Bruce Rich is an attorney who has served as senior counsel for major environmental organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council. He is the author of Mortgaging the Earth. This piece is adapted from his new book, To Uphold the World, with a foreword by Nobel Economics Laureate Amartya Sen and an afterword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. You can watch a video of Bruce Rich discussing universal health care in Ancient India here.
This April marks the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, and indeed we like to think that environmental protection is a relatively recent invention, and that in particular the United States has been a pioneer in this area. We often think that the U.S. established the first national forests and parks well over a century ago and promulgated the world's first endangered species protection act in 1973, three years after the first Earth Day.
I have to confess that I was kind of smug about my lifestyle before I started this book. I knew that I took a lot of steps to save energy, to support unions and small stores, and to put my money in mutual funds that invested in causes I believe in, and I was quite pleased with myself for all of that. I used cloth napkins instead of paper. I never crossed a picket line. I brought my own shopping bags to stores. I recycled nearly every scrap of paper, metal, glass, and plastic possible, and then I bought recycled paper, and . . . Well, I won't go through my whole self-satisfied list right here. (If you're interested, it's in the book.) Let's just say that every time I opted for the more expensive, no-antibiotics, no-added-hormones ground beef, I thought I was managing to live pretty much according to my liberal values.
Except that guilty reminders were always tapping at the edge of my brain. If I really were an ethical consumer, wouldn't I buy the beef at the farmers market and the food co-op, not the chain grocery store? In fact, wouldn't I avoid eating beef altogether? But if the ethical goal is to avoid eating beef, why was anyone bothering to make antibiotic-free beef, if not for people like me who care about animal welfare and the environment? Wasn't this better for the environment, or at least the cow? And if the grocery store I sometimes went to was, as it claimed, an "individually owned and operated," unionized member of a purchasing and distribution cooperative, was it really an evil Big Chain?
Last summer, around the time that Leona Helmsley's dog inherited 13 million dollars, an Austrian chimp named Hiasl got stiffed. Hiasl stood to come into a few thousand Euros, but a court ruled that he could not own property, being a chimp and all. (Technically, the Helmsley dog does not own her millions either; Trouble Helmsley inherited her money through a human proxy.)
Surely, Hiasl's advocates could have found the same sort of legal workaround to provide him the stipend he needed for his upkeep in a shelter. But the activists wanted to make a point: why shouldn't a chimp have some limited rights of person under the law? This summer, a judge outside of Vienna weighed the question of whether a chimp might be human enough to own property. If he won, Hiasl himself would receive the money, although his legal, human guardian would make all financial decisions.
And here's the thing about chimps with money: while a dog like Trouble can't grasp the idea of currency at all, a chimp might actually be capable of shopping. The great apes can use language; and some researchers believe they can string together sentences. Furthermore, they understand the fundamentals of market exchange. Econ 101: I give you the dollar bill; you give me the banana.