Sane Environmentalism


Earth's Resources: Private Ownership vs. Public Waste, by Robert Smith, Washington, D.C.: Libertarian National Committee, 1980, 149 pp. $5.00 (paper).

In the foreword Robert Smith states, "This introductory study, a work in progress, will probably upset some people." People it certainly will not upset are true free-market advocates. Robert Smith's book may be the most comprehensive criticism to date of government environmental regulations and the misguided efforts of today's popular environmental movement.

Smith's convictions about environmental issues must stem in part from his own involvement with them as an active conservationist and past president of the Monmouth County New Jersey Audubon Society. He is personally familiar with the rationale of other, more conventional, environmentalists, who habitually support regulatory and collectivist solutions.

The root of the environmental problem, according to Smith, lies in the "tragedy of the commons." An example of this tragedy is the overgrazing of the public "commons" in preindustrial society by herdsmen seeking to maximize their gain from the public space. The result of this overgrazing was the destruction of the grassland. Smith applies this "tragedy of the commons" theory to contemporary public property—our air, water, and oceans.

Throughout the book Smith examines the impact of the tragedy of the commons on air and water pollution, resource conservation, and wildlife preservation. His wildlife background enables Smith to support his theories with illustrations involving a wide variety of animals, including clams, shrimp, lobsters, sea turtles, whales, minks, hawks, ducks, and even sea cows. These concrete examples are what set Smith's book apart from some libertarian materials that have been rather weighty on the theoretical side.

Earth's Resources is rich in cases that exemplify the ludicrous nature and failure of governmental policies. The bobcat holds the distinction of having one governmental agency, The Endangered Species Scientific Authority, trying to protect it; while another, the Interior Department's Predator Control Program, is trying to kill it. Another example of the absurdity of governmental policies can be found in certain areas of the Northwest where logging must be carried on only by horses to prevent the pollution produced by motorized equipment. The horses must be diapered so that they will not produce another type of pollution.

Smith doesn't only attack counterproductive federal actions. For every example of governmental failure, he offers a profitable or voluntary alternative that really works to further the goals advocated by environmentalists. Examples of successful private solutions to environmental problems include: the commercial farming of sea turtles (which are nearing extinction in the wild), a private hawk sanctuary in Pennsylvania that has done "more to preserve the birds of prey than all the subsequent legislation against killing them," and a growing aquaculture industry now producing the increasingly scarce abalone two and a half miles offshore California.

Smith asks us to consider why the American bison is endangered, but the Hereford and Jersey cows are not. The answer is that one has been considered public domain, while the others have always been private. The farmer will not slaughter all his prime breeding cattle. Rather, he manages his herd size to ensure a continued or even expanded yield.

Smith convincingly demonstrates that the solution to our environmental problems does not lie in further extending public ownership or control but in reducing public ownership of the nation's resources (including land) and in further clarifying private rights to air and water. The message that Smith is delivering in Earth's Resources might be summarized in the slogan: "Save The Whales—Sell Them."

I noted only one or two oversights in Earth's Resources. One concerns Smith's valid criticism of federal laws that prohibit the import and trade of certain types of wildlife. Smith quite correctly points to the astronomical profits to be made in the black market and the resulting physical brutality to and death of many animals targeted in the smuggling. He concludes that the higher prices that result from the illegal animal trade provide a greater incentive for illegal poachers to collect the animals. The other side of the supply/demand picture, however, is not considered. Higher prices paid for the illegal animals should lead to less consumer demand. When parrots cost $200 each instead of $20, fewer people will want to buy them.

Earth's Resources is now typed double-space and spiral-bound. It is being typeset and republished by the National Libertarian Party in a glossier format. Hence, this professional work will soon be available in a more professional format. Regardless of format, however, Earth's Resources is a valuable resource of data and arguments dealing with what is sometimes a difficult issue for libertarians.

Dick Bjornseth is the president of the Association for Rational Environmental Alternatives (AREA).