Environmentalism or Individualism?


by Robert James Bidinotto



Copyright 2003 by Robert James Bidinotto. All rights reserved. May not be published, transmitted by any means, or reproduced in any medium or form without the written permission of the author. Send requests to reprint this essay to contact@ecoNOT.com. However, the author grants readers permission to print a single copy for personal use, and invites other Web sites to link to this article.


Sources for quotations and facts presented in the text appear at the end of this essay. The author is grateful to writer and editor David M. Brown for his invaluable editorial suggestions.



"I have precious little sympathy for the selfish propriety of civilized man, and if a war of races should occur between the wild beasts and Lord Man, I would be tempted to sympathize with the bears."

                           --John Muir,

                             co-founder, the Sierra Club


Every culture and its institutions are the living embodiments of certain dominant ideas. At its birth, America's basic premises were part and parcel of the glorious historical period that was rightly called "the Enlightenment."


In his book The Empire of Reason, historian Henry Steele Commager wonderfully captured the spirit of the American Enlightenment. Men such as Franklin and Jefferson, he wrote, had "a prodigality about them; they recognized no bounds to their curiosity, no barriers to their thought, no limits to their activities..." Commager cited "their confidence in Reason, their curiosity about the secular world and--with most of them--their indifference to any other, their addiction to Science--if useful--their habit of experimentation, and their confidence in improvement..." Heroic achievers, these men "exalted Reason and worshipped at the altar of Liberty."


That linkage between reason and liberty wasn't coincidental: men of reason require freedom to explore, to communicate their ideas, to realize their visions. And what is the goal of these activities? In Jefferson's immortal words, "the pursuit of happiness": that is, personal fulfillment and self-interest.


Such were the ideas and values of America's Founders. Their individualist ethic, embodied in the social system of capitalism, has produced--in what amounts historically to the blink of an eye--the greatest material abundance the world has ever known. Once people were encouraged to employ their minds in the pursuit of personal values--and once they were politically free to do so--a torrent of human ingenuity and energy was unleashed, curing hunger, disease, poverty, and ignorance on an unprecedented scale.


Not just America, but every country and culture that adopted these ideas progressed dramatically to the extent it did so. On the other hand, every society that turned its back on these ideas continued to suffer, as primitive societies had suffered throughout history. Witness in our time the intellectual, economic, and political collapse of all forms of socialism, including fascism and communism.


It would seem that this practical demonstration of the extraordinary benefits of reason, individualism, liberty, and capitalism should have been enough to convince all the world--and certainly the world's intellectuals and leaders--of their unarguable merits. Yet ironically, these Enlightenment ideas, which have given the world so much, are still considered controversial and suspect. And not just the ideas, but also the rational faculty that generates them.


In fact, Man himself is no longer praised as a conqueror of nature's obstacles, nor even accepted as just another part of the natural world. To many, he is an interloper, an alien presence on the planet--even nature's enemy--and his creative works are increasingly regarded as a growing menace to all that exists.


"[W]e are threatening to push the earth out of balance," warned former Vice President Al Gore in his book, Earth in the Balance. "Modern industrial civilization, as presently organized, is colliding violently with our planet's ecological system. The ferocity of its assault on the earth is breathtaking, and the horrific consequences are occurring so quickly as to defy our capacity to recognize them, comprehend their global implications, and organize an appropriate and timely response."


Philip Shabecoff, formerly the chief environmental reporter for the New York Times, summed up their outlook in his history of the American environmental movement: "…[A]n unspoiled land of great beauty and wonder began to change when Europeans came here five hundred years ago," he writes. "…[I]ts resources were squandered…large areas were sullied, disfigured, and degraded, and…our negligent use of the Promethean forces of science and technology has brought us to the verge of disaster."


The Promethean allusion is strikingly appropriate, for Prometheus was the Titan of Greek mythology who loved Man, and brought to him the fire of the Gods--a tool by which he could transform nature for his own benefit. It is perhaps the archetypal myth of Western civilization.


But many--certainly, many who rally under the green banner of environmentalism--now hold that worldview in contempt.



The essence of the environmentalist outlook is suggested in the title of Mr. Gore's book, and made clear in its pages. It's the view that everything in nature exists in a perfectly harmonious balance--a balance ever threatened by the activities of Man.


The roots of this outlook lie deep in antiquity. In Greek mythology, for example, tales abound cautioning Man against the sin of hubris, of pride, of self-assertion.


By giving men the knowledge of the gods, Prometheus enrages Zeus, who chains him to a rock to suffer a thousand years of torture. And to punish Man he sends him the first mortal woman, Pandora, bearing a box that he forbids her to open. But moved by curiosity, she opens it anyway, unleashing on Man all the evils of the world.


Similarly, when given wings of wax, Icarus is warned by his father not to try to fly too high, but the lad ignores him. Soaring upward, the aspiring youth flies too close to the sun, where his wings melt and he falls to his doom.


The Greeks believed that hubris had to be suppressed by recognizing something greater than oneself, by cultivating a sense of humility before the gods or some higher good. Man's proper path lay in self-restraint, in practicing virtues centered on the idea of moderation, such as prudence, wisdom, and temperance. The importance of humility and steering a moderate course is illustrated in the cautionary Greek myth of Phaëton, who insists on driving his father's chariot to bear the sun across the sky. But heedless of warnings, he fails to stay on the middle course through the heavens and, flying out of control, sets the world on fire and perishes.


This fear of unrestrained human aspirations, especially Man's boundless thirst for knowledge, is equally evident in the Judeo-Christian tradition. To the ideals of humility and moderation, the Old Testament added another: what might be called the pastoral ideal, symbolized by the Garden of Eden. In the mythical Garden, Adam and Eve live in perfect harmony with the flora and fauna, without want or fear. Having no needs, they have no goals; and having no goals, not a single fugitive thought ever escapes the stagnant tranquility of their empty skulls.


This, Genesis tells us, is "paradise."


