Protecting the environment should be one of the top priorities of governments. Here are some random thoughts on a few things we should be doing to save the planet.
Strong Government Actions are Necessary
Environmental protection is probably the biggest area in which libertarian
principles are completely unpersuasive. I just don't think that the free
market provides sufficient incentives to adequately protect forests, streams,
wetlands and other critical habitats, maintain biodiversity, reduce greenhouse
gases and other harmful emissions, and preserve the aesthetics of unspoiled
nature. So it's clear to me that strong measures must be taken by
governments to protect the environment.
As a first step, governments should eliminate all subsidies to environmentally harmful industries or activities (and I think even the hard-core libertarians would agree with me here). For example, the U.S. Forest Service should not subsidize logging on public lands by building logging roads.
Instead, governments should be spending their resources on things like public transportation, land conservation, hazardous waste clean up (although, where possible, polluters should be required to pay for the clean up), park maintenance, scientific research into cleaner energy and other "green" technologies. etc.
Where there are reasonable alternatives to environmentally harmful substances or activities, there should be outright bans. Ozone depleting chemicals, the excessive use of pesticides, and logging in old growth forests are examples of things that should be eliminated by enforceable legal prohibitions. And every effort should be made to globalize most of these prohibitions through international agreements. Where there are not reasonable alternatives, governments should support research into cleaner substitutes, and the harmful substances and activities should be phased out as quickly as possible.
Raise Taxes on Fossil Fuels and Other Harmful Substances & Activities
Next, the taxing powers of governments should be used so as to encourage conservation and environment-friendly practices (recycling, organic agriculture, etc.) and discourage environmentally harmful activities (such as burning fossil fuels).
For example, the taxes on gasoline should be substantially increased. Compared to other developed nations, the gas taxes in the US, and the resulting retail price of gas, is incredibly low. I guarantee that if it cost 50 or 100 US dollars to fill up a car's tank (as it does in other parts of the world), there would be far fewer cars on the road, and people would buy more fuel efficient automobiles. Of course, any major increases in the taxation of fossil fuel would have to be phased in slowly and carefully, so as to avoid runaway inflation or other major disruptions to the economy.
If it were significantly more expensive to drive, cities and towns would be compelled to substantially improve public transportation options (which they should be doing anyway), and the increased tax revenue would provide at least part of the funds to do this. Then, most people would limit their car use to occasional short trips, emergencies and special occasions. Here in the United States, we have to get over the absurd notion that driving everywhere we want to go is an absolute "right." Unfortunately, the automobile has become so ingrained in American culture, it will take some drastic measures to get more people out of their cars and on to public transportation or other modes of transportation (bicycles, walking, etc.).
Whenever I bring up raising the gas tax, somebody inevitably argues that this would only hurt the poor. "That's not fair, only the rich would be able to drive!" This kind argument relies entirely on accepting the notion that driving your own car is an unconditional right. You don't hear people complaining about the high cost of gold by saying "it's not fair, only rich people can have a lot of gold!" And you don't even hear it in the context of other modes of transportation. Cross country and international airline flights are expensive, but people don't normally find class inequities just because the rich can fly more often than the poor. Like it or not, in a free market system, where there is a limited commodity, the rich are able to get more of it. And if we want to reduce road congestion and the high level of emissions resulting from the burning of fossil fuels, then we need to make driving individual automobiles a "limited commodity." The most efficient and effective way to do that would be to raise the price of gasoline (through taxation) to a point where people are willing to change their habits. If there is a concurrent commitment to providing reasonable public transportation, any resulting inconveniences should be minimized.
Protect Public and Private Land from Harmful Uses
Another controversial government action that I fully support is land use restrictions. Unfortunately, there is the "takings clause" in the U.S. Constitution that puts limits on how far the government can go in restricting the use of private land. The jurisprudence is fairly complex (and I'm no expert on the topic), but basically, if a regulation affects the market value of the property too much, then it is a "taking" and the government must compensate the land owner - thereby making some land use regulations too expensive to implement. In my view, the takings clause should be interpreted literally, so that it would only apply if the government exercises eminent domain and literally takes the property.
But beyond any constitutional limitations, there seems to be a pervasive view that if I own a piece of land, I should be able to do whatever I want with it. For some reason, many people view land ownership differently than the private ownership on any other kind of property. There are clearly many prohibitions on what I can do with the things I own. Traffic laws are all about what I can and can't do with my car. If I were to own a gun (which I wouldn't), there are obviously all kinds of laws that limit what I can do with it. I can buy a portable radio, but I can't walk into a residential neighborhood at 3 o'clock in the morning and play it at full volume.
Broadly speaking, there are two primary reason why a person might want to buy a piece of property - as a place to live or as an investment (or a combination of the two). If you are buying the property as a place to live, it is hard to see how environmental land use restrictions could adversely affect this. Most rational people would prefer to live and raise their families in a clean and healthy environment. So, if anything, environmental protections would raise the utility of the land for that purpose. If, on the other hand, you are buying land as an investment - whether that be to locate a business, exploit the resources of the land, or merely speculate on the value of the land - then environmental land use protections could have an adverse affect on you. But who ever said that investments of any kind are risk free? If you want something where you can be assured that you will not lose any economic value, put your money on a federally insured savings account. As with any other investment, if you want a higher return, you have to assume some risk. And one of the risks in investing in land is that environmental regulations may affect the purely economic valuation of the land. Besides, protecting your investment in land could even be helped by environmental regulations. Just imagine if you just built your dream home, and then your neighbor decided to strip mine her land, or open a garbage dump, or build a chemical factory . . .
Individual Action is Also Necessary
Of course, government actions will not solve environmental problems unless individuals do their part. Individuals can help by recycling and buying recycled items, composting yard and food waste, cutting down on excessive consumption (the whole "simple living" thing), reduce the unnecessary uses of heating and air conditioning, using public transportation, etc.
Avoid Eating Meat
Another important thing individuals can do is reducing or eliminating meat from their diets. Beyond the health and animal cruelty issues, there are a huge number of adverse environmental impacts from the production of meat. Enormous amounts of land are cleared for cattle grazing and for raising feed for livestock, and much of this land is in extremely sensitive areas, such as rainforests. Farmers must plant and harvest sixteen pounds of feed crops in order to produce one pound of beef. If farmland were used instead just to produce crops for people, we could feed far more people using far less land. Plus, once all this land is cleared to support meat production, it is then decimated - both cattle grazing and the chemically intensive methods that most farmers use to raise feed crops for cattle are major contributors to topsoil loss. Moreover, the pollution caused by chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides used to grow feed crops, and by the excrement of chickens, pigs, and cattle, runs off into rivers, lakes and oceans, killing fish, coral reefs, and anything else that depends on clean water. And speaking of water, about 50% of the water used in the United States goes to livestock production, contributing to the rapid depletion of our natural aquifers. Bottom line: avoid eating meat.
And Don't Have a Lot of Babies
And finally, we wouldn't have to go to all this trouble if there weren't so many people on the earth using up resources and spewing out waste. Overpopulation is the fundamental root of most environmental problems. So we should all support family planning efforts internationally, and if you really want to take personal responsibility for saving the planet, don't have big families.
24 July 2005