Growing Orchids on the Moon

When I was a kid, we used to eat a lot of crawdads or crayfish or whatever the real name for them is. We would seine for them in our creek. My job was to walk behind the seine, pick them out, and put them in a bucket; thereís a trick to it. Later, my job was to prepare them for boiling. They look like little lobsters and I would twist the tail section off. Then I would take out the digestive tract by pulling out the middle fin on the tail. I remember hoping to find crawdads with big enough pincers to eat; I must have liked that meat better. Once they're cooked, you dip them in melted butter. I donít know which is better, crawdads or lobsters. I havenít had either for years.

Once we caught a turtle in our seine. I refused to pick it up because I had heard so many stories about how snapping turtles can take off fingers, etc. Someone else picked it up and we had turtle soup that evening. I later read that turtle has seven different flavors (beef, lamb, chicken, fish, etc.) according to what part of the beast you eat, but I have no memory of what it was like.

It occurred to me that we could just string a net across our creek and have anything we wanted from it. My father explained to me that we did not own the creek in the same sense that we owned the land. If we used a net to catch fish we would be stealing from the people downstream. This seemed reasonable to me. It wasnít until much later that I gave it more thought. We owned a portion of Sugar Creek, which flowed into Paint Creek, which flowed into the Scioto River, which flowed into the Ohio River. On the Scioto River is a paper mill. They pour white sludge into the river by the ton. Anyone who has been near a paper mill probably remembers the truly disgusting odor that they produce. I think the company eventually built a huge chimney so that the smell would be carried off to some other town.

Why did we have to be such good stewards of our creek when the mill was turning the river into a dump and stinking up the air? Why? Because everyone had agreed to those rules. We are all at the mercy of our neighborsí ideas about property. If I had lived downriver from that paper mill and claimed that it was violating my property rights, no one would have taken any notice of my complaints. If I were a black man in the ante-bellum South, I might have made the very reasonable claim that my body and labor were mine, but it would have done me no good.

On the other side, governments can hardly enforce property claims that are not shared by the vast majority of the people. At different times governments have prohibited people from using their money to gamble, buy alcohol, purchase drugs, etc. In order to enforce these rules they have had to fight wars with their own people, wars against human nature. None of these wars has been very successful. Today, most people see nothing particularly wrong with stealing from large corporations, very rich people, or the government. Despite the efforts of the state to enforce the most basic laws, huge amounts of money are simply taken from them every year.

So what should people do with the river: keep it in its natural state or treat it as a chemical dump? Hereís my point of view: This question has no objective answer; it is a conflict between people. I say that the decision about how to use the river depends on the subjective value that people place on it. Suppose that Earth were conquered by intelligent aliens. For some reason, these aliens decide that our sewer systems should be protected from contamination. They call them subterranean wetlands. They ban the use of drains and toilets and provide an antimatter system for the elimination of waste. Unfortunately, this system costs $300 a month per household to operate. Most people would find these aliens tyrannous. Under certain conditions, using the river as a sewer is the most beneficial human use for it.

Human values change, of course. Gomez Addams comically campaigned on the issue "Save Our Swamps" in a 1960s TV show. Now politicians humorously include "Protection of Wetlands" in their platforms. The Israelis were said to have "made the desert bloom" in the 1960s; they will probably be condemned soon for destroying a "pristine environment." My point is that the decisions about the uses of the natural world are always human ones: one set of humans against another. Some people may fear the extinction of cuddly koala bears but would applaud the extinction of the polio virus.

From my point of view, there is no objectively correct use for waterways, air, or privately owned land; there are only differences of opinion between people. I would say that the proper use is the "best human use." The state ownership of huge amounts of land, water, and air complicates matters. I hope that we will eventually develop structures that allow these assets to be privately owned. Until then, they will continue to be underused or poorly used, traditionally as dumps. Our commonsense notion of private property dictates that the owner of property should be able to what he wants on it unless his use trespasses on someone else. If I own a forest, for instance, I should be able to clear-cut it and sell the wood.

Environmentalistsí dictates are not necessarily in conflict with the best human use of resources. The most profitable use of Yellowstone National Park may well be as a park. If that is not the case, people may be willing to underwrite its preservation as a park, which is just another way of enforcing its best human use. This best human use can roughly be determined by what people are willing to pay. I want to clear-cut my forest and sell the timber. I might actually make more money by cutting more carefully and replanting. The value of my land and of wood is set by what other people will pay for them. The choice between clear-cutting or careful husbanding depends on the subjective value that other people put on the wood and on the wooded land. Insofar as I am motivated only by the desire for money, my decisions are actually determined by the values of other people.

