checklist of leftie beliefs. So who's a real feminist? But maybe that's just a question of tweaking the labels a bit.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 24, 2004 2:17 PM

OK Michael, I'll join them too, though my impression is/was that the Sierra Club was one of the most conservative -- Nature Conservancy aside -- and main-stream. But I haven't looked recently either. I joined Project for Public Spaces last year because they do "environmental work" but in a realm I know well and I know that they are very head's up.
And yes, I really did sign up.

Posted by: David Sucher on September 24, 2004 4:04 PM

I looked at Sierra club's link - and found 4 mentions of Bush on their home page (which is basically an index of site content)- in the context where the word could easily be substituted for Satan. So right there they bored me enough to prevent clicking on their headlines and find out what's the outrage de jur(sp?) is about.

Recently I've read a real-life story on Alan Sullivan's blog,a perfect illustration to what FvB said. What happens when environmentalists achieve their goals and insert government bureaucrats to enforce "Progressive" laws - and how these laws interfere with people's property and indeed with their livelyhood.

Posted by: Tatyana on September 24, 2004 4:28 PM

Worldwide - with the exception of those former socialist paradises, Russia and parts of Eastern Europe, and certain hellholes in Africa - the human lifespan is increasing. Would this be happening if the ecosphere was degrading? The question answers itself.
The fact is that due to mindboggling technological advances developed by and large as part of the pursauit of profit (that dirty word) the world is a much much cleaner place than it was as little as half a century ago.
I'm sorry, but with the rarest of exceptions the ecology contingent are deeply atavistic and their victory - God help us all - would plunge us all back into a new dark age.

Posted by: ricpic on September 24, 2004 7:57 PM

There's good environmentalism and bad environmentalism.

Good environmentalism is environmentalism that seeks to protect your rights against those that would poison your property or the common air and water. When it's backed up by real science and an understanding of the difference between harmful pollution and pollution that is too small in concentration to make any real difference, it is a valuable force for good.

Bad environmentalism assumes that unspoiled nature is good and any modification made for the benefit of humans is bad. These are the guys that think that a giant ice cube in Alaska needs to be preserved and protected from the "desecration" of drilling for oil. Whereas the former is concerned with protecting human beings from the bad effects of other humans beings' activities, these guys are concerned with protecting their notion of the ideal world or their notion of deserving animals from human beings. These are the guys we really have to watch out for.

Posted by: Ken on September 25, 2004 12:02 AM

i second what ken said. more compactly there are:

1. clean air/clean water environmentalists. most people agree with them.

2. "Gaia" environmentalists. They are nuts.

another point: it is much more efficient to use technological fixes for environmental problems than to try to re-engineer human behavior. LEDs and new light-bulb architectures (the fluourescent coils) will do MUCH more to save energy than trying to get people to turn off the lights. It's the difference between the efficiency of a machine vs. the laziness/time cost of humans (not to mention the psychic load of feeling "deprived" if you have to constantly recycle X and turn off light Y and so on).

Much better to put your energies into the tech...

Posted by: gc on September 25, 2004 1:58 PM

Funny, gc.
Just yesterday I was given a presentation of the amazing new LED solid plate (improved thermal distribution) package. Looks like a computer chip, one tiny unit produces 1w light beam that looks as bright as (we compared) (2)26W compact fluorescent. I will probably request photometrics later. Life- guaranteed 50,000 hrs, may be more. Spread- 150 deg, could be optically manipulated. Any component of white light (in other words, any color) could be picked out as easy as moving sliding switch on a regular dimmer. Colors are gorgeous - like [very] high definition TV. As the rep said, "Forget about plazma or anything you've ever seen before"

Oh, well. Take your seats, L&J, here's your next big jolt coming.

Posted by: Tatyana on September 25, 2004 2:37 PM

Oh Michael,

I've been away for two short months, camping alone in the Yukon and Alaska, and THIS is what I read when I come back? New Yorkers taking about the environment? Come on, dears. What I saw in Alaska was spectacular and pristine ... the sort of thing that makes all hearts beat longingly, environmentalist or not.

