Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Conscience of a Progressive

Ernest Partridge

Chapter Twenty-Three:

The Environment: Who Owns the Earth?

Environmental ethics is my academic specialty, and so I will have much to say about progressivism and the environment in sections still to be added to this chapter. The two sections below deal with the issue of time-perspective and privatization of the environment.

The libertarian right treats the natural environment as property – individual patches of the earth, privately owned. Property owners, says the libertarian, have an inviolable right to do whatever they please with their patches, free of interference from a government. Property rights are limited only by the impacts of the use of property upon the equivalent rights and welfare of others.

To the religious right, nature is a gift from God for mankind to use, and use up. Because these are the “end times,” the depletion of natural resources is of no consequence. The faithful will leave the earth when they are “raptured” while of remainder of mankind will be damned. In the meantime, God will provide.

The religious progressive believes that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psalm 24:1) Thus nature should be treated with respect and even reverence. The wild nature that remains on the earth is an inheritance from the past, and should be sustained, intact, as a legacy to the future. This is a sentiment shared by both the religious and secular progressives. In addition, progressives see themselves, not as “owners” of the earth as much as temporary stewards of an ancient realm out of which we evolved and which sustain us each day.. The earth does not belong to us as much as we belong to the earth.

In Chapter 8 (“Privatization and Public Goods”) I presented an extensive criticism of the libertarian doctrine that the environment is preserved best when it is privatized. To summarize: the libertarian doctrine fails because the environment cannot be completely privatized. Nature does not recognize, much less respect, property lines. The atmosphere above, aquifers below, flow irrespective of boundaries. So too global physical-chemical processes such as the hydrological and carbon cycles, global climate and ocean currents (e.g., the Gulf Stream). Migrating wildlife cannot be “branded” and claimed as property. The libertarian proposal that government regulation be replaced with “regulation by threat of civil suit” (“Courts and Torts”) presupposes the existence of the same government bureaucracy that the libertarians wish to abolish. Furthermore, because the interests of society are distinct from a sum of the interests of each component individuals (demonstrated in Chapters 5 & 6), threats of penalties upon individual polluters will not suffice to protect the shared natural environment. (The problem of the statistical casualty).

Jeffrey Friedman’s summary of the limitations of libertarian environmental policy bears repeating:

Libertarianism seeks to make every human being the ruler of his or her own domain, as delimited by his or her property rights... Since the atmosphere cannot be divided into parcels of private property as land can, strict libertarianism would require that each person possess his or her own atmosphere, unpolluted by the activities of anyone else. The libertarian ideal is in short, so sensitive to environmental externalities that it is incompatible with human coexistence. Short of the ultimate in atomistic individualism - a planet for every person - any pollution, and hence any human activity, is, in the libertarian view, a crime.1

These were my essential conclusions. For the supporting arguments, see Chapter 8.

Next, we examine the progressives’ plea that nature be perceived and assessed according to the broadest time scale. This plea is based upon some scientific and historical information that is not recognized by the religious right.

Whose Trees are These?

A few years ago, I taped a broadcast of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" which contained a report by Alan Sapporin on the old-growth timber controversy. The logger's remark which opens this essay is written exactly as I heard. Unfortunately, this was neither the first, nor the last, time that I have heard such a remark.

"It's here to be harvested, and God put it on this Earth to do that, and that's the way it is."
For logger Archie Sawyer (not his actual name), these trees are for him. It is God's will.

"The Earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof," saith the scripture. Not so, says Archie Sawyer, who claims, in effect, that the Earth is his, and that God gave it to him. Thus it would seem downright ungrateful, even sacrilegious, for him not to take it.

Too bad for those who follow, to whom he leaves waste, refuse and desolation.

Just how did those trees get here in the first place?

For hundreds of millions of years, the internal convection of the Earth's mantle caused the Juan de Fuca plate to be pushed beneath the western edge of the North American plate. Upon contacting the intense heat and pressure of the mantle, the descending slab of oceanic crust released water and gases in magma, which then rose slowly toward the surface of the Earth. Over millions of years, these ascending "plutons" thus formed volcanoes -- the Cascade Range.

Prevailing winds off the Sub-Arctic and California Currents dropped mist, rain and snow upon the Range.

Over countless millions of years, first the lichens, then the meadows, the swamps and shrubs, and finally the forest, accumulated humus to depths whereby cathedral-like forests of unparalleled magnificence might be nourished and sustained.

