Humanity is the cancer of nature. . . . The optimum human population of Earth is zero. . . . Human suffering resulting from drought and famine in Ethiopia is tragic, yes, but the destruction there of other creatures and habitat is even more tragic…. The worst thing we could do in Ethiopia is give aid—the best thing would be to just let nature seek its own balance, to let the people there just starve.
—David Foreman1 (1987; 1991, p. 26; 1998b)
On a lovely, sunny Sunday morning in May 1980, Mount Saint Helens exploded and, in a flash, destroyed 230 square miles of forest. It dumped 75 million cubic yards of mud into local waterways, blew 1 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to fall to Earth as acid rain, and spewed a half billion cubic meters of ash over much of the Pacific northwest, coating some 22,000 square miles of fields, forests, lakes, swamplands, and rivers (McGee and Gerlach 1995, p. 2). I vividly remember seeing a vast dark bank of cloud from my small window as, a few days later, the Air Canada flight I was taking from Vancouver to Winnipeg crossed central Alberta. The pilot explained that it was ash from the eruption of Mount St. Helens and that we had to avoid it since it might cause engine failure. Naturally, the mention of engine failure brought a collective gasp from the passengers. The menacing plume was much too high to fly over, so we had to go hundreds of miles north to get around it. In Winnipeg, more than 1000 miles from the eruption, people with respiratory problems were advised to stay indoors. I remember the film of white powder that had to be wiped from the windshield of my host’s car each morning.
Had such a phenomenon been somehow attributable to humankind, the wrath and moral indignation of environmentalists could hardly be imagined. What nature itself does is inevitably seen as good, and no matter what humans do, it is seen as unnatural and wrong. After the eruption of Mount Saint Helens, naturalists crowded on the scene, studying, making notes, and taking pictures. Hundreds of articles in professional journals and countless reports in the popular media told of the amazing power of nature to renew itself by its own paroxysms. The explosion of the mountain was viewed as part of the natural cycle of the west coast of North America, and so was described in poetic terms: It was awesome, powerful, inspiring, a reminder of the power of nature. Yet, had a logging company cleared a fraction of the forest destroyed (in this case, literally) by the volcano, the news would have been marked by lamentations, accusations, and heavy tones of guilt.
Lest we forget, the eruption of Mount Saint Helens killed 57 people directly, caused an airplane crash, triggered numerous traffic accidents, and resulted in the deaths of many more by means of its aftereffects, such as falling ash (seven people died from heart attacks while shoveling ash, while deaths from respiratory problems have not been tallied). Such volcanic eruptions are not rare but an everyday occurrence. Much of the time there is a volcano somewhere causing death and destruction for human beings—and the environment. Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, releasing 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, dwarfing Mount Saint Helens’ 1-million ton release of this pollutant, causing global temperatures to fall by 1◦ Fahrenheit (0.5◦ Celsius) and the largest recorded increase in the ozone hole (Newhall et al. 1997). Its ash and poison gas annihilated everything within a 10-mile radius, a terrific amount of environmental destruction. Pinatubo also killed some 875 human beings who couldn’t move fast enough to escape, and displaced some 1 million more, disrupting their lives completely (Avundo and Marchand 1999, p. 13). To this day, every tropical storm brings rivers of mud down on the towns and fields below, driving people away and destroying habitat.
4.1 CAN NATURE DO ANY HARM?
The environmentalist is, no doubt, saying, “Well, it’s people’s own fault for living so close to a volcano—it was just doing what volcanoes naturally do. Don’t blame the volcano!” Well, okay, we have no interest in blaming an inanimate object for anything, but neither should we deny that the Mount Saint Helens explosion was the cause of destruction of forests and watersheds and the death of many animals, some of them human. In short, the volcano harmed the environment, where the phrase “the environment” is taken to include all of nature except humankind and its cities, fields, dams, highways, forest cuttings, and other works. This is what is meant by the phrase as used by environmentalists, and we will use it in this same sense. When they speak of environmental harm, for instance, it is the environment from the point of view of humans that is being referred to: Every part of nature that is around human beings (in the circle around us, from the Old French, en, in and viron, circle). Volcanoes sporadically destroy huge swaths of living things, and kill some 700 persons every year on average (Avundo and Marchand 1999, p. 13). When it comes to destroying or harming living things, volcano damage is much worse than simply cutting down the forest, which at least creates habitat for the plants and animals that thrive in clearings. We are instead talking about annihilation of everything that lives and the creation of a wasteland in its place. No, it is not a matter of blaming volcanoes for anything, but simply being logical and fair when it comes to causes of harm to living things, including human suffering and death. But environmentalists will have a very hard time admitting this simple fact. The environmentalist calculus is unfair: If any activity of human beings caused the destruction, both environmental and human, of volcanoes, it would be trumpeted in our ears, and our guilt loudly proclaimed. We would be accused and summarily convicted of an environmental crime.
Which brings us to a second fact: Human beings don’t measure up to volcanoes when it comes to this sort of destruction. If we include not just volcanoes but all of the destructive activity of nature, it is apparent that our effects are much smaller. In general, our effects are more widespread and far less intense. It is difficult to estimate the destructive effects of humankind as compared to those of the rest of nature, I readily admit. Still, the environmentalist does not even make the effort, but instead, assumes that what nature does is always right and what we do is always wrong. And when we look a little closer, a pattern emerges: The human effects on nature so loudly decried by the environmentalist are matched or surpassed by natural events. As mentioned earlier, more forest burns down in North America due to lightning strikes than is cut down in forestry. And forest fires cause much deeper destruction than logging, killing everything, including the soil itself. Forest fires do not replant the trees they remove.
