Robert James Bidinotto, who writes about crime, environmentalism, and other topics for Reader's Digest and other publications, addressed the Institute for Objectivist Studies (IOS) Forum on March 21, 1993. He traced the origins of today's environmentalism, challenged its philosophical premises, analyzed alleged environmental crises such as ozone depletion and global warming, and commented on the rise of environmentalism in the Clinton Administration.
By the 1960s, a Rousseauian counter-revolution to the ideas and values underlying both the conquest of the New World, and the Industrial Revolution, was sweeping the nation. A spate of environmental laws was enacted, and voices rebelling against the code of the West were becoming louder and more explicit.
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 for a "new religion" based upon "the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature" and "the equality of all creatures, including man."
Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess took all this a step further. Individuals do not exist, he said; we're all only part of larger "ecosystems." The "shallow ecology" of mainstream conservation groups, he argued, was still anthropocentric, or homocentric. It aimed only at improving the environment for the benefit of humans. "Deep ecology," on the other hand, led to a view of "biospheric egalitarianism...the equal right to live and blossom."
In short, all things are created equal; they should be venerated as ends in themselves, as intrinsically valuable apart from Man; and they have equal rights to their own kinds of "self-realization" without human interference or exploitation.
This is now the basic outlook of most mainstream environmental groups, despite their moderate posturings. "...[T]he modern environmental movement has long since united behind the preservationist crusade as conceived by Muir and others," says Shabecoff. " (1)
While today's environmental organizations give lip service to multiple use [of public resources], they do so basically as a fallback position [because] they know that the public...would not accept shutting out economic activity."
Their ultimate goal, therefore, is preservation, not conservation for human use. "The idea of trying to establish conservation upon a series of props, economic or otherwise, is a mistake," environmental consultant Ian Parker told the New York Times Magazine. "The fact is we wish to preserve because we wish to preserve. If that's not a valid concept, then we haven't got one. To make believe we hold a different view is pure hypocrisy."
Though most of the environmental movement accepts preservationism as its underlying premise, it is divided loosely into two competing, but often overlapping camps. For descriptive simplicity, I'll distinguish these camps as first, the Deep Ecologists, and second, the Greens.
The Deep Ecologists are spiritual "true believers" in the Muir tradition. Tending toward mysticism and nihilism, sometimes paying explicit homage to the anti-technology Luddite movement of the Industrial Revolution, they see the environmental crusade not as a means of reforming modern society, but of escaping or obliterating it. These contemporary pagans and Druids march openly under the banner of "biocentrism"....
The Greening of Socialism
The Greens, by contrast, are the movement's more worldly politicians and pragmatists. Many harbor Deep Ecology sentiments and premises, but they're more discreet about it. They profess at least a nominal concern for human values and modern culture. And they don't want to escape from the world; their goal is a highly regulated, socialist society that will impose and enforce a simpler, more austere lifestyle, with fewer human intrusions into nature....
For all their feuds, both camps supplement each other. The Deep Ecologists set the moral tone and spiritual direction: they inspire, radicalize and recruit. Meanwhile, the Greens translate these raw assets into political power: into proposals, manpower, candidates and ultimately, laws.
Human values, even human life itself, mean little to Deep Ecologists. Reviewing a Deep Ecology manifesto—Bill McKibben's The End of Nature—a taxpayer-financed biologist for the National Park Service, David Graber, expressed his own hopes thus:
"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...we quit the contract and became a cancer. We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth... Until such time as Homo Sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along."...
Despite such nihilistic ravings...many mainstream fellow environmentalists refuse to repudiate groups like Earth First! Former Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who founded the first Earth Day and became a leader of the Wilderness Society, has said, "I think groups like Greenpeace and Earth First! make a significant contribution to the educational process." Darrell Knuffke, a regional coordinator for the Wilderness Society, called Earth First! "extremely important to the movement."
The Logic of "Preservationism"
Why the sympathy? Because the logic of preservationism has led inexorably to a radicalization of the entire environmental movement. Once one accepts the intrinsic value of nature, how can one denounce its most consistent exemplars? The Deep Ecologists know how this works. David Brower explains, "I founded Friends of the Earth to make the Sierra Club look reasonable. Then I founded the Earth Island Institute to make Friends of the Earth look reasonable. Earth First! now makes us look reasonable. We're still waiting for someone to come along and make Earth First! look reasonable."...