Hundreds of millions of years -- from plate, to mountain, to rock and ash, to lichen, to humus, to forest. All, we are told, for the benefit of Archie Sawyer and his employers, and with the subsidized largess of the American taxpayers.

All, we are told, part of God's great plan.

What colossal, cosmic, arrogance!

Under these trees, awaiting Archie's chain saw, the villages of the Chinook, the Nootka, the Kwatkiutl, were established and thrived, while the inhabitants thereof were unaware of the European settlement on the far eastern shores, moving inexorably westward, ultimately to destroy their cultures. Under these trees which God gave to Archie, the great Chief Seattle met in council with the elders of his Snoquamish tribe. Fifty years ago, in the shade of God's gift to Archie, I frolicked with my cousins on a log raft in a mountain pool, while my two uncles (now long-dead) fished for salmon and trout. Likewise, millions of our fellow-citizens have experienced in these groves a literal "re-creation" of their natural senses and souls, away from the sound and fury of our "civilized" condition. And so might millions more, far into the future -- if we so permit.

But no, God put these trees here to be harvested -- all of them, and right now!

No doubt, the ancient citizens of Tarsus felt much the same way. This once-prosperous city on the coast of Asia Minor (now Turkey), was ringed by forests of Lebanon cedar. It was a flourishing Roman city and the home of Saul, later to be Saint Paul. The citizens of Tarsus, we may assume, were assured that the Gods gave them the cedars to use as these citizens saw fit. The citizens saw fit to cut the timber. Down from the hillsides came the soil, filling the harbor. The hot and barren hills no longer invited the Mediterranean mists and rain. Soon thereafter the city was abandoned in ruins, and it has remained so for two millennia, to this day.

The Gardens of Babylon -- now a desert. North Africa, once the orchard and granary of the Roman Empire -- another desert. Ancient Persia, where, it is written, the Emperor Darius rode from Persepolis to the sea in constant shade, now the wastelands of Iran. Next, the Aral Sea, then Amazonia. And what of the cathedral forests of the Pacific Northwest? If Archie Sawyer and his employers have their way, these too will go. After all, he tells us, God gave those trees to Archie and his employers.

Just who do we think we are?

What right has this generation to impoverish it's successor generations, far beyond the scope of our reckoning, as the vanished citizens of Tarsus, Babylon, Carthage and Persepolis have impoverished the wretched peasants of Turkey, Iraq, Tunisia and Iran?

Some say that we are entitled to confine our concerns to our own self-interest, and to let the future fend for itself. "After all," asks the cynic, "what has posterity ever done for me?"

If we so choose, posterity can do a very great deal for us. Posterity can give us a sense of worth and self-respect.

To be sure, we all desire a secure income and the basic creature comforts. But do we not also desire an assurance that the things we care about -- ideas, institutions, and yes, places -- will endure after our brief personal tenure on this planet? What manner of man or woman does not wonder, now and then, what succeeding generations might think, not only of what we have done to this planet, but also what we have left? Of what value, to himself and others, is a person who is never troubled by such thoughts? What can our wealth be worth to us, without self-respect -- without a sense of ourselves as valuable and contributing parts of a broader and enduring pattern of life and history? "Owning," with justification, this "sense of self-respect" is also in our "self-interest," however difficult it might be to place this asset in the economists' cost-benefit spreadsheets.

"Resources" are no simply the stuff we "take" from the Earth, put to our own use, and then discard. They are also what we leave to the Earth, or what we "take" with care, leaving "as much and as good" for our successors.

Plundered resources lead to the ruins and deserts of Tarsus, Babylon, Carthage and Persia. Sustainable resources support democratic institutions, literacy, the arts, the sciences, records and memories of our footsteps in mankind's march through history. They also conserve natural landscapes. Sustainable resources also serve us by granting us the realization that these institutions and places which enriched our natural lives will also enrich the lives of our successors, and thus that these future generations will be comprised of individual that we might admire, and who will admire us.

Ore and oil, beams and boards -- all these are resources. But these too are resources: Mountain sheep and brown bear along the Salmon River in Idaho. The morning mist rising above Thoreau's Walden Pond. The tang of sagebrush in Edward Abbey's southwestern desert. Omul and lake seals in the transparent waters of Siberia’s Lake Baikal. The rare glimpse of the spotted owl in those cathedral forests of the Pacific Northwest. Redwood and Douglas Fir, standing forever as the result of tectonic forces, volcanic eruption, lichen, shrub, humus, mist and rain -- and the reverent forbearance and foresight of our generation and it's successors. And these, paradoxically, remain as "resources" precisely to the degree that we do nothing to them, other than simply admire them.