Here’s something to think about: The Sahara desert itself is the product of natural changes in climate. Many environmentalists have taken the apparent advance of the Sahara desert as a symptom of global warming. As a matter of fact, the Sahara was a verdant blend of forest and prairie some 6000 years ago and has been drying out and dying out ever since. It may seem counterintuitive, but the Sahara was caused by falling global temperatures as Earth passed the point of maximum interglacial warmth. Lower temperatures weakened the monsoons, the rains failed, and the Sahara forest became the Sahara desert. Simply put, less warmth, so less evaporation, hence less rain. The ice ages were extremely dry, reducing the jungles to aridity, as shown in Figure 4.1. Nothing human beings have done or are ever apt to do compares with an ice age in terms of environmental harm. A large portion of the life on this planet is totally destroyed in an ice age. Global cooling makes deserts—and global warming replaces them with greenery once again.2
Of course, you have never heard the issue put that way, nor will you. Instead, it is simply assumed that human effects on nature always constitute damage by their intrinsic nature. Similarly, it is assumed that what nature does is good. What, then, are we to make of the human toll of nature in action? Thousands are routinely killed in earthquakes, millions wiped out yearly by disease, hundreds killed weekly by tornadoes and hurricanes. The untold and uncounted lives disrupted, jobs lost, and dreams shattered every single day, are never mentioned by environmentalists.
On the other hand, every threat to health caused by human beings, no matter how unquantified, and often despite the absence of actual deaths attributable to it, is loudly advertised. Why is it that in the weighing of human effects on nature, the price exacted by nature from human beings does not even appear in the balance? The innocence—no, the benevolence—of nature is always presumed. Granted, environmentalists are advocates of the environment, and we cannot expect the lawyers
for the defense of nature to mention its history of violence. But that is exactly the point, and one that needs to be recognized: Environmentalism is not evenhanded. It is advocacy, plain and simple, hence one-sided by its very nature. The concept of the environment presupposes a dichotomy between nature and human nature in which the environmentalist is biased in favor of nature and against humankind. Having misconceived the relationship between nature and humankind from the start, the environmentalist then abandons the impartiality that is essential for any worthy judge.
Even if we ignore the human costs, and instead consider only environmental costs themselves, there remains an obvious bias. As we saw, the purely environmental costs of the Mount Saint Helens eruption are ignored by environmentalists and never appear even as a point of comparison with the effects of human activities. To move from the cataclysmic to the commonplace, millions of acres of land are flooded each year by beavers,3 causing the death of trees and other plants and destroying the habitat that they provide for birds, mammals, and insects. This is never seen as environmental harm or habitat destruction, but as the creation of new habitat for fish and for bullrushes. I have seen many beaver dams while hiking and canoeing, and I must say that they certainly are scenes of obvious destruction of living things. Flooded areas often contain stands of dead trees, which, like dead trees everywhere, are bleak symbols of death and devastation. Surrounding the dam itself you will find acres and acres of trees felled by beavers busily improving their dam or seeking bark to eat. They are very thorough and gnaw down broadleaf trees for a hundred yards or more around a dam.
This certainly looks like environmental destruction. If an identical scenario had been produced by teenagers with chainsaws and a penchant for dam building, there is no doubt that it would be counted as a scene of environmental vandalism. You would expect to see pictures of the destruction, with damning headlines, in the papers and on television. To approach it from the other side, if the beaver dam is seen as the creation of habitat, why is the logging of a forest not seen as the creation of habitat? In my experience, areas of logged forest quickly fill with grass and brush and become magnets for birds, rabbits, deer, bear, coyotes, and other animals that you would scarcely ever see in the forest. The forest floor, being heavily shaded, does not provide food for grazers, but the clear-cut does. Before we began to manage our forests, naturally occurring forest fires provided the clearings necessary for these animals. Forestry now provides this service without destroying the soil and converting the trees to greenhouse gases. Why is this not an improvement? Perhaps it is not, but the possibility that it is an improvement is not even considered. It is merely assumed that modern forestry, despite all the care it takes to promote regeneration of the forest, is bad, and that naturally occurring forest fires are not. We need to advance past mere assumption here and seek a proper answer to this question.
I am not accusing the beavers of anything—I am, instead, asking environmentalists to recognize their antihuman bias. In fact, I have spent many pleasant hours in and around beaver dams. Despite the dead trees, there is abundant life and the fun of catching glimpses of the beavers themselves, who seem to have a sense of humor. Besides, nothing is as peaceful, as dreamy, as drifting around in a canoe or boat. I have experienced precisely the same abundance of life, the same glimpses of wildlife, the same peaceful, dreamy mood while floating on ponds and lakes that form behind dams made by humans. But, of course, manmade lakes are always described in differ- ent terms by the environmentally conscious: as scenes of environmental destruction. Environmentalists love lakes that were made by landslides (many mountain lakes were obviously formed in this way), although landslides indiscriminately wipe out forests, kill animals, and leave wastelands that take centuries to recover. Environ- mentalists despise lakes formed by dams, although they are the environment for the fish, bullrushes, and insects that live in them and for deer and moose that come down to their shores to drink their water.
