Where does man fit into nature? What is his response to the created universe? Lynn White has argued that the Christian position is at the very heart of the environmental crisis. He, and others, see the biblical view of the dominion of man over nature as being responsible for our misuse of our natural resources. White argues, “Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance towards nature that no solution for our ecological crisis can be expected from them alone.”
It is true that man has a unique role in God’s order. Genesis 1 states:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (v. 26). God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (v. 28).
The major verbs in these passages, radah (to rule) and kabash (to subdue), have a very firm, almost harsh ring. Kabash can be translated “to tread under foot” or “to conquer.” Likewise radah can mean “to tread” or “to prevail against”—certainly a dominant relationship between man and creation is implied.
However, the view that man is to have dominion over nature must be informed by other passages. Psalm 8 imparts a sense of awe and wonder to us at our being made a part of God’s magnificent creation. Genesis 2:15 also charges man to “care for” the Garden of Eden, softening the commands of the previous chapter. In addition, we have been given specific instructions for the careful stewardship of the land (Lev. 25:1-5), domesticated animals (Dent. 25:4), and wildlife (Deut. 22:6).
In the Old Testament, dominion was often used to describe the rule of a king over his subjects, but this rule entailed privileges and responsibilities. Numerous passages condemn rulers who exercised their privileges but did not fulfill their responsibilities towards those under them. Ezekiel 34:1-10 recounts God’s condemnation of those who abrogate these standards.
What can be done so that we act more responsibly towards nature? Reform is possible in two areas: in the attitudes we and our fellow citizens have towards the created universe and in the legal framework that governs the use of natural resources. Law and conscience are both important components of a Godly use of our resources. Therefore we must examine both, change those parts that do not promote wise conservation, and sustain those parts that do.
The rules, or institutions, governing natural resources are important because people act on the basis of incentives and information. The incentives and the information are determined by social institutions. The social institutions relevant for resource management are simply the rules which assign responsibility for actions. They determine who can take what actions and who gets a hearing with regard to those actions—the system of property rights determines both information and incentives.
This framework keeps people from imposing costs on others without their willing consent and also allows individuals or groups to be rewarded for being sensitive to the needs of others. These private property rights inhere in individuals although those individuals can grant their rights to groups. It is important to remember that we do not really own any resources but rather only manage them for God.
Property rights can be termed private when exclusivity, liability, and transferability exist. Exclusivity means the resource owner can receive returns from using the property to benefit others and can also exclude others from those returns unless they have paid. A lack of exclusivity will lead to resource overuse. For instance, there were no exclusive rights in the American West in live North American bison. If one buffalo hunter decided that the magnificent creatures were being killed off too rapidly and would have preferred to slow down his rate of consumption, he could not capture the benefits of such a decision. Because he could not exclude others from harvesting an animal which he had avoided shooting, he had little incentive for conservation.
Liability forces the resource owner to bear the costs of actions that he takes which adversely affect others. Pollution is a prime example of inadequate rules of liability, since pollution imposes costs upon others without their willing consent. For instance, the problem with air pollution is not only that the atmosphere is being used for waste disposal but also that the polluters have acted without the prior consent of those whose air is violated. In such a case the polluter is not being held accountable for his actions, and property rights are not complete.
Transferability encourages the owner to use his property to the advantage of others. If rights to the resource can be bought or sold, the holder may lose wealth if he ignores any higher-valued wishes of potential buyers. When a landowner allows erosion, which lowers the productivity of his land, the market forces him to bear the costs of such inaction by decreasing the value of his land. Even if the owner does not care about erosion, the market enforces concern through changes in land prices. If land is not readily transferable, the adverse impact of erosion on his wealth is not so immediate or significant. In some states, rights to water are not easily transferable, and owners of water rights will ignore other demands for their resource because they cannot sell at a profit.
