To genuine environmentalists (as against people who call themselves environmentalists but don’t understand what the movement is really about), I have nothing to say. But some well-intentioned people have been taken in by environmentalist terminology and are innocently confused about whether there is some truth to the notion that we need to be concerned about “sustainability.”
The idea behind so-called sustainability is that if we humans consume too many raw materials (or “natural resources”) we will reach a point of unsustainability, where there is not enough left for us or for future generations and thus we or they will die. Accordingly, the argument goes, we must stop people from using so many “natural resources”; we must curb our predilection to consume; we must embrace a policy of “sustainability.” Hence the various drives: We must periodically “turn out the lights” or “use less gas” or in some other way make do with less.
This notion, however, is nonsense, and we can see that it is if we identify the context that the environmentalists drop in order to get people to buy in to their nonsense.
The notion that we need a policy of “sustainability” assumes that man is merely a consumer and that raw materials are “limited.” But neither of these assumptions is true.
Man is not merely a consumer; he is also, and more fundamentally, a thinker and a producer who can take raw materials from nature—whether dirt, berries, petroleum, or atoms—and transform them into the requirements of his life—bricks, food, energy, and weapons. And when man is free to act on his judgment, he can continually discover and implement new ways to use raw materials for his benefit.
Nor are raw materials “limited”—at least not in any meaningful sense of the term. Of course there is a finite amount of aluminum, petroleum, and the like in the earth. But Earth is nothing but raw materials—of which we’ve tapped only a minuscule fraction of a infinitesimal portion—and the rest of the universe is nothing but a whole lot more. Petroleum used to be just goo you didn’t want to get on your feet or crops; now man uses it to fuel industrial civilization, to make heart valves, to manufacture Kindles, and so on. Sand used to be good for nothing but sunbathing and sandcastles; now man uses it to make eyeglasses and fiber optic cables. Uranium used to be just a toxic metal you’d want nothing to do with; now man uses it to create inexpensive electricity and terrorist-killing bombs. And on and on. There is no telling what uses man will discover for other raw materials in the future.
Man’s rational and productive nature, combined with the fact that raw materials are for all intents and purposes unlimited, makes it impossible for man to run out of resources—providing that he is free to think and act on his judgment, which means: providing that he lives under the social system of capitalism.
Under genuine capitalism (which has yet to exist), all property is privately owned, and the government’s sole purpose is to protect individual rights, including property rights. Under capitalism, property owners are responsible for their property, for better or worse.
People who have worked to acquire property generally want to maintain or enhance its value; they typically want to increase their wealth; and they tend to be rational about how they use and develop their property. Accordingly, property owners usually work to sustain or improve their resources, whether farms, lakes, campgrounds, ski resorts, or oil rigs. And they generally plan at some point to pass their property along to their relatives, friends, or associates whom they think will use it rationally too.
Of course some people choose not to be rational and not to enhance or even maintain their property. But this is not a problem for anyone but them. If someone fishes his lake “dry,” or cuts down all the trees on his tree farm and fails to plant more, or the like, he will suffer the consequences of his irrationality. If he lets his property go to waste, then, when he goes bankrupt or dies, someone else will have an opportunity to make the property a value again. And if a property owner violate others’ rights in some way—say, by contaminating his neighbor’s drinking water—he can be held accountable in a court of law.
The only thing we need to sustain is the freedom to act on our judgment—which includes the freedom to use our property as we see fit. As long as we are free, we can keep the lights on and continue figuring out how to make them cheaper and brighter.
This fact upsets some people. But so what?
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- Interview with Ann McElhinney on Fracking, James Cameron, and Cold Beer
- Vindicating Capitalism: The Real History of the Standard Oil Company
- Energy at the Speed of Thought: The Original Alternative Energy Market
- Andrew Breitbart’s “So?”—A Great Question and Now a Worthy Charity
Image: Wikimedia Commons (Korean peninsula)