By contrast, the symbol of evil is the Serpent, who tells Eve, in effect, to get a life. When the two witless, purposeless humans finally refuse to accept humble, helpless, passive ignorance as their fate--when they finally muster enough courage and ambition to defy their arbitrarily imposed restraints, and eat from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge--they commit the Original Sin. As a consequence, they are kicked out of Paradise and consigned to a terrible fate. From now on, Man will have to assume self-responsibility for his life, define personal goals and work to achieve them, explore the rest of the boundless world, and populate the earth by making love.


This, Genesis tells us, is "punishment."


Later, when these fallen men try to build a tower that can reach heaven, God laments that "now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do." So to punish men again for their unrestrained imagination and ambition, he scatters them across the earth and confuses their languages.



Consider the basic premises about Man and his world that these ancient morality tales have transmitted across the centuries--premises communicated in songs, sermons, images, icons, fiction, films, and scholarly works--premises that have shaped the thinking and the lives of billions. Here, in summary, is their message:


Everything in nature exists in harmonious balance and perfect order (the Eden Premise). Man's duty is to find a humble niche within this benign, bountiful, and balanced paradise, where he can exist simply and non-intrusively (the virtue of humility). However, Man's ambition--especially his quest to improve himself by gaining and applying knowledge--represents a grave peril to this pastoral ideal (the sin of pride). Man's ambitious exercise of his creative intelligence disturbs the tranquility and destroys the harmony of the pristine natural order (the danger of reason and the sin of selfish ambition).


To prevent chaos, therefore, Man's evil selfish appetites must be curbed, and his intelligence suppressed. That is the task of morality, whose virtues consist of constraints: humility, obedience, self-suppression, sacrifice of self to a "greater" good. By limiting Man's disruptive ambitions and creative aspirations, then, morality will preserve the natural balance and order.


Since antiquity, this worldview has been drummed dogmatically into billions of brains--so successfully that it's now the reigning interpretive template. It's the basis for most people's understanding of the world around them. It's the code of values governing their choices and actions. It's the metaphysical and moral heritage upon which writers such as Al Gore and Philip Shabecoff draw--and which they intuitively trust their readers to share.


It's the spiritual soil in which the seeds of the environmentalist philosophy and movement have taken root and flourished.


It's also the complete antithesis of the philosophical outlook of America's Founders:  a rejection of the Enlightenment outlook that, like Prometheus, championed Man and his requirements for living on earth: reason, science, individualism, self-responsibility, personal freedom, private property, and capitalism.


Rational individualism was the emerging worldview for people newly liberated from superstition, savagery, stagnation, and slavery--people striving to explore, develop, use, and enjoy the earth's resources. Rational individualism was the philosophy of modernity.


But even in America, this modern, progressive ideal never fully overcame the pre-modern "ideal" of The Eden Premise. That atavistic ideal continued to hold a viselike grip upon millions who feared the prospect of self-responsibility, and hated the socio-economic system that demanded it.



Nowhere was this fear and hatred more evident than among intellectuals. Over the years, they began to translate the pre-modern zeitgeist into more intellectually palatable terms: into formal philosophical critiques of reason, individualism, and capitalism.


For example, The Eden Premise lay at the core of the thinking of philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, the intellectual godfather of today's "counterculture." Rousseau preached the inherent goodness of untouched nature and undisciplined emotion; the corrupting influence of reason, culture, and civilization; economic egalitarianism and small-scale participatory democracy; the mystical infallibility of the collective will; and the sacrifice of the individual to the group.


The Eden Premise also was a central tenet of American transcendentalists and pantheists, notably including John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and Ansel Adams--individuals who co-founded such groups as the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society. "In wildness is the preservation of the world," said Thoreau. "The most alive is the wildest."


In 1860 Thoreau penned an essay claiming that--when left untouched by Man--forests would evolve toward "the greatest regularity and harmony." Thoreau's ideas had a great impact on the thinking of biologist George Perkins Marsh, who in 1864 wrote the seminal work of American environmentalism, Man and Nature. Marsh argued that natural forces and processes exist in a stable, harmonious balance, but that human activity was destroying that balance.


"[M]an is everywhere a disturbing agent," he wrote. "Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discord." He went on to call men "brute destroyers" who "destroy the balance which nature had established." However, Marsh took solace in the belief that "nature avenges herself upon the intruder," reducing Man to "deprivation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction."


Man and Nature was read widely in America and abroad, and in turn affected the thinking of the two pivotal figures in the history of American environmentalism: Gifford Pinchot and John Muir.


Pinchot was first chief of the U. S. Forest Service under President Theodore Roosevelt. A utilitarian, he opposed private ownership of natural resources, regarding them as collective goods to be managed for the benefit of "the greatest number" and conserved for the benefit of future generations.


To this end, Pinchot was largely responsible for vastly increasing the federal government's land holdings. Today, one third of the entire land mass of the United States is owned by the government, an area six times the size of France. By 1980 the federal government held 44% of Arizona, almost half of California and Wyoming, well over half of Idaho, Oregon, and Utah, three-quarters of Alaska, and over 86% of Nevada. These holdings contain over half of America's known resources. This includes a third of our oil, over 40% of salable timber and natural gas, and most of the nation's coal, copper, silver, asbestos, lead, and other minerals.


Whatever might be said of Pinchot's socialistic philosophy, it was still predicated on human values. In his chronicle of American environmentalism, Shabecoff observes that "Pinchot wanted the forests managed for their usefulness, not for their beauty.… He was not interested in preserving the natural landscape for its own sake."


Like Pinchot, most of the millions who now call themselves environmentalists are really just nature-loving "conservationists." Like him, they see the earth's bounty as resources for human use, appreciation, development, and spiritual enjoyment. At root, then, their values are still homocentric--that is, Man-centered.


But among intellectuals, this conservationist ethic quickly fell out of favor. Today's environmentalist leaders have a different pedigree: the preservationist lineage that traces back to Pinchot's arch-rival, John Muir. A mystical Scotsman who co-founded the Sierra Club in 1892, Muir's basic tenet was that wilderness existed not for Man, but for its own sake.


