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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Property and the Environment III

One of the propositions uniting the environmentalists is that we humans are depleting the ozone layer, and that this condition will be detrimental to all life on the planet. Because we have only recently discovered this hole in the ozone, we have no way of knowing what conditions existed there before our presumed collective depletion of it, nor what state of the ozone is or is not conducive to life. Furthermore, while “global warming” is an established fact, there is no consensus—the politically-inspired speculations of Al Gore and Bill Clinton notwithstanding—among scientists as to how much of this change has come about as a result of human activity, and how much is an expression of millions of years of temperature fluctuations that preceded human presence on Earth.10 The suggestion has even been made by some scientists, that global warming may increase speciation by expanding territories into which more life may flourish,11a conclusion that would seem to contradict earlier views that such warming would foster the extinction of some species.12Furthermore, before giving too much credence to the gloomy forecasters of the effects of “global warming,” let us recall those equally authoritative voices (some of them the same persons!), who two and three decades ago were prophesying a “nuclear winter” and the return of an “ice age.” What this suggests is that the dire warnings of the environmentalists are highly speculative at best, and remain subject to the admonitions of the students of “chaos” about the inability to make extended predictions regarding complex systems. If the environmentalists are in error, governmental policies extended across the entire planet are likely to be quite costly to all of life.

Nor should the rashness of those who presume to control the life processes on earth go unchallenged in the face of such scientists as James Lovelock who has offered the “Gaia” hypothesis 13 to explain the spontaneous, fluctuating processes that have maintained a life-sustaining atmospheric balance since long before the emergence of humans. His original work suggested that life processes on earth, with the oceans and atmosphere functioning as the regulatory mechanism, maintain the conditions that are conducive to life. More holistically, Lovelock expanded his theory to include the entire earth—organisms and the physical environment—as an integrated, self-regulating system.14 “Gaia,” a concept he later referred to as “geophysiology,” can be seen as a complex, self-regulating system, able to respond to changes in external conditions (e.g., an increase in the output of energy from the sun) so as to preserve environmental stability.15 Lovelock’s thesis finds support in the 18th century work of James Hutton, regarded by many as the father of the study of geology, who characterized the earth as a “superorganism,” with geologic circulatory systems analogous to those found in biological systems.16 A similar analogy was later voiced by T.H. Huxley,17as well as more recently, by Guy Murchie,18 and Lewis Thomas.19If our planet can be thought of as a self-organizing, self-regulating system—a holographic system, if you will—might not a similar view of human society offer us a more effective way of addressing the uncertainties and complexities of life?
Let us not forget that, because of entropy, nature has always been a hard and uncertain place; that most of the species that have ever lived on this planet became extinct long before mankind’s arrival; that life sustains itself only by feeding on other life, only by converting natural resources to the use of the actor; that the rest of nature produces forest fires, pollution, poisoned rivers, earthquakes and continental drift, deadly tornadoes and hurricanes, tsunamis, and soil erosion without the help of human beings; that the universe itself probably came into being as the result of a fiery explosion and may very well end in a cosmic gridlock that physicists call the “big crunch”; and, finally, that life as we know it today was able to emerge only because of the most catastrophic act of pollution in earth’s history, namely, the appearance some two billion years ago of oxygen in the atmosphere, which poisoned all anaerobic life forms and made way for the rest of “us.”20 And in our quest to save “endangered species,” let us also remember that it was the extinction of the dinosaurs, perhaps brought about by a comet- or asteroid-caused atmospheric pollution that made way for the proliferation of “us” mammals.21 Nature is quite orderly, although its patterns of regularity proceed from no apparent agenda, and are not always beneficial to existing interests.