I do not mean to imply that manmade dams can be justified simply by comparing them with beaver dams. The observation I would like us to make moves in the opposite direction: that the effects of human beings upon nature cannot count as bad, as environmental damage, solely because they are caused by human beings. This is illogical and unfair. It is illogical because whether a given effect on nature is good or bad depends on what that effect is, not on whether or not it was caused by human beings. It is unfair because it faults human beings for no reason. Given that an area is dammed to form a lake, it makes no difference from an environmental point of view whether it was dammed by an ancient earth movement, a landslide, or an earth-filled dam. Furthermore, from a logical point of view, human beings are a part of nature. That is just a fact.
4.2 ENVIRONMENTALISTS ON HUMANKIND
The system of environmentalist values forces environmentalists systematically to picture human beings as the sole source of environmental evil. We are pictured as unnatural. Once, long ago, we were part of nature, but we have rejected this inheritance. We have, like Satan, rejected our creator out of pride and the refusal to obey. Our relationship with our maker, the natural world, has gradually deteriorated into a state of open warfare. Not all environmentalists have fully realized that this is what their values imply, and of these, fewer have expressed the implications. But many environmental leaders have. Eldredge (2001), for instance, says
Humans do not live with nature but outside it. Homo sapiens became the first species to stop living inside local ecosystems. All other species, including our ancestral hominid ancestors, all pre-agricultural humans, and remnant hunter-gatherer societies still extant exist as semi-isolated populations playing specific roles (i.e., have “niches”) in local ecosystems. This is not so with post-agricultural revolution humans, who in effect have stepped outside local ecosystems. Indeed, to develop agriculture is essentially to declare war on ecosystems.
A brief essay by D. Suzuki boldly entitled “State of the Planet” (1994, pp. 18–19) is another example of the antihuman bias of environmentalism. He says: “…the monster is us. . . . We are overrunning the planet like an out-of-control malignancy,” and goes on to speak of “the war to save this planet.” Eldredge and Suzuki are not the only environmentalists to talk of war, but for the sake of brevity I will cite just one other, the highly influential Thomas Lovejoy:4 “The planet is about to break out with fever, indeed it may already have, and we [human beings] are the disease. We should be at war with ourselves. . . .” (quoted in Ray et al. 1990). If we are a disease, an out-of-control malignancy, what does this war imply? How do these people intend to stop or defeat humankind? Whose lives must be surrendered?
Suzuki goes on to cite a number of straight facts (his italics) “based on 1989 statistics,” but his so-called facts could hardly be true. He claims that due to human- caused soil erosion, we lose “seven percent of the globe’s good growing land every decade.” Are we seriously to believe that now, nearly two decades later, nearly 14% of our good agricultural land has been lost? He says that in addition to lost soil, “vast areas are being degraded by poor land use” (what sort of statistical measure does “vast” represent?) and “since 1984, global food production has declined each year. And this is precisely at the time that human population is exploding.”
How revealing, then, that decades later the massive famines that his “facts” must entail have not occurred. In 1950, standard analyses claimed that over half of the world’s population was malnourished. The most recent famines, notably in Ethiopia, involve at most a few million people, of whom at most some few thousands perish. This is a horrible, horrible thing, and I do not mean to imply otherwise. But from a statistical point of view, a few million people represent a mere one-twentieth of 1% (0.05%) of the population of the globe. As the twentieth century progressed, fewer and fewer people faced famine, and those that did, such as those in the Ukraine and even those in Ethiopia, were victims of war and other political actions, not of food shortages as such. To quote an economist who has proven his ability to see the larger picture, Paul Krugman says (2003): “What we’ve seen in the last generation is an enormous, unexpected improvement in the human condition. . . . Over the past 25 years more people have seen greater material progress than ever before in history.” This is not just a judgment call but the implication of a broad range of vital statistics concerning income, nourishment, health, and education.
Paleobiology is beginning to reveal a disturbing pattern that goes back at least 40,000 years: Game species disappear when humankind arrives. The ancient woolly mammoths and mastodons may have been among our victims. We cannot help but feel guilt over these events. Like the original sin of Adam and Eve, the sins of our forefathers are somehow visited upon us despite the fact that we can hardly be responsible for what happened long, long before we were even born. Our feelings of paleo-guilt, natural though they may be, should not be exaggerated or distorted in support of the environmentalist agenda. Other predators have also caused extinctions, but lions and wolves cannot dwell on the past. Their acts, dictated by natural instincts, are neither right nor wrong, neither moral nor immoral. Alone among the other organisms, it falls to us to see the difference between right and wrong. When we do, we should be aware—we should realize—that like the lion and the wolf, our ancient ancestors were merely doing what came naturally. They too hunted, driven by hunger and instinct. If the lion and the wolf are innocent, so are our ancestors. Despite our pangs of paleo-guilt, they committed no sin for us to inherit.
4.3 IS MODERN CIVILIZATION BAD FOR NATURE?
Because technological agriculture and civilization have given us both a margin of safety from natural necessity and the time to reflect philosophically, we have learned to see the consequences for nature of our actions and have begun to realize our responsibility for them. It is only because of modern science that we have discovered the distant past in which our ancestors hunted game species to extinction. It is only because of our modernity that we have begun to seek our proper relationship with the natural world. One of the most important effects of humankind’s switch from hunting to agriculture was philosophical: the realization that human hunger does not justify hunting game species to the brink of extinction. This is not the time to let paleo-guilt drive us back into submission to nature as the environmentalist’s vision would require.