Arguments about the use of property are never couched in these terms. People declare themselves to be environmentalists and claim to act on behalf of the environment. They introduce an abstraction that I donít accept. What is this environment? Apparently it is everything, so that everyone has a claim to everyone elseís property. Some people would call that socialism. I move into a house with a nice view. Someone buys the next hill and parks his trailer on it. I can simply accept his right to do so and resign myself to having him spoil my view. If I want my view back, I can also buy it or, at least, pay the view spoilers to tidy things up. If I introduce the concept of the environment, everything changes. My selfish desire for a nice view becomes an exercise in civic altruism.

Every time I hear someone talk about the environment, I mentally substitute the ambiance. It clarifies the discussion for me.

Other words pop up in these discussions: Earth, Gaia, Mother Earth, the planet. Like environment, these are magic words used to hide selfishness and abash anyone who disagrees. What is impressive about them is their very scope. How can you argue with someone who is speaking on behalf of The Planet? This is a god. Of course not everyone accepts Gaia as god, but using the vocabulary of Max Stirner, many people accept it as a spook. (For the Introduction to Stirnerís The Ego and His Own, see A spook is any entity whose good the individual places before his own.

Even if people do not totally accept a religionís god, they are inclined to believe in its devils. In this case, most voters are more than willing to condemn corporate polluters as poisoners of the air and water. The concepts of the devil and evil are very powerful. They allow the individual to use violence with a clear conscience. If you and I disagree, we may turn to violence, but only after all else has failed. If you are convinced that my position is evil, you see violence as the natural tool to use against me. Since violence is the fundamental tool of the state, it is quite natural that its villains are depicted as evil: evil cigarette companies, evil polluters, evil racists.

The general population accepts the ideas that the environment has rights and that evil polluters violate these rights. As such, they are willing to accept government control, government control over other peopleís property. I read a poll that said that most people put environmental concerns ahead of cheap and abundant energy. If I offered 9 out of 10 of these people a million dollars to turn the whole state of Alaska into a toxic dump, they would jump at the chance. If I gave the people of California the choice of having 10 new soft coal burning power plants or continuing with rolling blackouts, the power plants would win in a landslide. Environmental concerns are low on most lists of worries.

If the actual costs and effects of environmental legislation were laid out before the people, they might reach different conclusions, but these details are always hidden behind a smokescreen of obfuscation and exaggeration. I believe that many in the environmental movement are liars. They achieved the sort of environment that they wanted in California by blocking the building of power plants. When the blackouts started, they should have pointed out how clean they had made the air in that state. Instead, they slandered the energy companies. When the price of gas hit $2 a gallon during the election, the Green candidate, Ralph Nader, claimed that his plans would have kept the price lower and more stable despite the fact that many of his followers advocated $3 and $4 gas.

Is there global warming? From what Iíve read, Iíd say that there is a 50-50 chance. The globe is either warming or cooling or staying the same. Iíve seen nothing to convince me that it is warming. Has the human race caused global warming by producing greenhouse gases? I donít know, but if it is, the problem is caused primarily in China and Europe. Suppose that the temperature of the globe were to drop 1 degree for the next 5 years. Is there anyone who believes that the environmentalists would advocate an increase in production of greenhouse gases? Of course they wouldnít. They would blame the same gases for the decrease in temperature. Iím sure they already have the computer programs ready in case the temperature does drop.

So hereís the situation: The temperature of the globe must either fall or rise or stay the same. In the short run, it doesnít stay the same. If it rises, modern industry is to blame. If it falls, modern industry is to blame. Letís say we accept the argument so far. We have the technology to produce energy without producing greenhouse gases: nuclear technology. It, therefore, follows that those concerned with global warming should advocate the use of nuclear power. This is not the case. Evil polluter caused global warming is the Gaiaistís Book of Revelation.

Can you think of an environmental concern that is not a matter of life and death? I canít. There is an exception. Certain environmentalists would like to reduce the human population to a tenth or less of its present level. I can understand these people. They are serious people who put their god ahead of any human feeling. They identify the evil as humankind, as me. I understand them but I disagree. Most activists try to convince us that their prescriptions will help people, at least in the long run.

Is the air poisonous? Will it kill a certain number of people? Do some atmospheric chemicals cause cancer? If a man poisons your well, everyone can agree that he has committed a trespass against you. Does a factoryís smoke or trash cause you to fall sick? The case is not so clear. Nevertheless, the activists will show you figures and charts that prove that the factory was at fault. They will extrapolate these figures to show how many murders the factory has committed.

If you express some doubt as to the truth of these dire claims, the activists will invite you to compromise. They will ask, "If these chemicals kill only a quarter of those we claim they will, we still have a big problem." I am not of a mind to compromise. I say that the burden is on them. If I were to accept even the lower figures, I would be accepting their entire argument. I need more proof.

