3 Environmentalism’s Transcendent Objective

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

—Ecclesiastes, 9:111

In its wisdom, the board in charge of a nearby nature sanctuary decided seven years ago that the Scotch broom and Himalayan blackberries that grew there had to be destroyed because they were nonnative species. If they were not native species, they must be invasive species, which as every environmentalist knows, are bad. Thus, they were doubly condemned, first for being part of the post-Columbian mass migration into North America, and second, because invasive species are thought to upset the balance of local ecosystems. This did not make perfect sense to me. Why should the broom and blackberries be unceremoniously exterminated, while we, the immigrant Europeans and Asians, stayed put? These plants were being used as scapegoats, it seemed. And were not all species invasive? All species expand into new territory when they get a chance; that is the only way that any plant or animal gets any living space anywhere. Life gets established on Earth by invasion. There would be no life, and no environments, without this invasion. I could understand getting upset when such an invasion causes plague, famine, or pestilence, but the broom and blackberries had been here for over a century, and were pretty meek.

When the teams of environmentalist volunteers arrived in the autumn with their tools sharpened for this new battlefront in the war to save the planet, I just swallowed hard and smiled. There was no point arguing. I would never change their minds, and the park board had made its decision. At least these environmentalists were not poisoning entire lakes or rivers to kill nonnative species of fish, as is now common practice, which would have been an uglier event. Not that beauty and ugliness are the most important values environmentally speaking, I realize, but killing is ugly, say what you like. So the smaller plants were ripped up, the larger ones were cut down, and the dead plants were heaped untidily here and there.

Then next spring the quail returned, dozens and dozens of them, only to find their environment in ruins. They perched glumly in the spring rains around the graying stumps of their former homes. Gamely, they nested alongside the stacks of rotting broom and among the bits of cover that remained, without shelter from wind, rain, or sun. Soon they were spotted by a pair of hawks, for whom their misfortune was, alas, a windfall. The hawks began picking them off, and when the little ones of those that survived began foraying from the nest, the hawks picked them off as well. The hawks did so well by this unintended side effect of the environmentalists’ work that they nested in some tall fir trees in the school ground next to the park. By the second spring, the hawks returned, and one of their children built a second nest, and together they raised two broods. But by the third spring, both nests were abandoned. The quail had now shared the fate of the broom and blackberry thickets, and their predators had moved on to better hunting grounds.

Paradoxically, these environmentalists had caused an environmental disaster from the point of view of the quail. Happily, from the quail’s point of view, the authority and domain of these environmentalists is limited. Just yesterday in a blackberry thicket just outside the sanctuary boundary I saw a family of quail, a dozen or more chicks bouncing along behind their mother like loosely strung beads. As far as their species is concerned, relative to the challenges that nature has thrown at them over the millennia, these environmentalists and their nature sanctuary were only a minor inconvenience.


The defining element of the environmentalist value system is its ultimate value: the good of the environment. In environmentalism as such, or pure environmentalism, the good of the environment is of value in and of itself, or intrinsically valuable, and all other values are valuable as means to it, or extrinsically valuable. Of course, environmentalists are people, hence complex, and generally do have values other than environmentalist values. Actual environmentalists tend to practice some form of mixed environmentalism, in which environmentalist values as such are just one set of values among others, a part of their value system that does not dominate the system as a whole.2

What other values are blended with environmental values varies from person to person across all of the dimensions of human values, from religious values to those of atheistic humanism, from fascism to anarchism, and from misanthropy to the milk of human kindness. What all environmentalists have in common, whether pure or mixed, is a concern for the good of the environment.

The good of the environment is variously conceived. Religious people tend to value the environment as the work of God, while humanists are inclined to value it for its beauty and usefulness, while devout environmentalists are concerned for it for its own sake. Among biologists there is a spectrum from those who see nature mechanistically to those who see it as an emergent being in its own right, which is sometimes (perhaps fancifully) called Gaia ( Abrams 1991; Lovelock 1991, 1995). The former take the good of the environment to be its optimum functioning (i.e., sufficiently large biomass, high biodiversity, etc.), while the latter tend to view it as the satisfaction of the environment’s own goals or even its (perhaps metaphorical) happiness. Because these differences matter less for our purposes than what is held in common, I propose that we refer to the good of the environment (however it is individually conceived) as the health of the environment. This is, I think, a term that should be acceptable to all environmentalists.

