Improve, Don't Protect, the Environment

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Protecting the environment has been the cause célèbre of nearly everyone, especially leftist elites, for the past 40 years. Everywhere we look: celebrities, politicians, and the news media exhort us to protect nature from thoughtless, human intrusion and greed. And who would not want to preserve the Earth’s beautiful and awe-inspiring array of life-forms and inanimate wonders? From sea turtles to dolphins, from majestic old growth forests to the ocean's magnificent coral reefs teaming with life; natural wonders bless the Earth with their beauty.

Nevertheless, not all aspects of nature fill us with a benevolent sense of wonder; typhoons, tsunamis, hurricanes, and tornadoes are also part of nature. So are volcanoes, earthquakes, snowstorms, heat waves, droughts, floods, etc., etc. Such events destroy and devastate thousands of human lives every year. Likewise, innumerable infectious diseases, such as malaria, typhus, HIV, and hepatitis, all part of nature, have maimed and killed millions of human lives across the centuries.

Now, consider the simple truth these vastly differing phenomena tell us about the environment: sometimes it is good, and sometimes it is bad. Good or bad for what? For human life.

We frequently talk about nature or the environment (I use the terms interchangeably) as if it were some separate, distinct entity, for example: Mother Earth. Looking at it this way is useful for some purposes. When considering both the destructive and the beneficial examples above from this perspective, we can conclude that nature does not really care one way or another about human life and well being; it is oblivious to human welfare.

Now consider how human beings, as opposed to other species, survive and thrive in the context of their natural environment. The first thing to note is that every material value upon which human life depends must be extracted or produced from the natural resources found in the environment. Whether we consider the most fundamental human physical needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter, or the most developed human needs and conveniences, such as modern medicine, literature, orchestral music, motion pictures, automobiles, and airplanes. In each of these, we see that humans must rearrange the elements of their environment in order to create the physical values that allow them to enjoy life and prosper. Even fruit and vegetables must be planted, tended, and harvested.

More specifically, the industrial and scientific revolutions of the past 200 years have essentially consisted of applying reason to understand and manipulate the environment for human benefit. To an unprecedented degree, people in modern times have improved their survival and well-being by taking various elements found in their environment, e.g., wood, minerals, plants, animals, etc., and then isolating and manipulating them. The unprecedented increase in human population, living standards, and life expectancy over the past 200 years derive specifically from the exponential growth in our understanding and subsequent improvement of the environment.

Given these facts, it would seem that a philosophy of preserving nature untouched, in a pristine state, as advocated by many environmentalists, is a prescription for human destruction. It is certainly a mistake to prevent human development of natural resources in deference to the supposed needs of every other species on earth, as many environmental thinkers desire. I am not referring here only to the sentiments of the "deep ecology" types associated with radical environmentalist groups. Consider for example, the following statements from several "mainstream" environmentalists:

"The life of an ant and that of my child should be granted equal consideration." -- Michael Fox, vice president of The Humane Society.

"The collective needs of non-human species must take precedence over the needs and desires of humans." -- Dr. Reed F. Noss, The Wildlands Project

"If I were reincarnated, I would wish to be returned to Earth as a killer virus to lower human population levels." -- Prince Phillip, World Wildlife Fund

"Every time you turn on an electric light, you are making another brainless baby" -- Helen Caldicott, Union of Concerned Scientists

"Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, are not as important as a wild and healthy planet. I know social scientists who remind me that people are part of nature, but it isn't true. Somewhere along the line--at about a billion years ago, maybe half that--we quit the contract and became a cancer. We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth."

"It is cosmically unlikely that the developed world will choose to end its orgy of fossil-energy consumption, and the Third World its suicidal consumption of landscape. Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along." -- David M. Graber, a research biologist with the National Park Service, in a prominently featured Los Angeles Times book review of Bill McKibben's book, The End of Nature.

These sentiments, if enacted, would certainly result in mass human death. Indeed, some have argued that they already have resulted in the deaths of millions from malaria, which followed the banning of DDT. Yet, we often hear such ideas put forward as moral ideals. There seems to be a disconnect between our desire to have a good life based on modern technology and our desire to enjoy nature left untouched by human development. Why? One reason is probably because many people take most of modern life's comforts for granted, not realizing that these comforts had to be created by human minds and hands working to improve the environment.

Many people seem to think that the values that science and technology bring us already just exist in nature. It appears that they don't realize the degree of human thought and effort needed to produce such values. They don't realize that enjoying a hike in a forest, or a tour of the Grand Canyon, or a scuba diving excursion, is dependent upon bringing the right safety equipment (e.g., boots, canteens, scuba gear) with them so that they do not perish during their adventure. Focusing only on the beauty of the wilderness, people often forget that they would not have the leisure time for nature walks if they did not have a comfortable, climate-controlled home to return to after the journey was over. The outdoors would not seem so pleasing to nature-lovers if, after the day's hike, they could not take a nice warm bath, enjoy a good meal, and read a good book or watch a good movie before going to sleep in their clean, man-made beds. We can imagine that prehistoric man, starving and suffering from diseases, rarely if ever, had time to enjoy nature. More likely, he simply feared the world around him because he did not understand it.

Environmentalists take it for granted that manipulating the environment to suit human purposes is immoral. Moreover, they have been largely successful in pushing this idea into the mainstream. Environmentalists have managed to convince large numbers of citizens and politicians that human beings will likely cook the earth to a crisp through our release of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion. That global warming might be a good thing does not even enter their minds. They would run in horror from the suggestion that human beings should purposely moderate the climate through technologies such as cloud seeding. Instead, they would rather "let nature take her course" and perhaps kill off a few million people by hurricane, tornado, or tsunami. In fact, they frequently argue that reducing the human burden on the planet is a necessity if we are to prevent imminent environmental collapse.

After considering all this, you may not think that your local naturalist is as benevolent as you once did.

So, the next time you encounter "green"-minded busy-bodies encouraging you and your children to protect the environment, you may want to say in reply that it is fine to preserve some specific aspects of nature for their beauty or uniqueness; however, it is far more important for human life and prosperity to improve, not protect, the environment.