Those who wish to employ their own energies and resources to do something to preserve natural resources, rather than just holding press conferences to condemn developers, lumber companies, or petroleum companies, or to call upon the state to create yet another intrusive bureaucracy, have every opportunity to do so. In fact, many have discovered the increased effectiveness of themselves employing, rather than violating, property principles to accomplish their purposes. Environmental groups have spent many millions of dollars in courts, legislative halls, government agencies, and the media, fighting lumber companies over the fate of the redwoods. How many acres of such timberland might have been purchased and preserved, through private ownership, with this same amount of money? How much greater feelings of closeness to nature, rather than just a coziness with politicians, lobbyists, lawyers, and bureaucrats, might have been fostered by people devoting their resources directly to the private purchase of forests, marshlands, and coastlines, rather than political influence? What genuine sense of empowerment might have been experienced by those who could have exercised control over such lands as owners, rather than interlopers? How much social conflict, including depriving farmers of opportunities to profitably till their own soils, or causing severe injuries to lumbermen by the tactics of some violent environmental groups, could have been avoided by treating their fellow humans—who are also a part of nature—with the same respect that other animals accord the ownership claims of members of their species? As indicated earlier, that a number of organizations have recently been using private money to fund agreements with property owners shows how a change in perspective can achieve mutually desired ends without resorting to violence.
Bearing in mind that the production of entropy is an inevitable part of the life process, might adherence to the property principle provide insight into how to reduce the dumping of entropic wastes into the atmosphere, waterways, and the lands of others? To what extent have industries and governments contributed to these conditions by failing to internalize the costs of disposing of the unwanted byproducts of their activities? Are the environmental problems we experience anything more than an unintended consequence of our refusal to respect the inviolability of one another’s property boundaries; of our failure to live responsibly by incurring all of the costs of our actions? Can we transcend the divisive mindset that allows us to see others, and their property, as resources to be plundered in the leastcostly manner possible?
If we were to view life from a holographic perspective, we might understand that we are more than just “mankind”: we are “life” itself. We might then experience our interconnectedness with all of nature. Becoming aware of how the survival of a particular species depends upon the resiliency that comes from the capacity for change and variation, we can then understand how these same conditions are essential to the survival of the life system on earth. Life itself—not just human life—thrives best in an environment in which variation and mutability provide it an extended range of options with which to respond to changed circumstances. Just as nature did not settle upon the dinosaur as some ultimate expression of life processes, despite it having enjoyed many millions more years of planet-dominating success than we humans have thus far managed, mankind may not prove itself capable of sustaining its need for resiliency and change. Should this be the case, the life system may have to turn to alternative expressions of its expansive needs. Perhaps the dolphins will replace us as the repository for nature’s experiment with advanced intelligence. Mankind may not need a proliferation of other mammals, birds, or plants in order to survive, but life, itself, may require a wide range of species in order to maximize its opportunities for flexibility in its continuing experiment on this planet. At the same time, however, while the life system has advanced to highly complex forms of expression, it has kept its options open: nature has not given up on single celled forms. Should the more specialized species prove unable to respond to changed conditions, they may—like the dinosaurs and civilizations—find themselves swept aside, with life continuing its experimentation in either simpler or more complex forms.
There is a trait shared by many environmentalists and animal-rights advocates that I find troublesome. In the name of respecting and protecting “nature,” many tend to keep human beings—a significant part of nature—out of the equation of interests to be considered worthy of attention. A popular motion picture theme has involved humans endeavoring to liberate animals from various confinements or life-threatening situations. Such films as Born Free, Turtle Diary, Free Willy, and Fly Away Home, have permitted us to experience, albeit vicariously, a strong emotional sense of closeness to other living things as they struggle to pursue their unrestrained nature. But as I listen to the uplifting music and lyrics from Born Free, I cannot help but wonder why these same sentiments and insights rarely find expression in films about the repression of human beings. If a story about people liberating turtles from a zoo is so emotionally compelling, what about a film involving the liberation of children from those zoos we call government schools? To those concerned with the fate of dolphins trapped in tuna nets I would ask: what about the condition of human beings whose lives are caught up in the restraints of government regulations? If it is important for other species to enjoy the liberty and spontaneity that represents the very essence of “life,” why are human beings not accorded the same considerations? Are we so fearful of confronting the anti-life implications of our institutionalized thinking and attachments that we can do little more than transfer to other animals our needs for autonomy, spirituality, spontaneity, and respect? Science fiction writers, Montesquieu, and such utopian and dystopian novelists as George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Samuel Butler, and Jonathan Swift, have created fictionalized societies for their writings as a way of deflecting attention from their own societies, thus masking a criticism they chose not to make directly. Are we so unwilling to openly examine what we are doing to ourselves? And, if so, why?
