According to free market capitalists, only private property can protect the environment. Murray Rothbard, for example, claims that "if private firms were able to own the rivers and lakes. . .anyone dumping garbage. . . would promptly be sued in the courts for their aggression against private property. . . . Thus, only private property rights will insure an end to pollution-invasion of resources" [For a New Liberty, p. 256].
This ignores one major point: why would the private owner be interested in keeping it clean? What if the garbage dumper is the corporation that owns the property? Why not just assume that the company can make more money turning the lakes and rivers into dumping sites, or trees into junk mail? This scenario is no less plausible. In fact, it is more likely to happen in many cases. As Glenn Albrecht argues, such a capitalist "solution" to environmental problems is only "likely to be effective in protecting species [or ecosystems] which are commercially important only if the commercial value of that species [or ecosystem] exceeds that of other potential sources of income that could be generated from the same 'natural capital'. . .this model becomes progressively less plausible when we are confronted with rare but commercially unimportant species [or ecosystems] versus very large development proposals that are inconsistent with their continual existence. The less charismatic the species, the more 'unattractive' the ecosystem, the more likely it will be that the development proposal will proceed. . ." ["Ethics, Anarchy and Sustainable Development", Anarchist Studies vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 104-5] To claim that "absolute" property rights will protect the environment is just another example of "free market" capitalism's attempt to give the reader what he or she wants to hear.
But, of course, the supporter of capitalism will jump in and say that if dumping were allowed, this would cause pollution, which would affect others, who would then sue the owner in question. "Maybe" is the answer to this claim, for there are many circumstances where a lawsuit would be unlikely to happen. For example, what if the locals are slum dwellers and cannot afford to sue? What if they are afraid that their landlords will evict them if they sue (particularly if the landlords also own the polluting property in question)? What if many members of the affected community work for the polluting company and stand to lose their jobs if they sue? (See next section). Also, this reply totally ignores the fact suing would only occur after the damage has already been done. It's not easy to replace ecosystems and extinct species. And if the threat of court action had a "deterrent" effect, then pollution, murder, stealing and a host of other crimes would long ago have disappeared.
But, beyond these points lies the most important ones, namely: is the option to bring suit against polluters really available in a free market based on private property? Rothbard thinks it is. Taking the case of factory smoke in the 19th Century, he notes that it and "many of its bad effects have been known since the Industrial Revolution, known to the extent that the American courts, during the. . . 19th century made the deliberate decision to allow property rights to be violated by industrial smoke. To do so, the courts had to -- and did -- systematically change and weaken the defences of property rights embedded in Anglo-Saxon common law. . . the courts systematically altered the law of negligence and the law of nuisance to permit any air pollution which was not unusually greater than any similar manufacturing firm" [Rothbard, Op. Cit., p. 257].
In this remarkably self-contradictory passage, we are invited to draw the conclusion that private property must provide the solution to the pollution problem from an account of how it clearly did not do so! If the 19th-century USA -- which for many Libertarian's is a kind of "golden era" of free-market capitalism -- saw a move from an initial situation of well-defended property rights to a later situation where greater pollution was tolerated, as Rothbard claims, then property rights cannot provide a solution to the pollution problem.
It is likely, of course, that Rothbard and other free marketeers will claim that the 19th-century capitalist system was not pure enough, that the courts were motivated to act under pressure from the state (which in turn was pressured by powerful industrialists). But can it be purified by just removing the government and privatising the courts, relying on a so-called "free market for justice"? The pressure from the industrialists remains, if not increases, on the privately owned courts trying to make a living on the market. Indeed, the whole concept of private courts competing in a "free market for justice" becomes absurd once it is recognised that those with the most money will be able to buy the most "justice" (as is largely the case now).
The characteristically "free market" capitalist argument that if X were privately owned, Y would almost certainly occur, is just wishful thinking.