Protecting the Environment: Whose Business Is It?

© Copyright 1998 Daniel Quinn
{Address by Daniel Quinn to the Sixth Annual Rice University Environmental Conference, Houston, Texas, February 14, 1998}

Once upon a time in a certain city it was noticed that pre-adolescent children were beginning to throw themselves off the roofs of tall buildings with alarming frequency. No one wondered for a moment whose business it was to deal with this alarming development. The city council met and quickly drafted some regulations requiring the erection of guard rails on the roofs of tall buildings. Denied this means of suicide, however, children began to throw themselves off of much lower buildings, and soon all buildings of more than three storeys were required either to install guard rails or to block access to roofs. The expense was enormous, but of course what is outgo to one person is income to another, so the economy continued to flourish as before.

Unfortunately, however, the pre-adolescent suicide rate did not decline.

Instead of throwing themselves from buildings, children were now drowning themselves in the river that ran through the city. This was even more perplexing, because no one could think of any practical means of making the river inaccessible to would-be suicides. At the same time, no one wondered whose business it was to stop these drownings. The city council met and finally decided to erect watch towers every five hundred meters all along the river's edge. Unfortunately, the effect of this was merely to move the suicides from daytime hours to nighttime hours, when the watchers were blinded by darkness. Of course, it was totally out of the question to install searchlights to cover such a wide area. Instead it seemed sensible to institute a curfew for children under fifteen. So, between the watch towers manned during the day and the curfew maintained during the night, self-drowning came to an end -- but, alas, not the suicides in general. Children began to hang themselves. Civic leaders saw immediately that they needed parental cooperation to control this new development, and so initiated a massive education program to show parents how to reduce hanging opportunities in their homes and neighborhoods. Ropes were put under lock and key. Belts, ties, and suspenders vanished. Bedrooms were routinely searched for evidence of braiding projects.

As hanging opportunities declined, however, children found other opportunities in bottles, jars, and boxes in medicine cabinets, potting sheds, and garages. With these means, they succeeded in rendering themselves sick, blind, comatose, brain damaged, and indeed very often completely dead. New educational programs were put in place, and the city expanded the activities of its poison control center to include home visitations and inspections. The hospitals soon noticed a decline in pre-adolescent patients who were merely sick, blind, comatose, or brain damaged -- but a dramatic increase in those who were just plain dead by poisoning. A reporter on the local paper soon discovered the explanation. As poisons became unavailable in the home, teenage entrepreneurs began to make up the shortfall in the school environment. Not only were poisons readily available there, the market pressure of competition assured that they were of high quality, which is to say that, unlike products found randomly in the home, these were reliably lethal.

Naturally law-enforcement officials ordered a crackdown on the playground poison trade. And naturally this didn't end the trade, it just drove up prices. The incidence of crime among pre-teens soared as youngsters scrambled for funds with which to buy oblivion. Then one day an armed eleven-year-old was gunned down by law enforcement officials at a robbery site. This was a revelation for would-be suicides, for they suddenly realized that it was now much easier to find death by way of a policeman's bullet than by conventional means, which the city had gone to so much trouble to put out of reach. Overnight a fifth of all the city's pre-teens were running amok to make themselves into attractive targets of lethal force.

The city council hastily met to address the crisis. The police commissioner was on hand to demand safety for the public. The head of the police union was on hand to demand safety for law enforcement officers. The head of the controller's office was on hand to explain that there were no funds left anywhere in the budget to throw at this problem. The school superintendent wanted special patrols for classrooms and hallways. The head of the teacher's union, on the other hand, argued for an early school closing. The city attorney proposed developing an early-warning system so suicidal youngsters could be locked up for their own good. The head of the prison department informed him that the jails were already full to overflowing with would-be suicides, with a shocking number of them condemned to sleeping on the floor.

A member of the general public -- an ordinary citizen -- at last managed to gain the floor to make a statement. "Instead of spending all this time, energy, and money to prevent children from doing what they want to do," she said, "why don't we spend some of it to find out why they WANT to do it in the first place? What is IMPELLING them to self-slaughter? We need the answer to that question, and when we have it, we need to do something about it. Then we won't HAVE to patrol the river and guard the roofs and lock up our neck ties and all the rest." Well, this statement shocked the assembly into a long moment of silence. Then a wave of baffled looks and shrugs traveled round the room, and the council members resumed their former conversation at precisely the point at which it had been interrupted.