If we want to understand environmentalism, we need to study it in its pure form. The pure environmentalist’s values form a system inasmuch as all environmental values flow from the ultimate value, environmental health. More precisely, they depend upon environmental health in the same way that means depend upon ends. All means are defined in terms of some end. If we ask an environmental activist why she values the collapse of the global trading system, her answer will be that the system is bad for the environment, hence its collapse will be good. Thus, for this person the collapse of the global trading system is instrumentally good, while the health of the environment is good in itself, the ultimate good. Our activist might also value hard work and saving money in order that she can afford to travel to world capitals, where she can protest meetings of global traders, which would make work and savings valuable as a means to enable protest, which in turn is valuable as a means to environmental health. In the end, all environmental values come down to, or depend on, environmental health.

Environmental health, sad to say, is dangerously ill-defined. Part of the problem is that every goal, no matter what, is a function of values∗—and there is no fact of the matter when it comes to values. That is, no fact or set of facts entails any value whatever, and vice versa. Facts and values are logically disparate. Values are freely chosen and subjective, whereas facts are determined by the world and objective. Thus, environmentalism is readily coopted by (i.e., mixed with) other value schemes or programs to change the world for the better. There is no way to prove, or demonstrate, a value. This in itself has some interesting consequences. One is that no one, and in particular no environmentalist, can speak authoritatively about environmental values. There is no science of values, no evidence that can be adduced to support a value. As philosophers put it, “is” does not imply “ought” (see the box “The Fact–Value Dichotomy” below). Although we do recognize some people’s moral wisdom in some broad sense, we do not recognize anyone as qualified to dictate values to the rest of us. Values are a matter of choice, of judgment, of personal character, of freedom, and of each person’s own vision of the good. So another consequence, and it is perhaps rather surprising, is that since environmental scientists, like the rest of us, are not moral experts, it follows that they, too, cannot dictate what is good or healthy for the environment.3

Although there is no way to prove, determine, or dictate what constitutes environmental health, there is nevertheless a group of environmental values that cluster together to vaguely define a widespread, popular vision of environmental health. One of these is the notion of environmental purity, or the pristine environment, into which no man or woman has entered: the virgin wilderness. The parallel here between environmental purity and sexual purity is obvious. To value pristine nature (and hence to revile sullied nature) is a form of environmental Puritanism, and simultaneously a form of antihumanism.

Presumably most people who value purity in nature are not radically puritanical and so would tolerate some human occupation in the wilderness as long as it was very small-scale, that is as long as it had a small ecological footprint. We are to picture a small dwelling on a small piece of land that takes few resources from its environment and puts little waste into it: that is, that has a small environmental impact. The purity of the wilderness is still lost, but at least the environmental insult of human occupation is kept to a minimum.4 Human beings are thus environmentally damaging by their nature. Even in their primordial hunter-gatherer form, they have caused colossal species extinction. They must be upbraided, environmentally trained, and their instincts for speed, power, and consumption reined in, in order to be in minimal harmony with environmental health. Here there are obvious parallels with the religious notion of the fallen, or originally sinful, nature of human beings.

In any case, the evaluative focus of popular environmentalism is clear: Pristine wilderness untouched by humans is the ideal, and if we are not ready to remove our- selves from Earth altogether, we at least can try to make ourselves small, try to get as close to the ideal as we can, with a low-population, low-technology, low-consumption lifestyle that has the smallest possible effect on nature.5 Popular environmentalism thus takes environmental health to be more important than human beings’ actual values. Some human beings value big families, and most human beings value bread, books, television, electrical appliances, computers, and other products of our high- technology, high-consumption lifestyle. Environmentalists profess that environmental health must take precedence over these other values. In other words, popular environmentalism tends to treat environmental health as a transcendent objective.


Because nature is fundamentally important, because each and every one of us, along with all other living things, depends on nature for our very existence, the value we place upon its health is naturally very high. Unfortunately, it is only a seemingly small step, then, to elevate the health of the environment to the status of a transcendent objective. By a transcendent objective I mean a value which is so important that it takes precedence over other all others. We all have objectives in life other than environmental health. For instance, we might want such things as a new car, to visit Beijing, or to have a family. However, none of these goals would be worth anything if the health of living nature collapsed. If the apocalyptic vision of environmental collapse that environmentalists predict were to happen, life would be nasty, brutish, and short, to re-deploy the memorable words of Thomas Hobbes (1651). Civilized society, as we know it, would collapse. There would be no gas for the car, Beijing would be an inaccessible wasteland, and one’s family could only contemplate suffering and death. Therefore, it could be argued, and often is argued by environmentalists, that ensuring the health of the environment outweighs other objectives, and that they must give way before it. Just how far environmentalists are willing to go in this direction varies, but many do not or will not express or imply any limitation to their concern for nature, as we shall see. In other words, many environmentalists treat environmental health as a transcendent objective.6

