A theme of environmentalism is human beings need to be in harmony with nature so they can do right by it. This is, of course, a moral or ethical claim, sometimes with political implications. The assumption of this claim is humans have a choice about what they do: They can do the right thing or the wrong thing, where that difference is relevant. Environmentalism maintains the right thing vis-à-vis nature is to be in harmony with it, to avoid violating it, etc.
Obviously, I am framing things in the most general way, but my goal here is to address fundamental matters related to environmentalism. The basic issue is simple enough: Environmentalism is itself committed, implicitly, to individualism when it demands individuals alter their conduct toward the environment. The implication lies in the fact environmentalism places before human beings the very broad, general moral imperative, “You ought to act in harmony with nature.”
This imperative would be meaningless unless individuals are capable of initiating the conduct that the imperative requires of them and choosing it of their own volition. That, in turn, assumes humans are fundamentally self-directed, creative individuals who can do what they choose of their own initiative. The harmony environmentalism requires in human beings’ relationship to nature can be achieved only if environmentalism acknowledges the individuality of human beings.
Consequently, the harmony environmentalism requires of us must take into consideration our own nature as essentially that of being individuals. This by no means excludes society as a whole, but it does place certain conditions on it. So, then, what kind of ethical and legal system does such individualism imply?
It is what I call “classical individualism” or “classical egoism” that should guide human conduct, or the Aristotelian ethics of eudemonia. Everyone ought to flourish in his or her life as the human individual he or she is. This is not the customary individualism of ethics texts, because it is not subjectivist, not derived from the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. There is a very strict requirement involved here about knowing what it is to be a human being — a rational animal — and knowing oneself, so as to strive, with reasonable prospect for success, as a human individual. Such flourishing is how to be good at living a human life.
When it comes to law and politics, the implications of the environmentalist assumption — that human beings are fundamentally individuals, not just parts of collectives — is the rejection, as far as that is possible, of living in the commons, a place no one owns and is open to all. Life in a commons causes destruction, known as the Tragedy of the Commons, because when no one owns a property, everyone will use it as much as possible to gain support for his or her individual flourishing, thus depleting the resources.
To prevent this tragedy, the environmental movement must reassess its many policies that call for collective management and administration of environmental affairs.
The individualist alternative recommends privatizing the environment to the utmost, so “the evil men (and women) do” vis-à-vis the environment comes back to haunt them and is not spread out over the whole population with no one in particular bearing the consequences of his or her malpractice. The more privatization, the greater the likelihood of care for the environment.
Environmentalists often miss this point because they seek guarantees instead of optimal results. Some miss it because they are committed collectivists first, way before they are environmentalists.
Guarantees, however, are not available in human affairs, because human beings have free will, an assumption underlying environmentalism itself, as noted above. The best that can be achieved is the identification and promulgation of systems of ethics and politics that encourage optimum results.
Private property rights do this by confining, as much as possible (via the guarding of borders around individuals and their voluntarily formed groups), the ill effects of human conduct vis-à-vis the rest of nature. If human beings are largely rational, property rights encourage them to act responsibly — not to discard harmful substances on to the persons or properties of others, as those others would have legal recourse against them for damage to their property.
Critics will quickly note that even if all this is correct, there are spheres where privatization is impossible. Air masses cannot be confined, nor most water masses, and there is seepage in many other areas where borders will not help much.
That’s true, of course, but there are many areas where privatization is possible and can achieve the optimal results — far better than forced management of the commons. And others could be discovered, with some vigilance. Remember that human beings are creative and in a pinch tend to discover yet unknown ways to solve problems.
So, not surprisingly, individualism is good for environmentalism as it has been for economics, politics, and civilized living in general. That’s because it accords with human nature better than alternative doctrines pertaining to human social life.