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Commentary: Environment over people

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 7, 2010 - Some years ago, never mind how long precisely, having a little money in my purse and nothing particular to occupy the noon hour, I thought I would go to lunch with a bright young Washington University graduate I know. This young man happens to be a strong-minded environmentalist.

We had a nice meal and discussed our customary topics - his career prospects, his girl-friend prospects, his move out of mom and dad's house prospects, etc., and then we turned to his main life theme, environmentalism. I have long recognized that this young man prefers whales over people, even to the point of religious fervor, but until I asked one particular question I had no idea just how far it went.

I asked him this: "'Joe,' if you worked in a biology lab and you happened to invent a bug that, upon its release into the open air, would forthwith kill 99 percent of the world's people, including yourself, your family and your current top three girlfriend prospects, but would otherwise leave the planet unaffected, would you release it?"

The answer was immediate: "Yes I would. Yes." The Yes was unequivocal and joyous. He spoke with such enthusiasm that I thought I had caused him to have career choice remorse -- because he suddenly wished he was a biologist so he could go to his lab right away and get started.

I am not making this up. I have changed his name, but he really said it.

It is an ancient truism that those with gray hair and paunches smile knowingly when those with curls and firm muscles make silly pronouncements, but this young man's lack of moral mooring unnerved me. He had just said that he would eagerly kill more than 6 billion human beings so that a few wolves, walruses and woodpeckers could frolic more freely.

Some people believe earthly life exists as a result of Random Accidents. Others believe earthly life exists as a result of the Hand of God. (Maybe there is a third way but in my view those are the two main prospects.) Surely, however, the sane thinkers on both sides recognize that human beings have a different place in the world than beasts. Surely the sane recognize that free will, romantic love and self-knowledge are unique to humankind, and while it is one thing to swat a mosquito who happens to have her proboscis inserted in your forearm, it is quite another to off a human being.

I recently heard a speech from a prominent member of our community. The speech was a 30-minute rant against global warming, species degradation and pollution. This guy is too smart to openly propose killing 99 percent of the earth's people, but he wants to dramatically change the way we live to preserve a few plants and platypuses.

Although he did not say so directly I suspect that, in our new society, he plans to put himself in charge of punishing those who take plastic over paper in the grocery check-out line. Believing as I do in the wisdom of the people over the wisdom of a particular few who claim intellectual and moral superiority, and being afraid of dictators of all kinds, I found that his speech made me a little nervous.

Our Dear Leader, President Barack Obama, has put the kibosh on new applications to drill in the Gulf of Mexico. Presumably this is a temporary move (a) to look good to the voters and (b) to get the drillers' attention so they know our nation will not tolerate complacency on drilling rigs. But are we as a people ready to stop hunting for oil and to suffer a resulting permanent spike in the price of energy?

We like air conditioning. We like to plug in our computers. Most of all we like to drive where we want when we want, zoom uphill with a light press of the right foot, and travel in a private compartment without the intrusion of the general public. Admit it: The average environmentalist travels to his Earth Day rally in a car.

What if the cost of filling up goes to, say, $100? If Obama is worried now about his electoral prospects in 2012, just let the price of gas triple.

While it is well and good to promote environmentalism, environmental problems are a matter of degree. "Joe" is wrong. It is not a wise choice to trade human beings for penguins. It is not a wise choice to stop producing energy to stop alleged global warming. (I imagine some readers are finding their blood boiling over my use of "alleged," as in "alleged global warming," but the global warming crowd cannot escape the fact that their leaders faked data and, while they may be right, the only path to regaining credibility is to get an entirely new bunch of scientists to start over on the research.)

Some years ago there was an evil Missourian named Russell Bliss. He was in the toxic dioxin disposal business. He charged one group of customers to "safely dispose of" toxic dioxin. He then charged another group of customers, particularly the residents of a suburb of St. Louis called Times Beach, to spread the same toxic dioxin on their dirt streets where the children played. I wish he had been jailed for these acts.

I believe it is a proper function of government to protect the commons from criminal environmental degradation. But for Russell Bliss, as with all crime, the beginning of criminality is intentionality. BP and its drilling company were grossly negligent in causing the workers to die and this oil to spill, (and some prosecutors will say they have been criminally negligent), but they did not intend this disaster.

Their objective was to find oil they could sell to regular people at a profit, so those people could go about their lives. The BP shareholders, in turn, are also regular people. Almost all of them have invested merely to save for retirement.

I look at this horrible spill and say, (a) solemnly honor the dead, (b) make BP clean it up, (c) make BP shareholders pay the costs, (d) fire the responsible, (e) renew safety efforts and (f) get back to drilling. Yes, oil is going to spill sometimes, Yes, some workers will die, and Yes, oil supplies will someday run down -- but today we hunt for oil.

I am just asking for a little balance here. I love the environment. In fact, surely almost everyone loves the environment. And as I said above, there is a role for government in its protection. But the combination of a culture of care, the criminal law, and private action will go far in the right direction, all without the suffering that will come from an environmentalist tyranny.

The people who own farm land don't want all their top-soil running down the Mississippi. Trying to solve these issues by installing an environmentalist dictatorship will cause disastrous unintended consequences.

Finding the right balance means putting people first, and then trusting the people to find the way. Yes, the price of oil is going to rise as resources are used up. But the people will adjust as prices change as a result of market forces. As prices increase, there will be incentives for the creation of energy sources not yet thought of. In the meantime we should question those who believe, with religious fervor, that snail darters are more important than people.

Bevis Schock is an attorney in private practice in Clayton. 

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