"How narrow we selfish, conceited creatures are in our sympathies!" Muir declared. "How blind to the rights of all the rest of creation! ...Well, I have precious little sympathy for the selfish propriety of civilized man, and if a war of races should occur between the wild beasts and Lord Man, I would be tempted to sympathize with the bears."


It was not long before Muir's preservationist thinking began to dominate the emerging conservation movement. For instance, Horace Albright, an early director of the National Park Service, saw his mission as to "keep large sections of primitive country free from the influence of destructive civilization."



With biologist George Marsh, the conservationist movement began to wrap itself in the mantle of science. Borrowing the idea of "holism" from philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, German zoologist Ernst Haeckel argued that individuals per se don't exist--that they're simply parts of greater wholes that include their races, societies, nations, and environment. In 1866 he coined the term "ecology" to describe "the whole science of the relations of the organism to the environment."


Soon, others began to connect the dots between The Eden Premise, Thoreau's and Marsh's idea of a natural balance, Hegel's "holism," the moral imperatives of Muir's preservationism, and Haeckel's ecology.


In 1935 Oxford botanist A. G. Tansley introduced the concept of an "ecosystem." To Tansley, ecosystems--not individual living entities--were "the basic units of nature on the face of the earth."


In 1948, Wilderness Society co-founder Aldo Leopold wrote his famous Sand County Almanac. Leopold argued that maintaining the "pyramid of life" required the preservation of a biodiversity of species. To accomplish this, he promoted a "land ethic" which “enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals" and which "changes the role of Homo Sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it."


All these ideas lay like dry, rotting timber on a forest floor, waiting for a spark. And the spark that ignited the organized environmentalist movement was Rachel Carson's 1962 book, Silent Spring.


Carson's thesis was that man-made chemicals and pesticides were wreaking horrific impacts on what she referred to as "the web of life…that scientists call ecology." Weaned on the ideal of Eden and the goal of preservationism, indoctrinated in the new pseudo-science of ecology, and skeptical of the fruits of Western culture, millions uncritically swallowed Carson's easily refuted claims. In the wake of Silent Spring, conservation groups became radicalized; classroom curricula began to promote hard-core preservationism; and a spate of environmental laws, agencies, and regulations were enacted.


Motivating it all was the pantheistic spirit of Muir and Thoreau. In a famous 1966 essay, UCLA historian Lynn White, Jr. blamed the ecological "crisis" on the West's Judeo-Christian heritage, which, he said, was based on the "axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man." He called instead for a "new religion" based on "the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature" and "the equality of all creatures, including man."


And Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess took all this to its logical dead end. Individuals do not exist, he said; we're all only part of larger "ecosystems." The "shallow ecology" of mainstream conservation groups, he argued, still aimed at improving the environment only for the benefit of humans. He instead advocated "deep ecology"--a view that he described as "biospheric egalitarianism...the equal right to live and blossom."


In short: all things are created equal; they should be venerated as ends in themselves, intrinsically valuable apart from Man; and they have equal rights to their own kinds of "self-realization" free from human interference or exploitation.


Preservationists in Muir's tradition are not interested in the human use or development of natural resources. They reject homocentrism in favor of what they call "biocentrism," or nature-centeredness--the view that nature exists as an end in itself.  Biocentrists regard nature as intrinsically valuable, meaning: valuable independent of any human awareness or interests. Since nature is inherently valuable as it is, biocentrists regard human changes to the "natural order" as evil. To them, resource development is resource destruction.


If this sounds radical, it is. But most people don't realize that today, even the most mainstream of environmental groups have accepted radical preservationism as their fundamental outlook and goal.


"...[T]he modern environmental movement," writes Shabecoff sympathetically, "has long since united behind the preservationist crusade as conceived by Muir and others…While today's environmental organizations give lip service to multiple use [of public lands], they do so basically as a fallback position [because] they know that the public...would not accept shutting out economic activity."


The ultimate goal of the mainstream environmentalist movement, therefore, is not conservation of natural resources for human use. It is preservation of nature as an end in itself.


Consider, for example, former Vice-President Al Gore--a man whom no one would consider to be on the movement's lunatic fringe. Indeed, his Earth In the Balance became a national bestseller and an environmentalist manifesto, praised by movement leaders and hailed by hundreds of major media reviewers including Time, the New York Times Book Review, the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, the New Republic, as well as such luminaries as Bill Moyers and Carl Sagan. You don't get more mainstream than that.


And just what was he saying to arouse the enthusiasm of the culturati?


"It is now all too easy to regard the earth as a collection of 'resources' having an intrinsic value no larger than their usefulness at the moment," Gore wrote on the very first page of his Introduction. "...[C]ivilization itself has been on a journey from its foundations in the world of nature to an ever more contrived, controlled, and manufactured world of our own initiative and sometimes arrogant design. ...[W]e are creating a world that is hostile to wildness, that seems to prefer concrete to natural landscapes. ...[H]ave our eyes adjusted so completely to the bright lights of civilization that we can't see...the violent collision between human civilization and the earth?"



Today, the most consistent expression of this misanthropic view can be found in the so-called "animal rights movement," which emerged with the publication in 1975 of philosopher Peter Singer's book, Animal Liberation. "This book," Singer wrote, "is about the tyranny of human over non-human animals." That tyranny amounts to "speciesism," akin to "racism." A speciesist, Singer said, "allows the interest of his species to override the greater interest of members of other species." Note the word "greater."


As fellow philosopher Tom Regan, author of The Case for Animal Rights, put it, "the fundamental wrong is the system that allows us to view animals as our resources, here for us..." Instead, both Singer and Regan hold that all beings with a capacity to feel pleasure and pain have an "inherent value of their own."


This means, say three animal rights philosophers, that "...there can be no rational excuse left for killing animals, be they killed for food, science or sheer personal indulgence." It means: no animal testing of medicines or surgical techniques; no hunting, circuses, or rodeos; no birdcages or dog pens; no leather, no meat, no milk, no eggs--no use of animals, period.


