I have a number of friends who are Libertarian and some who call themselves Anarchist. I think that they are participating in a long tradition of distrust and dislike of the government on all levels in American society. And to a certain extent, I get it. Our Federal government is currently deeply dysfunctional. I hate a lot of things our government does. I hate how corporations and rich individuals can essentially buy favorable legislation and legal decisions by making the right campaign contributions. I hate the invasive government surveillance of civilians, especially after the passage of the Patriot Act. I hate the amount of money spent on the military, which exists by definition to cause death and to threaten to cause death. (I support enough military to protect ourselves, but I believe that our country’s military capability far exceeds that goal.)
But as an environmentalist, it appears to me that the government is the only power that can and sometimes does restrain individuals and corporations from completely destroying the environment. This doesn’t negate my other objections, but it does trump them in the question of whether or not we need a strong, centralized and effective government.
I wish I could believe that in a situation without governance, people would act in a way that is not destructive to other humans, animals, and to the environment. A quick glance over recent headlines shows that humans prove that wrong every single day.
In the controversy over the ridiculous claims of Cliven Bundy that he has the right to graze his cattle on government–owned land, the reason his lease was terminated was to protect habitat for an endangered species. This bigoted, heavily-armed individual is destroying a fragile piece of the environment on land he doesn’t own, simply for profit. Not only does he persist, he has a line of supporters cheering him on.
BP recently spilled crude oil into Lake Michigan, not only endangering a natural habitat, but also the water supply for millions of people. There’s been a little coverage, and it’s not clear what, if any repercussions it will have for BP, but they clearly violated Federal and State regulations. Oil spills from pipelines and train cars are alarmingly commonplace, and they can be very damaging, but there is little alarm.
The massive chemical spill in West Virginia is another nightmare scenario. Toxins spilled into the river, contaminating drinking water sources. The danger and inconvenience to people had a little coverage. The environmental destruction involved was not mentioned in anything that I saw, but I must assume it was extensive, and it must have killed fish and plant life.
In these cases, the government is the only advocate that can regulate these activities and punish the violators, specifically the EPA, the National Parks Service and other environmental arms of the government. Complaints and protests by citizens have little effect. Press coverage is patchy depending on the “angle” of the story and how slow the news day is, and there’s rarely much of a public outcry, even in events as large as the BP Gulf oil spill, which impacted the Gulf coast environment dramatically.
Some will call me paternalistic, and maybe even a little misanthropic, but it seems like unrestrained humans would easily pollute, de-foliate, exploit and otherwise destroy every resource we have within weeks without government controls. Air, water and soil would be poisonous. Finite resources would be exhausted. Renewable resources would be overtaxed to the point of no return. No regard would be given for non-human animals, their habitats or their suffering. We would quickly revert to a Mad Max style post-apocalyptical nightmare world, while a few wealthy and highly fortified corners would preserve what little semblance of a tamed nature they could, but only for their pleasure.
Sadly, there are many forces within our society and even within our government that only wish to disable, thwart and de-fund these agencies that protect the environment. I’m not saying these agencies are immune from criticism. They can be mismanaged or wasteful, like any government or private organization. They can be subject to the political favoritism and pressures that are rampant in our system. Violators may not be effectively punished because of their political connections. But none of this is a criticism of the basic mission of the EPA, the Parks Service, or any related entity. Their mission – to protect the environment and natural places, to protect endangered species, to prevent pollution of the air, water and land – is essential.
And let’s be perfectly clear – the free market will never serve these goals. It is driven by self interest and most individuals and corporations perceive only short-term self-interest, without any regard for the long-term implications to the common good. Someone will always want to exploit unique natural places. Someone will always want to get away with some dumping. Someone will always be negligent about proper handling of pollutants because it’s just cheaper that way.
Sadly, this is definitely a case where one bad apple spoils the bunch. A polluter’s smokestack ruins the air for everyone in the vicinity, and if the local people aren’t that business’ customers, then no boycott will ever bring pressure to the business owner to change. Likewise, the practice of fracking uses chemicals that endanger ground water, lakes and rivers in an entire region. It trades the short-term benefit of quickly expended fossil fuel for a risk of long-term destruction of fresh water sources. Pollution often impacts areas far beyond the immediate plot of land where the incidents happen. Lawsuits often just lead small companies into bankruptcy and no one can ever be effectively held responsible for the damage caused. Pollutants like CFC’s and carbon emissions can have cumulative, global effects that are hard to pinpoint back to specific polluters.
The only reason we don’t have widespread use of CFC’s anymore is because of the EPA and similar agencies in other countries. It’s a real tangible victory. No one is talking about the hole in the ozone layer anymore, because the cause of the problem was effectively controlled before it went too far. Regulation can work, and can cause real change.
In past centuries, when we lived in a world with fewer people and less consumerism, the dent humans made in the natural world seemed limited. Certain spots were polluted, certain forests were cut down, but there were still vast stretches of wilderness and seemingly endless oceans. Today, as wild areas grow scarce and even the oceans seem depleted, we need some mechanisms to control the destruction. Government regulation does a very imperfect job of controlling it now, but it still seems to me like the only tool that has any hope of being effective.