When property is held by government, it is difficult to establish full exclusivity, liability, and transferability. Governmental officials operate as agents for the citizens, and, as with all agent/principal relationships, an effort is made to limit the actions of agents. However, these limits do not insure full responsibility, nor do they allow agents to capture returns from good actions. If the manager of a public forest tries to sell access rights and pockets the profits, he is charged with malfeasance. Public managers are supposed to operate in the public interest precisely because they do not have claims on the returns from the resource. The lack of transferable shares means they can more easily ignore the wishes of others than can private resource owners. It is very difficult to set up a reward system so that the personal rewards of government officials vary directly with the value of the resource.
Appropriate institutional design is important—we need a system of accountability. Private property entails incentive, both negative and positive, to provide this accountability. In contrast, bureaucratic management of natural resources has demonstrated significant difficulties in maintaining accountability.
However, it is not simply a lack of appropriate incentive that creates resource management problems. To make correct decisions about the use of natural resources, the decision-maker must have adequate information. Even if all resource users were well-intentioned and unselfish, a lack of complete information could still prevent a society from the optimal use of its resources. To put a natural resource to its best use requires knowledge of the existing stocks, the availability of substitute resources, the technology for processing the resource (often speculative in an era of progress), the demands of consumers for products from that resource, and predictions about the future. A system of market prices based upon private property rights contains all this information and validates it automatically. Equally important, it is flexible, responding quickly to changes in any one of the conditions and generating the information relatively cheaply, in comparison to alternative means of obtaining that same knowledge. A private property system allows communication and coordination among millions of individuals, each with bits of knowledge carefully developed and expressed and crucial to the coordination process.
Public resource managers face very different sets of information. Prices generated by a market are essentially a series of statements about willingness to buy or sell property rights. Since, under public ownership property rights are incomplete, the information content of prices for public property (if they exist at all) is deficient. In such cases it is difficult to find out what values people really do place on resources. One does not know the views of others on alternative uses, and expectations about the future are not processed so carefully or stated as clearly as under private rights.
Private property also encourages mutual accommodation. Much of our discussion of natural resources revolves around the question of “who is going to get his or her way.” However, under a market system based on private property, exchange allows both parties to come out better off. The existence of gains from trade means both participants can expect to profit. Cooperation, rather than conflict, is the hallmark of the private property market system. In contrast, under public management, conflict dominates. The lack of complete property rights means both decision-makers and special interest groups have little incentive to understand the position of opposing groups or to accommodate their desires.
A prime example of bureaucratic mismanagement of an important natural resource is to be found in the United States Forest Service. Responsible for the operation of some 140 million acres of forestlands, the agency personnel have continually taken environmentally and economically unsound actions. Much of the land which they administer has potentially conflicting multiple uses. However, professional pride and personal advancement encourage budget maximization for each forest district. These incentives are so strong that, despite stated multiple-use objectives, commercial timber production tends to dominate all other uses. Estimating production, putting tracts up for bid, building the necessary roads, and reforesting all involve high employment and large expenditures. Bureaucrats who promote timber production find their agency growing and their promotions more rapid.
Managing forests for commercial timber production is not necessarily bad. Timber products are in demand, and both the private and the public sector are meeting that demand. However, public sector timber managers face very different incentives and can ignore costs which their private sector counterparts can’t. For instance, the U.S. Forest Service encourages the logging of areas that no private landowner would ever consider economically viable. From 1974 through 1978 over half the timber sales in the national forests did not cover the costs of timber management and reforestation (Emerson, Stout, and Kloepfer). The case is even worse in the Northern Rocky Mountains and in Alaska. In 1981 over 88 percent of the sales in two Rocky Mountain regions were below cost, and in 1982, 96 percent failed to cover costs. In 1983 each dollar spent on timber sales in Alaska generated two cents in receipts (Emerson, Stout, and Kloepfer). Private sector forest managers could ill afford such economically suicidal behavior.
