Imagine a hypothetical scenario: a valuable substance is discovered on the moon. This substance is so valuable that corporations are willing to spend billions of dollars traveling to the moon to extract it and bring it back to Earth. These corporations institute procedures and guidelines for the safe extraction of this substance from the moon, because it will affect their profits if any of it were accidentally spilled on the lunar surface. However, since human beings are neither omniscient, nor infallible, it is possible that accidents will occasionally happen despite everyone’s best effort to avoid them. When this happens, some of this valuable hypothetical substance would be lost. Since we are talking about the moon, and there is nobody living on the moon, there is no property damage, and there is no danger to human life. Would there be reason to complain when such a “lunar spill” occurs? If human life is your standard of what is important, then the answer is no. Human life and human property is not endangered. The only tragedy when such a hypothetical lunar spill occurs is the loss of this valuable hypothetical substance.
Now imagine a second hypothetical scenario, back here on Earth: If your neighbor negligently released a flammable, black viscous substance onto your property, and it substantially interfered with your use or enjoyment of your land, what would you do? Under the property laws of most American states you could likely file suit against your neighbor in court. The specific cause of action might vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but it would typically be called something like “private nuisance” or “trespass”. The right to private property includes the right to the reasonable use and enjoyment of that property, and the law can and should protect it.
Now consider a current, and very real, event: An oil well in the Gulf of Mexico recently suffered a catastrophic explosion, and is releasing oil into the water. The primary tragedy here is the loss of human life from the explosion. This obviously was not an intentional act on the part of the owners or management of the oil company, but it did happen, either because people were negligent, or just because of a bad set of random circumstances beyond anybody’s control. This is not the first time an industrial accident has occurred, and it will not be the last. As long as human beings continue to be human beings, such events will occur –although I contend that such events are rare in a free society, made up of mostly reasonable people. To the extent that there is a causal connection between the negligent acts of any person or persons, and the loss of human life resulting from this industrial accident, and to the extent that that causal connection can be proven in a court of law, then there is, and there should be, legal liability for the person or persons responsible. In other words, to the extent that the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is like the second hypothetical scenario that I set forth above, then the law can and should be brought into play.
However, the oil being spilled into the water, as opposed to the preceding explosion that resulted in a direct loss of human life, seems to have a lesser impact on the lives or property of human beings. The only two industries that are obviously affected by the spill are the fishing and recreational tourism industries in the Gulf region. “Recreational tourism” would primarily mean the beaches in the states of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. The legal solution to this problem is easy. Since the beaches are presumably owned by someone, they should have a legal right to go to court, and file suit against any person(s) who were negligent in causing the oil spill. This is exactly like the second hypothetical scenario I outlined above. With regard to the fishing industry, the legal solution seems a little bit more complicated for the simple reason that nobody owns the ocean. While fishermen should have a right to extract whatever aquatic life they want from the ocean, they have no property rights to the ocean itself. Perhaps it is time for property rights in the ocean to be defined and protected by government, but they appear not to be at present. Nobody can currently claim a right to an oil-free ocean, anymore than people could claim a right to the surface of the moon in my first hypothetical example.
Excepting the recreational tourism and the fishing industries, no other persons are damaged by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, because no other person’s property rights have been infringed. The oil spill matters no more than if someone were to spill a hypothetical substance on the surface of the moon.
There is a common sentiment that would take exception with me when I claim that, aside from the recreational tourism and fishing industries, nobody should care about oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. In fact this is more than just a “sentiment”, it is an ideology. That ideology is typically referred to as “environmentalism”. This ideology asserts that the oceans, non-human organisms, rivers, the land, and the air have a value apart from their service to human life and needs: “It is a belief in biocentrism, that life of the Earth comes first…” Earth First!. Web. 6-7-2010. http://www.earthfirst.org/about.htm This ideology asserts that human beings should, at the very least, return to pre-industrial technology levels. The fact that current human population levels could not be sustained by living at this level of technology means that this ideology, put into practice, would cause large numbers of human beings to die of starvation and disease. Indeed, wiping out humanity is the true goal of this ideology. Environmentalists with more of a conscience talk about government-forced birth control: “…cut the birth rate to one child per couple, for a few generations at least. The population would dwindle by about 5 billion people over the next century…” Engber, Daniel. Global Swarming Is it time for Americans to start cutting our baby emissions?. Slate.com. 9-10-2007. Web. 6-7-2010. http://www.slate.com/id/2173458 The more consistent adherents of this ideology talk about human extinction. The goal of human extinction is consistent with environmentalism because it holds that the Earth comes first. This ideology is far more dangerous than any industrial accident because it attacks the very root of human survival –technological progress, and the fact that humans should come first.
It doesn’t matter if most people who call themselves “environmentalists” don’t know that this ideology is opposed to human life. The majority of people who called themselves socialists during the cold war didn’t know that the logic of their ideology led to the gulags of Soviet Russia, and still probably don’t know it today, but that was the logical result of an ideology that holds that individuals must sacrifice their lives to the collective. Legitimate pollution problems can be solved with technological progress and the application of the laws of private property, such as the common law cause of action for private nuisance. Such problems cannot be solved by means of an ideology that opposes human happiness and progress.