It seems clear that a change in our perspective could and perhaps will contribute to peaceful social change. In order to illustrate the “butterfly effect” of such a change, I would like to relate an experience I had, a number of years ago, with one of my students. This young woman is a fervent champion of the “rights” of animals, and she once told me that her principal reason in attending law school was to become a competent lawyer who could represent the interests of animals. She even seemed to have some clear idea of what their interests were! In one of our many discussions, I asked her about the wisdom of using political methods to accomplish the changes that she desired. “If individuals effected a change of consciousness so as to become more sensitive to the suffering of animals,” I inquired, “would legislation serve any valid purpose?”
“Of course not,” she responded.
“And if people did not experience such attitude changes,” I went on, “would legislation cause them to do so?”
“Probably not,” she admitted.
“And so, if people who do not share your sentiments become legally obliged to stop doing what they want to do, and to act as you want them to act, are they not likely to feel resentment and conflict?” I asked.
“Probably,” she acknowledged, “but what else can we do?”
“Have you considered peaceful alternatives that do not rely on political enforcement that only creates more conflict?” I replied.
“But that might take a long time,” she went on.
“Do you know how long it takes to get one single case through the courts, or to get a piece of legislation enacted? And this says nothing about the monetary costs of doing so,” I answered.
“But the approach you’re suggesting assumes that other people will change,” she said.
“Were you always a vegetarian and animal rights advocate?” I asked. This young woman acknowledged that she had not been, and went on to relate how her conversion came about when, in high school, she had had a conversation with a friend on the subject of eating meat.
“Did this friend try to force or intimidate you to become a vegetarian?” I inquired. She answered in the negative, adding that her friend was not even a vegetarian himself, but had only been challenging her thinking with questions.
“And so, what caused you to change?” I asked.
“I simply became aware of how we were making animals suffer, and I couldn’t be a part of that anymore,” she responded.
“Do you think that other people might also be capable of experiencing such an awareness?” I queried. “Furthermore,” I continued, “do you think that you—as an animal rights proponent—might be at least as effective in helping others to understand this, as your high school friend, who was not a vegetarian, was in helping you to become aware?”
My student had no immediate response to this. During the remainder of our conversation that day I asked her whether she thought it might be possible for her to devise methods of protecting animals that would not put her in a position of conflict with those who did not share her sentiments. She said she would think about it. In fact, as she later told me, for the next few weeks she went through a good deal of self-questioning about whether it even made sense for her to remain in law school. I didn’t see much of her during this time period, but then, one day, she stopped by my office with the brightest smile in her eyes. “Did you read the article about the seal hunters who gave up hunting, and now use their ships to take people on Arctic tours to observe seals, whales, and the like?” she asked.
What a lovely example of how a change in perspective, a rephrasing of the question, can make us more sensitive to the consideration of alternative solutions to what we perceive as problems. This is the only way in which any meaningful social change can ever take place; it will either arise within each individual, or it will not occur at all. It will either manifest itself through the commitments men and women make with their own lives and property, or it will only amount to political posturing, empty rhetoric, and the proliferation of conflict with others. Those who insist upon change coming from above, as something to be imposed upon mankind by institutional authorities, have given up on people. They have lost their confidence in the life processes that exhibit themselves only within individuals. We have tried gods, institutions, laws, rulers, and ideologies, in a futile attempt to establish order in society by the assumption of power over the lives and property of other persons. It is now time to give people a chance to bring order to the world by bringing themselves to order. Let us begin with ourselves. If it is truly our purpose to help lead others toward a greater respect for nature, then let us lead by our example of learning to respect nature as it manifests in the lives of our neighbors.

Boundaries of Order: Private Property as a Social System

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