Does it make sense to identify a geological age of Earth called the Anthropocene or “the recent age of man” in Dutch scientist Paul Crutzen’s terms? (Anthropos is the Greek term for “man” and includes all persons of both sexes.) The argument for doing so is that starting in the mid-twentieth century, humans are permanently transforming the Earth’s geological record, with traces of nuclear energy in sediments for example. The Economist discusses this topic in its July 13 issue under the alarming title: “What Matters About the Anthropocene is Not When It Began, but How it Might End.” As usual, the magazine espouses (sometimes carefully) an environmentalist viewpoint, and writes:

The idea of the Anthropocene is a striking expression of a profound truth. Human activity is having effects that will be visible for periods of time far longer than recorded history. Humans are responsible for physical, chemical and biological changes previously brought about only by the great forces of nature.

A paradox if not a contradiction seems to underlie the last sentence, and this problem mars much environmental activism. The statement implies that humans are not part of “the great forces of nature.”

If, on the one hand, man is part of nature, he is certainly part of “the great forces of nature.” Man being a rational animal, it is to be expected that he will transform the rest of nature in some noticeable ways. From this perspective, it seems nonsensical to oppose humans to nature. If, on the other hand, man is not part of nature because his reason stands over and above nature—or perhaps because he has an immortal soul—then his dominion over nature is to be expected and celebrated. Certainly, “nature” cannot object and argue that man is just a biological slime.

Blaming mankind for transforming “nature” makes little sense. We (any of us) may be concerned for the future of our species, of those individuals who will be our descendants. A thinking creature certainly has philosophical or esthetic reasons, or reasons of vanity, to react this way. It is true that an all-out nuclear war or perhaps another sort of ecological catastrophe could wipe out mankind; dinosaurs have been there before. But it is also true that mankind could prevent some catastrophes, such as an asteroid hit, from wiping out all human life. Already, the social, economic, and political institutions developed in Western countries have dramatically reduced poverty in our world.

Some humility is also warranted. Whatever humans do, it is unlikely that the Earth or the solar system or the Milky Way will still be around in, say, 30 billion years (about the current age of the universe). “We” may have been swallowed by a black hole, perhaps our own black hole at the center of our galaxy.

More practically, economics is relevant to a reflection on shorter time horizons. The economic way of thinking suggests at least three thoughts. First, mankind is composed of the total set of distinct human individuals; it is not a big organism (whose brain, as Hitler thought, is in Vienna).

Second, this implies that the standard problem of collective action will appear in any common action that could be necessary to save the planet (on collective action, see Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action, 1971). Who will pay, and how much, for destroying or deflecting an incoming asteroid? Who will pay for preventing, or adapting to, climate change, if this is a serious threat for everybody? Will the workers employed or conscripted on related projects be paid the Davis-Beacon wage? Will they be allowed to go on strike? And—question seldom asked—how many years or centuries of tyranny are individuals likely to suffer as a consequence of their conscription by the state in collective green projects? The answer that this is a slippery-slope argument is vacuous; besides history, the economic analysis of politics does show that submission to political authority is indeed very slippery.

Third, to what extent is organized collective action necessary? A great 18th-century discovery must not be forgotten: a spontaneous social order can generate prosperity without the necessity of any individual or group of individuals overruling other individuals’ preferences. This spontaneous order was first theorized by Adam Smith and is especially well represented in the thought of Friedrich Hayek (see my review of his Law, Legislation, and Liberty, especially Volume 1 and Volume 2). In other words, collective action led by government is generally not required. But if and when it is, on the basis of which rules should it be organized? A major strand in James Buchanan’s work has been to explore this question in a radically different way than cost-benefit analysis, given the ethical requirement of each individual’s consent to the rules that limit his or her liberty.

I claim that any environmental reflection must consider these economic ideas.