Yes, the instinct to hunt is still inside us. Every child plays hide-and-seek, the age- old game initiating us into the arts of hunting and being hunted. Many an adult still indulges in sport hunting or fishing to satiate this ancient instinct. If we feel guilty about the extinctions caused by our ancient forbears, it is because we recognize the instinctive drives behind that original sin in our own nature. Now is not the time to return to those ways, those instincts, and the pretechnological lifestyle the environmentalist idealizes. It is most definitely not the time to bang the drum of paleo-guilt and exploit it in support of antihuman environmentalism. This is not the time—if such a time could ever be conceived—to be at war with ourselves.
Instead, we must grasp the lessons we have learned and the moral sensibility that reflection has awakened. And so we have—at least those of us for whom modern ways keep the struggle for existence at bay, so that we can seek things other than mere survival, such as the good of living things in general. Thus, we now seek to protect endangered species, to control hunting, to control agriculture and industry, and to protect the living space of organisms other than ourselves. We have already turned this corner. A level-headed assessment shows that the threat of species extinctions, just like the rate of extinctions, is on the decline.
Like evangelists castigating us for our sins and trying to control us with visions of hellfire and brimstone, environmentalists portray us not just as violent, careless murderers of other species, but as greedy, lazy, and materialistic thieves of Earth’s resources. Like the evangelists’ exaggeration that each of us is bound for eternal damnation, environmentalists see apocalyptic environmental outrage in every mea- sure of human activity. It is impossible to list the cases, but to give just one example, Suzuki prophesies horrible consequences due to continuing ozone loss, despite the fact that human production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) was being curbed even as he wrote, and even though science clearly indicates that the worst ozone loss experienced to date increases the amount of incoming ultraviolet radiation by a trivial amount, equivalent to that which would result from moving 100 miles south.
Now, two decades later, CFC levels are on the decline, but environmentalists have moved on to new battles in an ongoing war. Suzuki called for jail terms for politicians who disagree with the theory of global warming (Offman 2008, O’Neill 2008), thereby placing himself in the company of totalitarian theorists such as Stalin and Pol Pot. Control of people’s beliefs and conscience is recognized as a travesty by anyone with the least concern for human beings’ freedom and happiness. Of course, given the transcendent ideal of environmental health, any sacrifice is justified. “We are battling to keep the planet livable for our children,” is Suzuki’s war cry, echoing environmentalists everywhere. Does he really think that this sort of exaggeration will do his children any good? Are they not part of the malignancy just like the rest of us?
Surely the only charitable answer is that Suzuki and all of his fellow environmentalist prophets of doom are engaged in rhetorical overstatement of their case. Surely they love their children just as much as we do ours and would not sacrifice them for the good of “the environment,” which is nothing other than the natural world minus humankind. These baby-boomer environmentalists have been living side by side among us, have raised their families among us, and are now growing gray as we all, with luck, will do. They did not sacrifice themselves or their children for the cause they promote. Actions speak louder than words, and their actions say that humankind is worthy of remaining on Earth, that human life is part of the grand scheme of nature. We are not a cancer that should be removed, but a unique and interesting species whose needs must be included in any reasonable system of values, including those of the environmentalist.
It should be noted that the scale of human effects does not necessarily imply environmental harm. All of our urban areas occupy (only) 0.2% of Earth’s land surface (or 0.04% of Earth’s total surface), and our agriculture 16.5% of its land surface (EC 2004). Thus, our total effect on the environment is very large, but that alone does not mean that it constitutes environmental harm. Certainly, this effect is much smaller than that of natural events such as ice ages, and much less harmful. Our fields, after all, are filled with vegetation that absorbs carbon dioxide, generates oxygen, cools the surface, moistens the atmosphere, and provides food and shelter for insects, birds, mammals, and other wildlife. Pronghorn antelope graze in farmers’ fields just as do migrating birds such as Canada geese and the great blue heron. Nothing grazes on glaciers. Of course, some of the effects of our cities and fields are indeed environmentally harmful, such as pollution of waterways by city sewage or agricultural runoff. The point is that environmental harm has to be shown on a case-by-case basis. The simple fact that humankind has a large environmental effect (even though smaller than that of an ice age) does not mean that this effect is harmful.
Moreover, we should be on our guard against the presumption that our effect is always large. The current concern over global warming, for example, derives in large part from the false sense that humankind has a large effect on the atmosphere. In fact, we emit something like 9 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, while natural sources emit something like 100 to 120 billion tons. The “carbon budgets” used to estimate this number are themselves primitive and uncertain at this stage. For example, it was just recently discovered that the phytoplankton growing in Earth’s oceans removes 40 to 50 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere rather than the 10 to 20 billion tons estimated previously (Falkowski 2002), showing that carbon budgets up to that date had been in error. So our effect on CO2 is smaller than the uncertainties in the science of atmospheric CO2 balance.
In addition, phytoplankton growth has been discovered to be restricted by the trace amounts of iron in the ocean, with the result that carbon sequestration is sensitively controlled by flows of iron into the oceans, usually by windborne iron-bearing dust. The Southern Ocean Iron Experiment of 2002 (Falkowski 2002, pp. 60—61) showed that a single ton of iron could increase phytoplankton tenfold over 300 square kilometers, revealing the possibility of an inexpensive and practical method of controlling CO2 levels and hence global climate. So it is possible for us to have very large beneficial effects on the environment as well. This is a very important fact, and it should be kept in mind. Environmentalists presume that human environmental effects must be harmful and militate for a general decrease of those effects. They presume that nature should be left to itself and that whatever it does is best for the environment. This two-part presumption is not supported by data. It is merely an expression of environmentalism’s antihuman bias.