I'm sure you've heard this before, but Alaska really is the last American frontier. Perhaps the frontier mentality creates people who refuse to tolerate those "city-folk" who claim to understand the Alaskan environment better than the hardscrabble people who live there. As one homesteader put it, "Living here is hard enough without having to put up with rich people telling us how to live." Theirs was a populist stance, perhaps. (I am researching populist movements, not environmentalism.)

In the light of this blog entry, I noticed that the people who actually live in Alaska mock those in the "lower 48" who "come and tell us what to do with our salmon." Local people in diners, on trails and wherever, displayed a visceral disdain for environmentalists. As one young guy from Whitehorse said he was taught in Sunday school "to hate the sin and love the sinner, " but now he "hates the environmentalist and loves the environment." His parallelism is a bit off, but this is obvious: In Alaska (and perhaps elsewhere) there is a total disconnect in the minds of most ordinary citizens between environmentalism and the environment. To them, environmentalists are outsiders who want to destroy their frontier life. They, in turn, are the true guardians of the frontier (and environment.)

Where I live, Arizona, environmentalism has a certain cachet, an intellectual sexiness that renders it acceptable. But I don't survive off the environment. I, too, have a disconnect between environmentalism and the environment -- just another kind. I use paper without thinking about loggers. I eat fish without thinking about fishermen. I surround ourselves with all sorts of metal-made stuff without thinking about the miners that dug it all up. Its no wonder that those who live closer to the environment, particularly those who live off of it directly, feel quite differently about environmentalism.

So ... back to Sowell. I think he's gutsy. After all, what he called environmentalism is a helluvalot nicer than what I've been hearing on the Alaskan frontier. Its us city-folk who are offended.


Posted by: Kris on September 25, 2004 11:52 PM

re: fvb - "I believe that the discussion of environmentalism is enormously impeded by a failure to consider the problem in light of property rights--not just those that exist today, but those which might be created."

like arnold kling, you say 'property rights' in a coasian context can solve the problem -- that the solution to the tragedy of the commons is to give it to someone who, presumably, will be incentivised to eliminate free-ridership. but i don't think that's the case. the environment is not just trees (nor just a forest for that matter :) and conceiving it as such i believe is disingenuous!

if the environment is a public good, meaning that on some level it is indivisible -- that it exhibits positive externalities and is non-rival and non-excludable -- then granting bounded monopolies upon it, while perhaps offering optimal management at (artificially) localized minima, in no way guarantees an optimal social outcome, cf. the prisoner's dilemma.*

the larger point is that i do not believe you can treat an ecosystem like a market economy.** much like national defense, it is hard to provide measurable and predictable cost-benefit analysis. there is no market for national defense. it's cliché to say, but how much is a life worth? is there an X amount of dollars you could pay to al qaeda (or them us) and say we're even? how much is iran going nuclear? apparently, tho, the price for libya's acceptance back into the good graces of the int'l community is $2.7bn...

yet decisions like these still kinda go on all the time, just not exclusively under the rubric of a propertied, market economy, as if. yes sums of money are involved, but the calculations change with a given situation; they are not fungible, they are ad hoc negotiated settlements, unlike the laws of physics for example. furthermore, thru a deliberative process we can presume they work, for the most part.

is the environment much different?

to the extent companies profit by unloading (as much as possible) costs onto the 'environment' and are unaccountable for it, i.e. people don't notice dilution much less become exercised by it, yes! but, i would argue, qualitatively and by degree, no!***

this is important, because true libertarian coasians would have you simply believe that any market breakdown in the provision of public goods (say clean air) can be solved by implementing clearly delineated property rights, nevermind that the ownership prescription might be impossible given the 'good'-in-question's technical characteristics or conditions of operation.