It should also be remembered that much of the land on which the forest service is subsidizing logging has considerable environmental amenities. Its highest valued use is in something other than commercial timber production. This land contains some of the most spectacular scenery in America and offers recreation to backpackers, hunters, and fishermen. Logging often conflicts with these uses. The inaccountability of public sector resource managers has produced both resource waste and environmental degradation.
Another illustration of poor public sector accountability is the infamous Love Canal case in Niagara Falls, New York. Love Canal was an unused waterway designed in the 1890’s as a part of a never completed hydroelectric project. It was purchased by Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation in 1942 and used for disposal of over 21,800 tons of toxic chemical wastes. Hooker chose the site because it was in a relatively unpopulated area and because impermeable clay made it suitable for the disposal of hazardous materials. During the use of the canal for disposal. Hooker acted responsibly, in accordance with the accepted technology of the time. Care was taken not to breach the clay walls of the canal, and four feet of clay was deposited over the chemical wastes. Among Hooker’s motivations, surely the least was not accountability for its private actions, through liability for any adverse consequences of its disposal practices. Hooker’s lawyers advised proper management, and the company acted accordingly.
In 1953, however, the story takes a turn when the Niagara Falls Board of Education acquired Love Canal as a potential site for a school. Hooker first refused to sell, citing the potential danger, but later sold the land to the board for $1.00 under threat of condemnation. They attached a paragraph to the deed stating that they had used the canal for disposal and wanted to be relieved of future liability if the land was used in a way that released the chemicals. Hooker also required the school board officials to inspect the land and be present while eight test borings were made. Two were sunk into the canal proper and encountered chemicals four feet below the surface; the other six outside of the canal ran into no chemicals. Hooker further requested that the land be used only for park purposes, in conjunction with a school on nearby land.
Despite the repeated attempts of Hooker Chemical to warn of the dangers inherent in the use of the Love Canal site, six months later the school board voted to remove 4,000 cubic yards of fill from the top of the canal to provide dirt for grading at another school site. Another 3,000 yards were removed in 1954. In 1957 the board debated a proposal to trade the site to a developer in return for cash and other land. Hooker found out about the proposed trade and again went before the board to remind them of the original verbal and written agreements on the use of the land. They reiterated that the land was unsuitable for construction which might breach the canal and repeated their recommendations that only surface use should be contemplated.
Despite Hooker Chemical’s continued expressed concern, in the fall of 1957 a sanitary sewer was laid across Love Canal, breaking both the clay cover and the clay canal walls. The sewer bed was gravel, providing a path for chemicals to leach out of the canal. This was the first time the canal walls were penetrated. However, further breaching soon occurred. In 1960 a new storm sewer penetrated the west wall of the canal. Finally, in 1968 the New York Department of Transportation cut the canal again while constructing an expressway. The first major public outcry over the dangers of the chemical wastes came in 1978, and later that year the state of New York declared Love Canal a health hazard. That was followed by the closing of the adjacent school and the evacuation of 255 families.
If there is ever a case that cries out for strict accountability, it is hazardous waste disposal. Without such accountability enormous costs can be imposed on people who have no choice in the matter. However, not too much should be read into the account of Love Canal. It is not meant as a uniform condemnation of all government officials. Many do act responsibly when faced with waste disposal decisions. Neither should we assume that all private companies act appropriately. There are numerous cases when such companies have disposed of their wastes without being held liable. Such cases, unfortunately, are the result of inadequate property rights and demand a reform of the legal system to better enforce liability. Such legal liability rules are an important part of a well-functioning private property set up. It is also interesting to note that in most cases where toxic wastes have been inappropriately disposed of, public (common) property has been used for dumping. Without private property rights, there is no owner whose wealth and welfare demand responsible use of the property.