Might it not be possible that this too was why God moved tectonic plates, ocean currents, and prevailing winds to put these trees on the slopes of the Cascade Range? Or did the Almighty do all this simply to put a paycheck in Archie Sawyer's pocket, windfall profits in the annual reports of the timber conglomerates, and exported old-growth logs in the mills across the Pacific?

This Land Was Made for You and Me


Wilderness ... was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. ... If the abstract dream of human liberty and human dignity became, in America, something more than an abstract dream, mark it down at least partially to the fact that we were, in subtle ways, subdued by what we conquered.

Wallace Stegner

The Land Was Ours Before We Were the Land's

Robert Frost

At a seminar that I attended in the early eighties, John Baden, a libertarian resource economist,2 offered the following argument for the superiority of the free-market, property-rights approach to environmental management. In the American west, he said, when you look at the fence line separating public from private land, you will find that the private land is well managed for sustainable production, while the public land is devastated and eroded due to overgrazing. I won’t disagree that this is often the case, for I have also seen this contrast.

Baden’s observation exemplifies the tragedy of the commons at work.3   When the land owner mismanages his property, say through overgrazing or poor erosion control, he diminishes his own personal wealth – the consequences of his neglect are, as the economists say, “internalized.” However, when the rancher pays the government to allow his private stock to graze on public land, he has no incentive to protect the quality and maintain the sustainability of the range. The costs of land abuse are “externalized” and borne by the public.

However, this is not an inevitable consequence of public ownership and management of land. Public land can be protected by a corps of professional managers (“rangers”) applying scientifically based regulations, imposing fees that reflect (i.e., “internalize”) the costs of management, and enforcing these regulations and fees with the sanction of law. When public land is degraded through private use, this might be the result of undue political pressure on the private agencies – of special-interest “foxes” appointed to guard the public “hen house.” Check the roster of department heads in George Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture (national forests), and Department of the Interior (National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management) and you will find an abundance of former (and future) industry lobbyists and corporate executive officers.4  In Democratic administrations, these posts are more likely to be filled by professionally trained and experienced career public servants.

Baden’s proffered evidence is anecdotal and, as I have conceded, correct. I have also seen examples of well tended private property separated at the fence line from degraded public land. But such anecdotal evidence is not compelling, for I can present contrary anecdotes. So too, I am confident, can the reader.

During the seventies, I taught Philosophy at Weber State College (now Weber State University) in Ogden, Utah. My home was located a few blocks from a small roadless canyon at Mt. Ogden, where I frequently hiked. A short distance inside the canyon was a fallen metal sign which read, “No Trespassing: Property of the Union Pacific Railroad.” I ignored it, since it was long ago rendered “inoperative.” For this was National Forest land – “my land,” owned jointly with all other United States citizens, and available to us all for our enjoyment and use.

A few miles to the south of Ogden is the town of Farmington, settled in the nineteenth century by my great-grandfather, Ezra Clark. The mountain immediately to the east of the town was recklessly forested and grazed by the early settlers, and in the twenties a devastating flood came down from the mountain killing many residents including some of my kinfolk. Then the federal government took action. In the following decade, the CCC plowed parallel contour ditches on the mountain top, replanted trees and shrubs, and restricted access to livestock. There have been no serious floods since then.

Visit any of the national parks, and you will find none of the land degradation described by John Baden. For these are the most highly prized and visited public lands, set aside in 1916 for public use “in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Less “charismatic” public land, administered by the National Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and state agencies, may, as noted, be exploited if private interests are allowed to overturn public protection and management.

With the regressive take-over of the federal government, that is exactly what has happened, beginning with the so-called “sagebrush rebellion” of the Reagan era, later self-described by the Orwellian label of “the wise-use movement.”

Since then the western federal lands have been under assault.

In 19??, a Nevada County Commissioner claimed that Bureau of Land Management land properly belongs to his county. [Find citation.]