Sensible as this may sound given the superficial argument above, it is really an extremely dangerous idea. Transcendent objectives have a hideous history. The most common examples are found in religious wars. Religions set up the transcendent goal of doing what God wants. What could possibly be more important than doing what God wants? Once again, one could argue, just as we did above for environ- mental health, that no other objective would be worth anything if we failed to do what God wants. Once again, the argument has enormous initial plausibility. Unfortunately, what God wants is a difficult issue, one obviously open to interpretation, and susceptible, moreover, to being twisted to serve other goals. The religious wars in Europe are a good example. After the Thirty Years War, one of the religious wars of the seventeenth century, travelers through some German territories saw only mile after mile of devastated cities and ruined villages, destroyed farms and burned fields, without a single living thing, only corpses, both human and animal. This devastation was caused not by an impersonal nuclear flash, but by the low-technological blades, nooses, bonfires, even the bare hands, of human beings like ourselves—inspired by a transcendent objective.

Moving ahead to the twentieth century, we find death and destruction still being perpetrated, but now in pursuit of transcendent objectives other than the will of God, such as the international rule of communism. Stalin starved tens of mil- lions to death in the Ukraine, and Pol Pot tortured and murdered millions in the killing fields of Cambodia, to name just two of the worst examples of the excesses of those seeking the transcendental objective of communism. Apparently, it is no easier to determine what the working class needs than it is to determine what God wants.

Just as it is difficult to say what God wants, it is difficult to say what the environment needs. As we have seen, environmentalists implicitly favor a particular paradigm of environmental health: the wilderness, or failing that, the near-wilderness into which humans have made only a very modest intrusion. Perhaps the early stages of the current interglacial period just prior to the rise of human agriculture, civilization, and population might roughly approximate this ideal, were it not for the fact that our ancestors had already, by then, exterminated several species and dislocated many others. In fact, it is not clear that our species ever lived in a manner fully consistent with the environmentalist ideal. This ideal of environmental health as virgin nature, nature untouched, or at least untrammeled, by human beings, has not been the product of environmental argument and debate. It has arisen as the counterimage to us as destroyers of nature, but no serious argument has been given for it, and none seems likely to be forthcoming. Moreover, we must notice that it has an implicitly antihuman bias, since the ideal of environmental health envisions human influence—or human “impact” as it is often called—reduced to an absolute minimum. The absolute minimum would imply that we disappear altogether.7

For now, let us just note that environmental health is a transcendent goal for many environmentalists. The transcendent goal, in its various guises, such as God’s will, or the welfare of the working class, has served, and still serves, as the motivational weapon behind the sword and the bomb in humanity’s perennial power struggles. Now we discover among us a transcendent goal in a new form, environmental health, vaguely conceived as the state of nature prior to the flourishing of the human race. Do we have any reason to think that in its new, environmental guise the transcendent objective will now assume a kinder and gentler role?

It is common to attribute war to hatred, but this superficially plausible explanation is far wide of the truth. Warfare requires the organized violence of thousands of individuals. This organization begins not with hatred but with the pursuit of an ultimate good. Warriors, with few exceptions, feel the same moral scruples as any of us when it comes to murdering and maiming others: the same horror, the same queasiness in their stomachs. But their scruples are overpowered, their horror overcome, and their stomachs hardened by the argument that their actions, disgusting as they may be, are necessary evils in the pursuit of the transcendent objective. A transcendent objective is like a trump card that overpowers all other cards, a moral principle that subjugates all other moral principles. Unfortunately, the health of the environment is a transcendent objective for environmentalists, a trump card when it comes to what ought to be done, whether by them or by others. It is therefore prey to the same vices as the other cases that we have considered.

Idealism: Eighteen-year-old Jake Sherman was converted to environmental activism out of idealism, and it was out of this idealism that he destroyed construction and logging equipment with homemade firebombs. Described as “a gifted, idealistic student” who “struck many of his fellow students and teachers as a particularly idealistic and spiritual person,” Sherman was moved by the arguments of Tre Arrow, a militant environmentalist, to take violent action (C. Smith 2003). There appears to be nothing special about Sherman, or about Arrow, other than their high idealism. There is no evidence that they are unusually violent people. To the contrary, they were and are motivated by their conception of what is right and good. Arrow bravely perched on the high ledges of buildings of targeted businesses in order to bring media attention to what he saw as their environmental crimes. He once stayed on a ledge continuously for 11 days, obviously placing himself in harm’s way, all in dedication to his environmental objective. One of his comrades was set ablaze in one of their arsonist attacks, an example of the risks of environmental activism and the necessity for the eco-warrior to be prepared for self-sacrifice. Arrow also perched in trees to prevent them from being cut down. In one case he became exhausted under the pressure of continual harassment from the police, and fell from a great height. Thus, he risked life and limb for trees, proof of environmental idealism. His disciple, Jake Sherman, was eventually sentenced to 41 months in federal prison following the firebombing of a construction firm, while Arrow at first escaped by going into hiding but was eventually arrested in Victoria, British Columbia. Heavy personal costs, yes, but like environmental warriors everywhere, they conceived of their actions as in service of a higher good.