economists (esp libertarians :) have long had difficulties in addressing social utility and costs, alternatively ignoring or dismissing them because they don't properly fall under the legal code of property/ownership that affords atomistic definition thru value, currency and exchange. hence, for libertarians, privatization becomes a banner and any notion of gov't involvement, regulation or public policy is anathema.****

i'd grant that mechanistic libertarian realists, or what have you, for whom traffic lights and the FDA are necessary evils, could use the threat of privatization as a bludgeon to make things work better for the common good. i think that is healthy and defensible; there is always room for improvement.

but to confuse the issue, in the grand venn diagram of studied attention, and equate markets with ecosystems (and conflate environmental stewardship with portfolio management) is a mistake. like you don't (lightly) outsource foreign or monetary policy. why should you environmental policy? (or health, education, research and development besides :)


*in the lingo, you've arrived at a societal "corner solution," whereupon defining certain constraints leads one to produce, say, timber rather than untrammeled wilderness. that is to say, if there's even such an "optimal social outcome" animal, which i think kling would deny. moreover, under the doctrine of "revealed preference," he might say that people prefer paper to parks. paper provides an economical tax base, parks are sunk costs, etc...

but what if, in the off chance people really do like parks, the municipal authority steps in and sez something like, "for every 1000sq. acres you log, we want you to build a playground in the innercity?" then you're sorta back at square one. the natural monopoly on property rights that was created to better enforce environmental protection and avoid pesky regulations, which were poorly implemented anyway, breeds its own.

**here's how bernard lietaer formulates it (pg.261, the future of money):

greek roots contemporary words initial meaning
oikos = household
sophia = wisdom ecosophy wisdom of the household
logos = knowledge ecology knowledge of the household
nomos = rule economy rules of the household

so, "ecosophy is about how to live wisely on this planet. how our economic, monetary, business, political, sociological, psychological and ecological constructs and activities all interact and affect our collective presence on this planet. it constitutes the indispensible common foundation underlying any one of the fields of knowledge mentioned earlier. it looks at the human species within the context of the broader biosphere with which we are interdependent..."

***the same could be said, from my perspective, as healthcare (say wrt vaccinations), education (or "culture" :) and intellectual property (an oxymoron by my estimation of the digital commons).

****that's an ideologically randian conception of libertarianism. how then to explain arch libertarian positions on a negative income tax and guaranteed income? - "[w]here the market failed, though, the government should step in, providing defense, public infrastructure, and even a guaranteed minimum income for all citizens..."

Posted by: glory on September 26, 2004 1:07 PM

To meekly peep up here for a sec: did anyone notice that the subject of the post wasn't "is environmentalism good" or "what's a good environmentalism," but instead, "are righties nuts to discuss eco-enviro questions, and people who are concerned with such, in the way they do?" Not that it matters much -- fun to read everyone's thoughts about eco-matters. Still, I do wonder about righties where eco-things are concerned. As David Sucher says above, many do seem to take a rather bizarre pleasure in tarring all eco-concerns (and all the eco-concerned) as stupid. As a p-r move, which I guess is what I'm mainly wondering about here, this strikes me as disastrous. I'm left wondering why they do it, since it seems self-defeating.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 27, 2004 1:38 AM

Incidentally, I don't think it hurts to remember that "environmentalism" is one of those two-sided words, like "feminism." There are genuine card-carrying partyline environmentalists, just like there are cardcarrying partyline feminists -- the two groups overlap, in fact. But both words also have a more open sense. Feminism doesn't have to be the whole NOW program -- it can just be a general feeling of "fair's fair," and "show me your stuff, ladies." Environmentalism can be many, many things. There are free-market environmentalist outfits, for instance -- here's another. And some of the most sensible groups are the one-issue/one-creature outfits, like Ducks Unlimited. Even as mainstream/leftie/partyline a place as the Sierra Club recently underwent a big battle between one faction that wanted to get back to eco-roots, and another faction that buys the whole partyline. And I've never heard many people quarrel wtih the Nature Conservancy. All they do is buy up land and keep it undeveloped -- talk about a straightforward approach, as well as one that involves no meddling. So on the one hand there's the whole partyline "environmentalist" thing and people who want to run things. But on the other there's just a whole lot of "environmentalists" who don't like it when rivers catch on fire, sides of mountains get clearcut (at a loss to the govt, often), or lakes become unfishable, and who propose lots of different ways of taking some of these challenges on.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 27, 2004 1:53 AM