4.4 ENVIRONMENTALISTS’ PERSONAL VALUES
Paradoxically, most prominent environmentalists commit the very same environmental sins as those against whom they preach and fight. Greenpeace activists sail in ships with inspiring names like Rainbow Warrior to join battle against such things as oil tankers and offshore oil wells, while their ships burn the same fuel oil that those tankers carry and oil wells produce. The well-known Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki preaches a technologically simpler life closer to nature and more like that of aboriginal populations around the globe. Meanwhile, Suzuki is the star of a large television and publishing business, flying around the globe on jet aircraft and transporting television crews into the heart of the wilderness that, according to his own stated principles, must be protected at all costs from just such incursions.
Transcendent objectives do not have the same logic as other values or ethical principles. Our ethical principles against lying, stealing, and cruelty—not to mention sacrificing other people’s lives in the pursuit of a goal—cannot be used to justify a privileged class of leaders or warriors who are permitted to lie, steal, or be cruel. Normal ethical principles do not permit these sorts of exceptions, although transcendent objectives do. Environmental leaders and warriors justify far higher personal levels of environmental damage than do other people, according to their very own definitions of environmental damage—along with ordinary crimes against their fellow human beings, as in the sabotage of employment, destruction of property, and so on—by reference to a logically privileged goal that transcends all other values. The logic of transcendent objectives is very different from that of other values or ethics. The idea that, in the battle against cruelty in general, a little cruelty is fine for (or a lot of cruelty is required by) our leaders or warriors, is obviously absurd and clearly marks a difference between legitimate values and transcendent objectives.
As far as the logic of transcendental objectives is concerned, environmental leaders are just like those religious leaders who preached love for all humankind, or those political leaders who held up the welfare of workers as a beacon, only to engage in warfare, murder, false arrests, and other destructive acts. I am not saying that the scale of harm is comparable in the two cases (we will come back to the scale of the problem in a minute); I am saying only that the logic of justification is the same: The transcendent goal for which one is fighting permits—in fact requires—the commission of small crimes in the service of the larger good. Al Gore, who is perhaps the most famous environmentalist ever, lives in a Tennessee mansion that burns 20 times as much energy as is burned in the average home. Gore travels in limos and private jets. He justifies this by his purchase of carbon offsets, which are in fact donations to environmentalist organizations. Suzuki also justified his yearly vacation trips to the Caribbean by the purchase of carbon offsets. The purchase of such offsets is becoming a standard justification for many activities and businesses that violate environmentalist scruples. Travel agencies and airlines now offer offsets for “purchase” along with their products, so that customers have the opportunity to meet their self-imposed environmental obligations while enjoying the benefits of the modern, prosperous lifestyle.
When Catholic Queen Mary disemboweled and hanged English Protestants, her goal was to make sure that as many Englishmen as possible got to heaven. When Stalin starved millions and millions of Ukrainian workers to death, his goal was a workers’ paradise for those who survived. Environmentalists, too, have a vision of paradise, where nature is pure (i.e., is unsullied by human beings) and healthy. They say, of course, that no human being should ever be harmed. On the other hand, their vision of the greater good must be kept in focus, and lesser goods may (indeed, must) be sacrificed for the sake of the greater. Thus, not only harm to other human beings, but the harm they themselves do to nature, may be justified. Put this way, of course, the purported justification sounds ridiculous. However, taken step by step, each move in the morality play makes perfect sense given that environmental health is taken as an overriding objective. Environmental leaders such as Gore and eco-activists on board the Rainbow Warrior no doubt feel it necessary to travel and do battle for the sake of the environment and to forgive themselves a small sin in order to do a greater good. If this makes sense, all the rest, ridiculous as it sounds, will follow. Transcendental objectives are seductive.
4.5 ENVIRONMENTALISM’S INSTITUTIONAL ETHICS
The sacrifice of the lesser good for the greater is well under way. The trend toward biofuels in order to prevent adding CO2 to the atmosphere has resulted in making basic carbohydrate foods much more expensive worldwide as food is commandeered for conversion to fuels.6 The poor in the Americas south of the Rio Grande have already been forced to cut back on their consumption of tortillas. This turn of events has been brushed aside by environmentalists as a small price to pay to prevent global warming. Should people starve due to the suppression of modern agricultural methods (genetic engineering springs to mind)7 or in a decades-long economic depression caused by the suppression of fossil fuels,8 their deaths will be justified by reference to the environmental paradise that lies at the end of the difficult road that must be followed. Let us hope that such dire effects of environmentalism will be avoided. Surely environmentalists will be outraged at the mere suggestion that their creed would ever lead to death and destruction on the scale attained by religious or political warfare. This outrage is a good thing, indeed a precious thing, and should be encouraged.
Environmentalists who shudder at the very thought of such human carnage, how- ever, would do well to reflect on the effects of environmentalism on human beings so far. In particular, they should meditate on the effects of the ban on DDT that is often reckoned as the first major victory of environmentalism in the battle to save the planet. That ban had a bad effect on many human beings. It stalled a decades-long battle against malaria in the developing world, and by so doing led to increased illness and death among the people there. Tragically, the number of people who have died due to the banning of DDT does compare with the human tolls of Hitler and Stalin.
