Home > Uncategorized > Greenhouse gas emissions and the right to dump sewage on your lawn

Greenhouse gas emissions and the right to dump sewage on your lawn

from Dean Baker

In debates over protecting the environment, and especially global warming, it is standard practice to refer to the pro-protection side as being in favor of government regulation and the anti-protection side as being pro-free market. This is nonsense and it is nonsense in a way that strongly benefits the enemies of environmental protection.

There is a simple way to think about environmental protection. If I build a home and want to dispose of my sewage in the cheapest possible way, I will just dump it on my neighbor’s lawn. Environmental regulation means having the government say that I can’t do this.

It is bizarre that somehow the prohibition of dumping my sewage on my neighbor’s lawn is treated as government regulation interfering in the market. The government is protecting my neighbor’s property. Prohibiting me from dumping sewage on her lawn is not really different from prohibiting me from building an addition that takes up half of her lot. In both cases, the government is not acting to interfere with the market, it is acting to protect the property rights that are the foundation of the market.

Somehow this basic logic has gotten lost in discussions of environmental regulation and in particular with respect to policies designed to curb global warming. The right routinely gets away with the idea that its opposition is grounded in a commitment to the free market and that those who want to protect the environment are proponents of big government bureaucracy telling everyone what they can and can’t do.

At this point, the fact that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are warming the planet and leading to a wide variety of disastrous climate outcomes is no longer debatable. The decision by some politicians to insist ignorance on the issue changes nothing. We know that spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is imposing damage on people in the present and will do much more in the future. Restricting these emissions is effectively telling people that they can’t dump their sewage on their neighbor’s lawns.

In this context, there is no defense to regulations restricting GHG emissions. There are no philosophical or ideological points at issue. The only question is how best to limit GHG emissions and how much we should be willing to pay to do so.

  1. John deChadenedes
    December 20, 2019 at 9:57 pm

    Good point, Mr. Baker. There are, however, important rights that are not property rights, that in most cases supercede property rights. These include the right to clean air, to clean water, to quiet, to security, and so on. When government regulations and laws protect these rights they are not interfering with markets, either, since there are no markets for these things. If they were made subject to market forces the poor would all die, since air and water might easily be priced to where they could not afford them. We can see this happening, for example, in the international trade in toxic waste. It gets shipped to Africa and dumped cheaply in a country where regulations are missing or inadequate. The rights of people not to have their health ruined by toxic waste are not subject to the market and even if they were, the dumping would continue because people who live on two dollars a day could not afford to pay the polluters to take the waste elsewhere.

  2. lobdillj
    December 21, 2019 at 1:04 pm

    Dean Baker wrote: “The only question is how best to limit GHG emissions and how much we should be willing to pay to do so.”

    The answer is, “Stop accepting nonsense like, ‘That’s fine senator, but how are you going to pay for it?’, and get Wall Street out of government offices. Start direct government spending on critically (and obviously) needed survival tasks using our fiat money system.”
    Start treating Wall Street bankers like the parasites and crooks they are. No more $26T bailouts to the con men who looted the people in 2008-2009. This cannot be done by tweaking the present failed monetary system. Major surgery is required. My $0.02.

    • Craig
      December 21, 2019 at 5:51 pm


    • December 23, 2019 at 12:59 am

      And get the useless money out of the dead backwaters of ‘billionnaires’ bank accounts and put it to work fixing the things that need to be fixed but do not yield a monetary return: only the chance of a future for the next generation.

      • lobdillj
        December 23, 2019 at 10:47 am

        When money is taken out of the people’s pockets by government it ceases to exist. It isn’t “reused” by government at all. It evaporates. All expenditures of government are made with instantly created $.

      • December 28, 2019 at 6:18 pm

        The whole idea of money is an illusion, but can either be used as originally intended–to get important things done, while enabling those taken away from food gathering, to do the important work (eg. flood defences; battles) to buy the food they can’t grow while they are doing those important things.

        Our modern ‘money holders/creators’ only release it to the economy for things that enable them to say they have more money afterwards than before. The exceptions being the displays of conspicuous waste–thousand dollar bottles of sour old wine etc.– that demonstrate their superiority to the rest of us (Actually demonstrating their mental illness, but they’re still in charge: everywhere! :( ).

        We need to stop talking of balances of budgets and ‘austerity’ and the like, and start thinking of the things our societies are now lacking because of this obsession with only spending in order to make more, and seldom spending for the sake of keeping our civilisation, as a Civilisation, rather than the living hell we are heading into.

      • Craig
        December 23, 2019 at 6:12 pm

        Yes. And if the monetary authority was mandated to directly distribute a monetary gift of $1000/mo to everyone 18 and older and to rebate back the 50% discount retailers gave consumers at retail sale…we’d solve individual income scarcity, systemic business revenue austerity and inflation….all in one fell swoop.

  3. Ad Zuiderwijk
    December 24, 2019 at 1:26 pm

    All this talk. And everybody has a solution??? But, it wont happen. We aint seen anything yet. Why?? understand the “human conditioni”. Only fear and disasters will change people’s behaviour. Look now. Floods everywhere, (predictable) distroys hundres of houses and damage in the billions. In ozzie land hundreds of houses burned down. Do you really think these people, even after these disasters are going to change there CO2??? Joking, they all biy back ICE cars and carry on. So if those who should learn from disasters, don’t. What hope is there on real change starting with INDIVIDUALS??? The HC, all they do is pointing the finger. NOT ME BUT YOU. !!!! Sorry, i lost all hope, but if nature gets rid of 5 billions people then there is still hope. At the end, human’s worst enemy is himself.!!! ad, short for ad-venture

  4. Ken Zimmerman
    December 26, 2019 at 3:33 pm

    Property rights are culturally defined. The present culture in the US and some other parts of the world is that certain property rights deserve protection while others do not. Property rights of businesses, corporations, and the wealthy who “are the engine of society” deserve protection. Property rights that add to GDP deserve protection. Property rights that support private business’ profits deserve protection. Other property rights are, to use a word the right has made popular of late “fake.” And deserve no protection. The question here is one basic to creating and living within a culture – legitimacy. What are legitimate and what are illegitimate property rights is a major point of struggle in most cultures that recognize some form of public vs. private life. The US has a long history of extremism in this struggle. Other cultures (e.g., much of Europe) have found ways to moderate the struggle, while others (e.g., much of Asia) have favored the public side. Of the cultures in the world the US is the only one which favors so strongly the private side.

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