As a university professor, I have attended many lectures, and presented many. Usually, such affairs are models of scholarly decorum, with kind introductions at the start and polite applause at the finish. Not so for one talk I gave, entitled, “Why I Am Not an Environmentalist.”1 A few days before the talk I was contacted by an officer of the campus security force who warned me that threats of physical violence against me were circulating on Internet sites devoted to environmentalist causes. I was advised to be cautious in my movements and was reassured that security would be quietly present at the talk. Violence? What sort of violence? Well, he couldn’t really say. I was surprised-–in fact, a bit shocked. It had never once occurred to me that the police would ever be required to protect my academic freedom! I had a hard time believing what was being said. I am a philosophy professor, I told him, nobody cares that much about what I say. Well, he said, apparently some people cared enough to try to stop me from saying whatever it was I wanted to say.
At least somebody cared about the topic, I told myself, something not always guaranteed, and gave the matter no more thought. I was to learn that not just some people, but a lot of people, cared, really cared, about environmentalism. Usually, philosophical lectures draw small audiences, but my talk had to be moved to a larger room, twice. Still, on the day of the talk the room was filled to overflowing. Microphones from a radio station were in front of the lectern, along with some unidentified tape recorders. A newspaper reporter claimed ownership of one of them and informed me that he would be taking notes. Apparently, the mere existence of an academic who was not an environmentalist, and willing to say so, was actually news. I did realize that academics tend to be uniformly pro-environmentalist. In fact, budging the complacent academic orthodoxy on this issue was why I had written my lecture in the first place, but I didn’t realize that the world at large had noticed the pro-environmentalist orthodoxy in the universities and colleges—or cared.
Knowing that environmental issues are heavily laden with emotion, I had tried to craft my talk to be as modest as possible without abandoning my central thesis: Nature is not in a state of crisis; environmentalism is based on a mistake, and is becoming more a matter of faith than of reason. It began well enough, but met ever- louder groans of displeasure from members of the audience who disagreed with me. They didn’t merely disagree, they were offended. When the time came for discussion, many of the questions were, more accurately speaking, accusations, and my replies were met with disdain rather than reason. Did I not know that every bowl of cereal I ate contributed to the most rapid decline in biodiversity in the history of the planet? Did I really think that riding a motorcycle to school would clear me of guilt when the globe overheated? Did I not know that nature was being devastated?
“Devastation,” I repeated the word out loud, while turning it over in my mind. “Devastation. Is that really, literally, the right word?”
“Totally!” my interrogator replied, as his fellow environmentalists voiced a chorus of agreement. Where was this devastation occurring, I asked. The entire city! they said. The surrounding fields! The very air we breathed! These all were scenes of devastation. When I pointed out that scientific measures show air, water, and soil pollution to have been steadily decreasing for nearly half a century, I met simple disbelief. I must have gotten my facts wrong. The military–industrial complex must have paid their hired scientists to fix the figures.
Maybe, I thought, direct observation would work where reason and data had failed. So I went to the windows along one side of the room, and looked out. The audience looked out too, and calmed down a bit. It was a beautiful, serene autumn evening, the last rays of sunlight fading on the brightly colored autumn leaves of the campus.
“If this is devastation, why is it beautiful?” I asked.
This was met by groans of disbelief.
But, really, it was beautiful! That is what I thought then, and I still do.
Faced with so many people who could not see the beauty that lay right before their eyes, I decided then and there to persist in my philosophical investigation of the environment and our relationship to it. As I investigated further, I became more and more convinced that contemporary environmentalism has blinded many of us to the facts. I became convinced that it is a powerful ideology that has—usually out of the best of motives—created much confusion and misunderstanding. So I was gradually persuaded that it was time for a new environmental philosophy.
For a few years, however, I avoided publication of my ideas. This was due mainly to the fact that there was an enormous amount I wanted to learn about environmentalism—and the environment—before saying anything more about it, but it was also due partly to my fear that engaging in a public debate with environmentalists might destroy the peace and happiness of my family life. In the days just after I had presented my lecture I was interviewed by local papers and radio stations, and soon found myself under a forceful media attack. On the one side I was reproached by some scientists2 for my refusal to embrace environmentalism, while on the other side I was chastised by environmentalists for embracing science as though it were a modern-day religion. Up the middle charged local representatives of environmentalist groups such as the Sierra Club and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, who saw me as an enemy of the very planet itself. Meanwhile I began to receive lots of mails, e-mails, and even personal visits. Most of the e-mails tore strips off me, although I recall some of a very different sort. Apparently, I had become not just a convenient target for environmentalists, but a spark of hope for those who took a different view and, in some cases, dare I say it, felt morally victimized by environmentalism.
