Confessions of an Environmentalist

A nature lover tells why he gave up on government


When I think of how completely I once accepted the premise that laissez-faire capitalism and environmental preservation are unmixable states of affairs, I have to marvel at the depth of my faith in those days—that chaotic ten-or-so-year happening now summarily referred to as "the '60s." To pull that same premise through neutral and into an opposite gear—coming nowadays to believe that the environment is in the best possible hands when privately owned and developed laissez-faire style—was a complex but satisfying shift. Satisfying, because for the first time since tackling the accelerating series of environmental issues affecting Montana, where I live, I feel myself getting a handle on the situation, grasping and understanding certain dynamics after years and tiers of disillusionment and frustration. That handle is a political logic that, in my judgment as a sociologist, makes very realistic assumptions about human nature and its implications for the environment. It is called libertarianism.

A Surprising Villain
But before detailing my about-face in political philosophy, let me first provide a context: what has happened on the environmental battlefields of Montana. For nearly seven years, concerned citizens and environmental groups fought the politics and pollution of expanding Colstrip, a Montana utility—only to see Units 3 and 4 once again under construction. Others have dedicated themselves to abating the ravage of roadless areas by industry—only to be betrayed by the federal government's series of Roadless Area Review and Evaluation, RARE I, II (and III?). Some of us went to the trouble to document both the lack of need for and the environmental consequences of the proposed Northern Tier Pipeline to bring Alaskan crude oil from Washington State to Minnesota—only to have the president bless its advent. Some have thrashed out the health, environmental, and aesthetic impacts of new power lines on our mountains, prairies, and canyons—only to see the Bonneville Power Administration now out there plotting the various routes.

True, with great effort and coalition, much of the Yellowstone River's water has been spared industrial diversion, and western Montana has been given a temporary reprieve on various unneeded dams by the Army Corps of Engineers and a beleaguered Congress. But synfuel plants are about to come off the drawing boards and into our lives; sites for new centralized coal-fired generating plants are under consideration and solicitation right now; and mineral exploration is proceeding in our wilderness areas, while uranium mining and shipment of radioactive materials throughout Montana are escalating.

All these things are of concern to those in Montana who are fighting to preserve the environment. The war to date has been waged with an unruffled faith in government as a benevolent force; but as the cumulative evidence now makes only too clear, it has been a false faith. Montana's Major Facilities Siting Act turns out to be totally inapplicable to pipeline construction— for some reason, specifically omitting pipelines from its jurisdiction. The federal Environmental Protection Agency actually disallowed the use of empirical data in favor of models in its decision to permit the construction of Colstrip Units 3 and 4. Between the actions of the Bonneville Power Administration and the federal Bureau of Land Management, much of our state has been opened to debatably needed power corridors—with the clout of eminent domain at hand to usurp private property where desired.

A federal Synthetic Fuels Corporation has sailed through Congress, and sites in Montana may soon be designated for this rapacious, heavily subsidized energy enterprise. The Forest Service continues to punch roads through the wilderness and to authorize some of the world's shoddiest logging practices in order to harvest timber in remote places—at what the Service itself admits is a net economic loss. Meanwhile, what little decisional power we might ever have been able to influence or wield at state and local levels would disappear with the threatened formation of a federal Energy Mobilization Board, which would "expedite" various "priority" energy projects by overriding local objections in favor of the "national interest."

It doesn't take much figuring to see that environmentalists in Montana have been fighting an uphill, losing battle—and the crest is nowhere in sight. Casualties are common and one-sided: the energy developers and even more so the politicians are flourishing, while the environmentalist leadership succumbs to "burnout" in response to loss after loss in legislative and courtroom skirmishes. Many have come to regard an occasional, not-too-horrifying environmental trade-off as a victory.

