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Who's the greatest polluter of all? The oil companies? The chemical companies? The nuclear power plants?
If you guessed "none of the above," you'd be correct. Our government, at the federal, state, and local levels, is the single greatest polluter in the land. In addition, our government doesn't even clean up its own garbage!
In 1988, for example, the EPA demanded that the Departments of Energy and Defense clean up 17 of their weapons plants which were leaking radioactive and toxic chemicals -- enough contamination to cost $100 billion in clean-up costs over 50 years! The EPA was simply ignored. No bureaucrats went to jail or were sued for damages. Government departments have sovereign immunity.
In 1984, a Utah court ruled that the U.S. military was negligent in its nuclear testing, causing serious health problems (e.g. death) for the people exposed to radioactive fallout. The Court of Appeals dismissed the claims of the victims, because government employees have sovereign immunity.
Hooker Chemical begged the Niagara Falls School Board not to excavate the land where Hooker had safely stored toxic chemical waste. The school board ignored these warnings and taxpayers had to foot a $30 million relocation bill when health problems arose. The EPA filed suit, not against the reckless school board, but against Hooker Chemical! Government officials have sovereign immunity.
Government, both federal and local, is the greatest single polluter in the U.S. This polluter literally gets away with murder because of sovereign immunity. Libertarians would make government as responsible for its actions as everyone else is expected to be. Libertarians would protect the environment by first abolishing sovereign immunity.
By turning to government for environmental protection, we've placed the fox in charge of the hen house -- and a very large hen house it is! Governments, both federal and local, control over 40% of our country's land mass. Unfortunately, government's stewardship over our land is gradually destroying it.
For example, the Bureau of Land Management controls an area almost twice the size of Texas, including nearly all of Alaska and Nevada. Much of this land is rented to ranchers for grazing cattle. Because ranchers are only renting the land, they have no incentive to take care of it. Not surprisingly, studies as early as 1925 indicated that cattle were twice as likely to die on public ranges and had half as many calves as animals grazing on private lands.
Obviously, owners make better environmental guardians than renters. If the government sold its acreage to private ranchers, the new owners would make sure that they grazed the land sustainably to maximize profit and yield.
Indeed, ownership of wildlife can literally save endangered species from extinction. Between 1979 and 1989, Kenya banned elephant hunting, yet the number of these noble beasts dropped from 65,000 to 19,000. In Zimbabwe during the same time period, however, elephants could be legally owned and sold. The number of elephants increased from 30,000 to 43,000 as their owners became fiercely protective of their "property." Poachers didn't have a chance!
Similarly, commercialization of the buffalo saved it from extinction. We never worry about cattle becoming extinct, because their status as valuable "property" encourages their propagation. The second step libertarians would take to protect the environment and save endangered species would be to encourage private ownership of both land and animals.
Environmentalists were once wary of private ownership, but now recognize that establishing the property rights of native people, for example, has become an effective strategy to save the rain forests. Do you remember the movie, Medicine Man, where scientist Sean Connery discovers a miracle drug in the rain forest ecology? Unfortunately, the life-saving compound is literally bulldozed under when the government turns the rain forest over to corporate interests. The natives that scientist Connery lives with are driven from their forest home. Their homesteading rights are simply ignored by their own government!
Our own Native Americans were driven from their rightful lands as well. Similarly, our national forests are turned over to logging companies, just as the rain forests are. By 1985, the U.S. Forest Service had built 350,000 miles of logging roads with our tax dollars -- outstripping our interstate highway system by a factor of eight! In the meantime, hiking trails declined by 30%. Clearly, our government serves special interest groups instead of protecting our environmental heritage.
Even our national parks are not immune from abuse. Yellowstone's Park Service once encouraged employees to trap predators (e.g., wolves, fox, etc.) so that the hoofed mammals favored by visitors would flourish. Not surprisingly, the ecological balance was upset. The larger elk drove out the deer and sheep, trampled the riverbanks, and destroyed beaver habitat. Without the beavers, the water fowl, mink, otter, and trout were threatened. Without the trout or the shrubs and berries that once lined the riverbanks, grizzlies began to endanger park visitors in their search for food. As a result, park officials had to remove the bears and have started bringing back the wolves.
Wouldn't we be better served if naturalist organizations, such as the Audubon Society or Nature Conservancy, took over the management of our precious parks? The Audubon Society's Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary partially supports itself with natural gas wells operated in an ecologically sound manner. In addition to preserving the sensitive habitat, the Society shows how technology and ecology can co-exist peacefully and profitably.
The environment would benefit immensely from the elimination of sovereign immunity coupled with the privatization of "land and beast." The third and final step in the libertarian program to save the environment is the use of restitution both as a deterrent and a restorative. Next month's column will feature the second part of the Pollution Solution, answering the question: "How would libertarians keep our air and water clean?"
Mary J. Ruwart, Ph.D., is the author of Healing Our World: The Other Piece of the Puzzle, a liberty primer for liberals, Christians, New Agers, and pragmatists. She also wrote Short Answers to the Tough Questions: Sound Bites for the Libertarian Candidate after her Internet column (www.self-gov.org) of the same name.
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