There seems to be a deeper meaning to environmentalist thinking that requires exploration. Our willingness to identify ourselves with institutions and other abstractions, and our preoccupation with “ego-boundaries,” are not confined to separating ourselves from other people. One of the many victims of our divisive thinking has been nature itself. Western civilization— drawing upon the Old Testament’s “Book of Genesis”—has long had a separatist attitude toward the rest of nature. “Man” was to have dominion over all living things on earth, a vertically-structured relationship founded upon the subservience of nature to human control which, like any political relationship, is bound to produce conflict. The biblical view of nature as being inferior to man is further evidenced in the “garden of Eden” story, wherein mankind was expelled from “paradise” and sentenced to what Westerners have since regarded as a second-rate neighborhood. Even our language reflects our sense of alienation from the earth, as we speak of being born “into” the world instead of “emerging from” it. If our daily thinking was better informed by what the biological sciences have to say about the origins of life, we might better understand how mankind has grown from the earth; that the earth is our home, not our prison; and that nature does not need to be subdued or dominated, but only understood and appreciated.
By regarding ourselves as dominant over nature, we made ourselves separate from it. In so doing, we also made ourselves both superior and inferior to it. Our superiority is expressed in our anthropocentric power over the world, while our sense of inferiority derives from our belief that, having been banished to earth for the “sin” of being human, that we became trespassers upon the property of others. This idea is so deeply embedded in our thinking that it emerges not only in the environmental and animal “rights” movements, but in the condemnation of Europeans for having discovered the “New World,” as well as in the notion that humans ought not to behave in ways that “upset the balance of nature” (i.e., to exhibit any human influence). Such attitudes, while ostensibly respectful of nature, divide mankind from it and, consequently, generate the very conflicts that the environmentalists condemn. How does mankind—an expression of nature—upset the “balance” in the environment any more so than the wolf or crabgrass, each of which seeks to expand its presence in the world? If we are “apart from” nature, instead of “a part of” it, the rest of nature will continue to be just one more “other” to be subdued and controlled.
It should be clear that if we are only able to act in the pursuit of our respective self-interests, and if we continue to insist upon thinking of ourselves as differentiated from the rest of nature, including our neighbors, we will continue to pursue our interests in dominating, strife-ridden ways. If, in our concern to protect nature from the consequences of our thinking, we are unable to move beyond the simplemindedness that insists upon posing the “good guys” against the “bad guys;” of “socially responsible” activists against “greedy” businessmen, we shall only continue to play out the vicious, coercive games of “us against them” that have gotten us precisely to where we are now. In this regard, the industrial polluter and the politically-active environmentalist are both engaging in the same conflict-ridden war against nature: socializing the costs of pursuing their interests by disrespecting the boundaries of others.
Perhaps there is a direct correlation between our disrespect for nature and our disrespect for the concept of private property. After all, polluting the air, waterways, or lands of others, are just other ways of disrespecting property boundaries—of not confining our decision making to what is ours to control. Why should we be surprised that, in a society that has so little regard for private property, people would fail to make the distinction between what is and what is not within the proper range of their behavior? Furthermore, experience with collective ownership should inform us of the advantages of privately owned property. We know, for instance, that the owner of a parcel of land, or a business, has a greater incentive to care for and conserve the value of the property than does a non-owner. As we saw in the “tragedy of the commons,” individuals have an incentive to take as much from collectively owned property as they can. Finally, when the state sets the social example of disrespecting the lives and property of others, why should we be surprised to discover men and women exhibiting the same disregard not only for their neighbors, but for the rest of nature?
Perhaps it is more appropriate to begin our inquiry not with the question of whether private ownership and voluntary practices can protect the rest of nature, but whether political systems—founded as they are on force and conflict—could ever conceivably do so. The range of our actions will be limited either by the property principle confining us to the boundaries of what we own, or will be defined by state regulations. The latter approach, which does not necessarily invoke propertybased limitations, tends to socialize the costs of satisfying the preferences of those unwilling to incur the costs of negotiating with owners.
