The Errors of Environmentalist Religion
by Ari Armstrong, March 6, 2005
Living in a healthy environment is a universal value. Everybody wants clean air to breath, clean water to drink, and healthy food to eat. Moreover, while some people spend nearly all their time in a "concrete jungle" or in the suburbs, many people enjoy trekking through the wilderness, be it a forest or a desert, boating on an ocean or lake, and getting away from population centers and into nature.
So in the broadest sense nobody is against environmentalism -- that is, maintaining a healthy environment -- and everybody is for it. Yet the "environmentalist movement" consists of something quite different. In its most degraded form, environmentalism despises human beings and worships nature for its own sake. Most self-proclaimed environmentalists don't out-and-out hate people -- instead they like people and argue that giving the "environment" special protections is good for people. They're right in a general sense, but then the debate focuses on what special protections are appropriate, and this debate is clouded by the false premises of modern environmentalism.
For instance, we would not typically regard as an "environmentalist" someone who argues that mining coal and burning it to produce electricity promotes a healthy environment because it allows people to better control the temperature of their immediate surroundings. Such a person is indeed an environmentalist in the broadest sense, but not in the narrow sense in which that term is usually understood in the modern world. Of course, it is possible to argue that there are better ways to control the temperature of one's home (say, by using thermal mass) and to produce electricity (for instance, by using relatively low-pollution nuclear power). But then, if we seriously engage the debate over coal versus nuclear versus solar, we are involved in a discussion over relative costs and benefits. Every form of power and all construction involves some form of pollution; the question is what options provide the most benefits for the least costs. And that is a technical question, not a philosophical one. It is the modern variety of "environmentalism" that would automatically regard the supporter of coal or nuclear power as surely suspect and probably dastardly that I here wish to criticize.
In the broad sense, all of industry has as its object the improvement of the human environment. We build houses and office buildings to keep out the rain, the wind, and excessive heat and cold. We build cars so that we can travel to and fro in comfort, either to spend time in a different environment for pleasure, or to indirectly improve our immediate environment at home. Farms provide us with an environment that contains food.
For some time I have been thinking about two central errors committed by modern environmentalists. These two errors turn environmentalism into a religion, or something near enough to it, and they have the perverse effect of turning the movement into something that damages the human environment, in the name of environmentalism. This comparison of environmentalism to religion is not original with me, of course. I believe the first person who introduced the idea to me is Robert Bidinotto. He cites an environmentalist who also compares environmentalism to a religion as though that were a good thing.
Before I describe the two central errors of environmentalism, though, I can expand upon the surface-level error to which I've already pointed. That is the error of thinking that environmentalism consists solely of describing what people cannot or ought not do to the environment, rather than also considering what people can and should do to improve their environments.
Even the wildest of nature seekers will consciously and deliberately set out to modify the natural world. Nobody sleeps naked under a tree in Colorado's mountains (unless we consider death a form of "sleep"). Instead, the camper will, at a minimum, fashion some clothing, or lash together some branches to block the wind, or contribute to air pollution by building a fire, which has the salutary effect of warming the camper's immediate environment. The less robust among us will pitch a tent and roll out a sleeping bag -- items probably made from some combination of farmed cotton and unearthed materials. Wikipedia notes that nylon, a favorite material of campers and climbers, was invented at DuPont.
What, precisely, is the difference between the camper's "rape" of the wilderness by mutilating plants and burning logs, and the coal miner's scraping of the dirt to produce electricity, which keeps many people warm at night? Is it a matter of degree? If so, then perhaps the environmentalists would care to elucidate where the line in the sand is to be drawn that separates "good" modifications of nature and "good" pollution from bad. I am not attempting to argue that excess is impossible. Some pollution is really nasty and to be avoided, and many civilizations (including ones frequently praised by environmentalists) have clear-cut forests and polluted waters. Rather, I am suggesting that, once we admit that there is such a thing as good modifications of the world, and acceptable pollution, we are no longer speaking in terms with which the modern environmentalist movement is comfortable. We begin to become pan-environmentalists or scientific environmentalists rather than religious environmentalists.