Particularly illustrative is the contrasting behavior of the public officials and representatives of Hooker Chemical in the Love Canal case. The public officials faced markedly different incentives than Hooker. Throughout the entire use of the canal for disposal and the subsequent problems, Hooker had a much longer view than did the Niagara Falls board of education. Hooker understood that it was potentially liable for adverse future effects and acted accordingly. It was very willing to sacrifice short-term gains to avoid long-term liability. In contrast, the board had a limited view of the future. Current budgets and immediate political pressure were far stronger motivators for the board members than long-term considerations. Also, without the decisionmakers’ financial liability, there was less incentive for the public officials to accurately inform themselves about the canal and its chemicals compared to what Hooker officers were previously facing.
Again, as in the case of the Forest Service, the lack of well-defined and transferable property rights meant board members were not held accountable for the costs imposed upon society; similarly there was little reward for taking a long-term view or for seeking additional information. As one board member said, “the Board of Ed didn’t do anything wrong. Anyway, we don’t have any legal responsibility for it.”
A test of any communication or coordination system is its ability to respond to major changes. By this measure the private property framework of the market does well. Throughout history there have been predictions that the increasing scarcity of some natural resource spells almost certain doom for society. Although the energy crisis of the 1970’s is freshest in our memory, similar situations have occurred numerous times in the past. Charles Maurice and Charles Smithson detail 10 such crises, spread over 100 centuries, in their book. The Doomsday Myth. In each case the information and incentives generated by the market encouraged responses that rendered inaccurate the doomsaying of numerous people.
In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt threatened that “if the present rate of consumption [of timber] is allowed to continue . . . a [timber] famine is inevitable.” The United States timber crisis of the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century was of major concern. This was an age of rapid economic growth, but wood, essential for this growth, was becoming more and more scarce. In 1908 one leader even suggested banning Christmas trees as a partial answer to the timber shortage. Given the rate of wood use in 1900, a rapid depletion of an important resource could be predicted.
The rate of use did not continue, however. Faced with rising wood prices, both consumers and producers responded. Railroads, major users of wood for sleepers, substituted alternative materials—usually steel or concrete—changed designs to conserve wood, and used chemical preservatives to extend its life. Wood had been used as a major source of fuel in both industry and home, but with rising prices coal became a cheaper substitute. Housing construction changed dramatically, with balloon frames replacing a more copious use of timber.
By the 1920’s, the wood crisis was over. The scarcity of timber did not end economic growth; neither did it severely disrupt the economy. The price system quickly informed both producers and consumers of a need to mend their ways, and they responded rapidly and dramatically.
England had undergone a similar wood crisis long before the one in the United States. In the 16th and 17th centuries the price of firewood rose 730 percent, while the general price index increased only 177 percent. Wood was critical for almost all of Britain’s industries. It was used to smelt iron, lead, tin, and copper and in glass production. Salt, a major preservative when few other methods of food preservation were available, was obtained by using charcoal to evaporate seawater. Again, in response to rising wood prices, appropriate modifications occurred. Technological changes to use coal evolved, and by 1700 Great Britain had escaped this particular resource crisis.
Other examples abound. Whale oil was a critical resource in 19th-century America, but as whale oil prices rose, petroleum was refined to serve as both a superior lubricant and illuminant. In ancient Greece bronze was crucial to the economy. However, when tin, an important component of bronze, became scarce, iron replaced bronze. The U.S. was critically dependent upon natural rubber prior to World War II. With the beginning of the war and the loss of much of our rubber supplies, synthetic rubber became a profitable alternative. Changes in resource availabilities have occurred often in the past and will continue to occur in the future. If prices are allowed to communicate their message, we have little to fear from these changes.
Another important aspect of the communication of information is across generations. The present generation needs to seek knowledge of the needs and desires for resources of future generations. Particularly in the case of exhaustible resources, we must be concerned not to severely disadvantage the future residents of our planet. Interestingly enough, private property rights are superior to public ownership in predicting and regulating future needs. Under public ownership wise managers may decide to preserve for the future, that is, attitudes may influence their behavior. However, if these managers truly reflect the wishes of the voting public, they will use resources more rapidly than under private ownership.