In the mind of an eco-warrior the good of the environment transcends all other values. Risking one’s own safety, freedom, and life itself can only be viewed as mere costs relative to this goal. When he was finally apprehended many months later, Arrow said, “I don’t care about me. We’re talking about ancient forest that doesn’t grow back in a couple of years. We’re talking about a planet that cannot be replaced,” he said. “That to me is far more important than one person’s individual case.” Tre arrow sincerely described himself as a noble warrior on behalf of the environment: “As an activist, I stand tall. I hold my head high.” He conceives of himself as one who was forced many years ago to make the stand of the warrior. In his own words, “I . . . had to put my own body between the chainsaws and the ancient forest.”

Violence:Note, however, the logic of warriors. Warriors say: I am willing to sacrifice myself. Assuming they do not think that others are worth more than they are, it follows that they are willing to sacrifice others as well. Arrow said that the forest is “far more important than one person’s individual case”—he did not say that the forest was more important than his own case. Although this warrior hesitates to admit that he is willing to do harm to others, it nevertheless is implied by what he does admit and what he actually does. The fundamental decision of the warrior is that violence will be his method and instrument. This is not a form of masochism but the sacrifice of basic human rights to a principle that is seen as higher. The readiness to resort to violence, to risk punishment, jail, bodily harm, and death, characterizes this denial, not of oneself, but of the value of human life itself.

The case of Patrick Moore, one of the founding members of Greenpeace, is interesting inasmuch as he has since come to recognize the flaws in the environmentalist movement, its logic, and the motivation of its activists (Bond 2000). Moore, who has a Ph.D. in ecology, was always troubled by the antiscientific attitude of environmentalists, who gave him the nickname “Dr. Truth” in response to his unwelcome attempts to bring facts to bear on environmental issues. Moore began to recognize too many similarities between eco-warriors and (in his own words) “Hitler youth”—in particular the substitution of indoctrination for understanding. He portrays eco-warriors as emotionally wed to activism itself and the warrior lifestyle. Moore eventually abandoned Greenpeace and founded a new group, Greenspirit, dedicated to a better informed, less violent approach to environmental health.8

Common Ground: People are both complex and different from one another. Different eco-warriors will have different motives and be moved by different arguments. Even a single eco-warrior may feel the pull of a number of different and conflicting motives and reasons. The question poses black-and-white alternatives, whereas the truth may consist of different and changing shades of gray.

On the one hand, we must recognize the nobility of idealistic sentiments. The willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for one’s convictions is the stuff of patriotism, legend, and song. On the other hand, we must recognize how dangerous these sentiments are to those things that we naturally hold dear, such as the right to go about our daily lives in safety—for there is scarcely any form of modern life that is not a crime in the mind of the environmental activist. Perhaps you work in a drugstore or department store—but then most of the products you sell are produced by large firms that are the stated enemies of the environmentalist. Perhaps you are a student—but then your university depends on the taxes provided by the modern environment-destroying economy. Perhaps you are a vegetarian who eats only organically produced foods—but only a fraction of those of us now living on the planet could survive on the yields of organic farming. Even if you are willing to tolerate the idea that most of your fellow human beings really should not be here if environmental health is to be achieved, what makes you think that you will be among those who should remain? Your organic vegetables were trucked to market in a fossil-fuel-burning vehicle, were they not?

No matter what we do, practically speaking, we get in the way of the transcendent ideal of environmental health. Really, this environmentalist goal implies—although it almost never dares say—that it would be better for the environment if we were not here at all. The environment loses its purity, is no longer pristine, the second we enter it, touch it, or use it.9 Once we have realized that none of us is truly innocent when it comes to the transcendent objective of an ideally healthy environment, the noble sentiments of the true environmental activist take on a different, more threatening hue. He or she is willing to do anything, risk anything, to right the wrongs committed against the environment; violence is his instrument—and each of us has a debt to pay.


I do not want to suggest for a second that environmentalists generally succumb to the vices that can infect those who believe in transcendent objectives, nor that they generally intend violence—although there are clearly some who do, and environmental activism harbors its share of those who are attracted to violence. I only want to make clear the nature of infection by a transcendent objective and the logic whereby it subverts normal values.

