Libertarians and the Environment

I’ve been running into a lot of Ron Paul supporters, and perhaps the most surprising wrinkle comes from people who believe that a strict adherence to private-property rights will help the environment.

The problem here is that while most people don’t understand how the environment actually works, libertarians, given their ideological precepts, understand it even less. I’ll explain how shortly.

But first, I’ll note that even in the context of libertarianism, the “Ron Paul, Environmentalist” label surprises me especially.

It is surprising because, for one thing, Paul – who used to at least acknowledge that human-caused climate change might be a problem – has more recently taken to calling it a hoax .

Given that climate change is inarguably taking place, and that scientists are essentially in unanimous agreement that human activity is largely to blame, I have a hard time accepting anything else the guy says about saving the planet. Even if – maybe especially if — he’s got a campaign video titled “He cares about the environment.”

Highlights of this video include some scholar implying that pollution began because of the federal government’s pro-industrialization policy of “the 1930s and 40s.”

First – so Ron Paul’s against heavy industry? Welcome to the ranks, Luddite brother!

Second: Who knew that industrial pollution didn’t begin until well over a century after the start of the Industrial Revolution? Before that, mankind was apparently free of the sin of pollution, which some deluded scholars have suggested goes back to, you know, the dawn of civilization.

Now, however, I know it was all sustainable agriculture and water-based paint until FDR got his oily mitts on things.

But I digress. In fact, I’m betting that Paul’s untenable position on climate change is linked to his unbending property-rights ideology.

Basically, his position boils down to this: You don’t have the right to pollute your neighbor’s air, land or water. And if you do, the neighbor can go to the government and get an injunction to make you stop polluting.

There’s more to it, of course, and most environmentalists would applaud Paul’s desire to eliminate subsidies for big oil, for instance. But balance that against his belief that the federal government has no right to regulate how oil is explored for, or extracted, or refined, or any other aspect of that or any other polluting industry. (He’d also abolish the EPA.)

Instead, it would all come down to people defending their property rights.

That works fine if you think of pollution along the lines of your next-door neighbor tossing his beer bottles over the fence. Easily identifiable source of the pollution, easily identifiable remedy. Sounds right folksy, too. Jes’ a dispute between neighbors, heh-heh.

But pollution doesn’t work like that. And neither does the environment.

Instead, pollution from a single source – say, a coal-fired power plant – can contaminate the air, land and water for hundreds of miles around it, through soot or airborne mercury, say.

And neither are the pathways of contamination straighforward. Mercury, for instance, enters the food chain and is transformed into ethylmercury. There it accumulates from smaller to larger organisms, where big predators, like your neighbors, might gobble down a load of it in river-caught fish.

Indeed, there might be tens of millions of “neighbors” – and perhaps not any “property owners” who recognize the pollution as such, at least not right away.

And the single “polluting neighbor” is a vast oversimplification of the environmental problems we face.

Finding examples isn’t hard. An item in yesterday’s paper cited a report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science that attributed a rise in deadly parasites in marine mammals from otters to killer whales to a rise in coastal development and runoff from industrialized farming flushing pathogens into the sea.

Well, say the libertarians, industrialized farming is a byproduct of federal agricultural policy … Sure, in part. But what about coastal development paving over wetlands? Isn’t that just a bunch of right-thinking private-property-holders exercising their rights to do with their property as they see fit?

OK – but wetlands are nature’s kidneys. As the AAAS report points out, wetlands – private-property-holders of the past liked to call them “swamps” – serve a crucial ecological function: They filter pathogens and other toxins that we humans put into the water before they reach the sea.

Which brings me to how the environment works. It’s not simple enough to be made all better by keeping beer bottles out of your yard. It’s a vastly complex web of organisms (and indeed, non-organic life) interacting in a manner finely tuned by evolution.

(By the way, fun fact Google just taught me: Ron Paul doesn’t buy evolution, either. That’s correct: He’s an MD — as his supporters relentlessly remind us — and he doesn’t accept the principle that explains better than any other how, say, antibiotic-resistant bacteria develop. Friends, I’ll be spending my next co-pay elsewhere. And this guy’s telling me what’ll fix the environment?)

Here’s another reason pollution isn’t simple. Even if you’re just worried about people, and not animals and other non-human organisms, the people affected by pollution might not even know they’re being poisoned for years down the road.

And what would happen to the property-rights argument when Neighbor Bob goes claiming that Neighbor Dow Chemical is releasing toxic fumes into his airspace – but Neighbor Dow says that the fumes aren’t actually toxic, and anyway, enough of them aren’t reaching your lungs to hurt you?