Lest we be seduced by the trappings of political power in the course of our desire to enhance and protect life, we ought to ask ourselves whether we are respecting life, human or otherwise, when we confront it with coercive practices. Our current social pathology is grounded in “command and control” systems that rob life of its self-directed, autonomous, and spontaneous character. Since nature is the expression of life on this planet, any system that denies life its self-controlling qualities, reflects hostility to nature itself. Any who doubt the dispirited and dehumanizing consequences of trying to control life processes, are invited to compare the quality of the lives of American Indians living freely within their traditional tribal cultures, and those living on government managed reservations.
I had a discussion with a number of my students one day on the question of whether the state, under the guise of protecting people’s health, ought to have the authority to prohibit the sale of foods made with trans-fats, artificial sweeteners, chemical preservatives, or other ingredients deemed “harmful.” Should the state be allowed to prohibit individuals from smoking, or from engaging in dangerous activities? A number of these students acknowledged such rightful powers by the state, arguing that if people didn’t look after their own health, the government should do it for them. I asked them if the essence of liberty did not include people being free to calculate their own risks and to act on the basis of what their judgments informed them. They dismissed this suggestion as “idealistic.” I reminded them of a previous political leader who was bent on using the power of the state to eradicate cancer, an end that included the prohibition of tobacco. I informed them that this man favored government-supported medical research, but not upon animals and that, in his obsession with making his country healthy, certain categories of human beings came to be looked upon as “diseases” to be eradicated. That leader’s name, of course, was Adolf Hitler,4 a revelation that seemed not to dissuade these students from their ambitions to save humanity from the consequences of “wrong” choices.
I asked these students why, since they had no respect for other people, they cared whether they lived or died as a result of their lifestyle habits? “The essence of life,” I suggested to them, “is autonomous self-direction, and you are prepared to deny this to those who would make decisions in their lives that differed from the choices you would make in your own.” I received plate-glass stares in response, and suggested to them that they be wary of those who seek to sterilize the world.
Many self-styled “environmentalists” express concern over what they perceive as the menace of commercial or residential development, a matter that does not preclude them from enjoying a home that was the product of earlier such developments. Their conditioned response has been to call upon the state to limit, or even prohibit, development in areas they would like to see preserved. Such efforts generate conflict not only between themselves and other property owners, but also with the state and those affected by the restrictions. A more socially harmonious approach, one whose efficacy is a matter of record, is found in agreements with property owners. A number of privately owned, voluntarily supported organizations have been responsible for preserving literally millions of acres of forests, wetlands, watersheds, redwood trees, and other natural resources. Some environmental groups have made increased use of contracts, rather than state violence, to purchase wetlands, forests, water rights, or other property interests from owners, to accomplish their objectives. “Conservation easements,” purchased from landowners rather than forcibly taken by regulation or eminent domain, have become an integral part of a system of voluntarily supported environmental practices.5I know of two communities whose residents were desirous of preventing a developer from purchasing adjoining land for the purpose of creating a housing development; individuals committed their own resources to purchase the targeted land from its owner, thus controlling by property ownership the nature of their town.
When we lived in the Midwest, our family had a membership in a very large, private forest preserve along the Missouri River. This organization accepted no government money, relying instead on the voluntary support of people who valued the preservation and expansion of the forest. When local residents found injured wild animals, as we did on one occasion, they often took them to this preserve, where a veterinary staff cared for the creatures until they could be returned to the wild. While recovering from their injuries, these animals were displayed in cages that created a transient zoo that people could visit. Similar organizations provide such facilities and services throughout the country. In contrast to those who believe that a respect for the environment necessitates a separation of humanity from “nature,” this forest preserve encourages hiking along its trails, offers instruction in plant and animal life, and even sponsors programs such as Halloween trail walks for its members.
