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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/14764/economics-the-environment-and-environmysticism/

Economics, the Environment, and Environmysticism

November 25, 2010 by

On this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the prosperity we all enjoy. In a couple of my econ 100 classes on Tuesday, we spent a bit of time talking about how land-use restrictions affect both housing prices and the environment. An important point of departure between economics and an extreme form of ecocentric environmentalism that I have called “environmysticism” is that environmysticism holds preservation of nature as a moral end in itself while economics is the analysis of human action. Environmental policy is often made on the basis of fundamentally flawed economic analysis.

For example, in a contribution to Ayn Rand’s Return of the Primitive: the Anti-Industrial Revolution, Peter Schwartz discusses a debate over the fate of the yew tree in the Pacific Northwest. The tree had been found to produce a cancer-fighting element. If strict private property prevailed, the tree would have been farmed, harvested, and used to alleviate cancer patients’ suffering. However, as Schwartz records, some responded that the trees should be conserved out of fear that all the trees would be used up.

If private property rights are secure, this fear is unfounded. The discovery that the yew tree produces cancer-fighting elements would increase demand for yew trees. The prospect of profitable tree cultivation would provide a powerful incentive to cultivate yew trees (without any prodding from the National Institutes of Health, it should be added). The trees won’t be “used up;” if anything, yew tree populations would explode. “Protecting” the tree, however, provides a double-dose of trouble. It removes positive incentives to conserve or cultivate the tree and replaces them with fear of punishment, and it leaves unalleviated the pain and suffering of cancer patients the world over.

There is also an important principle here regarding intergenerational equity. Even if we grant that the conservationists wish to preserve the trees “for future generations,” we must assume that we mean they must be conserved for their aesthetic benefit to those generations (it cannot be for the services they convey, for as Schwartz notes the environmentalists have established that the trees are not to be violated for their own sake), then the policy constitutes a forced transfer from the sick to the healthy and from today’s poor to tomorrow’s rich.

Economic analysis comprises a very rich set of tools that we can use to analyze important environmental problems. If private property rights are secure, we can rest assured that the incentives inherent in the marketplace will ensure that valuable resources are not wasted. Prices and the prospects of profit and loss provide valuable information to innovators and entrepreneurs, but forsaking the price system turns economic decisions into political decisions. Unfortunately, this has a tendency to exacerbate precisely the problems it is supposed to solve.

For more, here is my Earth Day 2009 article, and here is an early version of my paper “Economic Calculation in the Environmentalist Commonwealth.” Here are links to audio of lectures on “Environmental and Resource Economics” given at Mises University by Timothy Terrell, George Reisman, Walter Block, and myself.


Tyrone Dell November 25, 2010 at 3:29 pm

I have had many conversations with individuals who affiliate themselves with environmentalism and in my opinion these individuals have a highly warped and caricatured view of the world we live in — not only of the environment, but also about related topics like indigenous peoples, modernization, and westernization. All I can think of right now is Mises’s /The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality/.

Coincidentally, I just finished reading this interesting blog post, called “The Futile Quest for the Authentic Experience” which I think is very related: http://everything-everywhere.com/2010/11/12/the-futile-quest-for-the-authentic-experience/

One hilarious quote from the blog post that I plan on using now is: “When an ethnic restaurant opens up in a western country, that’s diversity. When a western restaurant opens up in a non-western country, that’s cultural imperialism. If diversity is good for us, why isn’t it good for others?”

Edward August 23, 2011 at 6:19 pm

Good God, how hard can it be to plant Yew tresss?!

Bruce Koerber November 25, 2010 at 3:41 pm

I like your designation “environmysticism” for the desire for ego-driven intervention by those who do not appreciate the equilibrating forces of ecology.

Gil November 25, 2010 at 8:53 pm

Was it L. Rockwell or G. Reisman who said something like “there’s no such thing as the ‘environment’ merely unowned, unused resources”? I s’pose a counterargument to “saving the trees for future generations” is “creating cities so future generation will grow up in modernity than be thin and sickly in the forest”.

billwald November 26, 2010 at 12:21 pm

from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxus_brevifolia

” The tree is extremely slow growing, and has a habit of rotting from the inside, creating hollow forms. This makes it difficult to impossible to make accurate rings counts to determine a specimen’s true age. Often damaged by succession of the forest, it usually ends up in a squat, multiple leader form.”

How many years would it take for the yew tree population to explode?

Inquisitor November 26, 2010 at 8:17 pm


As many as it’d need.

Andras November 29, 2010 at 7:18 pm

I agree, enviromysticism is bad.
However, this article lists a bad example.
The tree, privatized or not can not be farmed due to the reasons you listed.
On the other hand, there have been already, for at least ten years, commercial semisyntheses of taxol from abundant starting materials.
Of course, they are all patented but their patents will expire in a few year.

Justin J. November 27, 2010 at 7:15 pm

“environmysticism holds preservation of nature as a moral end in itself”

The environmentalists think that they are promoting the value of nature over and above human values.

But there are no values over and above human value to speak of. If we took away all the people, there wouldn’t be any values. Therefore no-one has a right to speak for values over and above human values. They are merely speaking for themselves. What they are really asserting is that they have a right to force other people to obey their arbitrary opinions. This is just a re-run of the religious intolerance of the 17th century.

Doug Heiken December 6, 2010 at 12:52 pm

If one looks a little deeper into the Pacific yew story it provides a clear example of the failure of the free market. The issue is not the survival of the yew as a species but its survival as a functional part of the old growth forest ecosystem. Yew trees provide forage for lactating moose and it serves as cool understory perches fr spotted owls on a hot summer days. Their roots stabilize salmon streams. These are documented functions, not enviro-mystic speculations. These functions are not served by yew trees in tree farms but only by yew trees in complex old forests.

The problem is that it was cheaper for the drug companies to kill yew trees in wild forests (many of which were hundreds of years old and essentially irreplaceable) than it was to grow baby yew trees in tree farms, so the drug companies stripped the forests. And when conservationists pointed out that the paclitaxel drug could be produced from cultivated yews or from wild yew needles (without killing the trees) the drug companies responded by moving their operations to Asia where they remain today and several Asian yew trees are now red-listed (threatened).

As any intermediate economics textbook will show, when private enterprise can take resources from nature without paying the full cost of the removal, it results in “externalities” that lead to inefficient allocation of resources, Prices are artificially low and demand is artificially high.

See Heiken, D. (1992). The Pacific Yew and Taxol: Federal management of an emerging resource. Journal of Environmental Law and Litigation 7: 175.

Mr. Drupheo February 6, 2011 at 4:31 am

If I was the owner of those Yew trees, I would have definitely charged those companies for my trees. The Yews were not owned by a private, profit-seeking entity.

Bendito, Ahorro April 15, 2011 at 2:27 pm

good objection on the ecology

Mac UC, Contrucción April 19, 2011 at 8:40 am

ecology is very important to our planet

remedi, Cantilever April 20, 2011 at 9:04 am

must take into account the ecology to care for the planet, the ecology is an excellent contribution must take this dimension.

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