In 19??, Utah Congressman, Jim Hansen, proposed that his state's national parks be turned over to the state government, and the Utah congressional delegation endorsed a proposal that wilderness areas be reduced to 1.8 million acres (one-third of the amount proposed by environmentalists), and that even that wilderness be open to incursions by roads, power lines, and dams. [citations]

Other “sagebrush rebels” have shown less regard for legal constraints. In Nevada, a BLM office was dynamited. Threats against federal rangers have become so frequent and credible that many are advised not to travel alone or out of radio communication. And some are further advised not to be seen in their federal uniforms.

The Sagebrush Rebellion of the eighties is back again, as many Westerners demand control of their land, and defy the authority of a federal government which they regard, in effect, as an alien foreign power. This defiance, they claim, is in the tradition of the founding fathers: an exercise of the right of rebellion against an oppressive government. Furthermore, they assert that their protests are also acts of legitimate civil disobedience against unlawful authority, in the tradition of Gandhi and King.

The comparisons are inappropriate in both cases.

Park and forest rangers are not King George's redcoats. They are agents of our representative government.

The colonies' rebellion against the British Crown was justified in a list of complaints, found in the latter (and rarely read) portion of the Declaration of Independence. A close examination of that list will show that few if any of these complaints apply to the administrators of the public lands. Moreover, that document will show that the American Revolution was further justified by the failure of the Crown to respond to civil and peaceful petitions of complaint, or to act under the rule of legitimately enacted law.

Thus, once again, the analogy fails, for the new land rebellion is against the very government that was demanded, and in fact established, by those same patriots that rebelled against King George. And for that reason, the government has a valid claim to administer these lands in behalf of the general public. Indeed, the phrase "owned by the federal government" is a misnomer: better to say, "administered by the government, and owned by the people." The administration of these lands is legitimate, simply because they are managed according to the legal statutes of a legitimate government. Thus if the lawbreakers who claim this land protest that the federal government has no right to it, then they should make their claims before the courts. And if they do not like the laws that have established these public lands, then they should attempt to change their status legitimately -- through their duly elected representatives in the Congress. They should, in short, attempt to persuade the owners to relinquish their land: the owners being, of course, the rest of us.

But if instead they choose to deliberately violate of the laws of a legitimate government -- as legitimacy is clearly defined in the Declaration -- let us recognize that violation for what it is. Put simply, such lawlessness is not simply a rebellion; it is also an act of disloyalty -- it is Un-American.

In rebuttal, the wise use faction may claim that they are engaged, not in rebellion, but in acts of civil disobedience -- as witnesses, in the spirit of Gandhi and King, to the injustice of statute law. Here too, the analogy and thus the argument fail on all counts save one.

To Martin Luther King, civil disobedience is an illegal, non-violent act of principled protest, by an individual willing to submit to the penalty of the law. (And in the case of King and his protest, the illegality was temporary, as the laws which he protested were in time determined to be in themselves illegal: violations of the supreme law of the land, the Constitution.) Finally, it is a course of action taken when all reasonable attempts at legal remedy have failed.

Are acts of protest against federal land control illegal? To be sure, in some cases they are. But here the similarity ends, for the illegal acts against the public lands and their agents stand little chance of being vindicated by Constitutional principles.

Are the protesters non-violent? Ask the government employees whose offices have been dynamited, whose vehicles have been sabotaged, and who have received threats to their lives.

Do the perpetrators submit to legal penalties? In a few cases they do, usually when the penalties are not severe .But rarely do the dynamiters, the saboteurs and vandals, or the anonymous purveyors of threats step forward to be recognized and to accept punishment.

Has the wise use faction exhausted all avenues of legal remedy of their alleged complaints? This is unlikely, when, at the outset, the perpetrators refuse to accept the legitimacy of the federal government.

And finally, are these acts of principled protest? So the lawbreakers would have us believe. But just what is the principle behind the protest? An end of outside federal interference with the use of "their" land? But it is not their land, it is ours. And if it were their land, they would have to pay taxes on it, and either manage it wisely for sustained use, or else mine it in the short term and then abandon it as wasteland (as so many of their predecessors did). Instead, they pay user's fees to the owners, namely the rest of us, through our agents in the federal government whose task it is to manage it wisely for sustained use. The motive for the protest, then, seems to come to this: no taxes, no fees, no constraints -- in a word, greed. This in the name of "wise use." Little room for principle here.