Environmentalists will cry foul when this comparison is made. I am not in any way suggesting that environmentalism shares the moral depravity of Nazism or Stalin’s despotic megalomania. The point is much simpler: Many millions of deaths would have been prevented if DDT antimalarial programs had continued. They were stopped because of environmentalist action. So, as a matter of simple logic, some portion of the enormous, 50 million total death toll of malaria since the ban must be counted as a cost of environmentalist action. Environmentalists can quibble about what portion of these deaths was due to banning DDT. They can argue, however dubiously, that in the long run more lives will be saved. But unless they, like Nazi or communist or other ideologues before them, are prepared to ignore human costs, they will at least admit that these costs are relevant to their program. Even if we assume that massive environmental harm was avoided by banning DDT, the fact remains that the ban also caused human death and misery. Even if on environmental grounds we must judge the DDT ban as a good thing, this judgment cannot ignore the human cost. That is the main point, logically, that must be realized: Environmentalism cannot treat the good of the environment as a transcendental good.
Of course, we cannot forever forestall the question of whether the ban was a good thing. However, we can put that question to one side of the main argument here: namely, that treating the good of the environment as a transcendental objective is not a good thing. This is a forward-looking proposal that has the potential to help us move beyond environmentalism to the philosophy of nature. If that progress can be safeguarded, we are better able to look in the rear-view mirror to see how we arrived at our present situation. With that proviso, we may face up to the question of whether the banning of DDT was a good thing.
Yes: Rachel Carson’s hugely popular and profoundly influential book Silent Spring (1962) awakened a generation to the damage perpetrated by industrial agriculture to the environment and to human health, and inspired the rise of environmentalism. She proved once and for all the folly of pesticide use, in particular the environmental unacceptability of DDT. She marshaled the scientific data linking DDT to the decline of bird populations, particularly raptors, educating us about persistent toxins and how they are concentrated in the tissues of animals at the top of food chains. As she revealed, studies had shown that DDT caused the thinning of eggshells in raptors, leaving their eggs prone to collapse and raptors unable to reproduce. Shortly after the publication of Silent Spring in the 1970s, industrialized countries banned DDT in response to environmentalist pressure. Raptor populations returned to normal, and vast, untold environmental damage that would have occurred worldwide was prevented. Not only the environment, but the entire human population of the world owes Carson a huge debt of gratitude, for she showed that cancer rates were linked to the rise of DDT in the environment and in the bodies of every human being. She predicted that cancer rates might rise to 100% if the devastation of the environment by DDT had been permitted to continue. You and I might very well have cancer were it not for her. So not only the environment and environmentalist, but all of us, have benefited from the banning of DDT.
No: To begin with, Carson’s case against DDT seems to have been exaggerated.9 However, let that pass, for there is a bigger issue here that has been ignored: the human cost of banning DDT. So let us assume that this highly persistent chemical has harmful effects on wildlife, and that regardless of the scientific soundness of Carson’s case against it, its removal from the environment was a good thing for wildlife.
What is being ignored in the environmentalists’ crusade is the human cost of banning DDT—proof that environmental health is a transcendent objective for environ- mentalists. Beginning in the 1940s there was a rapid decline in malaria, encephalitis, and other mosquito-borne diseases. The disease was eradicated from developed nations (we now tend to forget that malaria was once common in Europe and North America) and was on its way out in developing nations as well. There is no doubt that this was due to the invention and use of DDT, and no doubt that DDT saved millions of lives. But beginning in the 1970s, because of the banning of DDT by environmentalists, malaria began to spread once again. By the year 2000 it had increased some 40% in sub-Saharan Africa (NIAID-NIH 2004), to the level of around a half-billion clinical cases each year, resulting in 2.7 million deaths annually (USDHHS-NIH 2002).
If we forget for the moment the enormous suffering of the 500 million people each year who survive malaria infections and focus merely on deaths, somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 million additional people have died because of the increase in malaria between 1970 and 2000. There is plentiful evidence, and practical certainty, that DDT could not only have prevented the increase, but would have continued to reduce the incidence of malaria (Attaran and Maharaj 2000, D. R. Roberts et al. 2000). Just how many could have been saved? Certainly 15 million if only the increase had been averted, and probably a large portion of the other 35 million killed by the disease if malaria continued to be eradicated at the pace of the 1960s. In other words, the environmentalist goals that mandated the banning of DDT have cost somewhere between 15 and 40 million lives.
Whatever Carson may have said, the toxicity of DDT for humans is very low, with numerous cases of survival despite ingestion of large doses either experimentally or in suicide attempts, and very little by way of epidemiological studies showing any long- term effects (A. G. Smith 2000). As Attaran and Maharaj point out (2000): “Although hundreds of millions (and perhaps billions) of people have been exposed to raised concentrations of DDT through occupational or residential exposure from house spraying, the literature has not even one peer reviewed, independently replicated study linking exposure to DDT with any adverse health outcome. The relative low toxicity of DDT for humans makes it an ideal weapon in the battle against malaria.”
All that was being asked was that DDT be permitted in malaria control—precisely what the ban prohibited.10 No one was suggesting a return to the days when kilotons of DDT were used on crops [at a rate of 5 to 20 kilograms per hectare (4 to17 pounds per acre)]. Instead, what was needed was a few hundred grams [several ounces, at the rate of 2 grams per square meter (1/15 of an ounce per square yard)] of DDT for biyearly treatment of houses. Although this would find its way into the surrounding environment eventually, the total amount would be a tiny fraction of that which caused so much worry decades ago.
