A response to “Green Rising: The Dangers of Political Environmentalism” by David D’Amato at the Center for a Stateless Society.

I’ve long respected the work of many at the C4SS, but there’s one recent piece of writing which just doesn’t sit well with me. In his harsh individualist critique of “Environmentalism” and “the ecology movement”, D’Amato blasts environmentalists for their reliance on government intervention. And if this was his only point, I’d be in total agreement. But by lumping all “environmentalists” (I stopped using that word a long time ago) in together, it totally loses touch with any real arguments being made by people who care about nature. And while this makes it very easy to pick and chose quotes that make us all look like fools, it does nothing to further our understanding of political and environmental issues.

Nature is a libertarian issue. Not only do we owe future generations an obligation to pass on a functioning ecosystem, but we owe the other life forms on this planet their liberty as well. Even among humans living today, nature is a powerful liberating force. A forest near a settlement serves many purposes – a source of food, fuel and building materials, open space free of state or private authority, and a source of beauty and inspiration which does not need to be designed, manufactured or constructed. Nature is the biological expression of freedom, and tends to fall apart at the seams when attempts are made to control it, just like a market.

It is easy to view these issues from an ivory tower, as the brutal battle of man against nature. But as someone who has traveled, and sought out those who seek to practice freedom, liberty and autonomy in their own lives – natural issues come to the forefront pretty quickly. Whether it’s outlaws and guerrillas seeking a place to hide from the state, marginalized populations needing a place to live or simply people hoping to escape from intensely regimented urban life – forests, fields and other natural areas have always been a refuge. And within cities (as well as around them) the worst “environmental” issues correspond with other forms of oppression (like racism and poverty) far too often to be a coincidence. Humanity is not united, and these issues would be far better described as humans and nature (ie: life) against the state.

In the strictest economic sense, it’s an issue of externalizing costs. While I don’t ever wish to violate the consent or autonomy of others, there are actions one can take in the privacy of one’s own property which directly harm one’s neighbours. Dumping toxic chemicals into the ground, water or atmosphere, for instance. This isn’t just an injury, though, because these actions all too often correspond with profit-making activities. And in those cases, there is a very simple word which applies: one which describes perfectly this act of gaining wealth at the expense of others without their consent or even foreknowledge – theft. And as libertarians, we have a duty to notice when that happens, and to act against it.

This is not to say that state force is the only option for acting against crimes which are environmental in nature, or even that it is an option at all. Of all the inventions our species has created, it’s hard to imagine that any could have caused more environmental harm than the state. By conquering territory and imposing property laws the state opens up nature to exploitation in ways which were never before possible. And by creating property laws which favour elite control over productive resources (land, labour etc) the state creates a demand for natural resources which totally outstrips the needs of the people it claims to serve. This is true of feudal, capitalist, communist, military, religious or downright imperial states. And nothing, from the great wooden warships of old to today’s carpet-bombing techniques, has ever been as bad for the environment as war.

I am in total agreement with D’Amato on this point. Those who argue for the state as a solution to environmental problems are no less deluded than those who think that Monsanto and BP will help too. This kind of “environmentalism” is given far too much public attention, mostly by other authoritarian organizations (like the media), not because of the flaws of environmentalism but as yet another manifestation of the constantly changing garb of authoritarianism itself. Power will put on any mask we ask of it, but rarely changes its actions to match. But to assume that these people speak for “environmentalists” in general is a huge mistake. Most of us despise the big ENGOs, liberal policy hacks and “Green Capitalists” who seek to use these issues to advance their own personal ambitions.

There are other solutions, though. Ones which can take place through free association, mutual aid and even market mechanisms. A truly sustainable, free and efficient economy would go a long way to solving many of these problems. Whether it’s the organics crowd and the CSA networks and community gardens they create, or car and ride-sharing networks, decentralized energy generation and various formal and informal “eco” communities, environmentalists are actively at work creating these alternatives right now, with far less fanfare than Greenpeace. Economics and ecology are two sides of the same coin, and we cannot consider one without the other.