Strict observance of animal rights forbids even direct protection of people and their values from nature's many predators. For example, in his book Returning to Eden, Michael W. Fox--then a vice-president of the Humane Society--denounced the use of bug sprays and electric "bug roasters" to zap mosquitoes: after all, he said reassuringly, "only a few of the million you kill would have bitten you."


Likewise, in a 1990 fundraising letter to Humane Society members, opposing the federal Animal Damage Control program, Society president John Hoyt denounced "the killing of millions of animals--to protect American agriculture and other resources from damage caused by wildlife. This goal must be changed to one that seeks to limit losses to acceptable levels without killing or injuring wildlife." [Emphasis in original.]


Losses to people, you see, are "acceptable"; losses to animals are not.


Radical preservationism is now enshrined in major environmental laws--such as the Endangered Species Act, which places minnows and owls above our needs for hydroelectric power and lumber; and wetlands regulations, which set aside mosquito-breeding swamps as inviolate sanctuaries for salamanders.


The federal government's 1964 Wilderness Act defines a wilderness "as an area where the earth and the community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." No roads, cabins, camping facilities, campfires, mechanized vehicles of any kind are permitted to sully these virginal expanses. This federal law, environmentalist historian Shabecoff states proudly, "threw the...United States government behind the radical idea that the land and its riches have value even when left undisturbed."


But why?


Why is it that any touch of Man upon nature is to be regarded as a violation and desecration? What is the distinctive aspect of human nature that so offends the environmentalists?


As they make clear in virtually every utterance, it is Man's power to reason, and everything that flows from it: abstract knowledge, science, technology, material wealth, industrial society, the capitalist system.


Why? Because reason is the tool by which Man transforms his environment for his own benefit. Therefore, to environmentalists, rationality is the mark of Cain. In the "natural order" they espouse, we humans are the second-class citizens of the universe--condemned, by our very nature as rational, creative developers, to sit at the back of the bus.



To define environmentalism is to damn it, which is why many movement spokesmen go to considerable public lengths to cover the naked implications of their core premises with fig leaves of respectability and moderation. One way they do it is to clothe their endless scare campaigns in the ill-fitting garb of science.


Their tactics always follow a familiar pattern. First, declarations of some new ecological "crisis," based upon the flimsiest of evidence and perversions of the scientific method. Next, mathematical projections of catastrophic consequences stemming from the new danger, extrapolated from ludicrous worst-case scenarios. Finally, the claim that "we must do something immediately," because the predicted consequences--though not provable--are just too horrible to contemplate.


Let me give you just one notorious example that I investigated personally for Reader's Digest.


In 1989, one of the nation's most influential environmentalist groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), panicked America about Alar, a chemical growth agent then used on apples. On CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" program and later on "Donahue," the NRDC--with the help of its eminent toxicological consultant, actress Meryl Streep--reported that apples treated with Alar eventually could cause thousands of lifetime cancer cases among today's preschoolers. This carefully engineered publicity stunt terrified mothers, cost Alar's manufacturer, Uniroyal, millions, caused over $100 million in losses to apple growers, some of whom were bankrupted--while making a fortune for the NRDC.


The Alar scare was in keeping with the NRDC's uncompromising position that the presence of pesticide residues on food in any amount--no matter how trivial--constitutes an "intolerable risk" to human health. For example, NRDC's Lawrie Mott wrote in 1984 that "it may be impossible to define a safe level of pesticide residues in food." Mott told me that the NRDC would ban all such chemicals "no matter how great their benefits are."


During the 1970s, initial tests on rodents using Alar and its chemical by-product, UDMH, suggested a cancer risk. But the dose levels in those tests were so absurdly high that the animals were dying of simple poisoning. Nonetheless, the EPA used these poorly designed and monitored tests to try to ban Alar.


But in 1985, the EPA's own independent Scientific Advisory Panel dismissed the Agency's findings, throwing out the rodent experiments as scientifically worthless. Stung by the panel's rejection of its evidence, the EPA retaliated by ordering Uniroyal to start another round of tests. Yet for two years, every test on Alar came back clean. And even at dose levels 35,000 times higher than the highest amount that children might ingest daily, UDMH caused no tumors in rats.


Finally, in desperation, the EPA decided to stack the deck: for a final mouse test, it ordered the laboratory to increase the UDMH dose levels four to eight times higher than independent consultants had already computed was the maximum amount the animals could tolerate. Sure enough, these grossly excessive doses at last generated the tumors that the agency had been looking for--even though 80 percent of the mice were poisoned to death. The EPA then used these deliberately manipulated results to estimate that 45 people in a million "might" get cancer from Alar. It therefore ordered all use of the product to cease.


But while Uniroyal and apple growers suffered, the NRDC prospered.


After its "60 Minutes" appearance, the group dashed off a new paperback book on pesticides, titled For Our Kids' Sake, priced at $6.95 per copy. Then they set up a 900 phone number, priced at $3.00 per call, through which to order the book. At the outset of the scare, the phone number was dutifully published on the front page of USA Today and aired on national TV commercials featuring Streep. When promoted on the "Donahue" show, over 90,000 copies were sold. The NRDC's Janet Hathaway proudly told me that during the scare, NRDC phones were ringing off the hook with new members and contributors.


This is only one of countless phony environmental scares that could be cited. Similar pseudo-scientific nonsense is also peddled over radon in homes, global warming, ozone depletion, electromagnetic fields, and much more.



Why, despite such transparent manipulations of fact and science, and their overt indifference to economics, have environmentalists been winning the battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary people?


Because they've never based their appeals primarily on facts, statistics, science, or economics. They rest their case ultimately on ethical and philosophical grounds. Both their appeal and their shamelessness arise from the widespread belief that they are idealists: that they are champions of the Good against the forces of Evil that are sullying and raping a once-virginal planet.


