Some parts of the world really are environmental Hells. They are dirty and depleted, making them unhealthy and economically unsustainable. We can argue about the severity of various places’ problems, but I want to focus on another aspect of the debate: determining accurately the causes of the degradation so we can focus productively on finding solutions.
Unfortunately, much public discussion is characterized by over-the-top rhetoric in combination with ignorance of the alternatives and a latching onto the first plausible hypothesis.
If we ask Whom to blame?, the most commonly-cited culprit is The Greedy Nature of Man. Those who subscribe to this answer see self-interest, the profit motive, and capitalism as the roots of the problem. Self-interest, they argue, means that people want more at the least cost to themselves. Profit now means using up resources sooner rather than later and getting rid of the waste the easiest way possible. And capitalism‘s rule-minimalism only serves to encourage such wanton behavior.
Let’s give The Greedy Nature of Man theory a name. I propose to add a word â€“ The Greedy Nature of Man’s Evil â€“ to produce the acronym GNOME. We can get some t-shirts made up saying “GNOME Is the Problem.”
Garrett Hardin’s classic “Tragedy of the Commons” essay for Science is sometimes enlisted in support of GNOME. Hardin used the example of herdsmen using a common pasture. Each herdsman is a self-interested farmer, so he wants to put as many cows as he can into the pasture because each additional cow increases his profits. But each additional cow also means that less pasture is available for the other herdsmen’s cows. And of course the other profit-seeking herdsmen are doing the same thing. But as more cows are added, the pasture’s grasses are depleted more quickly. So the herdsmen become locked into a zero-sum competition that leads to the destruction of the pasture â€“ and to dying cows and skinny herdsmen.
The solution then seems obvious: If short-sighted self-interest is the problem â€“ if anti-social profit seeking is the problem â€“ and if capitalism’s anything-goes laissez-faire is the problem â€“ then the fix will require a powerful institution able to override people’s selfish profit-seeking and to impose rules about resource use that take into account society as a whole’s long-term needs. That is to say, the government should manage society’s resources.
In the case of the herdsmen, for example, the government should tell each herdsman how many cows he may put out and for how long. It should mandate that each herdsman does his fair share of maintenance and improvements in the pasture â€“ weeding, fence-building, well-digging, waste collection. It will hire police to ensure that none of the herdsmen are cheating or shirking. And it will impose taxes in order to fund the rule-making and monitoring. That is to say, wise environmental policy will require lots of rationing, conscription, policing, and taxation.
Hence the authoritarianism of much current environmentalism, with calls for greater powers for this or that government agency and even a world government.
“Basic resources and companies should be in the hands of the public sector and society,” argues this document prepared for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Further: “sustainable development can only be achieved from a global perspective and cannot be achieved only in the national level.”
The Greedy Nature of Man analysis has seduced many an angry young environmentalist and many a politician. But GNOME does run up against some contrary data and a powerful competing hypothesis about the cause of environmental degradation.
Consider, for example, this list of the 25 Most Polluted Places on Earth.
Actually â€“ before you look at the list, make a pair of guesses:
- Of the 25 most polluted, how many do you think will be in the relatively free-market parts of the world?
- How many of them do you think will be in the socialist, formerly socialist, authoritarian, and other big-government-friendly parts of the world?
Or you can trust my counting: Russia and India top the list, each with three of the Earth’s most polluted places. China and Azerbaijan each have two. The following countries appear in the list once: Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Iran, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Congo, Tanzania, Zambia, Haiti, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Peru.
Now for the interesting bit: Every one of those countries is also very economically unfree. The Economic Freedom of the World Index ranks 178 nations from most-free economically to least-free-economically. Russia ranks 143nd. India ranks 128th. Here are some more ranks: China (139), Iran (171), Haiti (151), Argentina (169), Congo (170) … and you can check the rest yourself.
The point is: the dirtiest places in the world are also the least free market and the most anti-capitalist.
By contrast, sample the nations that are relatively high in economic freedom: Hong Kong (1), New Zealand (3), Switzerland (5), Canada (6), Bahrain (18), Sweden (23), South Korea (29), and others are representative examples here. In those nations there is plenty of profit-seeking self-interest and capitalism is encouraged â€“ and those nations are relatively clean environmentally.
So the popular GNOME hypothesis faces a paradox: It tells us that profit-seeking capitalism causes environmental death, but the data indicate that more capitalism correlates with more environmental health. It also tells us that government management should save the environment, but the data suggest strongly that environmental Hells occur most often in big-government societies.
Which means that we should also consider a competing hypothesis.
That hypothesis also has two components. One is that government-managed societies are plagued with problems â€“ incompetence, bureaucracy, corruption, and perverse incentives. So we should expect inefficiency and unintended consequences in such societies.
The other part is that we should give self-interest and free markets more positive credit when it comes to environmental values. Self-interest includes wanting to live in clean, healthy, and beautiful environments. Humans are intelligent enough to understand big-picture consequences and long-term profitability. Private property and free markets can and do incentivize wise resource use and proper waste disposal.
Further: capitalist nations become rich â€“ and rich nations especially have the resources to solve environmental problems as they arise.
Let’s call that the Capitalism Loves the Earth As Needed hypothesis. We will return to CLEAN in the next part of this article, along with another way of looking at Garrett Hardin’s useful example of the herdsmen and the Tragedy of the Commons.
Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at StephenHicks.org. For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at .
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