Fortunately, DDT is not merely an insecticide but an insect repellent and irritant as well, and so provides extremely effective, cheap, and safe protection from malaria—fortunately, that is, if it had not been banned. The alternatives are much less effective, much more expensive, must be used in larger quantities, and often are more toxic to humans as well (A. G. Smith 2000). On the other hand, we know that use of small quantities of DDT in house spraying works. For example, D. R. Roberts and co-workers report (2000): “DDT house spraying was stopped in Sri Lanka in 1961, and this was followed by a major malaria epidemic. Since then, after suspension of DDT house treatments, numerous epidemics have occurred in many countries, such as Swaziland (1984) and Madagascar (1986–1988), where malaria killed more than 100,000 people. In both cases, the authorities restarted DDT house spraying and stopped the catastrophic epidemics. In Madagascar, malaria incidence declined more than 90% after just two annual spray cycles.”11
Yes: But WHO repealed the ban on the use of DDT for house spraying for the purpose of malaria control in 2006.
No: This does not justify the environmentalist’s ban—it merely revokes it. The people who lost their lives are not going to be resurrected by repealing the ban, and it is callous of environmentalists to ignore or deny the human toll their actions have taken.12 Anyway, the ban was revoked over the protests of environmental organizations, many of which are now lobbying to renew the ban. People continue to die from malaria at the rate of one every 12 seconds. Need we point out that the majority of those who perish are children? Need we point out that the poorest people and the poorest countries suffer worst from the ban on DDT?
Environmentalism is clearly a potent, global, political force, so the second element of tragedy is indeed in place, just as we observed earlier. Indeed, if the death of millions by malaria is tragic—and surely it is deeply tragic—the play has already begun. If we are indeed acting out this tragedy, let us change the script. Let us rewrite the ending of this drama.
To do this we have to come to a clearer, more complete realization of how the action has unfolded to this point. But so far as the public media reveals, environmentalists have not even bothered to debate this issue. Instead, they have ignored it or denied it, and continue to do so. It is beyond debate that millions of lives have been sacrificed in the pursuit of an environmentalist goal. Were it not for the pursuit of environmental health, they would not have lost their lives to disease. Some degree of environmental health has been purchased at the cost of human suffering and death. Whether or not this was a good thing—note well that this is in no way intended to imply that malarial deaths themselves, especially on this horrific scale, could be a good thing—it had a human cost. And this simple fact exemplifies a crucial conclusion that we are forced to draw: Like achieving any other objective in the real world, achieving environmental objectives will have a cost. Environmentalists have studiously ignored the costs of their projects and goals, with tragic consequences. Unless we want to ignore these costs, we cannot treat environmental values as transcendent objectives; and surely we do not want to ignore these costs.13
- Foreman is a founding member of the radical environmentalist group Earth First! ↩
- Oddly enough, then, if one assumes that human beings are causing global warming (something we consider in more detail in Case Study 7 at the end of Chapter 6), we are thereby reversing desertification. ↩
- Whereas the North American beaver population prior to European settlement is estimated at anywhere from 60 to 400 million, it is now thought to be a fraction of that number. Massachusetts reports a beaver population of 70,000 (http://www.state.ma.us/dfwele/dfw/dfw beaver law.htm). Given the vaster areas of similar, but less inhabited, hence more suitable habitat in northern Canada, we should expect more beavers by a factor of several hundreds. Supposing a modest beaver population of 10 million for all of North America, and a very modest dam of 1 hectare per beaver family, which runs around five individuals, we arrive at 2 million hectares of flooding, although the actual area may well be many times larger. ↩
- “Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, a Yale University–trained biologist, is Science Advisor to Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt and project leader of the National Biological Survey, a comprehensive survey of the nation’s biological resources being undertaken by the U.S. Department of the Interior. He has served as Assistant Secretary of External Affairs at the Smithsonian Institution and as Vice President for Science of the World Wildlife Fund” (The National Center for Public Policy Research, August 24, 1993, http://www.nationalcenter.org/dos7127.htm). Lovejoy is also a proponent of the “sixth extinction,” as mentioned in Chapter 2. ↩
- CNBC European Business, May 2007;http://cnbceb.com/2007/05/01/voluntary-carbon-markets-spring- to-life/ (August 28, 2007). ↩
- At the time of this writing, wheat and corn prices are at historic highs, which is explained by market analysts as due in large part to biofuels initiatives. ↩
- In May 2004, Monsanto announced that it would not be releasing its new strain of bread flour wheat genetically modified to survive Roundup herbicide treatments. This “Roundup-ready” wheat would permit farmers to use much less herbicide in total, via one or two potent applications rather than in several less potent applications as needed to grow current wheat strains. The new strain was not released due to environmentalist concerns over the introduction of genetically modified organisms into the environment (in particular, the banning of GM products by the European Union). Whether or not this new wheat is a good idea from an environmental point of view (it would, after all, reduce herbicide use), its suppression by environmentalists will reduce wheat yields and increase food costs, causing more hunger and starvation among the very poor—who are always the first to suffer given any general shortage, economic downturn, or misfortune. Many farmers have already stopped growing wheat because of the high herbicide costs, costs that are generally integrated into the price of wheat. This is just one example of the general tendency of environmentalist agricultural policy to have tragic human costs, usually paid by the poorest among us. ↩
- There is no doubt that the Kyoto protocols will, if followed, depress the global economy. Exactly how, and how much, is a matter of debate that cannot be usefully addressed here. But there is no doubt that economic downturns affect the poorest most severely, and that hunger, starvation, and disease are typical results. Whether or not the protocols are a good thing environmentally, they will inevitably have a cost in human suffering and death. Should the resulting depression be deep and long term, environmentalist principles—as a transcendent objective—would nevertheless demand the Kyoto protocols be obeyed, even though the human toll of severe depression could easily mount into the millions. ↩
