The Environment, Property Rights, and The Rule of Transient Elements


My Quaker faith tells me that I am to be a good steward of the Earth; that I should care for it the best way I am able.  My libertarian philosophy tells me that my government and I must respect the property rights of others.  This dichotomy would seem to create quite the conundrum.  But, there are two ways to look at property rights in regard to the environment.  The first way is that individuals and industries should have the right to use their property in any way that they choose, period.  The second way is that no individual or industry has the right to violate the property rights of any other.  The non-aggression principle of libertarianism seems to clearly favor the latter of the two views, in that whenever there is confusion over which way government should act, one should always come down on the side of defensive action in response to aggression.  In short, people are free to act as they please so long as their actions don’t cause harm to anybody else.

When it comes to the environment and property rights, there are two elements we must consider differently than others: air and water.  Air and water are transient elements.  They are not fixed in space like trees, for instance.  They move and transform independently of human action.  This reality means that they must be treated differently when it comes to property rights.  For example, if my neighbor chops down an oak tree on their property, that action doesn’t have any real measurable effect on my property (unless of course it falls on my house).  However, if my neighbor decides to empty chemicals from his garage onto his lawn, and those chemicals were to seep into the groundwater, there is a very real chance that the groundwater beneath my home will become polluted as well.  While government has no right to force my neighbor to keep his oak tree, the government does have a duty to protect my property rights as it pertains to the groundwater beneath my home, as well as the rights of anyone else who is affected by his chemical dumping.  This is the essence of what I call the Rule of Transient Elements.  Any element that moves independently of human action, that an individual or group of individuals do not adequately control, cannot be claimed as personal property protected by The Constitution of the United States.

Unfortunately it’s not as simple as all that.  There are certain terms that would need strict definition in order for the government to enforce such a rule.  For instance, how exactly do we define “pollution?”  What about “harm?”  Even the terms air and water need to be strictly defined.  Do snow and ice count as water before they’ve melted?  What about steam?  When does steam cease being water and start being air?  I’m not a scientist so I will leave most of the technicalities to them.  However, the question of what constitutes “pollution” is something I’d like to tackle.  A generalized definition of pollution from Wikipedia states that, “Pollution is the introduction of contaminants into the natural environment that cause adverse change.”  The italicized phrase is particularly important here.  For example, while smoke stacks that deposit extreme amounts of contamination into the atmosphere are likely to cause adverse change to the environment, smoke from a cigarette is not likely to do the same.  The environment has the ability to clean itself to a certain degree, and while the Earth may be able to absorb cigarette smoke without it causing adverse change, it may not be able to absorb the larger amounts of contaminants emitted into the air by a factory each day.  Therefore, the question we must ask ourselves is, “Does the introduction of contaminants into the environment result in adverse change in need of a correction that requires human action?”

If the answer to the above question is “yes,” then we can make the determination that pollution has occurred.  In this instance, I believe the government has a duty to protect the property rights of every individual who could, reasonably speaking, be affected by the pollution.  Again, as I am not a scientist, I cannot sufficiently define what is reasonable and what is not.  I have no idea to what extent certain kinds of pollution might affect the environment at large.  But, what I do know is that if an individual or industry introduces contaminants into the environment that causes pollution, as defined in this article, the government must defend the property rights of those affected by the pollution by holding the polluter responsible for the cost of whatever cleanup is necessary to address the issue.  In addition, the polluter should also be held responsible for any irreversible damage caused by the pollution, including any damage to the health of the individual.  Lastly, we may also want to consider the idea that the pollution of air and water, in and of itself, ought to be considered a criminal act in the same vein as vandalism or destruction of property.  We must also remember that our bodies count as personal property and therefore we are all property owners, and no distinction can be made between damage done to our bodies and damage done to real estate.

While I believe there is a libertarian argument to be made that addresses pollution, I also believe strongly that government ought not overstep its bounds in doing so.  Government regulations that seek to prevent pollution from taking place, in my opinion, are aggressive actions that fly in the face of both my Quaker faith and libertarianism.  Government power must only be used as a reactionary measure in the defense of individual rights.  When we allow government to take preemptive action in preventing adverse outcomes we stray from the core value of non-aggression.  As far as I am concerned, there is no difference between the government taking preemptive military action overseas and the government taking preemptive regulatory action at home.  The role of government is to enforce the laws that are broken.  It is not the role of government to prevent laws from being broken in the first place.  Therefore, while I strongly believe the government has a duty to punish polluters for their violations of the property rights of others, I do not believe in government regulating the actions of private businesses or individuals in order to prevent those violations from taking place.  To use an analogy, government should punish those who commit murder, but it should not (and in all truth, cannot) regulate human behavior to prevent murder from taking place.

We, as Friends, are called to be good stewards of the Earth.  We are the ones who must get our hands dirty.  We should bear witness to the environmental destruction taking place all around us and implore those who are polluting our world to make a different choice.  We should also expect and demand that our government defend our property rights to clean air and water, and the polluting of those elements should be illegal.  We should be able to count on government to hold polluters responsible for their actions.  However, we must be cautious in using government power to regulate human action.  All preemptive action on the part of the state is carried out from an offensive, rather than defensive posture.  We must avoid taking part in aggression in all its forms, both on the part of individuals and the government, and we should repudiate such aggression whenever it rears its ugly head.  In the mean time, let’s continue to advocate for cleaner energy, green industries, and a more environmentally conscious society.  Let’s use the power of persuasion, rather than the power of the state, to convince others of the importance of Earth stewardship, and let us lead by example, raising up our hands to show the whole world the dirt caked under our fingernails.



2 Comments on “The Environment, Property Rights, and The Rule of Transient Elements

  1. I think the state has an obligation to say what the guidelines are for pollution. It may seem a burdensome regulation to you that x is set as the limit for pollutant y, but waiting until damage has been done means cleanup is unlikely. Remember those Superfund sites (most of which are STILL not returned to prior conditions)?


    • I agree completely that the state needs to define what pollution is, as I mentioned in the article. Guidelines for what consists of a violation are absolutely necessary. The regulations I’m talking about have more to do with how a person or industry goes about containing contaminants, about how they prevent pollution, as opposed to what pollution is.


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