Under public management, the median voter’s preference for the appropriate rate of resource use should dominate. In other words, if voters are perfectly unselfish, then a properly functioning democracy will use the resource at the rate of the median holder of those opinions. However, under private rights, those who are most optimistic and believe the resource should better and more profitably be used in the future will dominate. And they will do so even if they are perfectly selfish. Those optimists, knowing and caring about their commodities, will outbid people with other beliefs and will force a lower rate of exhaustion. For a resource to be used today, present consumers must outbid all those who believe the resource will be more valuable in the future. Thus a private property system will lead to a much slower rate of depletion than democratic public management.
Since future generations do not yet exist, they need agents to represent them in today’s society. These agents cannot know perfectly the desires of people not yet born, but they can make educated guesses. In the market, these agents are either unselfish custodians of the future or they are speculators, acting upon their perception of future demands for resources. If their perceptions are correct, they increase their wealth; if they guess wrongly, they lose. Thus speculators have strong incentives to be well-informed and to predict correctly the needs of future generations. In the public arena, in contrast, there is no mechanism for rewarding those who make correct predictions.
Private property rights are also a set of institutions that foster cooperation. By holding individuals accountable for the costs they impose on others, or by allowing them to benefit from being sensitive to the others (present or future), private rights encourage mutual accommodation. Numerous adjustments in behavior are possible for the private property owner when they become worthwhile, that is, when they allow the property owner to further his goals. An example is to be found among oil companies and environmental groups when they are contesting the use of public land or when, in contrast, they are debating the appropriate use of private land.
In recent years the U.S. Congress has debated the expansion of the public acreage designated as wilderness areas. This is simply a reclassifying of existing public land from multiple use to a more preserved status. Nevertheless, the debate has been fraught with conflict. The major environmental groups have generally favored the inclusion of more land in the wilderness classification. They admit no virtue to the opposition. The oil companies, on the other hand, have fought such reclassification, arguing that there is potential for major oil finds in some of those areas and that our national interest is jeopardized by withholding them from potential exploration. The public debate has been heated and acrimonious, with both sides mounting major publicity campaigns for their point of view. Charges of misrepresentation and fraud have been leveled, and both sides have “hard-lined” their positions. The environmentalists have charged that there is no possibility for oil and gas exploration to be compatible with environmental concern, while the oil companies have argued that exploration and production must go forward with little attention to the environment.
On private land, no matter who owns it, both parties display much more tolerant and cooperative attitudes. The National Audubon Society has a major bird sanctuary of 26,800 acres in Louisiana. The Michigan Audubon Society, the second largest of the state societies, owns and operates the Bernard W. Baker Sanctuary in southern Michigan. In both cases the Audubon Societies have clear title and can manage their land in any manner they deem best. On both preserves, obtaining and preserving quality bird habitat is the primary goal. In the Rainey Sanctuary in Louisiana, the snow goose is the major bird under protection, although attention is also paid to other wildlife. The Baker Sanctuary contains a nesting area for sandhill cranes, and much effort is made to maintain the ecological integrity of their habitat.
The most interesting part of the sanctuaries, however, is oil and gas exploration and production on them. In both cases the exploration was undertaken after the Audubon Society had established ownership; it came with their approval, indeed, at their request. In the 1950’s the Rainey preserve signed its first gas lease, and three companies now operate six gas-producing wells. After considerable internal debate, the Michigan Society agreed, in 1981, to allow oil and gas exploration on their property, and a producing well was soon established. The attitudes of the participants in the exchange is significant: Both the oil companies and the Audubon Societies exhibited every willingness to cooperate. No expensive publicity battles were waged, no name-calling occurred, and on both sanctuaries cordial relationships continue among sanctuary managers and oil company executives and workers.