Reading environmentalist literature or listening to the movement's founders and leaders, one is always struck by the style of the language: a hybrid of the spiritual, the self-righteous, the aesthetic, and the apocalyptic. This religiosity is not surprising, given the movement's historic roots in Greek and Judeo-Christian mythology, and in the pantheism and transcendentalism of its nineteenth-century intellectual forerunners. Nor does their basic premise--the allegedly "intrinsic value" of untouched nature--allow much wiggle room for compromise. After all, if a virginal planet is to be our moral and aesthetic ideal, just how much planet-raping by Man are we going to allow?


Critics of environmentalists have seldom understood this, or known how to respond. The best among them have tried to confront environmentalist claims and activities with exposés of their "junk science." Some try to employ economic arguments, showing the enormous costs that environmentalists are imposing on people and businesses. Other less sophisticated critics try to appeal to the public's common sense, denouncing environmentalist "extremism." Sadly, the most futile response in the face of environmental activism--piecemeal appeasement--too often comes from the beleaguered business community.


None of these responses is working, of course, because they are all beside the point. They don't address the fundamental concern raised by environmentalists. That concern is about values. It's about the logical incompatibility of the values underlying a modern, technological, capitalist society, and the values embodied in the environmentalists' image of Eden.


Appeals to science, economics, common sense, or compromise will work only if both sides accept their legitimacy as methods to resolve conflicts. But how can that happen when one side dismisses science as Frankensteinian, economics as selfishness, reason as Man's curse, and compromise as moral weakness?


For example, consider the response to the movement by some who call themselves "free market environmentalists." They attempt to co-opt the label, popularity, and values of environmentalism while relying on the principles of market economics to solve environmental problems. Their approach is to argue that most problems of pollution and overuse of resources can be resolved by properly recognizing property rights, and applying marketplace incentives.


However, that argument, though valid, is not nearly adequate. For one thing, it assumes that problem solving lies at the heart of the environmentalist agenda: that the conflict is over pollution and dirt, rather than values. Even worse, it concedes the anti-human values that inspire environmentalists, treating these as off-limits to criticism and analysis. It thus attempts to bypass and ignore the very premises that motivate environmental activism, and that are responsible for environmentalism's public appeal and success.


An article in Spring 1998 Dissent magazine illustrates the point. In it, law professor and environmentalist Eric Freyfogle attacks and dismisses "free market environmentalism"--not on economic or scientific grounds, but on moral grounds.


"Efficiency, the market's most exalted promise, is a desirable quality of the means we use to achieve an end," he writes. "But efficiency, standing alone or embedded in a market, cannot tell us whether species are worth saving. That decision requires a moral judgment... A related market message, equally troubling, is the legitimacy that it grants to self-centered behavior. However effective economic incentives might be, they do not push people to look beyond their own self-interest, and land health will never come about so long as we each look out only for ourselves."


After calling for more collectivist political control over the marketplace, Freyfogle concludes: "Progress on environmental issues, then, will depend on our continued use of moral language...."


To environmentalists like Freyfogle, the free market ignores allegedly "higher" moral values while it encourages selfishness--and therefore, capitalism is, at root, a morally flawed system, and the cause of many environmental crises.


To such mentalities, it's therefore useless to argue that the free market approach improves human well-being, or even that it solves environmental problems more efficiently than government regulation. Economic arguments and considerations are beside the point. In the great scheme of things, the environmentalists argue, morality trumps economics.


Economists reply that theirs is a science of means, not ends--that economics makes no value-judgments. But in fact, the entire field of economics rests upon implied value judgments. Economics not only assumes that people wish to improve their material situations by seeking greater abundance; it also assumes that to fulfill their desires for well-being and happiness, their rational use of natural resources is good. After all, why should people act economically? The tacit answer must be that doing so is a good thing.


By contrast, environmentalism declares that it's wrong to pursue one's personal fulfillment by altering natural resources. It declares--on moral and philosophical grounds--that humans should limit their personal desires, and instead embrace scarcity. In other words, environmentalism declares that the entire economic way of looking at things is immoral.


Capitalism and science are values only to people who want to achieve material progress; they rest implicitly on the idea that self-interest is good. Yet this clashes with age-old moral teachings, which hold that goodness consists of "service to others"--and that self-interest is evil.


This explains why economic and scientific arguments have failed to inoculate the public against environmentalism. By and large, people want to do the right thing. But if they've been taught to equate "the right thing" with self-sacrifice, and evil with selfishness--if they've been taught "Paradise" is Eden, that perfect Garden in which Man is a humble steward of the "natural balance"--then how can they possibly remain sympathetic to the enterprises of science and free market economics?


In logic, they can't. In fact, they haven't.


Yes, economic and scientific arguments are very important--but they are simply not enough. They don't address the philosophical and moral criticisms of individualism and capitalism. How can economics answer the philosophical criticism that so-called "old growth forests," untouched by humans, are spiritually superior to those planted by greedy lumber and paper companies for human use? How can science address the ethical criticism that every isolated subspecies of bird, animal, or even plant, has a moral right to an undisturbed existence and habitat--a right that requires the cessation of all logging, mining, and land development?


For many centuries, intellectuals have rejected as selfish the right of individuals to live for themselves. They have rejected as ethically bankrupt the pursuit of happiness. They have rejected as demeaning and unseemly the seeking of worldly profit, wealth, and material comfort. The result, as philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand points out, is that capitalism still remains an "unknown ideal."


It is time to make that ideal known. Until we do--until we offer a compelling moral and philosophical case for human life and liberty as an alternative to the environmentalist philosophy of human abasement and self-abnegation--the movement will continue to win in the court of public opinion, and on the battlefields of public policy.


As a first step, we must challenge two false philosophical ideas at the root of environmentalism. The two fallacies are:


First, that untouched nature is valuable in itself--intrinsically valuable, apart from any benefit to human beings.


Second, that self-interested human activities--any of the things we do for our own benefit, well-being, or personal profit--are morally tainted at best, and evil at worst.



The basic premise of preservationism is that all of nature--except, of course, human nature--has "intrinsic value" in itself, and thus a "right" not to be affected by Man. But this premise, which is the moral core of modern environmentalism, is a colossal fraud.