Humans, like all life forms, exist as part of a larger set of metabolic processes. We will always need to take from nature to meet some of our needs, much as elephants, mice, and wild grasses do. Like all of these life forms though, and like the numerous stateless societies around the world with far better environmental records than our own teach us – there are limits. Hunting and gathering, farming or pastoral lifestyles, all of which have been very common across geography and history in stateless contexts, all actively engage with their environments, but in a very different way than we do. If one depends on hunted meat to feed their family and community, then shooting too many deer becomes a suicidal gamble. We exist based on systems which require this total destruction of nature (clearcuts, strip-mines, industrial agriculture, suburban sprawl etc) for our own economic metabolism, and that puts us in a very different position.

This should come as absolutely no surprise to libertarians of any colour, as these very same systems tend to exploit human beings in the very same way. It’s almost impossible to talk about these issues in areas like the Americas, Africa or Australia without ending up amidst countless histories of imperialism, colonialism, slavery, genocide and conquest. In our own communities, we see the toll that these toxic industries take on the people who work there and live nearby. And whether you’re concerned about the effects on race and class that this has, or the utterly awful effect it tends to have on other businesses nearby, these issues are very real.

Most individuals do not see any net benefit from the wasteful excesses of our industrial civilization. Just as the costs of capitalism are externalized out into the environment, they are downloaded onto us as workers and consumers. We foot the bill, through taxes, prices, gas bills and a constantly vanishing access to natural spaces. Canada’s Tar Sands, for instance, involve billions in public subsidies, enormous land grants and some of the world’s lowest royalties to be possible at all, and are still one of the dirtiest, most expensive ways to get petroleum. The same could be said of coal, nuclear, big hydro projects or even many large solar and wind farms. A simple and efficient decentralized energy grid is the only solution to the problems of an over-capitalized, centralized grid, from either a libertarian or ecological perspective.

Everyone is talking about the environment right now. And believe me, nobody’s angered more than us “greens” when states and corporations attempt to co-opt our language. But that does not mean that libertarians should reject environmental issues. Rather, it means that we should engage with them as a means of finding a way forward which incorporates the basic facts of living on a finite, living planet, as well as alongside many other individuals. There is a massive public hunger for a perspective which puts environmental issues into a larger context, and the “green capitalists” are not cutting it. Ecological issues are a natural outgrowth of any economic or productive issues, and vice versa.

There is absolutely no way to really address these issues without questioning larger systems of state and corporate power, as well as basic questions of settlement, production and centralization. Only a radical perspective can do that. And if libertarians don’t articulate an ecological position, it leaves far too much room open for other perspectives, such as the fascists of which D’Amato speaks, to capture attention on these issues. It’s no accident that anarchists have been on the front lines of radical environmentalism for decades now, and that association shows that there’s more going on here than people seeking to seize state power. In my experience blocking many bulldozers over the years, these issues always disguise much larger issues of corruption and collusion between governments and developers. And while some environmentalists may demand assistance from the state, let me assure everyone, that every single one of those times the state showed up in force on the side of the bulldozers in the form of cops and courts.

A sustainable society is fundamentally incompatible with institutions such as the Ford Motor Company, US Military or Monsanto. “Green gas stations” and other such blatantly oxymoronic advertising ploys are favoured targets of public criticism – and they should be. Anyone can be “green”, and offer up a short list of inoffensive quick-fixes. It takes far more courage to stand up and tell the truth: that addressing these issues is going to require us to challenge the centres of power in a very direct way, and that even if the environment wasn’t an issue, they would still need to be challenged. Ecological issues are part of a bigger picture, and unless that picture is presented there is nowhere for the debate to go but into “carbon taxes” and “emissions trading schemes”. Black is the new green – and unless we anarchists and libertarians take on these issues, they will continue to be nothing but fashion statements for those in power.