The Libertarian Environmentalist: A New Beginning of Localism

True environmentalism is rooted in the individual; it is a movement based on education, connection with nature, and working to show people the sentimental side of nature that only comes through direct experience (not from Al Gore, a president, or some political rally). It is a movement based on individual liberty, responsibility, and localism. In fact, the principles of true environmentalism are nearly identical with libertarianism. However, common mainstream environmentalism does not focus on the education and knowledge of nature nearly as much as it uses the environment as an excuse to push forward a political ideology.

The simple fact is that government cannot sustainably change the way people approach the environment. If you see a logger cutting down a tree on his own property, is it morally defensible to hold a gun to his head preventing him from going any further? Is it acceptable morally if a collective group like government holds the gun to his head? When you approach nature from the standpoint that only the government can protect it, you are essentially giving in to the ridiculous idea that only through coercive collective force can nature be preserved.

“Nature will not be admired by proxy.” – Winston Churchill

This is not to say that all people in the environmental movement want to coerce people into their vision of the planet. However, the movement has become one only rooted in a political movement. And yet, they somehow seem surprised that not many people subscribe to the belief that you must expand government force to keep people in line with the environment. The thinking goes that without preventive collective force, “capitalists” (somehow people exercising their freedom as individuals are separate from everyone else) supposedly would ravage the environment and build as many hotels, stores, and resource-consuming projects as possible on the nation’s most beautiful land.

One of the most frustrating things for me to see, especially with teens and young adults, is the firm belief that government legislation is the ultimate way to bring about environmental change. We had a very kind lady come to my small private high school this past fall to talk about issues like climate change and the usual rhetoric from today’s environmental organizations. At the end of her presentation, this lady tried to get kids excited by announcing the “Declaration of Energy Independence” (a list of energy policies and subsidies for the federal government to undertake) that was to be signed by Barack Obama. This lady’s group and the mainstream environmental movement has it stubbornly implanted in their heads that our environmental fate lies with the government or a president.

I told her clearly that even though I did not believe the science or reasoning behind her presentation, I would certainly work to reduce waste and increase efficiency in my area. No person is going to argue, “Darn it all, I want my waste and inefficiency if it’s the last thing I do!” There is tremendous value in efficiency, and efficiency comes about naturally and most effectively in a free, non-coerced society. Incentives for efficiency do not come from government force, they come from natural free market competition and the God-forsaken profit motive common in a laissez faire society built on liberty.

Unlike a business in a free market, government does not convince you of the value of its product, it coerces you into taking and subsidizing the product whether you desire it or not. It is absurd that people have their heart set on the belief that the market recklessly destroys nature, and they just as easily fall into the trap that noble political servants know the ideal method to provide value and conservation to the environment. The detached and costly process of government intervention is the last thing we need to encourage responsibility, efficiency, and sustainability. We need individuals utilizing the power they carry as human beings! This is a key principle that probably all libertarians agree upon, and it is a principle that true environmentalists should take to heart.

No one can argue against a cleaner planet. The environmental movement would gain ongoing support from individuals of every background if it disregarded political motives and instead focused its resources on bringing education and direct nature experiences to people, as well as using resources (as many organizations have done past and present) to purchase land with the intent of preservation. Consider how much longer lasting an environmental group’s efforts would be in actually purchasing some beautiful land and opening it up to tourists, educational visits, and explaining the importance and benefits of conservation. Given the amount of people who support environmental projects, simple creative solutions like this are hardly implausible. Instead, the environmental movement has fallen into the uncreative trap that is government and politically motivated change through coercion.

The current environmental classes in public schools are so dry and lacking of substance that kids come out with very little experience in nature. My school introduced a new class this year based on the games put together by environmentalist and Sharing Nature founder Joseph Cornell. We are trained to lead small groups in nature activities that bring kids into nature itself to learn to feel, smell, and observe nature for themselves. You encourage connection with nature, rather than viewing it as a foreign object that only disgruntled hippies can find enjoyable. Do you think kids (and adults) will appreciate nature more when they get to have fun in nature or when their teacher recites a lecture of political talking points that the kids will probably forget anyway? Rather than using fear as a motivator for people to sign off on increased government intrusion in the name of the environment, consider the impact environmentalists could have if they worked on bringing this basic understanding and realization of nature to kids and adults alike. It has nothing whatsoever to do with politics and government, it simply awakens the joy of nature on a level that we as individuals can appreciate and value. In short, it would be far more effective than lobbying Obama or other government officials to throw more laws on the backs of the American people.