The simple little question that punctures the balloon of intrinsic value is: Why? Why is the status quo of nature good in itself? No one has ever offered an intelligible answer.


To declare that a Northern spotted owl, a redwood tree, or the course of a river has "intrinsic" or "inherent value in itself," is to speak gibberish. There's no inherent "value" or "meaning" residing in nature, or anything else. "Value" presupposes a valuer, and some purpose. It's only in relation to some valuer and purpose that something can be said to "have value." Thus, there's no such thing as "intrinsic value." The concept is meaningless. There are only the moral values and meanings that are created and imposed upon an otherwise meaningless nature by a conceptual consciousness.


Animals, lacking any rational capacity, survive by adapting themselves to nature. Human beings survive only by utilizing reason to adapt the rest of nature to themselves. This means that even to subsist, Man must unavoidably use and disrupt animals and their habitats, transforming natural resources into food, clothing, shelter, and tools (capital). Yes, we too are part of nature; but our nature is that of a developer.


As the only entity on earth having both the conceptual ability to define "good" and "evil," and the power to choose between them, Man is the only natural source of moral values. The environment, then, acquires moral value and meaning only insofar as it's perceived, developed, used, and enjoyed by human beings. That's why it's morally appropriate to regard the rest of nature as our environment--as a bountiful palette and endless canvass for our creative works.


To Enlightenment thinkers, this was Man's power and his glory. To environmentalists, however, Man is the only thorn in an otherwise perfect Garden of Eden. But again--why? By the only moral standards there are--ours--human creativity is not a vice, but a virtue; our products are not evils, but--literally--"goods"; and the term "developer" is not an epithet, but a title of honor.


If we reject the idea of nature's intrinsic value, we may also reject its corollary: the notion that animals have inherent rights not to be bothered by people. Rights are moral principles that define the boundary lines necessary for peaceful interaction in society. Any intelligible theory of rights presupposes entities capable of defining and respecting moral boundary lines. But since animals are, by nature, unable to know, respect, or exercise rights, the principle of rights simply can't be applied to, or by, animals.


Practically, the notion of animal rights entails an absurd moral double standard. It declares that animals have the "inherent right" to survive as their nature demands, but that Man doesn't. It declares that the only entity capable of recognizing moral boundaries is to sacrifice his interests to entities that can't. Ultimately, it means that only animals have rights: since nature consists entirely of animals, their food, and their habitats, to recognize "animal rights," Man logically must cede to them the entire planet.


All animals may be equal in animal rights theory; but--as Orwell pointed out in Animal Farm--some animals are more equal than others.


This environmentalist double standard applies to humans not just in our relation to animals, but also in our relation to all of nature. If a hurricane erodes miles of seashores--well, that's nature for you; if a man bulldozes a beach to build his home, however, that's a desecration. If the Mount St. Helens eruption destroys hundreds of square miles of timber, that's natural; if a man clears a patch of that very same forest in order to raise his crops, that's a biological holocaust--and he's contributing to global warming, to boot. If a beaver builds a dam and floods a dry field, that's an "ecosystem"; if a developer builds a duck pond on the same dry field, that's an ecological atrocity, and the felon must be sent to the slammer.



And this is where the second idea I mentioned comes in: the ancient notion that self-interested activities are morally tainted or evil.


There is only one fundamental alternative in the natural world: the alternative of life and death. Like all living things, we humans must act to further our own interests, or we perish. But unlike other living things, we cannot effectively compete as predators, with claws, fangs, speed, and strength. In order to survive and flourish in nature, we must produce what we need. We must use our unique reasoning powers to transform natural resources into the goods and services that sustain and enhance our lives.


Alone on a desert island, a man would realize immediately that the amount of his wealth is not fixed, but expands based solely on what he produces. However, in a complex economy built on trade, where direct causes and effects are harder to trace, it's easy to forget that overall material abundance doesn't exist in some fixed, perishable quantity. As a result, many believe that the economy holds only a limited supply of resources and wealth--like a pie of fixed size, so that if one person gets a bigger piece, his neighbor has to get a smaller piece. And so, to many, "self-interest" in the economy has come to mean not productivity, but getting something at the expense of others--acting not as a producer, but as a parasite, or even as a predator.


This premise--that the interests of men are inherently in conflict--is rooted in our tribal past. It's the source of the myth that the pursuit of one's self-interest must necessarily harm others. And that myth, in turn, has led to the corollary idealization of self-sacrifice: the belief that to reduce social conflict, the individual must be made to sacrifice his interests for the sake of others, or of the "greater whole."


However, the premise isn't true. The belief that human interests are inherently in conflict fails to take into account human creative intelligence. We aren't fighting over a fixed or dwindling amount of resources, or an economic pie of fixed size. That's because we aren't just pie consumers: we're pie producers. By using our creative intelligence to develop previously idle resources, we create a bigger pie--then more pies--then better pies--then cake, as well.


The history of human progress is that Man takes things from nature, and by using his reason, transforms them into ever-increasing abundance. He does so with ever-greater efficiency, too, creating more values with fewer resources. And then he adds to his abundance by trading what he produces for other things that he wants. Both sides to a trade get something that they want more, by trading away something they want less. Such enlightened self-interest doesn't require anyone's victimization: free trade is a win-win situation.


Far from using up a fixed and shrinking amount of natural resources, then, Man's rational intelligence produces a growing bounty of new resources from material previously considered to be useless. That is why centuries of Malthusian predictions about resource depletion, mass starvation, population outrunning resources, and the destruction of the planet have utterly failed to materialize--why global living standards and life spans have, in fact, been rising at an accelerating pace.



Yet in the face of all the benefits of modernity, the primitive tribal ideal of self-denial still persists, most explicitly in the environmentalist movement.


Because of the popularity of this ideal, many view environmentalists as sincere idealists, but simply too extreme. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, their alleged "ideal" isn't ideal at all. No, I'm not criticizing them for being too committed to a principle. I'm accusing them of being committed to the wrong principle.