- Rachel Carson’s conclusions have proven to be exaggerated and her arguments to be based on a few carefully chosen cases. Her famous charge that DDT causes birds to lay eggs with thin eggshells derived from a study involving incredibly high dosages of DDT. Her prediction that DDT would lead to cancer rates of 100% must confront the absence of any clear scientific evidence that DDT is carcinogenic. No one claims that DDT is harmless, especially in high concentrations, but it has proven difficult to substantiate scientifically serious danger of trace amounts, although research continues to this day. Of course, environmentalists will at this point bring up recent research indicating that DDT and DDE (its metabolic product) are endocrine mimics, are “implicated” in birth defects, are “suspected” carcinogens, and call for its ban, citing the precautionary principle, which requires us to treat the mere possibility of environmental harm as though it were actual. WWF (1999) is a good example of just this sort of approach. Beginning (p.1) with the common but dubious idea that Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) “detailed the devastating impact of persistent pesticides on wildlife,” it then exhorts us to “embrace the precautionary principle” (pp. 2, 3, and 17) as the proper response to “the paucity of information and subsequent uncertainty about cause and effect relationships.” Apparently causality, the essence of science, is irrelevant when the safety of the environment comes into question. Persistently extrapolating from acute toxic studies to the conclusion that trace quantities are also toxic, and merely assuming such things as that an increase in testicular cancer must be caused by such traces, DDT is roundly condemned. Given the scientific weakness of their case, the authors are forced to admit that the evidence is merely suggestive, and that “it is virtually impossible to answer questions about the impact of these persistent chemicals on human health directly or definitively” (p. 10). Nevertheless they call for a worldwide ban on DDT, calling even for the destruction of stockpiles set aside to “combat malaria or locust outbreaks” (p. 16). In fact, Greenpeace, the American Wildlife Federation, the World Wildlife Fund, the Worldwide Fund for Nature, and so on, were (even as this article was published) pressing the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) for an absolute worldwide ban on DDT. Their ban was adopted in 2002, and quickly ratified by member nations. Not once is the appalling death toll from malaria even mentioned in this article, although the evidence of harm to humans in the case of a ban is not merely suggestive, but real. Obviously, the precautionary principle takes no precaution for African children. It trades off their real deaths in the millions against a mere suggestion of health problems among those in the developed world, or of harm to the transcendentally valuable environment. ↩
- Again, you may find some quibbling by environmentalists on this point. According to the UNEP ban, use of DDT in house spraying is permitted, but only if no other alternatives are available, and only as a stopgap until other alternatives are put in place. Note, first of all, that this escape clause was included only at the insistence of medical authorities appalled at the death toll of malaria, and over the protests of environmental groups. Second, the environmentalist goal is still the total ban of DDT, and the escape clause only permits a delay under special circumstances. Third, since the poorest nations are those that must rely most heavily on international aid, and in particular UN aid, they are fearful of doing anything to anger aid agencies and so do not avail themselves of the escape clause, even though they cannot afford the vastly more expensive alternatives to DDT. Finally, the substitutes for DDT are not as effective, are more toxic to humans, and even where they are used, malaria is again on the rise. In fact, it is on the rise even in rich industrialized countries such as the United States itself. ↩
- Lest anyone be tempted at this point to aver that only a pawn of the big multinational chemical companies would present this case, note well that the patent on DDT is expired, and that the only current producers are small, third-world companies. The big chemical companies have long ago phased out production of DDT in favor of more expensive alternatives—and would not dare produce it again, given its horrible (if simplistically misconceived) reputation—which, by the way, works to their financial advantage. ↩
- A typical case of ignoring the problem is provided by Greenpeace’s international website (http://www.greenpeace.org/international/, April 24, 2007) where a search under the heading “malaria” turns up only dozens of articles warning about the rise of malaria predicted by some scientists should global warming occur as predicted by the IPCC. A typical case of denial is provided by the World Wildlife Federation’s international website (http://www.panda.org, April 24, 2007), which posts articles that continue to call for the ban and promote other methods of mosquito control, even though some of these have proven impractically expensive, or ineffective, or both, and others, such as reduction of mosquito habitat, are opposed by the WWF on other grounds, since mosquito habitat is also habitat to other forms of wildlife, such as alligator and hippopotamus. ↩
- As this book goes to press (October 2008), the world is experiencing its first global food shortages in decades. Three reasons are cited for the shortages: (1) increase in demand for food among the people of the developing world as their economies improve, (2) crop failures in Asia due to abnormally cold weather, and (3) diversion of foodstuffs (primarily corn and sugar) and farmland for the production of biofuels. The biofuels industry is being strongly encouraged around the world by various tax breaks, grants, and other programs in an effort to reduce the use of oil and coal to combat global warming. This massive encouragement of the biofuels industry is clearly one factor causing food shortages and rising food prices. Consequently, the poorest people in the world are going hungry. They are rioting to protest steep rises in food prices, while everyone else must pay more for food. What has been the response of environmentalists? In this context of hardship for their fellow human beings, environmentalists have raised their voices only to downplay this effect of biofuels, to reassert the necessity at all costs to combat global warming (human costs which, ironically, are due partly to cold weather), and to reemphasize their support for biofuels. The antihuman bias of environmentalism seems as strong as ever. ↩