Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Last week’s Earth Day came in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. At a time of sickness, death, and an economy stunned into recession, the incoherence of the romantic idealization of the natural world that Earth Day epitomizes is more obvious than usual. As the current crisis shows, nature is not a benevolent mother from whom we have alienated ourselves, and against whom our ravages have sown existential consequences. It is, as Keats put it, “a fierce, eternal destruction.”
Because of that misguided idealization, modern environmentalism has morphed into a “black market” religion, as Chantal Delsol describes the various substitutes for the decline of traditional faiths. Like similar belief systems such as Marxism, romantic environmentalism drapes itself in the jargon and quantitative data of real science. This makes the cult even more dangerous, for it uses the prestige and authority of science as the realm of objective truth, to create and promote policies that are dangerous, if not deadly.
Anthropogenic Global Warming is exhibit number one. A century-old hypothesis about temperature increases created by elevating levels of atmospheric CO2 has become a scientific “fact,” even though our understanding of global climate is nowhere near adequate for such claims. Yet billions of dollars a year go to “research” based on computer models that––as we’ve seen with the shifting models of the coronavirus’s lethality––rely on filling the gaps left by our ignorance, a process rife with moral and cognitive hazard. Billions more have been spent on subsidies for “green energy” like wind-farms or solar panels, which are nowhere near to replacing the cheap, efficient energy that comes from fossil fuels and coal. Worse, warmists promote policies like the Green New Deal that have multi-trillion-dollar price tags with no chance of achieving its promised boons.
But the damage of these policies are much worse for the developing world that does not have access to cheap electricity. Almost a billion people lack access to electricity, and 3 billion do not have clean fuels for cooking––only 14% of people in sub-Saharan Africa do. As the Wall Street Journal reports, moreover, “a majority of sub-Saharan African countries have per capita electricity consumption of only a few hundred kilowatt-hours per year—the dividing line between developing and developed countries in the U.N.’s Human Development index is 4,000 kilowatt-hours per person per year. More than 600 million Africans—roughly half the continent’s population—lack electricity.”
Apart from retarding the continent’s economic development, the result of relying on wood or dung to cook food leads to diseases of the eyes and lungs that kill 1.6 million people a year. At the same time, 2.8 billion people live at hot latitudes, but only 8% of them can enjoy air conditioning. The mentality that shrugs off such misery reminds me of California’s exorbitant electricity costs caused in part by environmental and “green energy” mandates. Affluent coastal elites enjoying their year-round balmy weather care nothing for the poorer inland populations who need air-conditioning when the thermometer stays near or above 100 degrees for weeks at a time.
Likewise with the faddish demonization of genetically modified (GE) foods. No one has been able to demonstrate their alleged dangers. As Paul Driessen and Vijay Jayaraj write, “To date, Americans alone have consumed more than four trillion servings of foods with at least one GE ingredient – without a single documented example of harm to a person or the environment.” Indeed, the authors point out, “more than 100 Nobel Laureates in chemistry, medicine and biotechnology have said GE foods are safe for human and animal consumption.”
And like the war against carbon, the costs of proscribing GE foods is born by the less developed nations that need the benefits of GE foods such as less use of water and land, and insect resistance, reducing the need for pesticides. More important, GE foods like Golden Rice have been engineered to provide vitamin A to people who lack it due to malnutrition, sparing billions of people in the developing world from blindness and death. Once again, we see the spectacle of well-nourished, affluent Westerners, who take abundant food and nutrition for granted, while promoting polices that cost lives in the developing world.
What these examples show is the antihumanism that has accompanied most strains of romantic environmentalism. It’s no coincidence that Nazi Germany was the first state to pass laws protecting nature. The imperative of “blood and soil” required keeping nature as well as the volk pure. The Nazi ecologist Walter Schoenichen based his opposition to miscegenation on the need to protect human as well as ecological diversity. In early 20th century America, the environmental, population control, and eugenics movements were closely related in their cavalier attitude toward human life and well-being. They also shared a distaste for free-market capitalism, the engine of technological improvement and growth that has created a world less subject to natural famine and disease.