Admittedly, this is a problem with environmental regulation as it now stands. (And many people beset by pollution believe, often with good reason, that government regulators collude with industry.)

But imagine the plight of polluted communities that didn’t have even the possibility of recourse to federal regulators who could prove that the air reaching Neighbor Bob’s lungs was giving him cancer. It would be his word against Dow’s. Sounds like a fair property-rights fight to me. Especially when the most polluted communities tend to also to be the poorest and least privileged. (Though I guess libertarians would just argue that that’s their fault, for not working hard enough.)

We actually don’t have to talk marine mammals to make this point. Another example involves the “dead zones” in bodies of water including the Gulf of Mexico. There, a huge patch of seawater – sometimes compared in size to Delaware – has gone eutrophic, or absent oxygen. The reason is the flood of synthetic nutrients – fertilizer – that sweeps down the Mississippi River from the agricultural areas that line it clear up to Illinois. That’s got to be thousands, if not tens of thousands of farms, blowing away a pelagic ecosystem.

Even if you don’t value that ecosystem for its own beauty and right to exist – and I suspect many Ron Paul supporters do not – think about what it does to Gulf fisheries. Who is Neighbor LaRue going to seek an injunction against? Each of those thousands of farms? Wouldn’t that take a while? Like maybe forever?

And we haven’t even talked about people who might be rich enough to buy, say, their own watershed, and be willing to pollute the hell out of it, say, with a copper mine. (Fly over Arizona if you don’t believe this already happens.) That would give them the right to destroy any species peculiar to that landscape. And no one else could say a thing about it.

Same thing if someone were rich enough to buy his neighbors’ silence about his pollution. Effectively this is happening right now, in my home state of Pennsylvania. Natural-gas drillers pay signing bonuses and royalties to landowners, who trade the cash for poisoned land, air and water. Of course, some if not all of that pollution is going to go over property lines. And good luck finding out which specific party caused it so you can get an injunction against it.

The problem here isn’t that libertarians, or Ron Paul supporters, aren’t smart. Most of them, in my experience, are. The problem lies in how they view the world.

Their worldview is a more extreme version of the way most Americans view it. Environmentally, they see nature as a collection of individual resources to be variously used, plucked or preserved for our enrichment or amusement.

Most Americans believe this, but libertarians, given their ideology privileging private property above all else, even the common good, believe it more, and more explicitly.

But nature is not a collection of individual resources. It is, rather, a series of relationships. You cannot, for instance, take large predators out of the food chain without allowing key prey species – think white-tailed deer – to run amok. You can’t turn vast stretches of forest and meadow into farmland, and then spray it with pesticides, without changing not just the crops, but the entire ecosystem in a given area.

Things will go out of balance. And every pollutant you put into the environment affects not just your neighbor, but everyone nearby – and sometimes, in the case of persistent pollutants like PCBs, everyone on earth.

The discrete-resources way of looking at the environment derives from the Enlightenment-era thinking from which sprang free-market theorists like Adam Smith. These early-industrial thinkers believed that the world’s capacity to provide us with raw materials, and absorb our pollution (yes, it existed then, too) was effectively infinite. And unlike, say, indigenous peoples who lived in nature, they didn’t understand much about ecology.

Now we know more about ecology. And we know, or should know, that the world’s ability to supply raw materials and absorb pollution is not infinite. But we still act as though it is.

And so there is this persistent pollution, everywhere you go, in almost everything you see. How does that compute in a property-rights model? Even if every square inch of land and every square mile of ocean were owned by someone – a bad idea, I’d argue, for a completely different set of reasons – how would you sort out such claims and counterclaims by the simple step of seeking injunctions against your “neighbor,” the polluter?

And here, then, is at least one reason why Ron Paul refuses to acknowledge the reality of climate change. It is because climate change illustrates what’s wrong with his private-property model of environmentalism writ large. Writ planet-large.

The problem is that humans, by our collective actions over time – including, yes, deleterious government policies, but mostly actions by individual private-property-owners – are altering, hugely and perhaps irreparably, the only climate human civilization has ever know.

We are altering, in fact, that climate that allowed agriculture as we know it to develop. And agriculture is the foundation of human civilization.

But who’s responsible? We all are. Who’s harmed? All are.

And unless we all seek injunctions against each other – or perhaps against industrial socieity — there is no way to imagine our way out of the crisis without large-scale intervention from federal governments (or their equivalent) from around the world.

Such action won’t be in itself sufficient, of course, and it might not even be forthcoming. But it’s our only hope. And Ron Paul can’t acknowledge that climate change is real unless he acknowledges that, too – a heresy in his religion of private property.

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