Some of the fighters have redirected their energies into pet personal projects, many in the field of alternative energy. Others have sought out new, more efficient routes of access to the powers that be, by running for office. The City Council of Missoula, for example, has recently taken some bold environmentalist stands that will be inspirational if and as they survive the barrage of counteractive legal action they will no doubt instigate. A group called Montanans for Public Power is mounting a direct political assault by advocating state/county takeover of all private utilities in the state, with most of the profits to be allocated to alternative energy and conservation. This effort, however, makes use of the political-industrial complex's own hated weapon—eminent domain. Many environmental activists have given up on finding any other outlet for positive energy.

Surprising Solution
But there is another way. Several of us environmentalists around the state have (somewhat separately) become convinced that the optimal approach—one that maximizes both individual freedom and environmental quality—is to return as soon as possible to completely deregulated capitalism.

As bizarre as this may seem at first, it is based, not only upon our having witnessed the clear failure of governmental authority to accomplish much of anything in the way of environmental preservation, but upon a simple historic and economic argument. In an era of new frontiers and apparently inexhaustible resources, people operating under laissez-faire capitalism "ravage and run," to put it the worst way; or, to say it another way, they make the most profitable use of resources—which, if they are inexhaustible, means not worrying about conserving them. But, that era is largely over with: we are populated border-to-border and sea-to-oil-slicked-sea, and there are no significant frontiers of real property left. There remain practically no easily accessible unexploited reserves of natural resources. Under these circumstances, the most profit will be turned by those who make the most efficient use of what is left—recovering only when it makes economic sense; recycling and conserving; replanting and restocking, etc. And the only major obstacle to this process today is the government itself—brought in to harness what were seen as the excesses of capitalism during its heyday on the frontiers, but today abetting the destruction of our environment by subsidizing uneconomic, unconserving ventures.

This is a totally different approach to the same goals espoused by Montanans for Public Power and stands in stark contrast to other efforts to legislate the condition of our habitat. But there are many reasons why the application of more government will not solve environmental problems, perhaps the most insidious being that a great fraction of our political leaders and representatives are patently purchasable. Special interests whose fortunes stand to expand to the tune of manifold millions and millions of dollars are busy lobbying daily for laws that will ensure their receipt of those fortunes, and they are not at all above spending considerable money on efforts far less legitimate than lobbying.

Then there is the fact that governmental endeavor is nearly never contained by maxims of efficiency and profit, so that government is not only provably corruptible but intrinsically wasteful. Since its functions are very often performed by persons whose chief concern is to preserve their jobs, there is a constant incentive to look useful and essential, even if that entails creating problems to solve. Somewhere in the shuffle, the public interest becomes obscured and replaced by private interests, especially by large, well-financed corporate interests.

Environmental Realism
Let me bolster this argument by returning to my earlier contention that libertarianism makes realistic assumptions about human nature and society. It assumes that people do generally look out for themselves first, that greed is real stuff, that money does talk, and that laissez-faire capitalism does have a record of persistent insensitivity to the condition of the environment.

Schools of thought which advocate increased governmental guidance and control, on the other hand, make the unrealistic assumptions that human nature can be legislated; that greed mostly or only afflicts business people, as opposed to government servants; that democracy and altruism can prevail in the long run over money as motivating forces; and that laissez-faire capitalism would today and in the future continue its wanton and ruthless legacy of environmental degradation, if allowed to. The only one of these that deserves discussion is the last, since the evidence on the others is already in.

Business enterprises, in the polar case of a completely deregulated society, would operate under the same minimal restrictions that would apply to all citizens: they would be allowed to pursue any course of action they chose, so long as they did not violate or infringe upon the rights of anyone else or any other enterprise to pursue their respective goals. Infringements are instances of the use of force or fraud by one party against another, and policing and adjudicating those instances would be one of the very few functions of government. Any other behavior would fall outside the realm of governmental authority.