The alliance of radical environmentalism, population-control advocacy, and anticapitalist leftism continued to prolong misery in the developing world. Rachel Carson’s scientifically challenged but successful campaign in the early Sixties against DDT led to the deaths of millions from malaria, mostly in Africa. Neo-Malthusian Paul Ehrlich’s spectacularly wrong predictions of global famine from overpopulation helped to legitimize cruel policies, such as Lyndon Johnson’s withholding of food aid to India during the 1966 famine. Ehrlich instead counseled that food aid should be tied to sterilization and birth-control programs, and suggested adding “temporary sterilants to water supplies or staple food,” with antidotes given only when the population reached the desired size. He also wanted “luxury taxes” imposed on cribs, diapers, and children’s toys.
More recently many environmental movements are explicit in their privileging of nature and primitivism over humanity and civilization. We hear these sentiments in David Foreman, founder of the radical Earth First! movement, who claims “man is no more important than any other species.” So too Bill Devall and George Sessions, promoters of “deep ecology.” This movement calls for “ecocentrism, which means rejecting the position that some life forms (such as humans) have greater inherent worth than other life forms.”
The Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, who in the mid-Nineties killed three people and maimed 23 with package bombs, was like the Nazis simply taking radical environmentalism’s antihuman principles to their logical conclusions. If the human race is a virus or bacterium destroying all other life on earth, one no more worthy of life than the species it destroys, then isn’t the final solution to eliminate the human race, or at least destroy its civilization and return people “Back to the Pleistocene,” as radical environmentalist Paul Shepherd advocates, the time before agriculture and cities?
Kaczynski’s Manifesto, published in September 1995 by the New York Times and Washington Post, was full of the same anti-capitalism and antihumanism that filled the mainstream environmentalism of the time. Kirkpatrick Sale, still today one of the more visible and well-remunerated environmentalists, wrote about the Manifesto, “The Unabomber and I share a great many views about the pernicious effect of the Industrial Revolution, the evils of modern technologies, the stifling effect of mass society, the vast extent of suffering in a machine-dominated world and the inevitability of social and environmental catastrophe if the industrial system goes on unchecked.” Indeed, Al Gore’s bestselling 1992 Earth in the Balance is filled with such Luddite clichés, its antihumanism veiled in mawkish sentimentality and promises of therapeutic balm for the harried moderns forced to live in an “air-conditioned nightmare,” as novelist Henry Miller called modern America.
Such sympathy with a murderer like Sales’ is not surprising, and its antihumanism persists today. Last week when the oil industry collapsed, Congressman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “[Y]ou absolutely love to see it,” for “This along with record low interest rates means it’s the right time for a worker-led, mass investment in green infrastructure to save our planet. *cough*.” She quickly took down the tweet, but reposted the sentiment in a less obvious and callous antihumanist form. But the Green New Deal, if it were to be implemented, would cost millions of lives and immiserate billions more in the developing world, and erase the gains of the last 30 years that have lifted one billion people out of extreme poverty, and halved the infant mortality rate.
The antihumanist environmentalism fads that have burrowed deeply into our culture, curricula, and policies are dangerous. They promote a juvenile, Disneyfied view of man’s relationship with nature as a harmony lost to the industrial capitalism that has in fact, along with liberal democracy, created historically unprecedented wealth, freedom, and leisure for billions of people. More important, their eagerness to disregard the human costs is dangerous, for all the bloodiest tyrannies we know like communism and Nazism began with ideas that dehumanized their enemies and justified their elimination. We shouldn’t let the coronavirus crisis become an “opportunity” for progressive and socialist policies––camouflaged by the romantic environmentalism celebrated on Earth Day––to run our nation to ruin.
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