Sunday, February 21, 2010

Protecting the Environment

One of the fundamental debates of the environmental movement is over what is the best way to protect the environment. This question concerns the macro-level. Should we put land into the public trust by making it the property of the government along the lines of Yellowstone Park? Or should we encourage private ownership?
Americans tend to support the government option. Our stable society run by the rule of law has demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach for almost 100 years. In Africa, private owners appears to achieve more secure environmental results. Understandable given the levels of corruption that is apparently endemic in so many African governments.
What is ironic is that many environmentalists see capitalism, of which private ownership is a cardinal doctrine, as evil. They contend that the desire of profit, particularly the maximization of profit, causes people to exploit their resources in harmful and unsustainable ways. There is no doubt that short-term desire for profitability can have negative environmental results. I think this kind of harm is most likely to occur when owners are more distant from the effects. For example, stock holders will usually not be aware of what the office manager is doing at the job site hundreds of miles away. As a stockholder myself, I can tell you that companies regularly do what I don't want them to do as a shareholder (CEO pay is one of the most irritating; I believe that the company can find someone else who is just as incompetent for half the salary).
But what about owners who live in the area where they work? I suspect that they would maintain long-term goals providing that government regulations and taxes don't create economic conditions that diminish the value of long-term thinking.
Bottom line, it is too simplistic to call capitalism as the problem for environmental degradation. A more nuanced approach and treatment of capitalism is in order.

Stephen Vantassel is a tutor at King's Evangelical Divinity School

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