On the other hand, we must not underestimate the danger. The first element of tragedy is already present: the environmentalist belief in a transcendent objective. So, too, is the second element of tragedy: that this objective is held by large—in fact, very large—numbers of people. Environmentalism is one of the dominant ideologies of our day. Greenpeace, one of the best known among a growing number of environmentalist organizations, is not exaggerating when it speaks of “millions of people dedicated to environmental protection,” who make up a “global social movement.” It goes on to describe environmentalists as the “emerging second superpower,” and, more ominously, as “no longer willing to accept the agendas of timid or inept governments or unscrupulous corporations.”10

Environmentalism flourishes in all parts of the world, among people of diverse cultures, different faiths, and disparate incomes. It is as widespread in the third world as in the industrialized world. Its appeal cuts across other systems of belief, making it the most widespread of convictions and giving it the potential to become the dominant ideology of the new millennium. There are environmentalist constituencies among Buddhist Tibetans living on the southern fringes of the Himalayas, among spiritualist hunter-gatherers living in Amazon rain forests, among cattle ranchers in North America, among communist cadres in the Andes, and among capitalist business-people in the skyscrapers of New York. Green parties, as environmentalist political groups call themselves, which have appeared around the world and are gaining in influence and power, are merely one aspect of the environmentalist phenomenon.

Sad to say, but the third element of tragedy is also on the scene: the theoretical justification of violence. In fact, the rhetoric of violence has become the norm in environmentalist circles, although most normal people living normal lives who self-identify as environmentalists would be quick to deny this. But matters are not that simple, logically speaking. The rhetoric of violence is there whenever environmentalists characterize people as destroyers of the environment (other people usually, perhaps characterized indirectly via reference to corporations). Strong language among serious people leads to action. If someone is destroying the environment, it follows that he or she should, or must, be stopped. Confrontation is thought to be necessary by the younger generation of environmentalists. They speak the language of the soldier, of the need for personal sacrifice, of real commitment, of putting one’s body on the line.

When the line is drawn, when they chain their bodies to trees or destroy laboratories designing genetically modified crops, it is tragically apparent to an objective observer that the destroyers of the environment that they attack, these modern-day Satans, are nothing but people like the rest of us. Yet just as renaissance Europeans could not see the woman burning at the stake but only the Satan they believed was inside her, the environmental crusader does not see a logger trying to feed her family or a scientist trying to coax more food from less ground with less pesticide, but only the agent of the demonized multinational corporation or the personification of the evils of technology.

How depressing (and frankly, boring) to see the traditional enemies of the revolutionary yet again: the landowner, the industrialist, the capitalist, the rich, and the merely prosperous—not cast now as the enemies of God or the working class, but as the enemies of the environment. Environmentalism has become the most shared ideology of the legions of people discontented with the state of the world. No matter how much they may differ in other ways, revolutionaries and would-be revolutionaries can agree that their foes are destroyers of the environment. It may seem impossible that aboriginals seeking the death of the nation-state and the return to tribal rule would have anything in common with communists seeking to establish just such a nation- state, but both will profess environmentalist values. By the logic of the old adage, “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” environmentalism is a friend of revolutionaries of various persuasions, because they have the same enemy. We can’t be blamed for being reminded of the predominantly tragic legacy of revolution down through the centuries. Perhaps it would be better not to forget it.

It is hardly surprising that the web site of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF)11 for 2002 showed a huge building in flames, and still claims as triumphs a catalog of burning and destruction.12 What is surprising is the naiveté with which mainstream environmentalists ignore it, and always ignore things like it. When confronted, environmentalists blithely distance themselves from the violent actions of their radical comrades. But this is a shallow evasion. For it is the mainstream environmentalist who insists that the environment is being destroyed in the first place, and it is this apocalyptic theme, repeated like a mantra, that moves those braver souls who put words into action, the more literal-minded environmentalists, to burn, destroy, and (at least in the case of the so-called Unabomber) kill. If, seriously speaking, the environment itself is being destroyed, then given that environmental health is a transcendent objective, there has never been a stronger justification for violence.

The eco-warrior is simply someone who takes literally the apocalyptic belief in environmental crisis. He or she has heard over and over that industry has ignored calls to mend its ways, that it has funded lobbyists to dissuade governments from protecting the environment, thereby blocking legal avenues of environmental activism. If this does not imply a call to arms, what would, given that a flourishing environment is of transcendent importance? Young people, especially young males, have a dangerous capacity for organized conflict, no doubt the result of eons of evolutionary shaping. They are especially dangerous when provided with rhyme and reason for violence by older, presumably more thoughtful, more responsible people. There is not only a clear danger of violence, but already the fact of death and bloodshed in the environmental struggle.13 Martyrs have been created on both sides.

