A fundamental incoherence about humans and their relationship to nature -- and how it harms our economic interests.
California is in the third year of a drought, but the problem isn’t a lack of water. The snowfall in the Sierra provides enough to help us ride out the years of drought. All we need to do is store it. But California hasn’t built a new dam in 35 years. Worse than that, every year we dump 1.6 million acre-feet of water––about enough to serve 3.2 million families for a year––into the Pacific Ocean in order to protect an allegedly “endangered” 3-inch bait-fish called the Delta smelt. California’s $45 billion agricultural industry, a global breadbasket that produces nearly half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables, is set to take a huge hit, with hundreds of thousands of acres left fallow and the San Joaquin Valley region’s already sky-high 17% unemployment destined to increase.
Meanwhile President Obama continues to dither on approving the Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada. The latest in a string of environmental impact studies since 2008 has determined that the pipeline poses no threat to the environment. Indeed, it will lessen spills and pollution by transporting oil by pipeline rather than by more risky trains. Nor will abandoning the pipeline reduce carbon emissions, as the 830,000 barrels of oil will simply go someplace else, most likely China, the world’s leader in carbon emissions. What will happen is up to 40 thousand American jobs will not be created, and dependence on imported oil from hostile countries like Venezuela will not be reduced. Meanwhile because the pipeline crosses our border with Canada, Secretary of State John Kerry, a long-time environmentalist scold who as a Senator in 2012 voted against an amendment approving the pipeline, will probably end up making the decision.
These are just two of numerous examples of how environmental policy harms our economic interests. Empowered by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, these policies cost the economy $353 billion a year, according to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and untold billions more in oil wells left undrilled on federal lands and infrastructure like dams not built because of the numerous pettifogging environmental impact studies that look for risks that are the equivalent of the danger that a man could drown in one-eighth of an inch of water.
Before around 1960, anybody other than a crank would have been flabbergasted at such suicidal stupidity and policies one would expect from an enemy or a rival. An illiterate farmer in the 19th century knew you had to husband natural resources and protect them for the future, but he would never have idealized a harsh natural world that only stubbornly and by dint of hard labor produces sustenance for humans. But that was before environmentalism evolved into a cult for an affluent society of people so rich that they can take for granted their protection from nature by technology and industrialism, all the while it demonizes a modern world those same people couldn’t live without for five seconds.
What makes this cult particularly dangerous, however, is its patina of science that suggests such attitudes are not an expression of a sentimentalized romantic nature-love, but rather the fruit of reason and scientific fact. But behind all the quantitative data and mathematically based research lies a fundamental incoherence about humans and their relationship to nature. As usual, behind bad policy lies bad philosophy.
The central mistake of the romantic environmentalist is to gloss over the profound differences between human beings and the natural world. We are not “natural” creatures. What makes us human is everything that exists nowhere else in the natural world: the mind, language, consciousness, memory, higher emotions, and culture. None of these exist even in the highest primates. Apes do not craft tools, marry, name their offspring, bury their dead, live by laws or customs, or respect inalienable rights. This radical uniqueness of human identity means that we do not have a “harmonious” relationship with nature, but an adversarial and conflicted one. The natural world is the alien, inhuman realm of blind force, indifferent to suffering, death, and beauty. It is meaningless, for only humans bestow meaning on the world. And that meaning reflects our knowledge that each of us is unique, a creature that appears only once, and that each of us must die.
Most important, unlike everything else in the natural world ruled by necessity, humans are free. As French critic Luc Ferry writes, “Man is free enough to die of freedom.” And from that freedom comes morality, all the things we are obligated to do or not do, particularly in regard to our fellow humans. The nexus of consciousness of our individual uniqueness and necessary death, our freedom to choose to act against nature’s determinism, and our moral obligations to one another is what makes us unnatural––and human. Nature is our home only by dint of our alteration of it to make it suitable for such creatures, and that process is one of conflict and struggle against the brutal forces of extinction and destruction that have characterized the natural world for the 3.6 billion years life has existed.
The unnatural uniqueness of humans makes talk of “harmony” with nature the Disneyesque fantasy of rich people protected from nature’s cruelty by a high-tech civilization. Thus the proper view of nature should be how do we interact with our world and use its resources in order to benefit the greatest number of humans today, and to ensure that those who come after us have the resources to live well. Every environmental policy should start with that assumption. And we should determine the goods we want from nature––from economic development to the preservation of natural beauty––through the democratic process, not by the diktats of self-selected elites who mask their preferences as science rather than taste, and enlist the coercive power of the federal government to impose those subjective preferences at the expense of the well-being of everybody else.
As it is today, the biggest beneficiaries of our civilization indulge a sentimentalized nature love the cost of which is borne by others. They attack the technology and the free-market economic system that have created the unprecedented wealth, comfort, and leisure that they take for granted, but that their policies deny to others less privileged. The irrationalism and hypocrisy of modern environmentalism is a “black-market religion,” as Chantal Delsol puts it, a feel-good cult that makes its adherents feel superior to the grubby masses and the corporate barbarians who create the wealth and products that make their existence possible. Meanwhile jobs are not created, economic growth is burdened by costly regulations, and our national interests are compromised by the failure to exploit our country’s resources. That’s too high a price to pay just so some people can enjoy a pleasing fantasy.
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