George Monbiot had an article in the Guardian on Monday about bastardised libertarianism and its inability to understand the real freedoms being fought for by environmentalists and social justice advocates. However, Monbiot’s treatment of environmentalism’s threat to libertarianism was a bit sloppy. He got sucked into the negative freedom and positive freedom debate, and although he worked his way to the correct conclusion ultimately, I felt like the clarity was lacking.
So I want to explain more clearly just how much environmentalists stick in the side of libertarian ideology. First, consider what libertarians of the sort Monbiot criticizes are really about philosophically: they favor a procedural justice account of the world based heavily on property rights. This is the newest face of libertarianism. Gone is the appeal to utility and desert. The modern libertarians try to prop up their political ideas almost solely through a rigid formalism of property rights.
I have written before about the problem with the procedural accounts of property rights, but here I want to just accept the libertarian property rights premise. Somehow individuals can grab up pieces of the world and exclude those pieces from everyone else forever. Once those individuals become owners of their respective property, nobody else can touch that property or do anything whatsoever to that property without their consent. Coming onto my property without my consent is a form of trespass under this picture. Doing anything to my property — whether it be painting it, dumping stuff on it, or causing some other harm to it — is totally off limits.
So environmentalists point out that carbon emissions are warming the planet, one consequence of which is that harm will be done to the property of others. Most environmentalists — being the leftists that they generally are — do not make too much of the property rights issues, but one certainly could. Coal plants release particulates into the air which land on other people’s property. But no permission is ever granted for that. Coal plants do not contract with every nearby property owner to allow for them to deposit small amounts of particulate matter on their neighbors’ land. They are guilty of a form of property trespass.
Beyond that, all sorts of industrial processes have environmental externalities that put things into the air or the water that ultimately make their way into the bodies of others. This is a rights-infringing activity under the procedure-focused libertarian account. The act of some industry is causing pieces of matter to land on me and enter into my body. But I never contracted with them to allow them to do so.
The air and the atmosphere is an especially problematic issue for libertarians. Who owns those things? Libertarians might try to argue that you own the air above your land, but air — or the matter that it is made up of — does not stay above your land; it moves around the world. Any matter released into the air is sure to find itself to someone else’s property, causing a violation. The atmosphere might seem like something nobody owns and therefore something anybody can dump things into. But with climate change, we know that greenhouse gas emissions are causing the world to warm, the consequences of which will include damage to the property of others all over the world. Yet again though, greenhouse gas emitters have not contracted with every single property owner in the world, making their emissions a violation of a very strict libertarian property rights ideology.
The short of is that environmentalists totally smash open the idea that property rights theories can really account for who is permitted to do what with the land that they own. Almost all uses of land will entail some infringement on some other piece of land that is owned by someone else. So how can that ever be permitted? No story about freedom and property rights can ever justify the pollution of the air or the burning of fuels because those things affect the freedom and property rights of others. Those actions ultimately cause damage to surrounding property and people without getting any consent from those affected. They are the ethical equivalent — for honest libertarians — of punching someone in the face or breaking someone else’s window.
That is why environmentalism is such a huge problem for libertarians, and it is no doubt why so many of them are skeptical of the effects of climate change or other environmental issues. Admitting that someone’s use of their own property almost certainly entails an infringement on someone else’s property makes the whole libertarian position basically impossible to act out in the real world. A landowner could never get individual contracts with literally every single person that might ever be affected by the owner’s land-use (e.g. operating a coal-burning power plant). But a libertarian that was honest about environmental externalities would require such a landowner to undertake precisely that impossible task.