Environmental illness

By Erik Jay
web posted December 27, 1999

I have been having a wonderful time lately exchanging e-mail with my younger sister. She was my "little" sister only until she hit 5-foot-10 (at 13), and since then no diminutive has been appropriate for this assertive, quietly cerebral, vertically enabled attorney sibling. Anyway, after some years of estrangement, we're getting to know each other again, and just recently she started replying to some of my columns and other materials that I send her.

Recently I forwarded a story about some fellows who went to federal prison for moving dirt on their own property, property deemed "wetlands" by the EPA. My sister responded with mild disapprobation and a Bill Bradley-esque good-government rap: enforce rigid quality control in the federal workforce, and make other user-friendly upgrades. It's a matter of getting good people in the right jobs, that's all.

She seemed not so much upset as baffled that I would seek the repeal of federal environmental laws, but we never got to the state-law level in our discussion. If there were to be any government regulations concerning endangered species, land use, or zoning, it would be a matter for the state governments -- assuming the 9th and 10th Amendments ever dig their way out of the Supreme Court's sarcophagus for states' rights.

The most potent tools to protect natural resources are private stewardship, contract law, and the hammer of popular support. They are available to all who are ready, willing, and able to wield them, and are more effective in their myriad permutations than the coercive, one-size-fits-all bureaucratic monkey wrench.

My sister ended her last letter with the admonition that I was "more convinced than [she is] that we are not in danger from those who are motivated by greed" -- apparently referring to people who would rape, pillage, and loot for short-term profit, leaving behind barren, smoldering battlefields in the consumer wars of the disposable society. You know the type.

Or do you? I sure don't. And I, for one, wouldn't abuse my firm's resources like that, and I'm not sure how many businesspeople would; only a particularly oafish, short-sighted type would pillage and loot. There are people like that, I'm sure. But how many Bambi killers are there among, say, the Forbes 1000? Give me their names, somebody. Now, I don't want a list of every oil spill or labor dispute or difference of opinion; I want the same incontrovertible, crystal clear evidence of ongoing plunder, capitalist degradation, and ugly American depredation that Oliver Stone gives us in his movies.

The problem is, that's where most of the so-called evidence is -- in Oliver Stone movies, 90's novels, TV, and the seductively ennobling lore of the American left. We're way past the era of robber barons, but here, for effect, I'll employ the term as the commonly understood pejorative -- and ask again, Where are these latter-day robber barons?

Unfortunate facts are strewn like stumbling blocks along the line of 'reasoning' that leads the left to loathe capitalism and characterize it as a tyrannical, 'Mr. Big'-dominated system. To the contrary, today's largest corporations are overwhelmingly publicly owned, so the shareholders (about two-thirds of the working people in this country) are able to rein in any rapacious Mr. Big who gets out of line. Even if, hypothetically speaking, some firm had an evil board of directors, an evil CEO, and even 99% evil shareholders, that 1% block of shareholders still has plenty of leverage -- public and private suasion, adversarial law, a diligent, rat-packing media. In corporate America, a single voice most certainly can be heard; it's in our political system that individual voices are drowned out.

Where are the monsters that the government developed these monster-size regulatory weapons to destroy? The biggest enviro-crime in recent years was the Exxon Valdez spill, right? But it was an accident, for crying out loud, not an environmental rape. And, funny, you don't hear much about the lingering damages anymore, do you? At the time, copy editors drooled at the prospect of an eternal supply of "it's X years since the spill and look at the coastline" filler. But, as in Vietnam with the defoliants and the Gulf War with the well fires, our Mother Earth is no fragile little punk broad, she's one tough, resilient woman who can tear modern man to pieces. Thank God she's reasonable, and patient, too.

Many people have not taken to heart the Biblical injunction to be good stewards of the earth. They have both willingly and unwittingly done wrong in a perverted quest to conquer and consume the earth and its contents. But these people are not the mainstream; their actions do not represent the common, basic, pancultural aspirations of most peoples through history, who have seen the goodness of the natural order and have understood the seriousness of the stewardship responsibility that we have.

Only advanced, [relatively] free-market Western societies have become wealthy, educated, and creative enough to infuse industrial productivity with environmentally benign processes and technologies. As a nation, we have grown up enough, learned enough, and made enough money to remediate some of the environmental damage we did on our way here. I just pray that enough of us will learn to cooperate freely and creatively in the maintenance of our earthly surroundings, without (a) giving in to any robber barons, (b) becoming robber barons ourselves, or (c) using the police power of the state to settle the free-wheeling, far-ranging debate about how free people manage their lives on earth.

We may not agree today, we may not agree much, but my sister is just the type of person -- pensive, deliberate, thorough, honest -- that needs to be involved in that debate. Whatever our politics, we all do have a stake in the future; more importantly, we have a say on how to get there, and just enough influence on what we will find to take great care in the meantime.

Erik Jay is editor of What Next? The Internet Journal of Contentious Persiflage which you can subscribe to by sending mail to sublist@erikjay.com with "subscribe" in the subject line.

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