Reasonable thinking on the environment

This is the first of four blog posts dedicated to environmental issues for this week, as Earth Day will be this Sunday, April 22. The following is based on a Sutherland paper titled Getting the Environment Right: Conservative Environmentalism.

The first, and perhaps most important, step to proper care of the environment is to view both nature and mankind’s place in it in a reasonable way. That, unfortunately, is something that many of the most vocal and ardent “environmental advocates” have not done since John F. Kennedy was president.

The radicalization of environmental thinking (both on the political left and, increasingly, in science) began with the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962. At first blush, Silent Spring is striking mostly for its graphic and at times melodramatic descriptions of human impacts on nature. However, the underlying message of the book – that mankind and civilized society are the villains of environmental destruction and enemies to nature – was the seed from which the radicalization of environmental thinking grew. 

Silent Spring inspired an entire generation of radical environmental writers and thinkers. These radicals – from Roderick Nash, Lynn White, and Kenneth Boulding to Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner – embraced Rachel Carson’s perspective on the natural world and human society’s place in it and, in varying degrees, followed it to its logical conclusions. They argued that nature ought to be viewed as a “broader community” in which human life and existence holds similar value to that of “soils, waters, plants, and animals” (Nash). They attacked religious views of nature – specifically Christian views – as a primary source of environmental destruction (White). And they called for a return to subsistence-living as the solution to natural resource scarcity, arguing that “every time we produce a Cadillac, we irrevocably destroy an amount of low entropy that could otherwise be used for producing a plow or spade” (Boulding).

They also attacked the family and free markets as sources of environmental destruction in need of government control. For these thinkers, the freedom to choose how many children to have was arch-enemy of the environment, and people should be forcibly sterilized, if necessary (Ehrlich). Similarly, free markets only furthered the rape and pillaging of nature, and so economies should be “reorganized” along “ecologically sound lines” (Commoner).

This is the basis of today’s radical environmental thinking on the left: human life and existence (especially family formation, religious faith, and economic freedom) are the problems and government is the solution. Never mind the obvious contradiction that government is run by the same human beings who are otherwise the scourge of Mother Nature. Forget the fact that everything from religious doctrines and millennia of human experience to commonsense observation and objective scientific study supports the conclusion that human beings possess qualities and capacities foreign to plants and animals, let alone inanimate objects. Do not think about the abundance of natural resources of which mankind has not come close to depleting, and which continues to grow due to technological innovation and the incentive of the free market.

All of these realities are secondary in importance in radical environmentalism. For that matter, reality generally is secondary in importance. What is fundamental are the ideas that modern civilized society is the villain that government must police and control on behalf of the environment. Grounded in such an irrational and unreasonable illusion, what hope is there to actually solve real environmental issues, short of an environmental dictatorship that controls everyone’s actions, no matter how minute, in order to limit their environmental impact?

If we want to solve real environmental problems, our thinking must be grounded in reality and reason. We must recognize that while human activity impacts the environment, human society is also the solution to most social problems, including those connected to the environment. We must acknowledge that the incentive in the free market to use natural resources as efficiently and wisely as possible, within a framework of sound regulatory policies, has been the engine of ever-improving environmental stewardship in modern America. Similarly, we must concede that limited human understanding of the environment combined with the inflexible and unchanging nature of government rules and regulations have combined to inflict some of the greatest damage to the environment in recorded history (e.g. the degradation of the environment in the former Soviet Union). Last, but not least, we must understand that the purpose of the planet is to support life, including human life, which is created through the formation and growth of families.

This conservative vision of the environment stands in stark contrast to its radical counterpart. The former, grounded in human realities and reason, provides hope and the possibility for achieving a balanced, successful approach to environmental stewardship, where both economic prosperity and environmental conservation have their proper place. The latter delivers a dim, dehumanizing view of society in which bad policy after bad policy is pursued in an ill-advised attempt to reach unrealistic environmental goals.

Which do you think is most likely to get the environment right?