April 18, 2009 -- Spring has sprung at last here in Montreal. Leaves are sprouting on the trees, birds are chirping outside my window, and young women are baring their legs prematurely. The arrival of spring also means that in a few days time, millions of people throughout the world will celebrate another Earth Day to express their worries about the state of the planet. Though global temperatures have stagnated and even fallen somewhat in recent years, concern about global warming is still high on environmentalists’ agendas.

The frigid winter we just experienced, they say,  is due to La Niña and solar cycles .

Then again, the disconnect between continually rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and recent global cooling could also reflect our imperfect understanding of feedback mechanisms in the climate system. Uncertainties about the complex role of clouds, especially, translate into substantial uncertainties in scientists’ computer models. According to self-described heretics like physicist Freeman Dyson, those models “ do not begin to describe the real world that we live in .” And yet, despite all the missing pieces of the puzzle, we continue to worry.

Rich Enough To Care

One reason we worry is that we can afford to. We can afford to care more about the health of the natural world when our other, more pressing needs have been met. We can afford to care about agricultural runoff when the battle to feed, clothe, and house ourselves has been won. We can afford to deal with smog in our cities when basic health care and education are within everyone’s reach. We can even afford to worry about uncertain dangers like global warming now that we have cleaned up our rivers and skies.
Of course, not everyone can afford to worry about the health of the natural world as much as we do. Economists refer to this phenomenon as the  Environmental Kuznets Curve  (EKC). Pollution does increase with increased production when poor countries first escape the depths of poverty, but it then begins to fall again as people begin to fulfill their basic needs through industrialization. The more serious pollutants like fecal coliform in water and indoor air pollution decline first, with outdoor air pollutants like sulfur dioxide and particulate matter declining later.
Carbon dioxide has yet to show any such relationship, but then, up until fairly recently it was not even considered a pollutant. It causes, after all, no direct harm to humans, and it is absolutely necessary for plant growth. Nonetheless, as of this Friday, April 17, the Environmental Protection Agency  has officially set the wheels in motion  to regulate CO2 as a pollutant. Fortunately for me, as far as I can tell Canada does not classify COas a pollutant—yet (although the Canadian government did ratify the Kyoto Protocol back in 2002, only to ignore it thereafter). Given the uncertainties that remain about the mechanisms of global warming—and therefore about the severity of the problem—it does not seem clear to me that CO2 really deserves this new classification.

A Little Perspective

The environmental movement goes beyond simply urging pollution reduction once more important needs are dealt with. If that were all the greens wanted, they would not have reacted so unreasonably to the publication of Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist back in 2001. In that book, Lomborg demonstrated in great detail the many ways in which we have successfully dealt with environmental problems over the years. He also explored all of the ways in which we humans are better off than ever before, leading longer, healthier lives. The greens were incensed. Scientific American commissioned four well-known environmentalists to attack the book, and then threatened to sue Lomborg when  he very successfully defended himself online . The reason Lomborg irritates environmentalists so much is that he takes an unemotional look at their concerns. His cost-benefit analyses often end up draining fear from the issues, returning a sense of proportion to the discussion. In his more recent book, Cool It, he argues that global warming is not the looming catastrophe Al Gore and others make it out to be, and that the world’s poor, especially, still have much more pressing things to worry about.
The world’s poor have much more pressing things to worry about than global warming.
Many environmentalists, though, are firm in their beliefs that we are headed for disaster. Despite our past successes, they have no confidence in human ingenuity. In essence, because they cannot imagine how we will solve our problems, they think we will not solve them. The late Michael Crichton  pointed out in a famous speech  how this lack of imagination makes us very bad at predicting the future. He wondered, if people in the year 1900 worried about people in the year 2000, what would they have worried about? “Probably: Where would people get enough horses? And what would they do about all the horseshit? Horse pollution was bad in 1900; think how much worse it would be a century later, with so many more people riding horses.”

A Secular Religion

At their worst, environmentalists do not merely lack confidence in our ability to solve our problems and fail to analyze costs and benefits. At the most extreme, they are positively against technological progress. They are not just against the pollution caused by cars; they are against cars. They not only favor energy-saving light bulbs; they favor turning out the lights. They do not merely criticize the ills that accompany our civilization; they criticize civilization itself.
At this extreme, environmentalism ceases to be even an irrationally fearful concern for the world in which we live, and instead becomes an outright religion. As  Robert Bidinotto  pointed out in “Green Cathedrals”, nature is not alone in abhorring a vacuum. As people in developed nations have slowly abandoned Christianity and other traditional faiths, the void left by their absence has been too much for some to bear. God has been replaced by Mother Nature, and a mythical past in which we lived in harmony with Her has taken on Eden-like proportions. Most importantly, man is still fallen, and apocalypse still looms. Guilt and self-hatred are so ingrained in some people that a book celebrating A World Without Us can become a best-seller.
Well, without denying that human beings are capable of doing horrible things, we are also capable of doing wonderful things. A world without us would be a perfectly barren place, because no other animal is capable of appreciating and celebrating beauty the way human beings can. As Bidinotto writes, “The environmentalist finds the beauty residing within the external world: beauty is a quality intrinsic to nature. But to [Ayn] Rand, beauty arises from man’s relationship to the world; beauty is imparted to nature by his consciousness. Without an active mind—a human, rational mind—there is sound, but no song; there is color and form, but no green cathedral.” Life is the most amazing fact in the universe, and humanity is the most amazing life form.
Concern about the natural world is here to stay. If we want to be an effective part of the conversation, we need not only to criticize the inadequacies of the current environmental movement; we need to propose a better alternative. Rationality is man’s unique means of survival. It is his great glory. What we need is an environmental movement that examines costs and benefits rationally, that places its trust in human ingenuity, and above all, that celebrates rather than denigrates humanity. If we can jettison the guilt and self-hatred of religion and replace it with a worldview that emphasizes positive virtues like rationality, creativity, and independence, both humanity and the natural world will be much better off. 


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