The environmental movement has gone mainstream, holding itself out as reasonable and suggesting its plea for a clean natural world is moderate. Environmentalists even say they support making commerce and industry strike a sustainable balance with nature, making everyone better off. Who could possibly disagree?
Before committing yourself to modern environmentalism, however, you should know just what it is you’re really supporting, which is not an especially easy question to answer given the ubiquity of environmentalists’ culture and rhetoric. So vaguely defined is environmentalism that everyone today can partake in its sanctimonious calls to “go green.”
I submit the impulses motivating environmentalism, the questions that are its beating heart, have very little to do with whether human beings are truly causing global warming and destroying the natural world. Were these questions the primary concern, as environmentalists would have us all believe, we would be left with only practical, technological, logistical problems, such as how to continue to globalize and develop the world while we also decontaminate and preserve it—a challenge no doubt, but hardly insurmountable.
This, however, is not really the goal of environmentalists, at least not of the true believers like Bill McKibben, who argue, referring to global climate change, “World War III is well and truly underway. And we are losing.” McKibben calls for “a wholesale industrial retooling,” centralized and administered by the state, with U.S. businesses commandeered and compelled to participate in the war effort, just as in World War II. McKibben cynically calls this “social solidarity” and longs for a similar militarized effort to combat climate change. It stands to reason environmentalists should be so comfortable with such centralized power, with the coercive, top-down reengineering of social and economic life. Their philosophy dictates that in the defense of the natural environment, anything is justified—even a full-blown war, the end of humankind, and other truly horrifying scenarios.
Roderick Nash typifies the characteristic indifference (or worse) many environmentalists have toward their fellow humans: “I’m sorry people are starving, but I’m much more concerned with members of the species smaller than Homo sapiens.” Examples abound. Environmentalists like philosopher Paul Taylor and biologist David M. Graber have infamously boasted their utter contempt for humanity, openly welcoming its demise. This kind of unapologetic misanthropy is not a rare curiosity within the environmentalist leadership, and it is not an aberration or departure from more widely-accepted values. It is a basic feature of the normative philosophy underlying the entire contemporary environmental movement, now cynically couched in the legitimacy-granting terminology of hard science.
These misanthropes believe human beings are a problem. In fact, many of them believe humans are the problem and that the natural world is not here for our use and enjoyment, to benefit and sustain us, but that we are just a small and relatively unimportant part of its system, not unique in any way that matters.
Let us assume that humans are harming the environment. The problem is many—far too many, really—self-styled environmentalists very simply and straightforwardly hate humankind, the market economy, technological progress, industrialism, economic development, globalization, etc. In short, many environmentalists hate all of the things we should be praising to high heaven and all of the things that have lifted billions of people out of abject poverty, including the very things that have allowed “Mother Earth” to sustain seven billion people.
These human-hating apostles of doom have the whole picture precisely upside down; they treat the natural world and its health not as a means to human ends, but as an end in itself and as the object of some new pagan religion, the goal of which is to regress to man’s primitive state. These environmentalists will have to pardon those of us who believe the Great Enrichment, caused by the market-liberal order, is a thing to be fostered and cherished, advanced at every opportunity in word and in deed. When we worry about the natural world—and we should—our worries should turn on our ability to innovate to make our world cleaner and more well-suited to a huge and growing human population.
In his book, “The New Holy Wars,” environmental policy scholar Robert H. Nelson describes a “natural-unnatural dualism” that “works to deflect attention from a wide range of environmental concerns,” impractically drawing a bright line dividing “unnatural (‘sinful’) humanity” from the ideal of virgin wilderness. “On the one side,” writes Nelson, “there is nature; on the other side, there are human beings, who are unnatural. But natural and unnatural are virtually synonymous with good and evil in environmental theology.”
How or why humankind found its way into the unnatural category, despite the fact that this planet is our home, is never explained, simply taken for granted by a group that values plants and animals above people. Given that animals, too, use tools, build things, alter their physical environment, and pollute, one wonders where the line is. Further, as Nelson observes, the distinction between untouched nature and unclean human civilization is not as clear cut or easy to define as environmentalists believe.
There is a place for environmentalism, but its advocates’ attempts to demote human beings undermine the goal of a cleaner planet. They forget the natural environment is important only insofar as it is our home; we cannot survive in a toxic environment in which harmful pollutants are not contained and managed. It is natural that we should desire to live in a safe, clean, and even beautiful home, regarding ourselves as stewards of a valuable birthright. We must not forget, though, that this—its utility to us as a dwelling place and a tool—is the reason that we ought to care about Earth. The natural world, however much we may appreciate it, is not an end in itself, an intrinsic good to be elevated above our needs and goals as human beings. To treat it as such is to invert the natural order, to make of nature a religion for which we should sacrifice. Libertarians, classical liberals, and other proponents of private property and free markets should confidently claim environmentalism for humanists. Recalling the famous arguments of Immanuel Kant, only human beings are properly considered ends in ourselves and must never be treated as mere means to an end. We, our civilization, and happiness are the true benchmark, the end goal, the most important value.
In 2010, the biologist Frank Fenner, sure that human civilization was on an irreversible path to self-destruction, predicted our extinction in a span of time less than a century. For all his insights and accomplishments, Fenner’s prediction is laughably embarrassing. In 100 years, there will be more human beings on this planet than ever before, and they will be richer, healthier, and living longer lives than humans have in our entire history. Freedom, technology, and commerce will be to thank, not human-hating environmentalists who prophesy doom in arrogant self-satisfaction.
David S. D’Amato (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an attorney, adjunct law professor at DePaul University in Chicago, and a policy advisor at The Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.