Another claim appeals to the principle of local control, and contends that the existence of federal land violates the Tenth Amendment -- namely, that powers not enumerated in the Constitution revert to the states. Thus, they argue, the federal lands belong to the states, not to the government in Washington. But if that government is legitimate, it is not for private citizens to regard their interpretation of the law and the Constitution as binding on their public behavior. That is the task of the courts.

However, the states rights argument has deeper and more troubling implications, that reach to our identity as a nation .That identity emerged as Patrick Henry told the Virginia legislature that "I am not a Virginian, I am an American.” It was forged through the heat of a Civil War ,whereby the grammar of our identity was transformed from "The United States are" to "The United States is." When I travel abroad, my passport proclaims, not that I am a Californian, but that I am an American citizen protected by the government of the United States and possessing all rights guaranteed by its Constitution. What American would want it otherwise?

But the "wise use" faction would weaken these ties that bind us as a people. For example, if Congressman Hansen’s proposal eventually prevails, the national park system, belonging to all of us, will be balkanized and apportioned to the states: Bryce Canyon of Utah, Grand Canyon of Arizona, Yosemite of California, and Yellowstone of Wyoming (with adjacent slivers in Idaho and Montana). And then, who knows, Bryce Canyon of Disney, Grand Canyon of Time-Warner, and Yosemite of MCA? Do we really wish to be identified once again by our states rather than by our common body-politic: as Utahns, Arizonans, Californians, rather than as Americans? All this as we are being bound ever more closely through commerce, rapid transportation and instant communication? Have we learned nothing from the failed experiment of the Articles of Confederation?

If the wise use faction so covets the public lands, why not simply sell them off, apply the receipts to the national debt, and be done with the controversy? Why have public lands at all -- at least on the federal level? The idea is not far-fetched, for legislation is now before the House of Representatives that would put some public land in the west up for sale.5   [Time sensitive – keep an eye on developments].

Perhaps the strongest argument for the maintenance and preservation of federal land goes beyond words, and is based in raw consciousness and fundamental emotion -- the overwhelming feelings that we experience in the midst of such land.

These feelings came to my mind recently as I first began to assemble these words while driving east through the Colorado Rockies toward Denver. I was fully aware that these mountains, streams and forests belonged to no one and to everyone. Thanks to the foresight of our predecessors, they were the common heritage of us all, as American citizens. Knowing this, when one is in public land, one has a different sense of the place. Not only because it is our land, but also because we are its people. Thus the very sight of this splendor when we are within it -- and when we are away from it the very knowledge of its existence -- all this binds us as a nation and a people.

Yet there are some among us that would have us believe that we will be better off if we divide it up and parcel it out to the highest bidders! And for what? Further east, closer to Denver, I saw the answer as I left the national forest, and came to the tailings slopes of the abandoned mines, and the shops and settlements in the once-beautiful Clear Creek canyon. This is the alternative that we are being offered.

Think of those unforgettable Ansel Adams pictures of Yosemite Falls and of the Grand Tetons beyond the Snake River. And if you are fortunate, reflect upon your experiences as you stood at those very places. Was not that experience enhanced by the realization that the land belonged, not to anyone in particular, but to all of us, in general, as Americans -- even perhaps as earthlings? Consider the experience, upon entering a canyon by canoe, or a trail afoot, of encountering the sign "Preserved in Perpetuity for Public Enjoyment by the National Park Service." Compare that with the experience of another sign: "Private Property: No Trespassing!" The wise use faction complains that the preservationists seek to lock up the resources of the wilderness. Compare such a "lock up" with a "lock out," whereby we might become aliens in our own land.

The "wisest use" of the land was that ordained by the Congress that wrote the National Park Service Act of 1916 setting aside these lands "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." No argument advanced since then -- and there have been many -- has come close to justifying the dismantling of that legacy.


1.     Jeffrey Friedman, "Politics or Scholarship?" Critical Review, V. 6, No. 2-3, 1993. pp 431-2.

2.     Baden, who was formerly on the faculties of Utah State and Montana State Universities, is the founder and chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE).
See: http://www.free-eco.org/staff_baden.php  .

3.     Garrett Hardin and John Baden have collaborated in the past. In 1977, they jointly published an anthology, Managing the Commons. (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Co.).

4.     [Collect a list of such individuals and post them here. E.g., Gail Norton, Steven Griles, etc.]

5.     Bettina Boxall: “Some Fear a Vast Sell-Off of U.S. Land,” Los Angeles times, November 16, 2005.


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .