In South Africa and several other African countries, the most magnificent endangered species have made a roaring comeback from the brink of extinction. What is responsible for this happy turn of events? Governments are allowing the animals to be hunted. That makes the animals valuable to landowners and to local people (who are accorded property rights over the animals on common land). Trophy hunters will pay $8,000 to kill an elephant, instantly converting the local people into game wardens, intent on husbanding the herd.
So long as the animals were "protected" they were worthless to the local people who therefore viewed them as pests. Elephants were slaughtered as vermin to keep them from trampling crops. Predators were killed to protect livestock. Wild herd animals ate the forage that domestic livestock needed. Now the locals are getting rid of their domesticated herds and managing the animals that have evolved to live there.
After all those years of environmentalists crying out "the animals are dying off, we must protect them!" it turns out that it was the protection provided by environmentalists that was killing the animals. It is like those drivers who mistake the gas for the brake and, still imagining that they are pushing on the brake, step on the gas with all their force right up until the moment they smash, faces twisted in bewildered horror.
This is the problem with the environmental movement in general: it is Ehrlichian. Stanford Biology Professor Paul Ehrlich epitomizes the environmentalist conviction that alarm about enviromental dangers, and alarmed response to them, are the things most necessary. Being right in any particular is an inconsequential detail. Starting with the publication of his influential book The Population Bomb in 1968, Ehrlich has proven to be one of the most fabulously incompetent prognosticators in history, predicting unrealized gloom and doom many times over. (The world was supposed to be in the throes of mass starvation by the mid 80's.) Yet he remains perfectly satisfied with his efforts. He has been pushing his foot down on the pedal as hard possible and he believes that is what matters. He has been raising the panic, screaming "protect!" What could possibly be wrong with that?
There are two pedals on our pretty blue "car." One is liberty. The other is socialism. Environmentalists, unfortunately, are always mistaking the brake and the gas. When they cry "protect!" the corollary for them is always "protect from exploitation." By whatever historical misfortune, they are almost always socialist in their fundamental reactions. But every true environmental disaster is caused by a failure to fully exploit the environment, because fully exploiting the environment means properly accounting and pursuing all value. Exploitation is exactly what we need, and exploitation is what liberty efficiently accomplishes when prices properly account costs.
When we want to go, liberty is the gas and socialism is the brake. Liberty sees what is valuable through every open eye and acts for it through every connected limb. Socialism is a blind bull in a china shop: Ehrlichian bureaucrats thinking that if only they care breathlessly enough they will know what they should be telling everyone else to do. When we need to stop liberty is our brake pedal, accounting the loss and avoiding it. Socialism is the gas, blindly charging ahead.
Consider Erlich's pet topic: population control. He thinks that the solution is for everyone to stop at two. This is absurd. Whether reproduction is responsible is determined, not by the number of siblings, but by whether parents have the resources to raise the child well.
A system designed to optimize and employ liberty would give parents help in raising children if they need it, but bill that help fully to their account, to be paid back in full, with market interest, over the rest of their lives, so that incentives to responsible behavior are fully maintained. So long as prices include environmental costs, the costs of raising a child will fully incorporate environmental costs. Then if the value to the parents of having a child is greater than the cost, they should have the child, but only if they can raise him well, which means being able to bring the child up to prospects of being able to support himself (which entails that his own income, the value he produces, is greater than his cost of living, including environmental costs). When a person's net value to the world is positive, the world, including the environment, prospers.
Because raising children well takes resources it is children in wealthier societies who are likely to produce the greatest net value to humanity and the environment. Ehrlich is backwards on this too. He thinks that an additional person always does net harm, measured by their level of production/consumption. Thus he thinks it is reproduction amongst the wealthy that most needs to be curtailed.
I think of wonderful little Katie, a one year old girl who watched me remodel her house. One day I was bending over at the top of the stairs nailing on a riser when, looking upside down through my legs, I saw Katie looking at me upside down through her legs and laughing. Another day I went to get her mother: "you've got to come look." Katie was trying to wrestle the bottom of a downspout that wasn't even loose. When we got back she had it in her lap and was looking through it. When a man working on the furnace set the house on fire, I flew to her room.
Katie is a third child. Imagine being such a confounded idiot as to think that she shouldn't have been born. Living amongst tut-tutting Ehrlichian environmentalists, her mother told me she felt guilt about having three children but that she wouldn't forgo Katie for the world. If it weren't for the culture of Ehrlich she might have had still another Katie, and we are immeasurably poorer for the loss.
The prosperity that will redound to this girl's brilliance and energy is not a measure of her cost, but of her worth. Who do you think is going to save the world? People need to stop having children they can't or don't want to raise (which can be effected by the simple remedy of not letting parents escape the costs). But the world needs all the well raised children, capable of prospering, that it can get.
Thanks to its Ehrlichian nature, fixated on alarm rather than sense and right, modern environmentalism has devolved into Luddism. Prosperity and the economy that generates it are thought to be bad, so anything that derails the economy must be good. A slight but highly visible example is carpool lanes. Environmentalism saddles us with carpool lanes, not because they are efficient, but precisely because (in addition to satisfying the socialist desire to tell others what to do) they are inefficient. By removing a lane from other drivers, carpool lanes turn freeways into parking lots, which does the double service of punishing the bad (non-carpooling) drivers for their intransigence and throwing a wrench into the economy.
Environmentalists are on average the most viscerally anti-capitalist group in America. Somehow they got it into their heads that exploitation (using things) is bad, and they are using their tremendous influence (who isn't in favor of the environment?) to expand government socialism and obstructionism. They think they are stepping on the brake, trying to impede the economic progress that is the enemy, but actually they are stomping on the gas, sending us headlong into immeasurable losses, for economic progress is just the securing of value, including the value of the environment, if we will simply price it.
Our economic system of liberty is our brake pedal for avoiding losses and it is our gas pedal for going where we want. Everything else is just a smash-up.
(Alec Rawls is pursuing a Ph.D. in economics.)
Sidebar: Ehrlich Equalitarian?
Next article in Utilitarianism volume of Moral Science: Are Feminists Pro-Choice?
Next article in Mr. Knowitall series: Limited Government
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