Ripping Off Mother Earth

The theft of the environment


Pollution is theft.

When an industrialist fills a river's water with chemical wastes that will end up in a downstream drinking supply; when a farmer uses a persistent, non-selective pesticide; when just about everyone operates automobiles that spew toxic fumes into the air, this is theft.

When an industrialist releases his wastes to the air rather than developing reclamation methods, basically he is passing off research costs onto an unknowing (and if they know, unwilling) public who pay with poor health. Barry Commoner has pointed out this transfer of costs. I'd like to take his observations a few steps further. Without these additional steps, the pollution problem, I believe, cannot be solved.

Each of these activities set into motion a chain of occurrences that will either immediately or eventually cause harm to an innocent person. Industrial and automotive fumes, dispersed into the atmosphere, lead to a rise in the incidence of cancer and respiratory disease. The various cides, especially DDT, have already dramatically altered the environment, usually at someone's immediate loss. Mr. Commoner tells us that we must decide whether we are willing to pay these indirect, often hidden costs as a price of technology. Perhaps we'd prefer a higher cost per kilowatt hour to air blackened by cheap coal. One way or the other, he says, we must decide.

The problem with this analysis, even though it is correct in part, is that it does not individualize the matter. That damn we. "We" don't decide anything; you and I and each of our neighbors decide things, individually. Because pollution is a problem experienced by individuals, defined by individuals, and created by individuals, any approach to the problem that does not deal with it on an individual basis, will not work. Perhaps through a non-individualized approach, the air could be brushed clean, the water scrubbed clear, the ecosystem adjusted. But it's not likely. Just look at the effects of the anti-pollution regulations already in effect. Terrible. Things just keep getting worse.

Pollution is defined by individuals. One man's pollution is another's paradise. A few nights ago, at a local outdoor rock concert, the strangest haze of smoke hung over the crowd. For anyone downwind who didn't happen to like the smell of pot, I guess that cloud would be pollution. To the freaks, it was pure ecstasy. There are no predetermined standards as to what is or is not pollution; it's entirely up to the individual to determine for himself what he is willing to subject himself to. No bureaucrat or ecologist or industrialist should tell him.

If objections to environmental alterations must be listed, on an individual basis, so too they must be judged. There are many times when people have done things to the environment that I don't like, but because of the nature of the things, I do not have the right to expect them to desist. American cars are a drag. Can I demand my neighbor turn his in for a foreign model so that I don't have to look at his beast? Some method of distinguishing ethically appropriate objections from those which are spurious must be found. The way to do this is to develop a set of universally applicable and recognizable non-conflicting claims to the earth's materials—property rights.

But human rights are based on the recognition that the individual, not the collective is the proper area of focus for those who wish to improve society. Property rights are rights of individuals to specific material. Most of those in the ecology movement, however, have as their goal, not the improvement of each individual's life, but "survival of the (human) species" (or "preservation of human life"), and often even more delimited or irrelevant goals, such as population control or preservation of the biosphere in exactly its present form. True, these are currently necessary, but only as means to the end of individual survival and happiness. They are not sacred in themselves. Individual and collective survival are not the same thing. Concern for the survival of the species can mask a total disregard and hatred for individual human life. If, however, one works from the opposite direction—concern for the individual—the survival of the species is logically assured.

This lack of individualism has prompted the ecologists to often blame the wrong people for pollution. Detroit is accused of the pollution created by millions of automobile users, which is akin to blaming the boiler makers for Con Ed's fumes. Blame, or lack of it, is a consideration of individual nature; certain people are guilty (to whatever degree) and certain people are innocent. Environmentalists with visions of saving the world, but who don't seem to give a damn about the people who comprise it, will never be able to distinguish between the two classes, guilty and innocent, and therefore, find themselves unable to cope with the troubles they describe or predict.

You don't believe it? Think about this. Two recent books, The Careless Atom and The Perils of the Peaceful Atom, describe the adverse effects of the activities sanctioned or undertaken by the federal government's Atomic Energy Commission and point out that the AEC knows about these effects. The AEC recognizes that its radioactive gas flares and atomic reactors and atomic testing leak biologically active isotopes to the air and water, but it claims the amount involved is insignificant, hardly greater than natural background radiation. Sure a few extra people will die, (the AEC has actually conducted studies to determine the exact number) due to cancer, but it's a small price to pay for progress and the general welfare.

What can the ecologist whose case rests on the preservation of the species, which is nothing but a variant of "the general welfare," say in reply to this? Either he can begin to question the nature of the concept of the general welfare itself or he can indict the AEC as being counter to whatever he defines the general welfare to be—in which case the ensuing argument ("No, we're not." "Yes, you are.") will last well into the atomic catastrophe that kills us all. The ecologist can protest until the end of the world, but unless he begins to argue in the name of individuals, he might as well be signing the planet's death warrant.

The ways in which so many of those in the ecology movement are undercutting their own arguments are innumerable. Although many are beginning to see the impracticality of depending upon the government to clean up the mess, the process of realization is slow and painful; most still support some form of political action. This belies an inconsistency. If pollution is objectionable because it robs people of an environment that is rightfully theirs, how can tax- (theft) supported programs be any less objectionable? Theft is theft. Why should it make any difference if my wallet is emptied by the choking fumes of the industrialist or the 1040 forms of the bureaucrat? The corollary of the truth that pollution is coercion is that coercion is pollution. Both are but variants of the same evil, that of treating people as if they were here to be used, pushed around, consumed. The term environment should not be limited to trees and buildings and rivers and automobiles. It includes one's financial context and political freedom. Without freedom to move, what good is space to move in?

Despite the fact that Russia has tighter control over its people for longer than any other government, the air is no sweeter in Moscow. Don't look to the political structure for eco-solutions. The political structure, along the set of ideas that brought it into existence, is responsible for the problem. If, as many ecologists predict, we will eventually be forced to turn to government for population control, pollution abatement on a grand scale, and everything else, you can kiss the earth goodbye. Man will have failed. The government has no answer but to level a gun at someone. And a gun is no solution to the complex matters that concern the ecologists. Because of the nature of government, the only methods of operation at its disposal are non-individualized. Such methods are bound to fail. Guns are not the solution; they are the problem.

Presumably, widespread famine (or whatever catastrophe gets us first) won't be pleasant, but government-directed famines can be expected to be worse. Here I refer the reader to the work of the free market economists for their discussions of the inherent inefficiency of government, or, if you think that source biased, to any young person who has worked for the government. (I have.)

The point is, if the "private sector" fails, there isn't any point in turning to the state. One's best bet is to head for the hills. Distant hills. If private enterprise fails it will be because it never learned to individualize the problem, something the state, being simply a vehicle for power aggrandization, will never do. To turn your troubles over to the state, then, is to say you don't really want them solved. It is to say you have given up.

Pollution is theft. The way to fight theft is to abolish it, not to adopt it as one's mode of action. When those ecologists who today do not recognize this finally do, we can proceed to save the earth. Until then, we cannot. Will the recognition come in time?