Dear Glory:

I'm having a hard time following your discussion, which is probably because I'm reading it before 7:00 A.M. local time on Monday morning. But it still seems to me that the basic logic enunciated by Mssrs. North and Thomas (who, granted, were not writing about environmentalism) have a relevance here:

Individuals must be lured by incentives to undertake the socially desirable activities. Some mechanism must be devised to bring social and private reates of return into closer parity. Private benefits or costs are the gains or losses to an individual participant in any economic transaction. Social costs or benefits are those affecting the whole society. A discrepancy between private and social benefits or costs means that some third party or parties, without their consent, will receive some of the benefits or incur some of the costs. Such a difference occurs whenever property rights are poorly defined or are not enforced. If the private costs exceed the private benefits, individuals will ordinarly not be willing to undertake the activity even though it is socially profitable.

Gee, does that sound like the plight of environmentalism to you? It sure does to me. All that discrepancy between private benefit and social benefit, which moralisitic haranguing has managed to narrow only very slightly. So I ask you, do you want human selfishness and greed working for the environment, or agin' it?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 27, 2004 9:48 AM

yes, i would like "human selfishness and greed working for the environment," and i think if the environment could properly be considered a thing and not a system (e.g. if it conformed to the "technological" prerequisites for a market economy and was amenable to the invisible hand, or the wisdom of crowds for that matter :) i might be persuaded! i just don't agree with the premise, and hence i do not think it the case (that a propertied system can be set up to prevent or minimize environmental degradation).

sorry, if that wasn't clear!

incidentally, the passage you cite...

"A discrepancy between private and social benefits or costs means that some third party or parties, without their consent, will receive some of the benefits or incur some of the costs. Such a difference occurs whenever property rights are poorly defined or are not enforced." the sticking point in many intellectual property discussions. strong IP proponents suggest that without strict enforcement the wealth of creativity and human knowledge would be diminished. (or at least the ability to monetise IP :) the EFF would argue otherwise and have set up an innovative "creative commons" that allows authors to choose a variety of licenses with which to share their work and ostensibly control how it is distributed, none of which have yet been successfully tested in a court of law, i might add.

my point is that "property rights" are poorly defined in instances when the "property" in question is, in the spectrum of tangible to intangible, towards the "public good" end of things. given that defining property rights is inherently dodgy wrt public goods (the environment, i believe, falling under the definition* thereof :) i don't see how arbitrarily(?) assigning/grafting an ownership paradigm onto such affairs solves anything.

for instance, i applaud the effort to institutionalise carbon credits (and pollution credits in general) as a way for people to "own" (in the negative sense of being liable) the social costs imparted from their operations. thru trade of such credits, accordingly, a "pareto optimal" level of pollution would be achieved that would harness "selfishness and greed" to the long-run sustainability of the environment and business alike. would that it works!

but alas, i am skeptical! from what i have witnessed so far its effectiveness has been limited, bogged down in bureaucratic hand wringing, which is what i presume a property regime was supposed to avoid in the first place. i suspect that in effect one form of opaque regulation is being exchanged for another, agreed upon only because special interests deem the latter easier to game. a lack of goodwill, it seems, can doom any enterprise.

to illustrate, i think it is helpful to return to the national defense analogy to see why not all credits are created equal. suppose that an enterprising professor in a burst of insight thought she had discovered the solution for world peace! all that was required was to quantify the negative impact of violence on society -- in essence to measure the value of violence -- and then create a market for it! why if we had violence credits and people could see how much it was costing them, then "selfishness and greed" would naturally act to reduce the amount of violence in the world.