Echoes of Deep Ecology now resonate even at the White House. "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," our Vice-President says on the first page of his book Earth in The Balance "...[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 nature 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?"...
Man the Developer
Deep Ecology is the reductio ad absurdum of preservationism. It holds that all of nature—except human nature—has "intrinsic value" in itself, and thus a "right" not to be affected by Man. But this premise, which is the core of modern preservationism, is a colossal fraud.
The simple little question which punctures the balloon of intrinsic value is: why? Why is the status quo of nature good in itself? 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"....
Animals, lacking any rational capacity, survive by adapting themselves to nature. Human beings can 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...
...Deep Ecologists apply a moral double standard to Man and the rest of the universe. After all, if nature untouched is inherently good, then whatever Man does to affect it must be inherently bad.
If a hurricane erodes miles of seashores—well, that's nature for you; if a man bulldozes a beach to build a home, however, that's a desecration....
What causes this double standard? In all the universe, what is the distinctive aspect of human nature that so offends radical 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. Reason is the tool by which Man transforms his environment. Therefore, to the Deep Ecologist, rationality is the mark of Cain....
Science By Scare Tactic: The Case of Alar
The pattern employed by the Greens is always the same: declarations of some new "crisis," based upon the flimsiest of evidence and perversions of the scientific method; mathematical projections of catastrophic consequences stemming from the new danger, extrapolated from ludicrous, worst-case scenarios; and finally, the claim that "we must do something immediately" because the predicted consequences, though unprovable, are just too horrible to contemplate....
In 1989, a major Green group, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), panicked America about Alar on apples, with the help of its eminent toxicological consultant, Meryl Streep. On CBS-TV's "60 minutes" program and later on "Donahue," NRDC reported that apples treated with Alar, a chemical growth agent, could eventually 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—all while making a fortune for NRDC.
The Alar scare was in keeping with NRDC's uncompromising position that the presence of pesticide residues on food in any amount—not 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." In an interview, the group's chief lobbyist, attorney Janet Hathaway, described for me NRDC's ultimate goal. If pesticide residues can be detected on food even in "minute amounts," she explained to me, and if a massive dose of that pesticide "causes tumors in any laboratory animals, then it should be illegal." Mott told me that the NRDC would ban all such chemicals "no matter how great their benefits are."
That, ladies and gentlemen, is not the voice of reason; it is not the voice of science. That's the voice of Deep Ecology speaking, damning the presence of any man-made chemical, in any amount, no matter what its proven benefits to humans.
During the 1970s, 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. In addition, the record-keeping was atrocious, the Alar itself had been contaminated, and some of the tests didn't even use "control groups" of untreated rodents for comparisons. Nonetheless, the EPA's Green staffers used these shoddy 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. That's when the NRDC, Ralph Nader and other environmentalists first jumped in to launch a publicity campaign to ban Alar. Meanwhile, stung by the panel's rejection of its evidence, the EPA ordered Uniroyal to start yet another round of tests on Alar and UDMH. But 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. Nevertheless, the EPA used these deliberately manipulated results to estimate that 45 people in a million "might" get cancer from Alar, and therefore ordered all use of the product to cease.
But while Uniroyal and growers suffered, the NRDC prospered. The group—which likes to denounce greedy pesticide manufacturers who profit from peddling poison—figured out ways to profit by peddling panic.
After its "60 Minutes" appearance, the NRDC 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 number, priced at $3.00 per call, through which to order the book. At the outset of the scare, the phone number was published on the front page of USA Today and aired on national TV commercials featuring Streep....
Too Hot To Think?
Finally, what about the mother of all environmental scares: global warming? In the sweltering summer of 1988, Dr. James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told Congress: "The earth is warmer in 1988 than at any time in the history of instrumental measurements... In my opinion...the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now." Hansen's alarming statements launched a wave of frightening predictions and controversy about what might happen if the planet warmed up. Time doesn't permit me to discuss this issue in great detail; I refer you to my article in the February 1990 Reader's Digest, and to two excellent new books: Sound and Fury, by Patrick Michaels, and The Heated Debate, by Robert Balling, Jr. Let me only touch on a few points.
