You Don’t Own This

Disclaimer: The goal of this story is to show the advantages and disadvantages of a society living according to a model of Free-Market Environmentalism. It is embedded in the idea that no economic or judicial system can be just or comfortable. It is inspired, amongst others, by an article by Ryan McMaken of the Mises Institute, entitled “Are Libertarians Too Anti-Pollution?“, but also by my own academic paper on the issue of FME, published by the Maastricht Journal of Sustainability Studies. 

This work was illustrated by Andrea Madleňáková.

The sun was heating up the car as it slowly followed the avalanche of metal that pushed itself inside the city: 8 a.m. traffic, the usual one. As the temperature began to rise, sitting in a vehicle brought the uncomfortable consequence of sweat sticking to the leather seats, the suggestion that a cloudless sky had a few disadvantages did not seem far-fetched. Though such a statement could only stem from the cynicism of the driver, who was incessantly tapping on the steering wheel.

Radim was slightly annoyed by the fact that the drivers in the lanes to the left and right of him awkwardly stared at his car. Yes, some people still drive petroleum, he murmured to himself, as the whirring of thousands of electric cars fills the highway. Wasn’t it enough that fuelling the vehicle he had purchased as a second-hand car in the early 2020s was already incredibly difficult?

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Ever since the era of privatisation, the owners of major national roads and highways had surcharged cars running on fossil fuels, effectively pushing those with motorised vehicles to go electric. The reason for this was that the courts had recognised the negative environmental and health-related externalities of pollution. While busy roads were not restricted through environmental protection regulation, the immediate land-owning neighbours of these roads were able to sue the companies who were co-responsible for the pollution of their consumers. This effectively meant that drivers had to pay two kinds of charges: those which compensated their usage of the road services and those which compensated the pollution they caused. Polluter Pays had become a reality. The more your car pollutes, the more it is charged in user fees for private roads.

Radim was not the type to care about the level of inconvenience. Not changing his lifestyle was what he called ‘his little luxury.’ “I don’t have to be trendy to live a comfortable life,” Radim mumbled towards the coffee machine, knowing that Maria was standing behind him.

“How’s Mister 2020’s today?” Maria asks scornfully. To Radim’s co-worker, he was a dinosaur which had sort of stumbled into a day and age in which it has difficulty feeding itself. With amusement, she eyes him as he scans his corporate credit card to pay extra for a plastic cup, which he needed since he had never brought a mug of his own. “Shit. Took me forever to find a petrol station since Exxon closed its last one in town. And then I had to take the M3 because the M4 has stopped accepting petrol cars.” Maria raises her eyebrows and puts on a surprised face as if they hadn’t had this conversation before: “A petrol station? They still make those?” The coffee machine whirrs as it spews the hot beverage into Radim’s cup. “I get it, I’m not cool. I don’t recycle, I don’t add together my carbon footprint like it’s some sort of religion. Can we just stop having this conversation?” “I’m not having any conversation.” Maria is shrugging her shoulders. “I just don’t get why you live with the inconvenience of the beginning of the century. Or just move to a city that does it your way.”

Radim had indeed contemplated moving away. Despite the fact that the cities which followed what economists refer to as “Free Market Environmentalism,” there l were still towns which did not adhere to environmental protection based on property rights.

Maria was wiping the sweat off her forehead. It was August 25th, and the company had little money to spare on air-conditioning. “You’re just a conservative guy who’s nostalgic of how it was, when you actually know that the air is cleaner and that arbitration is fairer. We all deal with a chunk of cognitive dissonance.”

Radim hadn’t even listened to Maria’s judgemental tirade, as he already stepped outside to light a cigarette. She was very keen on the policy changes of the last decade, as it was indeed more successful. In comparison to the early 21st century, there was less air pollution, and the need for intrusive environmental protection agencies had vanished altogether. As long as you clearly established your property rights, no law was telling you to do otherwise. Aligning environmental policy with property rights meant that polluters weren’t put to justice through the breach of a sub-section of a law that was impossible to surveille, but that they ended up in arbitration with the party whose property had been impeded on. Nobody was burning tires because it was against the law, but because it’d cost you a fortune to do so.