"violence rights," up 'til now, having been poorly defined and hence poorly enforced, have given a lot of people unnecessary grief. intellectually, one can see making people "own up" to the misery they have caused others as satisfying (efficient even :) in the application of proportional justice -- it's actually what chris rock proposed when he joked about raising the price of a bullet to $5000 :D

in practice, however, theory and practice are never the same, as the saying goes... not that implementing carbon credits would be anywhere near as hard as violence credits.

so anyway, for me, i think perhaps the best thing to do when dealing with environmental problems is locate its proximate cause, occam's razor-like, ban it and then let the market sort 'em out; human beings afterall are most adept at routing around damage :D note the effectiveness of the CFC ban that has greatly reduced the threat of ozone depletion in the upper atmosphere! (without plunging the world into economic chaos, or a refrigeration shortage besides :) like what if *gasp* anti-smoking initiatives around the world make citizens healthier and help take the strain off of rising medical care costs?

*i cannot exclude you from "the environment," nor you i, at least in toto (certainly we could of localised bits of it... indeed that is the provenance of kings and nations). nor does my enjoyment of "the environment" (again in toto) diminish yours, except at the margin and in localised settings.

Posted by: glory on September 27, 2004 3:42 PM

I may, of course, be entirely wrong about this, but I suspect that all sorts of equally strong (sounding) reasons would have been advanced by intelligent aristocrats about how serfdom could never be abolished because otherwise the peasants (i.e., freed serfs) would become free riders on the "public good" he was providing--to wit, his enforcement of the peace and his defense of the community when the Vikings, or Saracens, or Magyars or whoever showed up. Somehow, if we managed to solve that one, I kinda think a little creativity might help a lot with the environment.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 27, 2004 5:42 PM

Michael wrote:

In his latest column, Thomas Sowell portrays environmentalists as vain, self-righteous totalitarians. Sigh: why do righties persist in mocking and putting down many people's concerns about such questions as beauty, nature, and art?

Sowell isn't putting down people's concerns. He's putting down coercive methods that, in the service of environmental concerns, have caused injustices. To cite one example, land-use regulations that, in the name of "preserving green space" or other abstract goods propounded by self-described environmentalists, destroy the value of some people's property. But when you raise these issues with enviro types they often a) are so ignorant of economic reasoning and of how to think about tradeoffs that you can't have a rational discussion with them, or b) cite their good motives as if good motives could justify harmful policies.

As some of the other commenters here have pointed out, we live in a wealthy society where concern for the physical environment is widespread if not universal. It's silly to assume that bad capitalists in top hats are going to cut down all the trees if the government doesn't pass laws to stop them. The real debate is about means: are the command-and-control methods that many enviros advocate more effective, relative to their costs, than are other methods or environmental protection, many of which were proposed by right-leaning economists?

I don't think Sowell has much to answer for. What really shocks me is how cavalier many enviros are about taking, or destroying the value of, other people's property for supposed public good. I'll start taking the "environmental" movement seriously when it stops trying to finance its world-saving schemes on the backs of unlucky property owners. Environmentalist, tax thyself.

Posted by: Jonathan on September 27, 2004 5:55 PM

jonathan sez - "What really shocks me is how cavalier many enviros are about taking, or destroying the value of, other people's property for supposed public good."

what is "supposed" about the environment's public good that it does not warrant at least some form of taxation née good 'ol redistributive command-and-control socialism?

just a modicum!

would one gut the national park service's budget out of spite because of its clearly conspirational "coercive methods" to deny property owners their rightful due?

should one privatise prospect park (indeed, why not all of olmsted's magnificent public city parks? :) because of absurd land-use regulations that "destroy" the value of park slope properties?

while we're at it, why not the NIH, the NIST, the DOT or, for that matter, the DOD?