A major problem with a politically-based environmental movement is that it seeks to compel a kind of identity with and respect for nature where it does not freely exist. This is the underlying shortcoming of all political programs: by forcing people to act inconsistently with their own non-trespassing preferences, the state introduces conflict into society. Because there is a division between what individuals want to do with their own lives and property and what the state compels them to do, the result is to generate the increasing lack of integrity one witnesses in politically-structured societies. We are now suffering the political, economic, social, and environmental consequences of having learned to separate and distinguish ourselves from the world—including our neighbors—in which we live. In the words of Mark Twain, many of us tend to believe that “[n]othing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.”6 Unless we can fundamentally alter our thinking, we may be destined to make human society even more intolerable. But most environmentalists, like social reformers generally, have little patience with mankind learning a new paradigm; like fanatics of every persuasion, they want results now! Thus, they try to force the consequences of an altered consciousness without such a transformation first taking place.
In spite of the limited understanding associated with all complex systems—the interrelated nature of the earth’s geologic, atmospheric, and life processes in particular—many environmentalists presume to impose upon all mankind standards of conduct that will bring the rest of us into conformity with their inconstant speculations. Should any of us believe these warnings to be valid, we are capable of effecting a change of consciousness that would cause us to change our behavior. To that degree, we would be reducing, or even eliminating, our contributions to what we perceive to be a problem. But such individualized transformations are rarely satisfying to those in a hurry for change.
There is a self-righteousness in employing force to bring about the kinds of behavioral changes that would otherwise result from an alteration in thinking. Such arrogance underlies the modern tendency to treat preferences, values, tastes, and attitudes not as a range of options from which men and women can freely make choices, but as political issues to be resolved by compelling an undeviating conformity upon others. Since tastes and values are constantly changing to accommodate vacillating fashions, having the state enforce any set of preferences upon others tends to frustrate those whose own understanding is at a different stage of development. It may also arrest further change within those whose choices have been preempted. Those who insist upon employing such methods rarely bother to inquire into the costs—particularly the personal and social conflict—associated with such practices.7 But then, patience, as well as a sense of humility and perspective, are rarely exhibited by the zealots of any social or political cause who, burdened by the illusion that their values represent “objective” truths, are much more inclined to see existing conditions as crises to be overcome at all costs.
Those desirous of reforming the behavior of others have an impatience with the marketplace because of its foundation in people freely committing their own resources to ends they value. A free market analysis only tells us how we humans make decisions, not what decisions we will make. The content of our decisions, in other words, depends entirely upon our personal, subjectively determined preferences—upon the content of our consciousness. If a person principally values monetarily quantifiable results, these values will predominate in the pursuit of his or her self-interest. On the other hand, to the extent one values such non-quantifiable factors as aesthetics, sensitivity to the suffering of others, the pursuit of abstract philosophic principles, or simply living in harmony with others, these values will be given great weight in the motivations of such a person. There is no better evidence of the economic ignorance of most people than the commonly held assumption, too often fostered by economists themselves, that economic motivations are always and exclusively defined in terms of increased monetary rewards. The history of the early private turnpike companies in America demonstrates a continuing commitment to the building of roads known, in advance, to be monetarily unprofitable. Broader social benefits were apparently the motive for persons to invest in such projects.8 Those are few and far between who understand that a person who refuses a lucrative defense contract out of a revulsion against war is also making a profit-maximizing decision. All of us act in order to be better off afterward than we would have been had we not acted. How each of us defines “better off” is subject to as many translations as there are values that motivate us.
The free market, in other words, is a barometer of the strength of people’s varied tastes and values, as reflected in their willingness to devote their own assets to a purpose. By contrast, the relatively cost-free expression of values in public opinion polls or voting booths tells us very little about the extent of people’s commitments to such ends. It is not the marketplace that limits any of us to the pursuit of material values, but the limitations we have placed upon our own thinking. Furthermore, the marketplace maximizes the opportunities to advance our values by allowing us the unrestrained authority to invest our property interests on their behalf. One who is sensitive to the importance of protecting the environment is capable of developing a market, a demand for the satisfaction of these values, as surely as the more narrowly focused, monetarily defined profit maximizer will seek the satisfaction of his interests. Whether we choose to do so or not is but a reflection of the intensity of our demands in choosing to pursue our values.