In operational terms specific to environmental issues, this would mean, in the direction of enhancement of capitalistic activities, (1) an end to permit procedures, environmental impact statements, and governmental regulations on the quantity and quality of product, and (2) a very low rate of taxation—just enough to enable the police and courts to enforce the prohibitions against force and fraud. In the direction of constraining capitalistic endeavor—and thus of environmental salvage and preservation—a libertarian system would (1) discontinue the ability of any government or business to condemn private land—that is, would abolish the policy and practice of eminent domain; (2) ensure that all business activities, as well as all personal activities, would be entirely liable for any damage done to other persons or property; and (3) eliminate any possibility of subsidy or governmental favoritism, there being no governmental authority to do anything against or for the legitimate operations of private enterprise.

In a nutshell, without the power of eminent domain, without fat governmental subsidies and contracts, and faced with the prospect of accountability for pollution and other consequences of careless exploitation, no private operation could ever afford to desecrate the environment as it is being desecrated today. Decentralization, a long-revered goal of many environmentalists, would be the natural outcome of these libertarian political circumstances. Cutting corridors across miles of beautiful country would require dealing with citizens who could say yes or no to the prospect and could ask for any amount of money they desired for rights of way should they choose to sell. No amount of lobbying, bribery or other chicanery could produce a favorable legislative or executive decision, it no longer being the concern of government to permit, finance, or regulate private activity.

In other words, if governed by libertarian principles, it is doubtful that Montana would ever see Colstrip Units 3 and 4 or the hundreds of miles of publicly-built powerlines that they will entail. It would be impossible to designate our state as a "sacrifice zone" for the Northern Tier Pipeline or for any synfuel or nuclear plants, as it has been by President Carter. And who could muster the capital or the permission from the private sector to dam up our rivers if the price tag included not only right-of-way and construction costs, but reparations all the way up and down the river? But the way it is now, and the way certain dedicated thinkers would lead us, nearly all of our worst environmental nightmares have already or may very soon occur—and at our expense, since everyone I can think of is at least partly subsidized by our tax dollars.

Try It—You Might Like It
Already there are signs of a libertarian turn in environmentalist strategy around Montana, though some are not yet recognized or identified as such. For example, many environmentalists now favor the deregulation of oil and gas prices, because they understand that the resulting free market price escalation would immediately and perhaps indefinitely promote conservation. The Northern Tier Information Committee is now investing its last-ditch efforts in an effort to convince the state's Public Service Commission to charge the pipeline consortium for the enormous marginal costs of supplying it with electricity for its pumps—as opposed to the way it is now, where those costs are averaged out among all ratepayers in the state. Previously, the Information Committee had been urging the president to let all competing pipeline companies pound Wall Street for financing, especially since consortium vice-president Jim Hodge admitted that, on the open market, the Northern Tier Proposal would have a difficult time obtaining capital.

Libertarian environmentalism, as I suppose the approach I am advocating may acceptably be dubbed, is also catching on in academic circles around the state, with several strong proponents at the Center for Political Economy and Natural Resources at Montana State University in Bozeman. The practice, if not the complete political philosophy of libertarianism is additionally operative in the work of such private, and very effective, groups such as Ducks Unlimited—a 42-year-old organization that preserves waterfowl habitats—and the Audubon Society, which has recently discovered that it can preserve bird refuges and allow controlled mineral extraction within them, turning a tidy profit to help with their environmental causes. And "corporate monsters" like Weyerhauser replant trees on their own land as fast as they are harvested, even as the Forest Service squanders our public timber resources throughout the mountain West.

I believe that more and more environmental activists may come around to the laissez-faire solution as its logic reaches their ears. As novel as libertarianism may seem to this group of people, it is both historic and constitutional; it echoes Jeffersonian thought and mirrors the Bill of Rights. As visionary as it may sound, it is also practical and realistic to postulate a society in which we would largely regulate ourselves. In the era of indefinite scarcity that we are now entering, real freedom appears to be the most promising strategy for habitat maintenance and thus, ultimately, for survival. And that, to me, is the bottom line.

Lawrence Dodge is a faculty affiliate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Montana. An emigrant from urban California, he lives in a small town in Montana and publishes and distributes post cards. This article is adapted from one published in the Montana Porcupine.