Ask yourself the following question: Where is there a place for humans and their works in a world where pristine nature is deemed ideal, and the productive use of nature for human gain is deemed immoral?


In essence, environmentalists are attacking our very right to live, period. That position permits no compromise. To concede an inch of ground to it is to surrender, in principle, the entire battle for our lives, well-being, and happiness.


For too long, defenders of modernity have tacitly conceded the realm of philosophy--and the mantle of moral idealism--to its critics. Too few have demanded that the environmentalists answer such philosophical questions as:


Why does untouched nature have "value" in itself?


What, exactly, does that mean?


By what standards do you claim that the human use of a natural resource constitutes an illegitimate claim, or an aesthetic desecration?


And by what standard is a life of scarcity and self-denial virtuous?


So long as the "ideal" of a pristine nature unspoiled by self-interested human use remains unchallenged, that ideal will remain the compass that sets the direction of national debate and policy. And its logic will demand that we slowly, inexorably surrender more and more of our property and profits, more and more of our rights and freedoms.


That's certainly the vision of environmentalist leaders. "We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle of civilization," declares Al Gore. The changes demanded by this organizing principle, he says, will be "wrenching" and "will affect almost every aspect of our lives together on this planet."


Yet that prospect doesn't appear to faze him or his environmentalist colleagues in the least. Dr. Paul Ehrlich, for example, makes it clear that the environmentalist goal isn't to make poor people better off. Since he believes that rich people, by using more resources, cause many times more "ecological destruction" than poor people, Ehrlich concludes: "Actually, the problem in the world is that there are too many rich people."


Underlying all this is an antipathy for a complex, technological and free society where survival is bought at the cost of ambition, learning, thinking, taking risks and working hard, within a free, competitive marketplace. One sees the true environmentalist motive clearly captured in the book title Returning to Eden--a woozy yearning for an egalitarian garden, where fruit drops from the tree into one's lap, where the struggle to survive ceases, where all animals lie down in peace and harmony. The Eden of environmentalism is a risk-free place where idle wishes will be the coin of the realm.



But we don't live in a mythical Eden. We live on a planet where the struggle to survive is an implacable fact of nature. And those of us who do wish to survive--and thrive--can no longer afford to remain on the moral defensive. We can no longer afford to remain agnostic and mute about the philosophical issues at the root of the attacks on our lives and livelihoods. We can't expect to rally public support against the environmentalists if we fail to challenge, openly and unapologetically, the moral assumptions underlying their efforts.


No, a moral assault must be met head-on--with a moral response. To clarify the public debate, we must do two things. First, we must begin to understand and uphold the moral rightness of the human use of nature. Second, we must begin to understand and uphold our own moral right to do our work, and to profit from it.


So far, the critics of modernity have been winning the public relations battle. But there's nothing inevitable about that. I don't believe that the public is fundamentally predisposed against a rational view of Man and nature. They're merely confused by arguments that pit the alleged moral claims of nature against the moral claims of human nature.


But defenders of Man have one huge advantage over their adversaries. The anti-human premises of environmentalism clash with every person's life, well-being, happiness, and--perhaps above all--his self-esteem.


As a case in point, science writer Jeremy Burgess, himself an environmentalist, wondered aloud: "Is it just me, or does everyone else feel guilty for being alive too? ...Eventually, and probably soon, we shall all be reduced to creeping about in disgrace, nervous of our simplest pleasures."


This, then, is the emotional reward of environmentalism: a metaphysical inferiority complex.


And how could it be otherwise? If untouched nature is the ideal, then in logic our lives, interests, well-being, and pleasures must be sacrificed to the "greater" interests of our surroundings. And if they aren't--if our selfish, life-serving acts impinge on the "ideal" in any way, as they must--then we will come to feel guilty about being alive.


But no one is born spitting into his own face. A metaphysical inferiority complex has to be acquired. It clashes with everything in the human spirit: the desires to learn, to grow, to do, to succeed, to be happy.


It's time that we reject the environmentalists' degrading view of human nature, and go on the moral offensive.


It's time that we, as human beings, assert our right to exist as our nature demands.


It's time that we stop apologizing for our every footprint, for our every fence, for our every meal.


It's time that we stop regarding our homes as morally inferior to the trees they came from, or our children's needs as less morally important than Bambi's.


It's time that we recapture the Enlightenment legacy, and build upon the philosophical work begun so nobly by America's Founders--those heroic achievers who "exalted Reason and worshipped at the altar of Liberty."


It's time that we define and defend a new vision: an inspiring individualist vision of human potential, in which each human being is honored as an end in himself, with reason as his guide to action, and his own life, well-being, and happiness as his ultimate reward.





Commager quotations: Henry Steele Commager, The Empire of Reason (Garden City, NJ: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1977), pp. 3, 15, 241.


Gore quotations: "[W]e are threatening to push the earth out of balance." Al Gore, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (New York: Plume edition/Penguin Books, 1993), pp. 2, 269.


Shabecoff quotation: "Our negligent use of the Promethean forces…." Philip Shabecoff, A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), p. xiii.


Tower of Babel story: Genesis, 11:6. (King James Version).


Thoreau quotations: "In wildness is the preservation of the world." Shabecoff, pp. 52-54.


Thoreau's influence on Marsh: Alston Chase, In a Dark Wood: The Fight Over Forests and the Rising Tyranny of Ecology (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1995), pp. 32-33. Chase's magisterial book is easily the best history and analysis of environmentalism, both as a philosophy and as a movement, and provides a brilliant account of the contributions of various philosophers and other intellectuals in shaping the contemporary movement. For more on the role of various thinkers in this regard, see Anna Bramwell, Ecology in the 20th Century (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989).


On George Perkins Marsh, and his influence on Muir and Pinchot: Shabecoff, pp. 55-58; Chase, pp. 26-27.


Marsh quotation: "Man is everywhere a disturbing agent…." Shabecoff, p. 58. Additional quotations: Chase, p. 347.


