The Left Coast is burning. Oregon is fighting 13 wildfires encompassing 185,000 acres. California is battling 19 fires, including tornados of fire called "fire whirls," which have gobbled up 577,000 acres and left eight dead. A good progressive who never lets a crisis go to waste, Governor Jerry Brown told Californians, “With climate change, some scientists are saying that Southern California is literally burning up.” He warned that man-made global warming created a “new normal,” and that “more serious predictions of warming and fires to occur later in the century, 2040 or 2050, [are] now occurring in real time.”
A few days later Brown had a tweet-duel with President Trump, who in contrast claimed, “California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws,” like those against thinning and clearing forests: “Tree clear to stop fire spreading!” Seems like on this issue, the allegedly doltish Trump has the better argument than the Berkeley and Yale-trained Brown.
Indeed, doctor of environmental science and forester Bob Zybach for years has been the Cassandra warning about misguided policies on forest management. According to Zybach, wildfires began to increase in the late 70’s, at the same time policies moved away from active management of forests to a more hands-off “natural” approach. In the past, “Mostly fuels were removed through logging, active management — which they [the Feds] stopped– and grazing,” Zybach said in an interview. “You take away logging, grazing, and maintenance, and you get firebombs.”
In other words, leaving the forests to “nature,” and protecting the endangered Spotted Owl created denser forests––300-400 trees per acre rather than 50-80–– with more fuel from the 129 million diseased and dead trees that create more intense and destructive fires. Yet California spends more than ten times as much money on electric vehicle subsidies ($335 million) than on reducing fuel in a mere 60,000 of 33 million acres of forests ($30 million).
Once again, global warming “science” is a camouflage for political ideology and gratifying myths about nature and human interactions with it. On the one hand, progressives seek “crises” that justify more government regulation and intrusion that limit citizen autonomy and increase government power. On the other, well-nourished moderns protected by technology from nature’s cruel indifference to all life can afford to indulge myths that give them psychic gratification at little cost to their daily lives.
As usual, bad cultural ideas lie behind these policies and attitudes. Most important is the modern fantasy that before civilization human beings lived in harmony and balance with nature. The rise of cities and agriculture began the rupture with the environment, “disenchanting” nature and reducing it to mere resources to be exploited for profit. In the early 19thcentury, the growth of science that led to the industrial revolution inspired the Romantic movement to contrast industrialism’s “Satanic mills” and the “shades of the prison-house,” with a superior natural world and its “beauteous forms.” In an increasingly secular age, nature now became the Garden of Eden, and technology and science the signs of the fall that has banished us from the paradise enjoyed by humanity before civilization.
Such attitudes soon pervaded Western culture, expressed in pseudo-scientific form by Sigmund Freud, who wrote that “what we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery, and that we should be happier if we gave it up and returned to primitive conditions.” More recently, Al Gore, the great champion of global warming “science,” remains the high priest of this green cult, recycling old Romantic clichés. He whines in Earth in the Balance about our “technological hubris” and “technological alchemy,” which have driven an “increasingly aggressive encroachment into the natural world” and created the “froth and frenzy of industrial civilization.” Such bromides were stale by 1856, when Gustave Flaubert satirized them in Madame Bovary.
These old ideas lie behind much of what passes itself off as “environmental science.” Salvation from our ancient sin of creating science and technology will come from restoring that ruptured bond with a benevolent nature. Keeping the environment pristine and “natural” by closing it off to development or recreation becomes government policy, one ruthlessly enforced by the aptly named Environmental Protection Agency, rather than the more practical environmental management agency. Bounties of resources like oil and natural gas are left undeveloped to “protect the environment,” and forests are banned from logging or even thinning. Carbon-based energy is proscribed, and billions in pork is distributed to “clean energy” alternatives. Starting in kindergarten, school curricula are crammed with the environmental gospel and its rituals like recycling, and its holy days like Earth Day. And “natural,” “organic,” and “green” have become potent marketing lures for attracting consumers.
Even worse, all this propaganda is passed off as “environmental science.” But at its heart lies the old nature myths founded on an erroneous assumption: that humans are natural creatures whose most fulfilling happiness comes from restoring that lost bond with the simpler, more authentic natural world. In fact, humans are not natural creatures. Our bodies come from nature, but our humanity comes from our minds and free will. Everything in nature is determined by the laws of physics, and has no intrinsic value or worth, no beauty or meaning other than what humans give it. As French philosopher, Luc Ferry writes, man:
Is indetermination par excellence: he is so oblivious to nature that it can cost him his life. Man is free enough to die of freedom . . . His humanity resides in his freedom, in the fact that he is undefined, that his nature is to have no nature but to possess the capacity to distance himself from any code within which one may seek to imprison him.
Human freedom and consciousness make man literally unnatural, his choices and actions often spontaneous and uniquely capable of being creative and destructive.
The untouched nature glorified by romantic environmentalism, then, is not our home. Ever since the cave men, humans have altered nature to make it more conducive to human survival and flourishing. After the retreat of the ice sheets changed the environment and animal species on which people had depended for food, humans in at least four different regions of the world independently invented agriculture to better manage the food supply. Nor did the American Indians, for example, live “lightly on the land” in a pristine “forest primeval.” They used fire to shape their environment for their own benefit. They burned forests to clear land for cultivation, to create pathways to control the migration of bison and other game, and to promote the growth of trees more useful for them.
And today we continue to improve cultivation techniques and foods to make them more reliable, abundant, and nutritious, not to mention more various and safe. We have been so successful at managing our food supply that today one person out of ten provides food that used to require nine out of ten, obesity has become the plague of poverty, and famines result from political dysfunction rather than nature.
That’s why untouched nature, the wild forests filled with predators, has not been our home. The cultivated nature improved by our creative minds has. True environmentalism is not nature love, but nature management: applying skill and technique to make nature more useful for humans, at the same time conserving resources so that those who come after us will be able to survive. Managing resources and exploiting them for our benefit without destroying them is how we should approach the natural world. We should not squander resources or degrade them, not because of nature, but because when we do so, we are endangering the well-being of ourselves and future generations.
The great irony is that our current indulgence in worn-out myths is made possible by the technologies that protect us from nature’s cruel indifference to our existence. Freed from the drudgery of agricultural work, where nature’s famines and droughts were a constant reminder of its inhumanity, we can demonize the very science and technology that have created the material paradise in which we in the West live. Only the well-fed and comfortable have the luxury of seeking psychic solace from the dream of an untouched mother nature and the supposedly simple, more authentic life she once provided our ancestors.
Using nature for therapeutic solace by visiting national parks or watching Disney movies like Bambi or Pocahontas is not a problem. But turning a taste in recreation or entertainment into public policy, and then claiming the policy is based on science and so is unquestionable, endangers the well-being of other human beings less affluent than us. Demonizing genetically modified foods or carbon-based energy on dodgy science worsens the lives of billions of people across the globe. Such behavior bespeaks the selfish rich, who enjoy the comforts of coal-fired electric plants and abundant, nutritious food. It also reveals something else uniquely human: moral idiocy.
As the current wildfires incinerating the West Coast show, indulgence in myth sometimes endangers us too. Rather than idealizing nature to soothe the anxieties that attend the benefits of our high-tech urban civilization, we need to go back to what humans have been doing since the Stone Age: managing and conserving nature’s resources so that they provide benefits for humans now and in the future. After all, nature’s value doesn’t even exist without the human beings who give it that value, whether as resources to develop, or beauty to admire.