Suppose that they make their case; nevertheless I ask why a person is entitled to clean air. Perhaps the person should move elsewhere for the benefit of the entire population? The Declaration of Independence proclaims that we are all entitled to the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This statement is the beginning of all the problems. It amounts to a claim on free police protection, or rather socialized police protection. In the same way, the right to clean air gives a certain segment of the population the power to dictate air quality.

This may sound harsh, but letís consider the socialization of the air. There are 8760 hours in a year. Imagine that a person with a lung disease lives in a town of 50,000 people. The people have industries that foul the air. They burn coal in their fireplaces and generally disregard air quality. Their way of living will reduce the sick personís life by 10 years, or 87600 hours. The person with the lung disease asks the townsfolk to change their ways; but if they do, their work load will increase. Letís say that it would cost the inhabitants 2 hours a year of extra labor apiece. Thatís 100,000 hours. Cleaner air would cost the people of that town 100,000 hours (of extra labor) minus 87,600 hours (of the individual's extra life. Thatís 12,400 hours of life. By cleaning up its air the town experiences a net loss of 1.5 years: clearly not a good socialistic outcome. No one wants to do this sort of calculation. They hide behind the concept that no one can put a value on life. If you donít put a dollar value on life, someone will steal the hours of your life, one by one.

The general population vaguely accepts that the air and the water are poisonous and that the Earth is heating up. What could people do without the state? They could boycott polluters. They could start their own environmentally sound businesses. If the majority of the people wanted something, they could have it without the state, and at a lower price. Hereís a secret: Every state, democratic or tyrannical, thwarts the will of the people. The truth of the matter is that the environmentalists have not convinced many people; if they had, they wouldnít need the government. That old coot who lived on Mt. St. Helenas would have left if had been convinced that the mountain would have exploded. He had simply heard too many dire warnings in his life.

In a sense, this doubt is not entirely the fault of the environmentalists. More than half the people in California believe that they are the victims of a fraud, that California has plenty of energy. People have become cynical. They are tired of wars on racism, wars on drugs, wars on cigarettes, etc. War is to the state what water is to a garden. Without a real war, politicians have to manufacture metaphorical wars to excite the people. They use the same tools: propaganda, demonization, fear mongering, exaggeration, and outright lies. The people grow weary and cynical.

One of the saddest results of these well-intentioned movements has been their corruption by government. Once a god is created and argument is no longer permitted, the lawyers move in. The high point of the civil rights movement was just before the passing of federal legislation. Corruption in the state tobacco cases was blatant and widespread. Consider the Superfund. "Superfund money comes from a special federal fee charged to businesses that work with or produce hazardous chemicals. According to some estimates from (Clinton EPA Deputy Administrator) Hansen's Thursday presentation, as much as 80 percent of Superfund money now is going to government lawyers arguing with private-sector lawyers over responsibilities for hazardous waste sites."

Iíve heard the libertarian arguments on environmentalism. They claim that libertarian principles will produce a clean environment. This claim seems cowardly to me. Without government intervention, people will get the sort of environment that they desire, and that may not be the cleanest. We are told that drilling in Alaska would destroy a pristine environment, meaning one closest to its prehuman state. I donít know why Iím supposed to regard this as a good argument. A "pristine environment" is interesting, but the insistence on it reminds me of the demand for virginity. Virginity in a bride is a good characteristic, I suppose, but not the only characteristic to be considered.

The libertarians point out that the worst pollution occurs on public or undefended property. One gave the example of New York City, where you can walk through filthy streets into perfectly maintained apartments. They also note (with a great deal of truth) that environmentalism is a rich personís obsession. Once you eat regularly and have some money in the bank, you start looking around at your surroundings. Before then, you arenít very concerned. Examining the environments of China and Russia in comparison to that of the United States gives some weight to this argument. The libertarians claim that they will make everyone richer and so the environment will naturally become cleaner. If you had enough money, you could grow orchids on the moon.

Here's what I believe. No one has any rights over property he doesnít own. Everyone has the responsibility to take care of his own property and protect it from trespasses. The notion of trespass is evolving. It is very difficult to draw the line between a personís use of his property and his trespassing on mine. This line must be drawn by the general society; we need standards that nearly everyone agrees with. If the people shirk this responsibility, the government will take it over. They are then condemned to an environment that is created by political forces. Those who control the state will merely decree what is acceptable and what is not. In Russia, this amounts to turning the rivers into sewers and the land into a toxic dump. In America, we may have an environment that is so clean that its cost impoverishes people (and delays the day when they will desire a cleaner environment).

When I was growing up, there were shacks in the hills and on the outskirts of town; they were inhabited by hillbillies and poor blacks. They didnít have running water or electricity, but sometimes you could see bright new cars parked outside these unpainted shacks. Poor people were driving rich peopleís cars to the detriment of their overall prosperity. In America, we may have a rich personís air and water even though we canít afford it. Perhaps this is not the case, but it hasnít been proved to me.