Nevertheless, in the near future, our greatest fear is not violence and bloodshed so much as the concomitant hardening of dialogue, the entrenchment of positions, years of failed communication, deadlock, stagnation, and the diseases that this will breed. Deadlock will polarize the debate, making positive steps difficult and violence easy. We are entering a crucial century in the history of humankind, one with the potential for wonderful steps toward liberation and prosperity (how could you have the former without the latter?) for the bulk of humankind. But this will require clear thinking on the part of those who inform the opinions of their fellow humans. Unfortunately, there is already a strong tendency for polarization of opinion toward two simplistic views. The environmentalist characterization of human industry, agriculture, and settlement—in short, human civilization itself—as a destroyer of the environment is simplistic. And this creates an equal and opposite reaction in those accused, who then move to the opposite pole, characterizing environmentalists as tree-huggers, bleeding hearts, terrorists, or worse. This reaction, if it is to be avoided or at least minimized, demands that environmentalists give up exaggeration and rhetoric in favor of a more sustainable development of environmental thought.

However, there is not a lot of evidence of sound environmental thought when it comes to the fundamental principles of environmentalism. It begins with the apocalyptic idea that we face environmental crisis, and then takes pristine nature untouched by human beings as its transcendent objective. Environmental Puritanism is clearly on the rise, with many environmentalists explicitly defining their goal as leaving the environment in the state it would have been in if human beings had never existed. In deference to them, we build sewage plants so that human household sewage (urine, feces, and wastewater, as opposed to industrial sewage) can be purified and discharged into the environment in the form of water clean enough to drink. But just as sexual Puritanism could not make sex go away, so environmental Puritanism cannot make human waste disappear. Sewage plants may discharge water of unblemished purity, but only by converting the bulk of the waste into gases, particularly carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) and methane (a far more powerful, hence worse, greenhouse gas), and then dumping the tons and tons of resulting sludge into landfills or the oceans. So our sewage is just swept under a different rug.

Human beings cannot be made to disappear anymore than their household wastes can. Like all other organisms, they affect nature. The only question is, what that effect will be. Perhaps the problem starts as soon as our wastes are defined as pollution. We are then faced with the necessity of making them disappear, or else becoming polluters, intrinsically, by our very nature. The original mistake is thinking that a substance is a pollutant solely by virtue of its own nature: forgetting that pollution is, logically, just as much a matter of where that substance is put, and in what quantities.14 Human waste is a pollutant because we dump enormous amounts of it into nearby rivers and bays. If we hadn’t gotten into this habit in the first place, we wouldn’t assume that wastes must first be purified in sewage plants before they are dumped into the very same rivers and bays—and maybe we wouldn’t be so ready to think of ourselves as an intrinsic insult to the environment, an unnatural part of nature.

Could it be that human wastes, like the metabolic by-products of other animals, have a natural role to play in nature? Could it be that the thousands of hectares of land located on the outskirts of Paris (the champs d’epandage), which have for over a century accommodated its wastewater, really embody more advanced thinking than that which resulted in sewage treatment plants?15 Could it be that the thought embodied in sewage plants, simply to make sewage disappear, perversely increases our distance from the natural world? Could such plants be just a sophisticated form of denial of our own animal—hence natural—characteristics? The knee-jerk environmentalist reaction to human waste is to loathe it and try to make it disappear, but this is to remain stuck at the second level of environmental awareness, in which we are viewed as adversaries to nature itself. Thus, the usual environmentalist ethic prevents us from moving on to the third stage of environmental awareness, in which we are recognized to be a fully legitimate part of the environment. Perhaps the fact that the very concept of the environment does not include the organism itself, only what is around it, encourages the separation of human nature from nature at large.

A selective blindness, coupled with a startling propensity to see what is not there, is a natural symptom of a transcendent objective. Even moderate environmentalists will look you straight in the eye and talk about the environmental devastation all around us. Actually, it is usually very difficult to see such devastation in anything like a literal sense of the word. We do see scenes of the supposed devastation on television and in the newspapers, such as clear-cut forests and open water at the north pole. Never mind that the arctic ice cap sits on open water and normally breaks into pieces every summer.16 Never mind that the amount of forest logged is a fraction of 1% yearly, and far less than the amount that burns due to lightning.17 Never mind that far more (around 5 to 10 times as much) forest burned before the days we began watching every lightning strike and then rushing to snuff out the resulting fire. Environmentalists just ignore or deny the fact that 80% of the maximum extent of land under forest cover attained near the end of the last ice age remains covered by forest to this day (Richards 1990, p. 164; Goudie 1993, p. 43). Instead, they treat any forested area that has ever been cut or cleared as being permanently destroyed, its purity forever lost, so that they can claim much higher levels of environmental “devastation.”