On Gifford Pinchot: Chase, chapters 3 and 4; Shabecoff, pp. 65-69; Jo Kwong Echard, Protecting the Environment: Old Rhetoric, New Imperatives (Washington, DC: Capital Research Center, 1990), pp. 10-12. Pinchot's collectivist utilitarianism: Echard, p. 201, note 29; Shabecoff, pp. 65-67.


Statistics on federal land and resource holdings: "Battle Over the Wilderness," Newsweek, July 25, 1983, pp. 22-23; "The Tug of War Over Use of Federal Land," U. S. News & World Report, March 8, 1982, p. 58 (table); "'Boomers' Versus 'Sniffers,'" Newsweek, July 25, 1983, p. 31.


Shabecoff quotation: "Pinchot wanted the forests managed for their usefulness…." Shabecoff, p. 69.


Muir's tenet that nature exists for its own sake: Shabecoff, p. 71; Chase, pp. 42, 44, 48. The philosophical clash and political rivalry between conservationist Pinchot and preservationist Muir: Shabecoff, pp. 73-74; Chase, p. 44; Echard, pp. 12-13.


Muir quotation: "How narrow we selfish, conceited creatures…." Shabecoff, pp. 70-71.


Albright quotation: "…keep large sections of primitive country free…." Shabecoff, p. 85.


Tansley on "ecosystems": Chase, p. 98.


Leopold on "pyramid of life" and "land ethic": Shabecoff, pp. 88-90. Leopold was, with socialist Robert Marshall and others, a founder of the Wilderness Society. For the enduring philosophical influence of his holistic "land ethic" on the Wilderness Society: Echard, p. 14.


Carson quotation: "…web of life…that scientists call ecology." Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962), pp. 169-170. Carson's manipulation of facts, and the deadly global consequences of her campaign against pesticides: Lisa Makson, "Rachel Carson's Ecological Genocide," FrontPageMagazine.com, July 31, 2003; Henry I. Miller, "Is There a Place for DDT?," The New York Times, August 7, 2003.


White quotations: Lynn White Jr., "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis," Science, Mar. 10, 1967; reprinted in Garrett De Bell, ed., The Environmental Handbook (New York: Ballantine Books, 1970).


Arne Naess quotations: Alston Chase, "The Great, Green Deep-Ecology Revolution," Rolling Stone, April 23, 1987, p. 64. See also Peter Borrelli, "The Ecophilosophers," The Amicus Journal, Spring 1988, pp. 32-3.


Shabecoff quotation: "…the modern environmentalist movement has long since united behind the preservationist crusade…" Shabecoff, p. 74. See also Chase, pp. 42-45; Echard, p. 13.


Gore quotation: "It is now all too easy to regard the earth as a collection of 'resources'…." Gore, pp. 1, 26-27.


Singer quotation: "This book is about the tyranny of human over non-human animals." Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (New York: The New York Review and Avon Books, 1975), Preface and Acknowledgments page.


Tom Regan quotation: "…the fundamental wrong is the system that allows us to view animals as our resources…." Ronald Bailey, "Non-Human Rights," Commentary, October 1985, p. 76.


"...there can be no rational excuse left for killing animals…." John Harris, Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch, Animals, Men and Morals (Taplinger Publishing Co., 1972).


Fox quotation: "…only a few of the million you kill would have bitten you." Michael W. Fox, Returning to Eden (NY: Viking Press, 1980).


Hoyt quotation: "…the killing of millions of animals--to protect American agriculture and other resources…" Undated 1990 fundraising letter to members signed by John Hoyt, President, Humane Society of the United States.


On the 1964 Wilderness Act: Shabecoff, p. 162.


On the Alar scare: Robert James Bidinotto, "The Great Apple Scare," Reader's Digest, October 1990.


Mott quotation: "…it may be impossible to define a safe level of pesticide residues in food." Lawrie Mott, "Bad Apples: Pesticides in Food," The Amicus Journal, Summer 1984, p. 37.


Mott quotation: "…no matter how great their benefits are." Author's phone interview with Lawrie Mott, June 12, 1990.


Janet Hathaway boast: author's phone interview with Hathaway, June 19, 1990.


For brief overviews of other environmentalist scare campaigns, including global warming and ozone depletion: Robert James Bidinotto, The Green Machine (Poughkeepsie, NY: The Objectivist Center, 1993.) On global warming, see Robert James Bidinotto, "What Is the Truth About Global Warming?," Reader's Digest, February 1990. A superb analysis of the science and politics of environmentalist hysteria concerning cancer, pesticides, and related issues: Michael Fumento, in Science Under Siege: Balancing Technology and the Environment (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1993). Fumento devotes chapter one to the Alar scare. Among many excellent books refuting a wide range of environmental scares and misinformation, a recent standout is Ron Bailey, ed., Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths: How the Environmental Movement Uses False Science to Scare Us to Death (Washington, DC: Competitive Enterprise Institute, 2002). For more books and literature, see the "Resources/Links" section of this Web site.


Freyfogle quotations: Eric T. Freyfogle, "The Price of a Sustainable Environment," Dissent, Spring 1998, pp. 37-43.


"…if a developer builds a duck pond on the same dry field…" This refers to the infamous case of environmental engineer Bill Ellen, who spent six months in a federal prison for the alleged crime of "polluting" federally protected wetlands without a federal permit. The "wetlands" in question were bone-dry much of the year; and the "pollutant" in question was the dirt Ellen was moving to create a wildlife habitat. Bidinotto, The Green Machine, pp. 1-2.


Gore quotation: "We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle…" Gore, p. 269. Changes needed as "wrenching": p. 301. They "will affect almost every aspect of our lives…": p. 295.


Ehrlich quotation: "…too many rich people." Associated Press story published in The Vindicator (Youngstown, OH), April 6, 1990. Ehrlich elaborated on this theme in his book, The Population Explosion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), and in a syndicated column in the Los Angeles Times which ran in the The Vindicator on April 10, 1990.


Burgess quotation: "Is it just me…?" Theodore Roszak, "Green Guilt and Ecological Overload," New York Times, June 9, 1992, p. A27.




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