Neighborhood Environmentalism: Building Sustainable Markets

by Grant A. Mincy

Photo Credit: New York Times. China flattens mountains for economic development.

Photo Credit: New York Times. China flattens mountains for economic development.

At this blog, I try to keep things near and dear to issues impacting the Appalachian bio-region – though I do stray from time to time. In the past I have published blogs about national affairs and US foreign policy, and I sometimes slip and post things to this site in that vein, but I am trying to keep things at this blog as regional as possible, hence the name Appalachian Son (though you can find all of my political writing at

But, for this third “Neighborhood Environmentalism” piece I am going to stray a bit again and call attention to something that is happening in China. I am doing this because there is an incredible amount of ecological destruction happening in the country right now, and it is because of something all too familiar to Appalachia: Mountaintop Removal Valley Fill operations. Chinese scientists are also looking to the same tired environmental players within the United States to help mitigate the situation (but not stop it). It is an important story, and if we can adopt solidarity economics in Appalachia, then perhaps we can offer a new way forward for China as well.

Just as Appalachia, the mountains and alpine forests of Central China are home to an incredible array of flora and fauna. The botanical richness of the high desert bioregion alone make the Chinese mountains a biodiversity hotspot. Specifically, the area provides crucial habitat to avian species, mammals and endemic vascular plants.

In a time of precipitous biodiversity loss, on course to yield the sixth great extinction, there should be high priority placed on protecting biodiversity. Instead of curbing habitat loss, the leading cause of extinction, however, the Chinese government actively pursues it. In the rich bioregion of central China, home to numerous species of endemic plants and animals, the state is leveling 700 mountains for economic development.

An article published earlier this June, by Chinese Scientists Peiyue LiHui Qian and Jianhua Wu, in the international journal, Nature, argues “the consequences of these unprecedented programmes have not been thought through — environmentally, technically or economically.” The authors go on to argue that such projects ultimately result in air and water pollution, soil erosion and large-scale geological hazards such as land subsidence. The authors conclude this project will lead to vast destruction of forests and agricultural fields – endangering rare flora and fauna.

State controlled media offers an alternative story, however, noting the loss of mountain habitat in the region will “lead to the creation of an environmentally sustainable economy based on energy-saving industries.” In their Nature article, though, the Chinese scholars note: “Many land-creation projects in China ignore environmental regulations, because local governments tend to prioritize making money over protecting nature.” The authors close by arguing the Chinese government needs to further research the project, recruiting help from other government organizations such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency, United States Geological Survey and an international association of hydrologist’s from the United States and Canada. Though I agree more environmental protection would relieve some ecological stress, these recommendations do not strike the root of the problem – state economic power.

There is a strong tendency among environmentalists to empower the state, which is odd as there is a continual process of compromise between conservationists, big business and government courts that results in ever more encroachment on wilderness. If we instead apply laissez-faire politics to land management we may begin to view land as it is (natural, beautiful and important) as opposed to how it should be.

American libertarian and political philosopher Karl Hess Jr., in his book Visions Upon the Land: Man and Nature on the Western Range, attributes the decline in health of natural lands to inherent problems in government policy, ecological destabilization due to government intrusion and the destructiveness of sweeping land use policies. Hess believes that instead of looking for more laws and regulations to manage natural resources (inevitably enhancing state economic power) we should instead seek an economic system based on voluntary market interactions without the involvement of the state.

This adaptive approach to ecological protection yields incredible results. Take for instance the work of Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom. Her work reveals environmental sustainability is not the product of government intervention, but instead a result of self organized institutions where key management decisions are made as organically as possible. It is also wise to remember the old community based, sustainable management of village lands – suppressed by the great landlords, the communist state and the neoliberal state in succession.

Homogenization is dangerous for both world ecosystems and economics. Nature and human civilization are incredibly complex and dynamic – neither will be sustained by sweeping ideas of natural resource management.

Ecological systems and free markets share an affinity for diversity and both long for sustainability. The dissolution of power and control will advance best management practices. For this reason, we should not look vertically to state institutions, but horizontally to one another in the market. The goal should not be expanding the floor of the cage, the goal should be abolition. Neighborhood environmentalism will build sustainable markets — and markets are beautiful.