Of course, it is difficult if not impossible for environmentalists to come to grips with the fact that much of Earth’s forests are recent and ephemeral, only a few thousand years old, much less old than our own species. If they did, they would have to admit that the greatest destroyer of forests has been nature itself during the ice ages, which have repeatedly destroyed much of Earth’s life, including forests, over the last few million years. This would throw their system of values in disarray. Given that the health of the environment is the ultimate value, only human beings can be the agent of environmental harm, because we are distinct from our environment, which is what the phrase “theenvironment” refers to: everything but us. It is unthinkable in this value system for nature itself to be the agent of its own harm.

Consequently, the very concept of harm is transmogrified by the environmentalist. No matter how much devastation nature itself wreaks upon organisms and ecosystems, it is ignored or even seen as awe-inspiring. On the other hand, any effect that we have on the environment is automatically seen as destruction. Even the prettiest field of dairy cows grazing on wild pasture is understood by them as our attack on nature. The modern city is viewed with horror that such an insult to the environment could have been perpetrated. The perpetrators, the city dwellers themselves, can only be viewed as evil.

If environmentalists reject this characterization of their values, that would be wonderful. If they do, we must ask them: What values, if any, might be considered as important as the health of the environment? If they cannot name any value that equals environmental health, they hold it as a transcendent value after all, and cannot reject the foregoing characterization. If they can name some other value, hopefully human life and happiness will be included. If not, why not?