The picture becomes more clear when we imagine future human colonies on Mars, in space stations, and elsewhere in the solar system. No doubt some environmentalist, somewhere, will complain about the "damage" being done to Mars's "natural" environment by rapacious Earthlings. Such a complaint would manifest the problems of treating environmentalism as a religion. Sensible people will recognize that, on Mars, the primary goal is to actively change the environment so as to make it hospitable for human life.
Of course few environmentalists will take a hard line on this point: they will admit, when pushed, even if grudgingly, that humans have to actively change the environment around them, and this will entail some waste materials ("pollution"). That is, just as, for example, most Christians apply a liberal interpretation to being in the world and not of it -- they buy nice houses and cars, for instance -- so most religious environmentalists think up all kinds of reasons as to why certain uses of natural materials and certain emissions of pollution are perfectly acceptable.
What, then, is the point? The problem with religious environmentalism is that it tends to regards human changes of the world as suspect, to be allowed only grudgingly and with a large measure of guilt. The result is that the modern environmentalist movement literally kills people. Its participants ban certain pesticides, and the ban results in hundreds of thousands or millions of deaths to malaria. The environmentalists watch masses of Africans starve to death because they can't possibly be allowed to eat "genetically modified" food, even though practically all the food we eat has been genetically modified by humans for thousands of years. Many environmentalist sects are socialistic, which means they hamper the progress of capital formation, thereby keeping people artificially poorer and thus more prone to disaster and illness. Some environmentalists engage in terrorism, burning down homes and threatening people's lives. What such environmentalists tend to neglect are the actual environments in which people live, environments that can be maintained and improved only by disturbing the earth.
But, many environmentalists will answer, theirs is a vision of living in harmony with nature, of coming up with more ecologically sound practices that ultimately benefit humans. This sentiment, taken in a scientific and humanistic way, can be compatible with the sort of environmentalism that I favor. However, usually it is associated with the sort of religious mysticism that turns "environmentalism" into the destruction of human beings. It is interesting that the environmentalist utopia is very similar to those of Christian mythology: the Garden of Eden and the Messianic rule of Earth. For centuries Christianity imposed ignorance, abject poverty, and sometimes torture and murder to supposedly pave the way to utopia. Similarly, environmentalism tends to impose the ignorance of pseudo-science and the destruction of capital and technology that will allegedly make way for the green utopia. Unchecked, the modern environmentalist religion will prepare the way to an ecological paradise in roughly the same way that Stalin prepared the way to a workers' paradise.
The first central error of modern environmentalism is to treat humans as though they were unnatural. That is, it's man versus the natural world. This is precisely the same error made by Christianity and Descartes. God gave man a supernatural soul, then told him to subdue the natural world. Environmentalists begin with the same error, but then conclude that they have no businesses subduing the natural world. The truly "holistic" approach is to see people as part of the natural world who properly use natural resources to their own betterment. An environmentalist will agree with me superficially, but I want to exclude mystical interpretations. A human being doesn't share some mystical tie to the earth; there is no "green energy" that creates a special bond between a person and the planet, and the planet is not some sort of supernatural entity with a conscience. Nor do I refer to a person who has been transformed by the green utopia into a new being, as Marx's socialism required a special sort of new person. I mean real nature, that we can perceive and that is the material of science, and real people, without the "benefit" of some sort of mystical green transcendence.
In the broadest sense, everything is "natural," including toxic sludge and the atomic bomb. Of course in common language the term "natural" refers to things that are relatively unproduced. For example, you buy a "natural" peach from the store. Yet I know from hard experience that a peach is not "natural." First, the peach is based on a genetic mutation, and for every single peach tree a person has to graft a mutant branch onto a root. But this is not unusual; people have actively modified their food's genes for millennia, and this is true of every single major crop in the world. Second, a farmer plants the grafted trees, fertilizes and waters them, destroys insects, and so on, and then typically sells the peach to somebody else who delivers it to the pleasantly air-conditioned store. The most "organic" of peaches comes to you courtesy of mutated genes, strip mines, and oil wells.
