Bill McKibben, a virulent environmentalist, was given the job of reviewing Peter Huber's new, market friendly work on the environment, Hard Green:Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists (Basic Books, 1999), for The New York Review of Books. And he certainly has done his best to attempt to obliterate Huber's idea that perhaps environmentalists and their bureaucratic handmaiden aren't the best judges of what ought to be done where the environment is concerned.
Huber does not trust the government and the highly partisan, one-sided environmentalist gang to lead us to some kind of environmental Haven, so one can appreciate McKibben's efforts.
In an effort to nail Huber good and hard, McKibben tells us, among other things, that "In the essay on ethics that comes near the end of his book [Huber] posits a world in danger of sliding into a kind of relativist paganism. Soft Greens, he says, would probably agree with Al Gore that nature has 'inherent value,' and would therefore advocate preserving 'the kangaroo rate not because it is useful to people, but because nature as a whole is, in some sense, on a a spiritual part with man.' And this will lead to a kind of ethical free-for-all, where we are unable or unwilling to distinguish between cougars and children, and end up condoning the actions of lunatics like Ted Kaczynski."
Now McKibben will have nothing of this insight. As he puts it, "This is unlikely. A quick glance around contemporary American culture should suffice to demolish the notion that we are relegating human beings to some inferior spot in our cosmology. If you were looking for the hottest moral danger spot, I think you'd have to locate it instead in the incredible hyperindividualism of the most advanced consumer society on earth. We are, to coin a phrase, I-dolatrous. and we have been told by three generations of laissez-faire economists that this is how we should be, that by our endless pursuit of our own desires we will enrich the world."
Let me return to this slight against individualism shortly but first let us notice that McKibben has not even bothered to address Huber's point, which is a valid one: If nature -- all of it, with no discrimination allowed among its various elements -- has intrinsic value, then guiding ourselves both individually and institutionally is impossible.
No priorities can be identified, everything is equally significant. Yet because of scarcity of time and resources, some ranking of importance needs to accomplished. Without differences among the various candidates in nature that could use our attention, what remains is for some leaders to call the shots, arbitrarily. McKibben has no retort to offer to this, so he changes the subject and, following a tried tactic, goes on the offensive.
So what of his attack? Let us consider it by looking first at what individualism is. That will help us see whether there is anything to what McKibben claims.
An individualist holds that in a human community each adult member is to be treated by recognizing his or her sovereignty as, in other words, possessing the basic rights to life, liberty and property. This is needed so as to secure for everyone his or her moral space or personal jurisdiction (or authority) over a determinate sphere within which the person than is free to make his or her own choices, commitments, and so forth, for better or for worse.
The underlying assumption is that human adults are individuals, that is, unique, irreplaceable beings for whom the flourishing of their lives is of supreme importance where they and not uninvited others must be the guide as to whether they will pursue this flourishing or happiness.
Now a hyperindividualist would probably be someone who not only believes the above but also believes that no one ought ever be cooperating with other people in guiding his or her life, that everyone ought to undertake this task in solitude, independently of any help from family, friends, neighbors, associations, and so on.
Is this in fact what characterizes American culture? Although there is a lot of consuming going on in this country, is there not also a lot of cooperation, philanthropy, collaboration, and community? Moreover, is there not, in fact, a great deal of anti-individualism afoot in American society, whereby individuals are not permitted to do their own thing at all?
Are not all of us in America required, by law, to support many ventures we do not approve of and which are imposed on us on the often spurious grounds that they promote the public interest? Are not businesses regulated by a myriad of government agencies, federal, state, county and municipal, constraining them in ways that undermine their individual goals and purposes?
Yes, these are rhetorical questions -- we all know that the answer to them is "Yes." And there is no question that Mr. McKibben is trying to pull wool over his reader's eyes, hoping, it seems, that his hyperbole will obscure the reader's understanding of just how replete our culture is with ideas, ideals and institutions that are anything but individualistic, let alone hyperindividualist.
In fact, as Huber's analysis shows, the biggest problem with the environment is that lack of institutional individualism and the plethora of public domains that are ripe with the tragedy of the commons, the situation wherein everyone and no one owns resources, so they become squandered and neglected. Quite the opposite of what McKibben suggests.
Too bad there are so many who share McKibben's prejudices and sad to see The New York Review assign a book like Huber's to be reviewed by an environmentalist zealot.
Tibor R. Machan teaches business ethics at Chapman University and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. Send him MAIL.