Are the Audubon Society managers of the Michigan and Louisiana preserves less concerned about the environment than those environmentalists debating the potential for oil exploration in the Bob Marshall Wilderness? Did the oil companies choose more cooperative individuals to deal with the Audubon Society in the Louisiana and Michigan cases? The most likely explanation can be found in the different rules governing property in the contrasting cases. When public land-use conflicts occur, those who disagree have little incentive to look for potential agreement. Aggressive behavior is rewarded. Picturing one’s opponents as heinous, base, and selfish is appropriate.
In contrast, under private ownership there is little return for name-calling. Ways to beneficial agreements by satisfying others at the least cost to oneself are needed, and mutual accommodation is rewarded. That is precisely what happened in the case of the Audubon preserves. The Audubon people found they could better provide quality bird habitat (there and elsewhere) by cooperating with the oil companies. The gas wells on the Rainey Sanctuary generate a million dollars a year in royalties. The producing well on the Michigan preserve generated $100,000 in revenue for the Audubon Society the first year; it is now providing $50,000 in annual royalty payments. These revenues have allowed both Audubon groups to purchase other habitats and to manage existing sanctuaries better. The environment for the birds is not entirely pristine because of the wells, but the Audubon members evidently found the trade-offs worthwhile.
The oil companies also had to make significant concessions. Restrictions were placed on times of exploration. In the Michigan case, slant drilling was used to minimize disturbance of prime nesting habitat. High-efficiency mufflers were required on all equipment, and all machinery was painted medium moss green. Michigan Petroleum Exploration also had to pay for a monitor appointed by the Michigan Audubon Society. The monitor oversaw operations and ensured minimum environmental disturbance. It is evident that numerous concessions had to be made by both sides. However, private property rights encouraged cooperation and minimized conflict.
We do not know the future, nor is there a consensus about resource values. Therefore it is beneficial for a society to provide a mechanism for diverse preferences and projections about resource uses to be expressed. The private property system, based upon individual decision-making, expresses that diversity much better than a system of public ownership under collective decisions rule. A strong case can be made that minority viewpoints are expressed and respected much more in the marketplace than in the political arena.
In the 1920’s, a leading conservationist, Rosalie Edge, became concerned with the conservation groups’ lack of interest for the preservation of nongame birds. She argued that the Audubon Society and state game departments were mainly dedicated to protecting game species and songbirds. She was particularly incensed over the wholesale slaughter of raptors as they migrated down the Appalachian Mountains. In eastern Pennsylvania, Hawk Mountain was a popular spot for killing hawks, falcons, osprey, and eagles because winds and topography brought as many as 20,000 a day past the mountain.
Angered at this slaughter, Mrs. Edge attempted to convince the Hawk and Owl Society, an affiliate of the National Association of Audubon Societies, to purchase the mountain and stop the killing. The Society failed to act. Taking matters in her own hands, Mrs. Edge purchased the property in 1934, hired a young naturalist to manage and police it, and effectively stopped the slaughter. Today Hawk Mountain Sanctuary stands as a monument to Rosalie Edge’s farsightedness. During the fall migration, as many as 3,000 people a day crowd the lookouts to observe the large numbers of birds.
If Mrs. Edge had depended upon convincing a majority of the population or the policymakers that preservation of raptors was important, she would have had a difficult task. During this period, most states encouraged the shooting of hawks to protect farm poultry and game birds. In Pennsylvania in 1934 it was legal to shoot all hawk species, and the state paid a bounty on goshawks. Even the Audubon Society was ambivalent about raptors. Fortunately Mrs. Edge had to convince only the owner of the property of the strength of her concerns. He sold her the land, she acted on her vision of the future, and her minority view turned out to be valuable for the rest of us.
In Oregon one can visit, for a fee, the largest sea eaves in the United States. They are the only mainland rookery of Steller’s sea lions. Discovered in 1880 by Captain William Cox and purchased by him in 1887 from the state of Oregon, the sea lion caves have remained in private hands ever since and, after 1932, have been operated as a public attraction. About 200 Steller’s sea lions are resident, and other sea lion species and seals also use the caves. The total sea lion caves property consists of 12 5 acres of coast, and development of this acreage has