The weaponization of ecological issues entails that it is very difficult to have a rational approach to regulation. When the left puts forth regulation, they can be cast by the right as aiming to destroy jobs because of a deranged preference for snail darters over humans. When the right opposes regulation, they can be cast by the left as willing to kill us all out of a preference for corporate profits over the well being of other humans and the planet. This is problematic and can easily result in a seesaw of regulation as each party takes and loses power. While there is no one solution to this problem, a rational approach would be to try to de-weaponize ecological issues by endeavoring to develop solutions that allow for benefits to both business and to the inhabitants of the ecosystem. As an example, I will use the matter of seabirds.
While sea food is delicious and nutritious, modern fishing techniques kill hundreds of thousands of seabirds each year. For example, albatrosses will take the bait used in longline fishing and be pulled under the water to drown. As another example, penguins can get caught in gill nets and drown. These dead birds have no value—they are merely an unfortunately bycatch whose carcasses are garbage rather than profit.
Fortunately for the birds and those who would hug them, there are various techniques that can reduce the death toll. For example, long line fishing can be made safer for birds with streamers to scare them away or by weighting the lines so that they sink out of reach of diving birds. As would be suspected, methods of protecting birds tend to involve some expense and can make things more difficult for the crews. As such, regulations requiring that fishing vessels use these protective devices and measures impose costs on the industry which, in turn, can impact the pay of the fishing crews and the cost of seafood. Because of this, it would be rational of the industry to oppose such regulations in order to avoid these costs.
While some might be tempted to dismiss this as mere obsession with profit in the face of an avian genocide, simply attacking the industry means that the industry will double down on its opposition and use financial resources to lobby against regulations—thus making it even harder for the environmentalists to get their desired regulations in place. It is also worth noting that aggressive opposition by industry will motivate the environmentalists to double down as well, thus making it harder for industry to get what they want. In this scenario, the big winners are the lobbyists and those profiting from the propaganda campaigns; although either industry or environmentalists will also win, albeit at great expense. But this also means that one side will lose and thus a “victory” of this sort would seem to be a less than ideal result. It would be preferable for everyone (but the lobbyists and agents of propaganda) if a proposal could be developed that would be beneficial to both sides—that would protect the birds while also benefiting the industry.
On the face of it, it seems hard to imagine that protecting birds would be beneficial to the seafood industry in any significant way. After all, they would be required to purchase and deploy equipment as well as to adopt methods to protect birds. There seems to be no profit and only loss in this.
One possible advantage is that protecting birds can pay off in public relations—a company can tout that it is bird safe and perhaps make up for the cost of this though improved sales and by increasing prices that guilty liberals are willing to pay. However, it would be even better if protecting birds was also profitable or at least offset the cost of protecting them. One example of where this can occur is longline fishing.
An estimated 160,000 albatrosses and petrels are killed each year when they get hooked on longlines. While this is obvious bad for the birds, it is also costly to the industry. First, they must waste time removing dead birds from their lines. Second, and more importantly for them, each bird they hook is a fish they are not hooking. As such, keeping birds off their lines means that they can catch more fish and this means more profits. As such, regulations that protect birds can be a win for the bird lovers and the industry. This does lead to an obvious objection.
Those who oppose regulations can make the sensible point that if such methods of bird protection are advantageous to the industry, there is no reason to impose regulations—out of rational self-interest industry will do it anyway. So, why create and impose regulations when there is no need?
Since I favor minimal state intrusion, I find this appealing: why impose by law what people would do anyway? Especially when such an imposition might motivate people to be contrary and not do it, simply because they are being told to do so. To use an analogy, think of seat belt laws. Wearing a seat belt is a good idea and people should do so, but some people refuse to wear them because there is a law requiring them to do so. It makes more sense to inform people of the benefits of seat belts and let rational self-interest motivate them.
The obvious counter is that people generally do not seem to operate in accord with rational self-interest. If they did, everyone would eat as well as they could and exercise as often as they could. As such, to follow Aristotle, people must often be compelled to do what is best. So, while protecting seabirds would be in the interest of industry, they are unlikely to do so just because it is in their interest. As such, there is the need for regulation that would compel them to act in their own interest and to do the right thing by not killing birds needlessly. To use another analogy, while it is rational for people to learn how to drive properly before driving a car, there seems to be a need for the state to compel people to do this and to control drivers’ licenses. That is, the state must compel people to do what is in their rational self-interest.
While I do favor freedom, I also hold that freedom can be justly limited on moral grounds—that is, when allowing liberty creates significant harms. So, for example, while people should be free to have pets, I am fine with regulations that forbid people from walking around in public with lions, tigers or bears on leashes. The challenge, as always, is balancing liberty against harms.