Impatience with the values of others is commonplace in our politicized world. Indeed, the disregard most of us have for the inviolability of privately-owned property derives from the realization that, in a free society, outcomes we desire depend upon the choices others make regarding their own lives. It is far better, many of us reason, to compel others to comply with our interests. Such attitudes prevail not only in commercial or industrial pursuits, but in the fostering of social, ideological, or other philosophic values.
As individuals, we may experience some insight into a fundamentally different sense of our relationship with other people and the rest of the world. This new vision begins to inform our consciousness in a significant way. But instead of allowing this experience to play itself out within our mind, many of us become anxious to confirm its validity by projecting onto others the behavior that we believe are its consequences. We become driven to control the behavior of others so that their conduct will reflect our new vision. In such ways do we try to bolster our own newly-discovered resolve by imagining that the coerced obedience of others is a reflection of shared values. As with so many other aspects of our lives, we have learned to regard our inner experiences as unimportant. Rather than permitting such insights to develop themselves into a radically altered personal consciousness, we settle for the ersatz transformation of our outer world, which we deceive ourselves into believing can be produced through coercive, political means. Is it any wonder that we rarely become what we dream or feel?
If you and I are to experience a spiritual revolution, I suspect part of the change will consist in our learning to think of “life” not just as a material entity, but also as a process—less as a noun than a verb. As long as we regard life only as objects and things, we will—as McLuhan suggested—want to manage and “care” for it in some smothering, paternalistic fashion. Most of us have treated life as little more than a “resource,” useful for the achievement of the ends of those wanting to control it. This is what has made conservationists and environmentalists such a depressing lot. Like missionaries of every faith, religious and secular, they are able to recite the gospel and exude all the proper shibboleths, but exhibit very little of the élan vital that is the very essence of life.
As suggested earlier, we need to remind ourselves that our interest in pursuing such nonmaterial values as spirituality, aesthetics, alternative lifestyles, physical and emotional wellbeing, environmentalism, and a host of other philosophic interests, has arisen as a consequence of our having figured out how to produce material prosperity. The same conditions of respect for liberty, the inviolability of property boundaries, and voluntarily-based relationships that allowed us to discover the superiority of the marketplace for our material well-being, will provide the same base from which to pursue other ends as well.
The arrogance that seduces men and women into a passion to control others should be tempered with an awareness of orderly systems that do not arise from the limited understanding of the conscious mind. As the study of chaos and complexity illustrate, the ability to foretell the outcome of a course of action is dependent upon the identification and analysis of so many interconnected and constantly fluctuating variables as to make the behavior of complex systems—including the environment—uncertain.
Much of the environmental movement is driven by an implicit faith in the ability of state-directed systems to identify and regulate to desired ends factors affecting global temperatures, the ozone layer, population growth, the extinction of species, the depletion of rainforests and agricultural lands, pollution, and other matters. Far too often, this article of faith is more an expression of fidelity to an antiquated, abstract dogma than a product of empirical inquiry. It is reinforced by the deeply engrained assumption that a complex world operates on the basis of linear regularities rather than the inconstant dynamics of nonlinearity. When predictions of mass human starvation, species extinction, increased numbers of hurricanes, and environmental collapse have been measured against the resulting data, the expected doomsday scenarios have failed to materialize.9 This failure of expectations has not prevented the eighteenth-century social prophet, Thomas Malthus, or such modern descendants of his views as Paul Ehrlich, Edward O. Wilson, Lester Brown, and others, from continuing to be revered even as their dire predictions have failed to materialize. Perhaps an increasing familiarity with the dynamics of complexity will make us more aware that the capacity to predict rests upon a “sensitive dependence upon initial conditions,” that such prescience can never be known to us, and that the power to coercively regulate human affairs in such matters would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of people whose hubris will not allow them to see the limitations of their understanding.