Protecting the Environment

One of the fundamental debates of the environmental movement is over what is the best way to protect the environment. This question concerns the macro-level. Should we put land into the public trust by making it the property of the government along the lines of Yellowstone Park? Or should we encourage private ownership?


Americans tend to support the government option. Our stable society run by the rule of law has demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach for almost 100 years. In Africa, private owners appears to achieve more secure environmental results. Understandable given the levels of corruption that is apparently endemic in so many African governments.
What is ironic is that many environmentalists see capitalism, of which private ownership is a cardinal doctrine, as evil. They contend that the desire of profit, particularly the maximization of profit, causes people to exploit their resources in harmful and unsustainable ways. There is no doubt that short-term desire for profitability can have negative environmental results. I think this kind of harm is most likely to occur when owners are more distant from the effects. For example, stock holders will usually not be aware of what the office manager is doing at the job site hundreds of miles away. As a stockholder myself, I can tell you that companies regularly do what I don’t want them to do as a shareholder (CEO pay is one of the most irritating; I believe that the company can find someone else who is just as incompetent for half the salary).
But what about owners who live in the area where they work? I suspect that they would maintain long-term goals providing that government regulations and taxes don’t create economic conditions that diminish the value of long-term thinking.
Bottom line, it is too simplistic to call capitalism as the problem for environmental degradation. A more nuanced approach and treatment of capitalism is in order.

Stephen Vantassel is a tutor at King’s Evangelical Divinity School

  1. Dear Stephen, You have a bee in your bonnet about all things environmental. So, here are a few comments and questions:

    “One of the fundamental debates of the environmental movement is over what is the best way to protect the environment.” Is this true?
    Most people believe the environment needs protection. Different circumstances call for different measures. Some are large; others are small.

    Is Yellowstone Park the property of the American government or the people of the United States? If it is a publicly owned facility, it is there for all the people. Its use can be changed if the people choose to change it. This is how I see it. Am I wrong?

    Privately owned land may be used by its owners for whatever purpose they chose, provided they break no laws. This is not necessarily good or bad; it is fact.

    “Americans tend to support the government option.” This may be true, but it does not appear so to me. What is your evidence?

    “In Africa, private owners appears to achieve more stable results. Understandable given the levels of corruption that is apparently endemic in so many African governments.”

    I have read this several times, but I don’t know what you mean. Does it appear that private ownership in Africa attains more stable environmental results than public or private ownership in the US? Is private ownership corrupt? Is corrupt government necessary for the achievement of stable results? You need to make yourself clearer here.
    Incidentally, are African governments more corrupt than non-African governments?

    Most people don’t talk about capitalism. It is a fact of life, a vehicle for investment and a means of providing goods to people. Like Christianity, it sometimes goes bonkers. The Holy Office when it tortured people rejected true religion, and capitalism when it puts profit ahead of proper practice is immoral. Governments in civilised countries have outlawed torture and should regulate capitalism.

    “Where there’s muck, there’s money!”. One might add, ‘”and them as gets money like to stay far away from t’ muck as they can.”

    Bottom line (what a lovely capitalist cliché!), it is too simplistic to refer to ‘the environmental movement’ (where is it?) or to write of ‘many environmentalists’ (do you mean most/all?) as an anti-capitalist danger. A clearer, more straightforward approach is needed.

  2. Not sure how to reply to all your points. I will clarify the one question, I felt I understood.

    Private ownership of property is a better option for protecting the habitat for wildlife than government ownership in Africa. The reason is governments in Africa tend to be too corrupt. By contrast, public ownership of land seems to be more popular in the U.S. This may not be apparent to you, but consider the government’s ownership of most of Alaska, large portions of Nevada, and other western states. When people want to protect land, they generally give it to their state’s division of wildlife.
    That was the main thrust of my point.

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