Maria often pointed to the fact that her own parents had held similar ideals to hers, but that they had been terribly mislead. Both of them were young environmentalists at the turn of the century, and had defended intrusive regulations to reduce pollution and carbon emissions. “In practice, this meant that large companies could get away with pollution, either because of corruption or because they were declared too important to be subjected to these rules,” she would often point out. In these days, factories would put a filter on their chimneys, not because an agency had made them, but because compensation payments to the neighbouring inhabitants would largely exceed the cost of the filtering technology.

On the rooftop terrace of the company cantine, Lanka is scrolling through social media. She turns to Radim, who had widely unbuttoned his shirt – not because he was the daring kind, but mostly because it was unbearably hot – and sticks her phone to his face. In her newsfeed, the picture of a famous actor, sitting on a dead rhinoceros, proudly displaying the gun he had just shot it with. Radim takes a long drag of his cigarette and says “That’s a shit-eating grin if I ever saw one. Why do people even promote this douchebag?” – “Because it’s not the 2000s anymore, you fogy.

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And indeed, while the early 21st century social media user would have used social media to try and expose the actor for his behaviour, possibly even boycotting his creative works, the new generation aspired to trophy hunting in a glaring manner. It turned out that the immense sums that were being paid for the trophy hunt, ended up in the pockets of the local community.

Under the influence of Free Market Environmentalism, numerous African countries had privatised their wildlife stocks. What first seemed counter-intuitive, was soon found to be the most effective tool in the fight against poaching. While elephants, rhinoceroses or giraffes were adorable in the eye of an observer outside of Africa, they had little to offer for the local population. Quite the contrary, these animals posed a liability to their crops or a serious danger to their children. Poachers were often even welcomed as having helped to get rid of parasitic animals, which were far less adorable in practice than they looked in the glimmering light of a TV screen.

Free Market Environmentalism (FME) incentivised the local population to protect these animals, by declaring them private property. In practice, this meant that if you owned land and a lion or any other wildlife was residential on your land, you were able to claim ownership over it, provided that it hadn’t already been done. Local farmers began to sell their animals to private conservancies, which gathered them in large areas for the purpose of tourism, but also trophy hunting. This incredibly costly sport managed to sustain these privately-owned conservancies, providing the resources to fix the fences, buy jeeps and buy up more land for future development.

More interestingly, neighbours who had previously engaged in conflict, be that over historic or religious differences, were now more inclined to engage in mutual exchange. In the interest of the creation of a sustainable elephant population, the owners of a male and a female elephant were incentivised to cooperate, despite being of different cultural backgrounds. The results, even at the beginning of the 21st century, had been stunning.

In Namibia, the revenue from trophy hunting was the main revenue source for the funding of wildlife conservancies (Biological Conservation, 2007) and in South Africa trophy hunting reportedly incentivized locals to give rhinoceros’ land to live on and to protect them from poachers (Conservation Magazine, 2015). This evolution has led the number of existing rhinoceros to jump from 100 in 1916 to over 18,000 today (World Wildlife Fund, 2016). According to South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs the total revenue from trophy hunting was close to R807 million (52.3 million euros) in 2012 and just over R1 billion (64.8 million euros) in 2013 (South Africa Department of Environmental Affairs, 2012, 2013).

“Do you have a cigarette?” Lanka asks, putting up the innocent face that only a non-smoker would take, through the guilt of asking for a smoke regardless of New Year’s resolutions. “Didn’t you just call me a fogy?” says Radim, even though he was already reaching for his pack. “It just means that you have old-fashioned ideas. That’s all.” As Radim reveals his pack of cigarettes, Lanka’s eyes open wide: “You smoke these?! Vapor is the most awful brand out there!” Radim shrugs his shoulders: “So what, they taste nice. And they’re hard to get these days.” – “Of course they are, and for a good reason. Vapor outsourced its most polluting activities to countries which do not run a system of FME.”

