What today’s biggest environmental challenges have in common

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Polls have consistently shown that millennials and Gen Z rank climate and environmental issues among their top political concerns. The next generation is environmentally conscious, as evidenced by youth marches, school strikes and trending Instagram graphics. Interestingly, polls also show that younger generations are fond of big government, top-down legislation and even socialism, with 70% saying they would vote for a socialist. The voting habits of Millennials and Gen Z indicate that despite their deep environmental concerns, they still do not know how to care for our environment, often advocating policies and approaches that will not achieve the desired result: a healthy and prosperous planet.

Image Credit: Pew Research Center

Environmentalists and center-left politicians whose interest in environmental issues is rhetorical often prioritize preservation, while those who work closely with natural resources prefer preservation.

To understand the different approaches, imagine an outdoor enthusiast who has purchased land hoping to spend time with nature.

A conservationist would argue that the outdoorsman can access their land and enjoy its inherent natural beauty, but any alteration to its ecosystem would disrupt its intrinsic value; therefore, the land should be left alone.

A conservationist, on the other hand, would encourage the outdoorsman to actively steward the earth. He might plant a grove of native fruit trees or hunt to make sure the local wildlife doesn’t overpopulate. Conservation efforts require the outdoorsman to participate and improve their environment, for the long-term benefit of both.

If the outdoorsman chooses conservation, its responsible management will increase the value of the land – a definite plus for a landowner. This incentive holds the outdoor enthusiast accountable, acting like a check. Clearly defined property rights discourage the misuse or mismanagement of resources.

Garret Hardin’s classic 1968 article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” exemplifies this dynamic, in which he describes a shepherd faced with a choice about the use of a common pasture.

The shepherd, noting that the land was open to all, assumed no responsibility for the upkeep of the pasture. Realizing this, he concludes that adding an animal to his herd would increase his profit at no additional cost to himself. His fellow shepherds each come to the same conclusion, and each acting in their own interests, the pasture is soon overgrazed, resulting in underdeveloped livestock and barren land, at great cost to all.

“Therein lies the tragedy,” Hardin concludes. “Every man is locked into a system which compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world which is limited. Ruin is the destination towards which all men rush, each pursuing his own interest in a society which believes in Freedom in the Commons Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

Hardin’s story demonstrates that effective resource management relies on good incentives, which are best derived from ownership. Owners have an incentive to use resources sustainably, as failure to do so would bring their own misfortune. In Hardin’s parable, environmental degradation occurs because no shepherd owns the pasture, so no one has the incentive to ensure it is used sustainably.

Young people are right to be concerned about environmental challenges including climate change, ocean plastic pollution and the national park’s deferred maintenance backlog. What these challenges have in common, however, is that no entity is made to feel the consequences of their neglect. The tragedy of the commons demonstrates why, for all their concern, activists should not rely on the federal government to adequately address environmental issues.

The strongest incentive to protect property is ownership, where individuals must face the consequences (both positive and negative) of their actions. Simply explained by the philosopher Aristotle, “people pay most attention to what is theirs; they care less about what is common. This is why environmental approaches favoring preservation and common ownership pale in comparison to the results obtained by private conservation.

As young people around the world continue to advocate for a healthy planet, they would do well to adopt clearly defined property rights and conservation practices. By encouraging interaction with our surroundings, we will not only achieve better environmental outcomes, but we will also foster a culture rooted in a love of natural places.

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