Proponents of global warming—such as Hansen, and Stephen Schneider of the National Center for Atmospheric Research—crank out their dire forecasts from computerized climate models, which only crudely represent known natural laws and climate processes. Schneider himself concedes that it's an "even bet" that models overestimate future warming "by a factor of two."
In my interview with Hansen, I asked him what was the best, most compelling empirical evidence for the global warming theory. Hansen told me that the best evidence came from air bubbles trapped deep in Antarctic ice. These showed that there had been lower concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide during ice ages, but much higher concentrations during warm interglacial periods. That correlation, he said, was solid evidence that the greenhouse theory was correct.
The greenhouse theory, of course, is that carbon dioxide changes are supposed to cause temperature changes. But when I questioned him more closely, Hansen admitted that according to the ice samples, the temperature changes came first. In short, the actual sequence of climate events was exactly backwards from the greenhouse theory. And that's the strongest evidence that the foremost proponent of global warming could muster.
For such reasons, dozens of atmospheric scientists participating in a 1989 greenhouse workshop concluded that claims for greenhouse warming could not be made "with any degree of confidence." Richard Lindzen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, says flatly, "The data as we have it does not support a warming."... Global warming has become the favorite cause of the Greens, because "remedies" for it would require a scale of government intervention that strikes at the very heart of the free market system. During the Bush Administration, EPA administrator William Reilly conceded that "To slow down the global heating process, the scale of economic and societal intervention will be enormous. It will involve far greater inconvenience, dislocation and cost."...
The Argument from Fear
The Greens and the Clinton Administration have meshed together like the gears of a well-oiled machine.
Soon after the Inauguration, environmental groups were invited to the White House, ahead of reporters, to learn that the President was establishing a special Office of Environmental Policy, to be run by Karen McGinty, a lawyer formerly on Vice President Gore's Senate staff. McGinty will participate in meetings of the National Security Council, the National Economic Council, the Domestic Policy Council and other agencies. The purpose, said Gore, is to allow environmental considerations to be heard "at the earliest stages in the development of every policy that the President and his staff and Cabinet look at." Green groups were, of course, jubilant. "After years of waiting for scraps," said Frances Beinecke of the NRDC, "environmental issues finally have a seat at the table."...
The political problem, though, is how to build public sentiment for this taxing, spending and regulatory orgy, particularly at a time of considerable government red ink.
The answer is fear. Whether the issue is Alar, radon, ozone holes or global warming, environmentalists use the same basic tactic. First, they proclaim some terrible doom right around the corner. When responsible critics demand evidence, the environmentalists reply: "Well, there seems to be disagreement and uncertainty here, but the consequences of this possible threat are so dangerous that, as an act of prudence, we can't afford to wait until all the facts are in. We have to act as if the threat were real."...
In the face of this uncertainty, says Stephen Schneider, "A few tens of billions, or perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars, spent annually around the world for such planetary insurance...is an investment that is long overdue."
This "insurance policy" ruse neatly switches the burden of proof from those proposing a theory, onto those who are demanding evidence. By this nifty logical inversion, the theorist no longer has to prove his case; rather, the skeptic is somehow supposed to "refute" a case for which no evidence has been offered in the first place. The absence of evidence is now cleverly relabeled "uncertainty," against which we are exhorted to buy expensive "insurance policies."...
Toward the Metaphysical Inferiority Complex
However, there are signs that the scare tactics are beginning to wear thin, bothering even some devout Greens. Not long ago, Theodore Roszak, himself an environmentalist, lamented that "If we were to compile all the warnings of all the ecology groups, there would be little that we in the industrial world could do that would not be either lethal, wicked, or both." Similarly, science writer Jeremy Burgess, another environmentalist, wonders: "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.
How could it be otherwise? If untouched nature is the ideal, then Man's life, interests, well-being and pleasures logically must be sacrificed to the greater interests of his surroundings. And if they are not—if one's selfish, life-serving acts impinge on the ideal in any way, as they must—one will come to feel guilty about living....
(1) Philip Shabecoff, until recently the chief environmental reporter for the New York Times, is the author of a recent history of ecology, The Fierce Green Fire, reviewed in the last issue of the IOS Journal. John Muir was characterized earlier by Mr. Bidinotto as "a mystical Scotsman who founded the Sierra Club in 1892....Muir's chief tenet was that wilderness, like all of nature, existed for its own sake."