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How often have you heard the claim that global capitalism is responsible for destroying the world’s forests? I encounter it often. For example, suppose a rich Wall Street executive wishes to rebuild his office and sheath the entire thing in elaborate mahogany paneling? What happens? His desire is transmitted to designers, who transmit it to custom furniture designers, who transmit it to shippers and middlemen, who transmit it to loggers, who transmit it to local inhabitants of tropical mahogany forests. All parties, caring only about money or getting a mahogany paneled office, allow the immediate and permanent destruction of mahogany forests to the detriment of the land and the inhabitants who depend on the fragile forest ecosystems for their survival.

I do not intend to disprove that this happens. It has happened for hundreds of years and it happens today. And I do not intend for you to downgrade the importance of things like this happening. But I’d ask you to consider two questions.

  1. What is ultimately responsible for preserving the mahogany forests? If capitalists profit from selling mahogany panels and sceptors and chairs and tables, would we expect them ipso facto to plunder them and leave them for permanent dead? There are, of course, larger eco-system concerns, such as the impacts of intrusion into even well-managed forests on other animal and plant habitat and soil erosion. You might reasonably ask who is responsible for maintaining these eco-systems and why they are threatened in some places and not others.
  2. If we eliminated capitalism, what happens when an apparatchik desires to have mahogany in his office?

7 Responses to “Capitalism and Deforestation”

  1. Speedmaster says:

    Doesn’t it seem like the worst environmental problems are in areas of forced collectivism and big government?

    Soviet Union
    North Korea
    East Germany

  2. Harry says:

    Wintercow should post his Zimbabwe aerial photos, pre- and post- Mugabe.

  3. chuck martel says:

    The same situation exists with poachers, who kill rhino for their horns which are sold as the raw material for aphrodisiacs. The theory is that poverty forces the poachers to engage in the practice and that if the greater world contributed to their financial well-being they would cease that activity and leave the rhinos in peace. It seems unlikely that the demand for the product would be eliminated by paying the poachers to stay home and watch Seinfeld re-runs dubbed in Bantu.

  4. Roses are not endangered, despite the huge demand for them within all economic sectors. You would expect a single high school prom season to strip the world of gardenias. My undergrad macro prof was a socialist. (We got along nicely, both being members of the Ann Arbor People’s Food Co-operative.) He acknowledged the basic problem when he said that he wished that heating bills were individualized by apartment so that his neighbors would learn to close their front doors when the step out to pre-heat their cars in the winter. Here in Austin, in my apartment complex, water is collectively averaged; and through a drought, we collectively paid our average assessments for the management company to automatically sprinkler the dirt. Some economists claim that negative externalities beg Pigouvian taxes. Rather, I suggest addressing the political, social, and cultural origins of such externalities. The broad solution is to privatize the rain forests (and the rhinoceroses).

  5. Rod says:

    Does Rhino horn actually work? That seems like the far eastern version of what Whole Foods peddles to its leftygreenie customers. Superstition overcomes science all too often.

    Maybe the rhino horn is not rhino horn but instead beef horn laced with viagara.

    Long ago, I had a tour of a house in Buffalo that had a den paneled in pigskin (like little squares of football material). The man who owned the house got the idea from this magnificent mansion in Lewiston that had been built by the Goodyear (as in tires) family. Fortunately, pigs reproduce in litters, so there’s no shortage of pigskin. Still, you’d think that the animal rights people would have been picketing the NFL and the NCAA to substitute plastic for the pigskin.

    Knoll, Inc., a manufacturer of ultra-expensive designer furniture, has its main factory in our township. They make $100,000 teak boardroom tables for the top floor of nYc skyscrapers, and they also employ a lot of skilled Pennsylvania Dutchmen and pay them well. What is the substitute for teak? Recycled tires?

    It’s noteworthy that lumber companies that own millions of acres of timberland take care to re-plant seedlings after they clear-cut sections of their forests. Little trees have a better chance of growing up to be big trees if they grow in sunlight instead of being shaded by the branches of bigger trees. Are the savages who populate the jungles of South America tuned into that?

    It’s a popular perception that the forests that are the habitat of the spotted owl are “primeval” — thousands of years old — but the oldest trees in those forests are probably only 200 years old or less. (Not counting Sequoias) Spotted owls are also surprisingly adaptive and can even thrive in a forest where sections of it are re-planted and where it’s the habitat of field mice. When the drillers are done in the Marcellus Shale, there will be open areas 100 yards wide where Bambi can find lots of tiny trees and plants to dine on.

  6. chuck martel says:

    Actually, the major demand, if I recall correctly, for rhino horn is for its use in knife handles in Yemen and other parts of the Arabian Peninsula. The aphrodisiac horn is reindeer.

  7. jb says:

    Chuck what is it exactly you are trying to say about Santa here?

    It would be interesting to ask one of the big environmental lobbies, say the Sierra Club or Nat. Resources Defense Council, to list their top 10 global environmental concerns, and then consider to what extent each of these could be attributed to a lack of property rights.

    OK I just did. http://www.nrdc.org/issues/ There it is right there on the NRDC web site: 1. Global Warming 2. Save endangered Wildlife and Wild Places 3. Clean Energy 4. Revive the World’s Oceans 5. Toxic Chemicals 6. Pollution in China. (Bummer, they stop at 6, apparently even elite self-interested humanitarians can’t spend all of theirm time saving the world!).

    Anybody want to take a crack at this? (We’ll grant the assumption these are legit problems to begin with e.g. global warming). Hey wintercow, why not post these on the main site and let everybody have at it per my suggetion re: property rights?

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