again, i think this is a Really Important Point: public goods are not something easily dismissed. the benefits they provide are not illusory (altho i must stress, they are qualitatively different from private goods :) and as such they are, in my view, correctly provided for by the gov't. moreover, these provisions are not arrived by executive decision of the plenary session of the council to rubber stamp the prevaricating whims of dear leader and czar enviro-weenie the third.

nay! they are arrived by deliberative process, carefully considered even, thru consensus and, yes, perhaps, maybe, compromise. wouldst thou begrudge mine and thine's representative democracy?*

if simple governance** be the road to serfdom, count me serf.

fvb sez - "Somehow, if we managed to solve that one, I kinda think a little creativity might help a lot with the environment."

i agree! which is why i hold out hope for carbon/pollution/emission credits :D i, too, could be entirely wrong. i am just sceptical that privatisation is wholly the answer or the key.

let me end as does doestoevsky's dream of a ridiculous man, which i have taken to heart: "if only everyone agreed, it could all be arranged at once" :D


*please excuse ye olde excessive dramatic flourish (with english, which i recognise might be construed as "rubbing-it-in" or "snark"), i'm writing this whilst being rather inebriated :D on mead!

**whereupon the governor is accountable at the consent of the governed

Posted by: glory on September 27, 2004 10:18 PM

"my point is that "property rights" are poorly defined in instances when the "property" in question is, in the spectrum of tangible to intangible, towards the "public good" end of things. given that defining property rights is inherently dodgy wrt public goods (the environment, i believe, falling under the definition* thereof :) i don't see how arbitrarily(?) assigning/grafting an ownership paradigm onto such affairs solves anything."

Well, air and water are indeed public goods. But land isn't. Neither are trees, or forests, or anything of that nature - they can be divided up, parceled out, and owned.

Clean air and clean water regulations are needed - because air and water are public goods. Public parks are not needed; letting all the land in the country be owned would work much better, because land is not a public good. Without public parks, those who wish to enjoy parks would patronize private parks, those who wish to cut down trees would pay the landowner the market rate that is consistent with maintenance of the forest's long-term value, rather than a lower rate from a bureaucrat buddy who doesn't personally own the land and doesn't have as much reason to care if the whole thing is stripped bare when he moves on.

You can't just refer to "the environment" and claim that it's all a public good. "The environment" refers to a number of things, some of which are public goods and some of which are not.

Posted by: Ken on September 28, 2004 9:35 AM

Ken wrote:
Well, air and water are indeed public goods. But land isn't. Neither are trees, or forests, or anything of that nature - they can be divided up, parceled out, and owned.

What about historically important works of art, artifacts and architecture? They too can be parceled out and owned, but in many cases we afford them various types of government protection, like declaring certain buildings "historical landmarks". Isn't it part of the public good that things which are important parts of all our history are protected in this way? If the original U.S. constitution was up for sale and an eccentric billionaire decided to buy it and use it to wrap the world's most expensive cigar, should this be allowed? If a forest in a national park would take hundreds or thousands of years to return to its current state if we chopped it down, then I think a similar historical/aesthetic case can be made for preventing certain areas from being logged, so future generations can experience them for themselves.

Posted by: Jesse M. on September 30, 2004 12:22 AM

Isn't it part of the public good that things which are important parts of all our history are protected in this way?

Yes, I agree. I think that we should start with your property. But don't worry, you can always sell: we'll give you ten cents on the dollar. We made the decision to take your stuff by majority vote, and we're doing it for only the highest esthetic reasons, so it's morally justified. Right?

You want to decide who should have what, but there will always be someone who disagrees with you. So the real question is, who gets to decide. The two main alternative answers to that question are 1) might makes right -- assets will be allocated by brute force or by politics, which in this case means 51% of a mob, and 2) a system of property rights that allows individuals to decide for themselves, in voluntary cooperation with other individuals, how to sell or trade their property.

Your answer -- that certain property should be disposed of in ways that you favor, independently of the wishes of the property owners -- assumes that people who share your preferences will control the process. I wouldn't count on that happening.

Posted by: Jonathan on October 3, 2004 1:57 AM

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