  1. I do not intend this quotation from a book accepted by a number of modern religions to indicate an affiliation with any of them, nor that the quotation at the beginning of any chapter indicates an acceptance of anything beyond the poignancy of the idea that it expresses. In this passage from Ecclesiastes—which relevantly has another title, The Philosopher—we are reminded that virtue is not necessarily rewarded on Earth. Philosophers take note: This includes the virtue of wisdom itself, although the book goes on to say that wisdom serves us well if we so choose.
  2. Pure and mixed environmentalism correspond pretty closely with radical and liberal environmentalism, although this is due largely to historical accident concerning which values tend to get mixed with environmentalism at this time. To avoid the misleading connotations of the terms radical and liberal, let us use the neutral terms pure and mixed. Pure and mixed environmentalism would match pure and applied environmentalism, except for the fact that pure environmentalism can be applied, and indeed is, in which case it becomes a transcendent objective, which is defined in Section 3.2.
  3. We will discuss this topic in more detail in what follows.
  4. Note that this is merely to report the fact that environmentalists have this evaluative focus; it is not to be confused with the evaluative claim that anyone (even environmentalists) ought to have this value.
  5. Because knowing my environmental values may help you understand what I am saying, although they are not relevant to the soundness of my arguments (as noted in Chapter 1), I offer the following crude sketch, which is intended for the background, the notes, rather than the text of this book, until we take these issues up again in Chapters 7 through 11: I value living things over the nonliving, and of these the conscious over the nonconscious, and among the conscious I place the intelligent over the nonintelligent, and the kind over the cruel. Our ancestors, human and pre-human, struggled against an uncaring and often hostile universe to survive. The struggle for existence remains the main reality when it comes to environmental values, but our sympathies have broadened to include not only our kin, but all living things. Our existence was contained in the first instant of the universe as a potentiality, and although the purpose of the universe itself is either nonexistent or unknown, we have a right to be here. We now have the potential to become the nervous system of the planet, in the same way that neurons became the nervous systems of animals. This we should do for the good of the whole, which has struggled valiantly, but blindly, until now. We can give it sight.
  6. Pure environmentalists will, by definition, treat environmental health as a transcendent objective, but not conversely. Some environmentalists may let environmental values trump all other values, while nevertheless admitting that something other than the health of the environment is intrinsically valuable. For example, an environmentalist may take justice to be valuable in itself, but, nevertheless, prefer the good of the environment over justice should the two ever conflict.
  7. We return to the topic of environmentalism’s antihuman bias in Chapter 4.
  8. See http://www.greenspirit.com, where Moore presents his history in his own words.
  9. The environmental organization Fuck for Forest (FFF) (http://fuckforforest.com/members.html, August 23, 2007) is very telling in this context, inasmuch as it sacrifices sexual purity for environmental purity. It offers the following form of environmental action: “Donate $15 to save threatened rainforests!! Get 30 days web access with erotic idealists, showing it all to save our planet. All profit goes to save nature!” Here environmental values transcend common sexual mores.
  10. Greenpeace website: www.greenpeace.org, p. 1, 11 May, 2004. Greenpeace says it is “. . . dedicated to environmental protection, human rights and social development.” I have here focused on environmental protection, the first goal of environmentalists. The co-opting of other popular goals, such as human rights, is a standard strategy of many radical organizations: the inclusion of these broader goals under the environmentalist umbrella increases its overall appeal, and draws in a broader membership. However, it is clear that whenever there is a conflict between goals, environmental protection will dominate. If one’s human rights, for instance, include the right to work, or the right to a place to live, environmentalists actively oppose these rights in trying to close oceans to fishing, close forests to logging or housing, etc. I am not arguing that this is necessarily wrong, nor ignoring the fact that environmentalists explain such losses of human rights by saying that they are only temporary, and promising that they will once again be honored after environmental health is achieved, when we all live happily from then on. But to explain something is to admit its reality, and the loss of human rights is the reality in question. The point is merely that protection of environment transcends other objectives and values. In this case it transcends human rights—despite what the Greenpeace manifesto indicates to the contrary.
  11. http://www.earthliberationfront.com.
  12. August 2007. In this context, perhaps it is not unfair to wonder whether it was merely a coincidence that the day after Tre Arrow’s arrest in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, a new subdivision under construction in that city was destroyed by a blaze that apparently was the result of arson? Arrow is a self-proclaimed member of ELF, which in turn has an active membership in southern British Columbia.
  13. Environmentalists have distanced themselves from the Unabomber, who assassinated high-profile indus- trialists whom he deemed to be “destroyers of the environment”—but they cannot deny that he shared their objective and that he identified the same enemies. Was his error that he took environmentalist doctrine too literally? (Does this not, in turn, imply that it is not to be taken literally?)
  14. A logically similar point applies to resources: Resources are not a fixed set of substances, just whatever substances happen to be useful. Thus, the Malthusian environmentalist warning that we will run out of resources overlooks the fact that we switch from one substance to another as shortages occur.
  15. In 1900 the champs d’epandage totaled 5000 hectares (12,500 acres) but has been reduced to 2000 hectares today. Still, they “treat” 200 million liters of sewage each day, which as has been known from prehistoric times, is a high-quality fertilizer. This is not to say that this method is without difficulties. First, human household wastes must be kept separate from industrial wastes (which require different solutions). Second, although this method eliminates 100% of suspended solids, it does not, in its current form in Paris, completely eliminate ammonia and other organic solubles. To do this, the amount of land employed would have to be much (approximately five times) larger, and its drainage into local watersheds controlled more carefully. Nevertheless, the potential remains for a complete return to the natural “solution” to the “problem” of human waste.
  16. Headlines were made around the world in late August and early September of 2000, when tourists on the Russian icebreaker Yamal discovered open water at their destination, the north pole. James McCarthy, a paleontologist (not a climatologist or meteorologist) onboard, told the New York Times: “I don’t know if anybody in history ever got to 90◦ north to be greeted by water, not ice.” The Times then reported that the last time anyone could be certain that the pole had open water was more than 50 million years ago. And so the headlines and television specials began. Time magazine of Canada, for instance, featured a cover with a beautiful shot of a polar bear on an ice floe, staring at open water, along with the banner headline, “Arctic Meltdown,” and the subtext, “This polar bear’s in danger, and so are you. Here’s how global warming is already threatening Canada—and the whole planet.” We consider the scientific arguments made for global warming in Case Study 7 at the end of Chapter 6; for now we need note only that environmentalists did nothing to parry this false fear. Either they did not want us to know the truth, or they did not know it themselves. Lost in the paranoid shuffle was the unnewsworthy fact that open water at the pole in the arctic summer is normal. The observation of Claire Parkinson, who monitors satellite imagery of sea ice for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, that such breakage of the ice “happens many, many times every year” was buried in the back pages, if it was reported at all. Her later discovery that Antarctic sea ice is actually on the increase (Parkinson 2002), which had the potential to soothe, rather than stoke, popular fear, was essentially ignored by the media, and even denied by environmentalists.
  17. Canadian statistics provided by the National Forestry Database Program (2004) indicate that, on average, approximately twice as much lumber is burned in forest fires (an average of just over 2,000,000 hectares) as is harvested (1,000,000 hectares on average). Forest fire statis- tics for 1970–2002 indicate that from 289,157 (1978) to 7,559,572 (1989) hectares burn yearly (http:// nfdp.ccfm.org/cp95/data e/tab31e 2.htm), the vast majority due to lightning. The amount of forest har- vested for lumber, pulp, and the like, has remained constant at about 1,000,000 ha per year over the same period (Canadian e-Book 1999; 006 e.htm). For the sake of perspective, the total forest area of Canada is 997 million hectares—of which 0.2% burns and a mere 0.1% (one-tenth of 1%) is harvested—hardly the devastation environmentalists would have you believe. Moreover, this low level of forest harvesting is occurring in a country that is a world leader in forestry and forest exports, and is much maligned for it by environmentalists.