One major defect of mainstream environmentalism is its focus on bringing about massive regulation on a national and even global scale. Basic economic history shows that expensive laws and penalties benefit larger corporations looking to encumber competition from smaller businesses (thus why Dow Chemical, General Electric, and other billion dollar corporations are among the primary groups lobbying for “cap and trade” and other climate legislation). As government expands, so do the beds corporations use to snuggle up with their favorite bureaucracies. Environmental legislation such as Cap and Trade merely provides another outlet for corporations to diminish smaller, localized competition. In other words, it destroys precisely the setting where individuals have the most influence over business practices and products. Legislation of this sort provides a de facto monopoly to the corporations who can afford to jump through the arbitrary legal hoops and regulations created by politicians and unelected bureaucrats. By nationalizing and globalizing governments to such impressive scales, environmentalists are at the same time destroying the power of individuals in their local communities.

Place the power where it belongs: in the hands of the people. People carry their power not through national and global bureaucracies, but in their families, communities, and local environments. Is it easier to influence a $50 billion corporation propped up through government legislation, or a small local business? Is it more sensible to attempt to influence a Congress of 535 individuals representing more than 300 million people, or become active in a local government representing several thousand people? There is no question that we as individuals carry our influential powers over business, government, and the environment, on a local scale. It is the only logical outlet for the environmental movement to focus its efforts of sustainability and preservation.

This power and responsibility of individuals can only be adequately and sustainably utilized on a local level. Sustainable environmental conservation and education must originate through individuals locally, not through unelected bureaucrats nationally and globally. Localism, through empowered individual property rights, gives measure to the effects of responsibility and decisions made by individuals relating to themselves and their property, their respective communities, as well as the environment. Its function can only operate in a society free of bureaucratized laws and central planning.

The true environmental movement begins with the direct experience of an individual and cannot be furthered by governmental law. True environmentalism and libertarianism originate in the same source: the individual. Both believe strongly in individual liberty and the responsibility that comes with that liberty. By providing individuals with the full power of responsibility over their own lives, the environment will take a greater step forward in the minds of people. People won’t feel detached and separated from nature, they will feel a direct connection and obligation in their local communities. Are people not more concerned and responsible about the land, air, and water they see and use on a daily basis?

Return the responsibility of duties to the individual, not unelected bureaucracies promising the wonders of central planning, and you immediately provide the incentive (through property rights) and ability to maintain clean property, engage in sustainable activities, and preserve environmental quality. Returning to the responsibility of the individual on a local level is the only reasonable and lasting method for true conservation and respect of natural beauty.

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4 Responses to “The Libertarian Environmentalist: A New Beginning of Localism”

  1. [...] One of the most frustrating things for me to see, especially with teens and young adults, is the firm belief that government legislation is the ultimate way to bring about environmental change. ~ The Libertarian Environmentalist [...]

  2. Joe says:

    Excellent article.

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  3. Robert says:

    The environmental movement, and to a large extent, environmental education and ethics, came into being in large part due to death, damage and destruction created by an unregulated market that was making us sick, polluting land, air and water, and diminishing natural resources. Using only education and litigation simply did and does not work. It was regulations that led to cleaner air and water. Education and litigation can prevent many problems, and inspire compliance with regulations, but those means don’t always get the attention of polluters. Any objective social or scientific study will show a correlation between improvement in the environment and environmental regulation. Most businesses like to know the rules before they start anything. It levels the playing field and secures investments. At least with regulation the public good is made possible, and citizens are empowered by law, before irreparable damage is done to people and the environment.

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  4. Skygavvy says:

    I don’t think if we give people time ‘in nature’ they will necessarily leave with a desire to protect it. I grew up in a rural area, and my impression of the ‘natural world’ is one that is worse than cruel, instead indifferent. I find most people who ‘love’ nature to be bourgeois and often either big ‘footprint’ people, or the righteous offspring of ‘footprint’ people. Humanity has rightly spent most of history engineering its way appropriate a greater portion of an inevitably unsustainable fissure of thermodynamic disequilibrium. I think rather than feeling protective many will continue the trend to enhance their own personal wellbeing, on too-short a timescale of sustainability. So I’d argue that coercive action driven by the will of elite groups is the only way to maintain the ‘well-being’ of the planet. I’ve also heard before this notion of inevitable improvements if we encourage private property ownership. I’m not convinced by it. Did the US government encourage lawnmaking? This practice is very much a function of the human placed value of a nice mown and irrigated lawn, regardless of its enivronmental unsustainability. This is an example I think of the potential dichotomy between an economic improvement (nice lawns make your house more valuable) and an environmental improvement (what acreage of ‘nature’ could we restore if everyone fallowed their private lands?). Could be wrong about all of this, but these thoughts came to mind as i read…

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