And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. -Genesis 1:28
So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it. -Numbers 35:33
The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. -Psalms 24:1
…Every man shall be made accountable unto me, a steward over his own property. -D&C 42:32
As inhabitants of Earth, we have been given a divine mandate to subdue the Earth. We are stewards over it, for the Earth is the Lord’s. We understand that we are to take good care of our own property. We should also respect the property of others, for we are commanded to not steal, and to not even covet that which does not belong to us.
But what of property not owned by an individual? Let’s discuss this idea in context of the Tragedy of the Commons. The idea goes something like this: a commonly owned plot of land, say a grazing pasture, will be solicited by many different visitors. Each has an individual use for the land, wherein they derive benefit. For instance, a shepherd has the incentive to feed his flock on the land. Same would go with a goatherd. There is certainly a potential drain on the land. With public ownership, who has the incentive to make sure there is not overgrazing, and that the land is well maintained? We can see the potential problems that ensue. Such is the case with commonly owned property today. This would include land, air, waterways, and many other publicly owned resources. Consider now if the grazing pasture was sold in an auction. The landowner would need to maintain the land for his own livelihood. He has every incentive to do so. Perhaps he wants to grow corn or wheat. Perhaps he wants to use it as a grazing pasture. If a neighboring shepherd wanted access, some arrangement would be made, likely with the landowner charging the shepherd some sort of user fee in exchange for land maintenance. A system of private property strongly encourages landowners to take good care of their property. A system of communally-owned property usually results in something akin to this tragedy.
How is this relevant today? Haven’t we moved passed an agrarian society? The point of this essay is to show how these principles are relevant today, examining past and present government action.
We can think of air pollution and water pollution Who owns air and water rights? Well, these are largely publicly owned. Governments set air and water quality standards. Individual companies or facilities are not held directly responsible for polluting a neighbor’s air or water. Case in point: Exxon-Valdez.
Let me just say a brief word on government land ownership. According to this link, drawn from government data, the federal government owns over 30% of all U.S. land! That’s 30% of land subjected to the tragedy of the commons!
Another area of government environmental intervention is the military. With hundreds of thousands of troops in 700 bases in 130 countries around the world, there is definitely a global pollution factor. We see the tanks, helicopters, and humvees, not to mention the submarines, battleships, and aircraft carriers. They’re the military, so they largely get a free pass. It’s the cost of defending us, right? Actually, there are many that would disagree. For instance, see this USA Today article or this environmental essay by a feminist highlight those willing to question. Of course, many disagree on the best solution. But acknowledging the problem is the first step. Discussing it, the second.
One of the reasons for the government owning so much land is to conduct nuclear testing. Individuals would likely be unwilling and/or unable to conduct nuclear testing on their own property. So the government appropriated or used its own. Without government-owned land, nuclear weapons would likely not be in existence today.
A very overt environmental effect of federal government activity was the testing of nuclear weapons, started in the 1940s. Environmental effects continue to this day. Many test sites, from New Mexico to French Polynesia to Soviet Russia to the Columbia River exhibit terrible, detrimental environmental effects from nuclear weapons testing mixed with the tragedy of the commons. This is yet another unmitigated failure of central government planning, another testament of government’s ineptitude in good environmental stewardship.
It’s high time we rethink why we trust governments to solve our environmental problems.