In fact, as the philosophy of Free Market Environmentalism expanded, its opponents looked for its apparent loopholes. FME displays not only the manifested difficulty that its own proponents do not agree on its implementation, but it also offers ways of escaping its invisible market push, by simply leaving the region it is applied to. The tobacco company Vapor simply relocated themselves  to a region where pollution was a problem for the collective, not the individual. Instead of pollution being a cause for litigation between two individuals, it was a cause for state prosecution. If Vapor or any other large company were to pollute the property of their neighbours, it would fall on the responsibility of the state to ensure that the anti-pollution laws were respected. This incentivized companies to have closer connections to the administrators, lobbying their way to indirect power. The larger the corporation, the more prone governments became to corruption and patronage, and the more states made themselves the mafia wives in the enactment of large-scale, non-surveilled and damaging pollution. The more states “controlled” environmental protection in theory, the less they actually did in practice.

Meanwhile, FME-based litigation systems made the issue of pollution a problem between two individuals, not between an individual or a corporation and the state. Individuals turned out to be more persistant and immune to the effect of a voting population comprised in the amounts of workers in a large factory. Very often, factories and neighbouring inhabitants would compromise on certain investments into filtering technologies, in order for the company to avoid large compensation charges. There indeed was an environmental police, but they didn’t wear uniforms or need a centralised  authority that funded it: citizens were policing themselves, and it ended up being beneficial to all parties to be watchful of pollution.

I’m really weary of the stigma towards everything!” Radim takes the last drag of his cigarette. “Does everything need to be green and sunny?! Why, for God’s sake, can’t we just enjoy a product for one minute without thinking about the everlasting social and environmental implications of it? FME, FME, … it’s nothing but a cult in which we are continuously suing each other. It’s virtue-signalling with a lawyer.” Several employees had turned their heads towards the conversation between Lanka and Radim. The rooftop terrace had gotten all quiet. “And I can’t stand it any more!” Radim pauses as he uncaringly rambles on, fully aware that he is not even talking to Lanka anymore. It is, ironically, as if he were pleading to a court. He snatches Lanka’s cigarette pack out of her hand: “So you feel good about yourself because you smoke vegan, pesticide-free, gluten-free, fairtrade?” “Smokes can’t be veg…” Lanka timidly stutters. But Radim had already turned to the next victim of his preaching: “And you? You’re a better person because the only time you use plastic is when you take your shitty asthma-inhaler?

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Radim points to the next guy. “And you? Are you a saint now because you bought two giraffes so they won’t get killed by poachers? None of you have any balls anymore! We used to drive large trucks and throw the empty plastic case of fried chicken out of the window onto the street. Today your own freaking neighbour sues you if you sneeze too loudly. What have we become? Are we prouder now because we ruined all the fun for ourselves?!” Radim was breathing heavily. Most terrace-goers were standing in awe at his tone and passion. Lanka grabs him by the arm and drags him back into the office.

Radim you’re insufferable!”, Lanka put on a loud whisper, not to stir even more controversy than Radim’s loud tirade had already created. Radim was a little shaken. This had just overcome him all the sudden, as his rage overtook his reasonable decency. He was right though… he KNEW that. But what had it realistically given him to shout at his coworkers? The advocates of FME hadn’t been successful because they were shouting or protesting, but because they sparked an intellectual and thereby judicial revolution. They didn’t replace protestors, they replaced intellectuals. “What, we can’t even criticise the status quo anymore?” Lanka was rolling her eyes: “C’mon, don’t make this into a noble cause now. You’re just a contrarian. If you lived in a system in which environmental policy was collective rules instead of a matter of private property, you’d ramble on about it too. You don’t even want to have an ideology, you want to have an opinion.

Eventually, societies relying on a free-market approach to environmentalism didn’t have much choice than to make the rules crystal clear to everyone: the arbitration of disputes between individuals wasn’t an option, it had become the only way of dealing with the environment. On the grand scale of things, Radim knew that the situation had actually improved for most people. Business weren’t in bed about environmental regulations anymore, because it wasn’t actually politicians making them. Instead, companies had a vested interested in maintaining an amicable relationship with the community and the customers.

All Radim rebelled against was the change: the change of his views and his lifestyle, which had been reversed in a matter of just a few years. His real objection was towards the idea that he had to change his comfortable careless lifestyle because of the private property rights of others. He had enjoyed the comfort of a legislator whose top-down method told him what and what not to do, instead of actually using his common sense what it came to his own actions. Radim looks at Lanka and goes: “You’re right. I fucked up.

About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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