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by Justin Jefferson, senior columnist

Why Political Environmentalism is Bad for the Environment

The idea that human resource use is bad because it is exploiting and harming “the environment” presupposes that there is intrinsic value in the environment, and that humans are not worthy of using natural resources because human life degrades these higher superhuman values. But this is mystic animistic nonsense. When we as people ascribe value to trees and nature, we are declaring our own subjective values, not identifying objective values, from a God’s-eye view as it were, that are in a tree or nature itself.

However taking this belief at face value, it means that human use of natural resources is not justified.

When this is pointed out, the environmentalist usually shifts to claiming that human use of natural resources is bad because our present use deprives future people of future use and enjoyment of nature. His concern is for human welfare after all. It is not sustainable.

However if we are to discuss the issue in terms of human welfare, then it must be resolved in those terms. It is not permissible to keep slipping back into mystic nonsense about superhuman values intrinsic in nature. Talking about values over and above human values, that require the sacrifice of human value or human life, can be nothing but a cipher for a desire for power.

In terms of human welfare, the problem is how to balance the use of natural resources to satisfy human wants now, while conserving the usefulness and beauty of nature so that future generations can benefit from, and enjoy nature no less.

However it is not a solution to this problem to call for decision-making power over natural resources to be vested in our “elected representatives”. This is because, as the original problem is that the people in general are considered unwilling or unable to conserve resources properly, we will not be any better off if the politicians use their powers to represent this interest in wastefulness.

Much environmentalism is caught on the horns of this dilemma: both deploring government control of natural resources, and calling for more in the one breath.

On the other hand if the people in general are considered as willing or able to conserve resources properly, then vesting power of decision-making in government will be worse, not better for the environment, for three main reasons.

1. Problem of Knowledge

Firstly, the elected representatives will be faced with the same problem as faces the individual: how to balance using particular natural resources to satisfy certain human wants now, with conserving natural resources from being wasted, so as to satisfy human wants later. At least the people have widely dispersed local knowledge about soil, water, local species, pests and how best to conserve resources locally. But if there are 20,000,000 people as in Australia, and 500 elected representatives, each politician will have only one forty-thousandth of the knowledge set that would otherwise be available to solve the problem.

There is no way the elected representatives, or any of their delegates or committees whatsoever, will be able to marshal anything but the tiniest fraction of the total knowledge set that is available to the whole population through the market.

2. Problem of Greater Wastage in Loss than in Profit

Secondly, capitalism is not just a system of profit; it is a system of profit and loss.

The job description of the capitalist is to use the factors of production – all of which use natural resources –– earlier in time, to make a final product to be sold later in time. Profit means that the mass of people, acting through the market, put a value on the final product, that is greater than the value they had put on the factors of production that went into making it. On the other hand, a loss means that the mass of people as consumers valued the alternative possible uses of resources that were expended to produce the final product, more highly than they value the final product.

This means that when a final product is produced at a loss, we are wasting natural resources compared to when the same product is produced at a profit, in terms of the satisfaction of human wants.

(Remember it is impermissible to slide back into the original human-abnegating appeal to values above human values, and argue human wants should not be satisfied in the first place. The problem we are faced with is not whether, but how to balance present human wants against future human wants.)

The point is, if things are not to be produced at a profit, then they must be produced at a loss. In urging decision-making about the use of natural resources to be transferred to government, environmentalists are calling for production that uses fewer inputs per unit of output, to be replaced by production that uses more inputs per unit of output. In other words, the environmentalist is calling for production that wastes more natural resources than less, mistakenly believing that this is good for “the environment”.

We have only to think of all the environmental interventions, on all productive processes, by all layers of government, in all states of the world, to realize that the waste of natural resources being caused by the economic ignorance of the environmental movement is truly enormous. But worse, for people at the margins of subsistence, being forced to sacrifice these values in production in effect forces them to sacrifice their lives.

Large corporations involved in the use or exploitation of natural resources are only large because large numbers of consumers voluntarily pay them for their goods and services in satisfying human wants. If instead of few large corporations, we used many small traders to achieve the same result, the wastage of natural resources to achieve the same human welfare would be much greater.

Large corporations are large because they provide society with economies of scale that reduce the waste involved in satisfying human wants per unit of output. They are profitable because they reduce the amount of inputs per unit of output that would otherwise be expended or wasted. Environmentalists’ own behaviour in demanding food, clothing and leisure causes the very economic phenomena they then despise for supposedly harming the environment.

Since making losses is even more wasteful than making profits, environmentalists have no recourse at this stage but impermissibly to slide back into the original anti-human assertion that people have no right to use natural resources to satisfy their wants, nor to live, on the ground of alleged superhuman values.

3. No Evidence or Reason to think governmental decision-making better able to solve original problem

Government officers have no ownership interest in the natural resources they officially control, and pay no price for getting management decisions wrong. If decisions are mistaken, or disastrous, they get paid the same anyway; and can’t be sacked.

A while ago I drove through productive farmland. All of a sudden we came to land infested with weeds declared noxious by the NSW government.

“Whose land is this?” I asked a local.

“That’s government land.” he replied.

Should we really be surprised? Will anyone suffer a loss of income, or lose his job, as a result of this mismanagement of natural resources? On the contrary! This will be an occasion for the government employees and their trade union to claim it is proof the government needs to give them more “resources”.

But the whole rationale for putting natural resources under government control in the first place was because governments were supposed to better at solving the issue of how best to manage scarce resources!

A Better Way

It may be said that the government land had greater biodiversity, while the farm lands did not. But that is because the farmers are trying to produce food rather than biodiversity, because the people of the world, through the market, are telling them that they want food in priority to biodiversity.

If environmentalists were to buy these lands themselves, or pay the private landholders to produce biodiversity, or native forests, or kangaroos, there is no doubt that per unit of input, the private owners would far outperform the government bureaucracies in producing any of these outcomes.

It is ironical that the original self-loathing that prompts people to declare humans to be a plague, transitions into the overweening arrogance of wanting to control every action of every person in the world, even to the point of dreaming of genocide; but does not extend to voluntarily offering to pay for the values they want to force everyone else to pay for under compulsion.

Yes there are real issues of natural resource use facing the people of the world. But vesting more resources in common ownership or political decision-making can only make matters worse, not better.

The political environmentalists’ assumption that more government control is better able to resolve or balance these issues, is just as lacking in evidence, reason or sense, just as pitiless and destructive, as the belief that human beings are unworthy of living.