So what is "natural?" I'm not saying that the term has no meaning, but that it's meaning is flexible. Fresh spinach is more "natural" than canned spinach. Spinach raised with synthetic pesticides is more "natural" than spinach raised without them, I suppose. But then we return to the idea that human involvement, though we may or may not ordinarily regard it as "natural," may be entirely healthy and desirable. Is it better to eat expensive spinach grown with organic pesticides or cheap spinach grown with synthetic pesticides? The religious environmentalist imagines the answer to the question is obviously the former, while the sensible person takes the question seriously and grants it can be answered differently in different circumstances.
None of this, of course, is intended to deny the harms of pollution or the benefits of (real) environmental progress. It is possible and desirable to improve the environment in a way that is based on science and human well-being and that avoids utopianism. The factors most responsible for real environmental improvements are advances in technology and the establishment of property rights. Pollution is mostly a problem when property rights are ambiguous or when a person whose property is damaged has no legal recourse to stop the pollution. Localized pollution is legally a trivial matter to correct within the context of property rights. The precise reason air pollution is a harder problem is that there are few property rights in air. However, the difficulty in establishing property rights in some areas is no excuse to avoid establishing property rights wherever possible. Technology improves most rapidly in a free economy. Within a legal system of property rights and a culture that encourages scientific achievement, people grow continually richer, and thus they can continually demand a healthier, cleaner environment. It is no accident that the socialistic countries of the 20th Century and today damaged their environments, whereas the economically liberal (free-market) countries saw dramatic improvements in environmental health. Yet this discussion is too complex for a full treatment here; I merely wanted to hint at the approach that I believe is proper and most fruitful.
So, again, the first error is in drawing an artificial line between people and nature. People are part of nature, and there's no prima facie reason to suspect or criticize people's use of nature.
The second central error of religious environmentalism is to suppose that "nature" -- something that excludes people -- is intrinsically valuable. The idea that there can be value apart from a valuer is rooted in mysticism. In the case of environmentalism, it is rooted in the substitution of Gaia for God. But there is no cosmic value. There is only value to a particular valuer.
Thus, a modern environmentalist wants to preserve wilderness lands, even if -- sometimes especially if -- no human being can ever enjoy those lands. Of course for political expedience the specific plan is sold on the basis that people will like it. Yet that's not really the point for the enviromystic. The point is that things are good the way they are apart from the influence of people, and people are immoral when they mess with nature. The only exception is if people choose to live like animals, and thus change the world only a little bit before they return their dust to the Green God.
The tenets of the environmentalist religion immediately break down if we think of the broader cosmos. Is the surface of the sun or the core of the moon or a distant galaxy intrinsically valuable, apart from its impact on any human life? If so, why? The environmentalist religion is rooted in the idea that the planet itself is somehow alive or supernatural, which of course is ridiculous. The surface of the earth is covered with life, of course, and many organisms impact one another. For example, the oxygen we breath is mostly created by tiny organisms near the surface of the oceans, and to a lesser extent by forests. So we're dependent on those organisms in a real and obvious way. And each life in some sense is an independent valuer. For instance, a dog may value a juicy piece of cow flesh. The cow will disvalue being dismembered for the purpose of feeding dogs or humans. In general, every organism that eats other organisms values those organisms, and of course that applies to humans.
Organisms on Earth indeed value the sun, because it provides warmth and, indirectly, food. Organisms also value the core of the moon, indirectly, insofar as it helps cause the tides. Humans might eventually value the core of the moon for its mineral reserves. So once we get to the idea that something is of value only to a valuer -- a truth that properly understood is a tautology -- there is no problem with regarding natural resources, including lower organisms, as valuable to people for specific uses.
And so we produce energy, remove resources from the earth, chop down trees and grow new ones, farm plants, kill animals, build houses, drive cars, make computers, and generally engage in industry and commerce in order to improve the environment for humans. This is natural, valuable, and moral activity, open to improvements in technology and legal protection of property rights. Any self-proclaimed "environmentalist" who claims otherwise is merely a religious dogmatist who ultimately works against a healthy environment and human life.