One batch of e-mails came from some people working inside the national park bureaucracies of the United States and Canada, who were distressed by on- going programs in which entire lakes, streams, and even long stretches of rivers were being poisoned to kill all of their fish. If this sounds like a strange thing for national park personnel to do, you are not up to speed on the latest environmental thinking. Strong poisons were being used to kill all of the fish so that these bodies of water could be restocked by “native” species, species that were there before the arrival of Europeans on the continent. The “whistle-blowers” e-mailing me about these pro- grams were too frightened to say anything publicly, but they thought perhaps I might stand up and do so. Another group of mails and e-mails was from people whose land had been appropriated so that it could return to a state of nature as part of a park or nature preserve. They were also hoping that I could publicize their plight, since the media just seemed to be ignoring them.
Of special interest was a letter from a geophysicist along with a sample of his publications. He explained that his research as a federal government scientist addressing the issue of climate change showed that removal of forest by forestry and agriculture significantly raised surface air temperatures.3
Because this result could explain much of the observed rise in global temperatures, it challenged the view that global warm- ing is caused by the carbon dioxide emissions produced by humans. Although he was a contributor to the 1995 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, his work was now ignored, as were his proposals for combating climate change. This was no surprise to him, since he had been aware since the late 1970s that “environ- mental activists” had taken over the agenda of his governmental department. “Here I, a physical scientist, was completely out of place,” he wrote. “These people did not want the facts, . . . they just wanted any environmental concerns, unsupported by data, to be put foremost. I was astonished!” There was a movement within climate science to create and enforce a consensus around the carbon dioxide view, so his research had gradually been stopped, its funding denied. He asked me to keep this subject in the public eye.
Then I was visited by a very distinguished professor of forestry who had recently retired, who conveyed a similar message. He had fled Hungary to escape its takeover by Russian communists, only to find himself many years later fleeing the scientific discipline of forestry itself as it was gradually taken over by ever more radical environmentalists opposed to any human use of the forest whatsoever. The amount of forest lost to logging, he told me, was only a fraction of what could sustainably be cut. The science on this was perfectly clear, but he was mischaracterized as an agent of the logging industry by the new environmentalist breed of forest scientists.4
I heard a quite different story with the same theme from a fellow who was not a licensed scientist, but an expert nevertheless. He had devoted his life to bears,5 studying them both in the library and in the wild. He ran a well-known and well- attended school teaching those who worked in the wilderness how to handle bears. He wrote me to say that the environmentalists’ often repeated claim that logging reduced bear habitat was the very opposite of the truth. There is nothing for bears to eat in forests, he told me. Bears live on the edges of forests, in clearings made by fire or logging, where they can find food. The false claims are just environmentalist propaganda, he said, invented by a coterie of biologists who never leave the comfort of their university offices and laboratories to see what is actually going on in the woods. His message had a special resonance for me. As someone who has spent some time in the wilderness, I too had noticed bears’ extraordinary fondness for areas recently cleared by logging. You can hike through the woods and meadows for days without ever seeing a bear or any signs of bears, only to find both in great numbers—along with deer, hares, grass, and berries—in and around patches that have been forested. Not that such anecdotal evidence proves anything by itself, but it does provide food for thought. Among the many other communications I received, one other should be mentioned. This was not from a scientist but from a woman who had retired with her husband on Galiano Island, off the west coast of British Columbia, where they had created their own version of paradise on a 23-acre lot. They had built a house and settled down to enjoy their senior years together, shepherding a small flock of sheep as a pastime. Because of the sheep, their lot was designated as agricultural land. This caught the unfortunate attention of the local nature conservancy group, which was enamored with “restoration ecology,” and with the backing of the local government, proceeded to have their land confiscated to return it to its “natural state.” Apparently, getting rid of the flock of sheep would do them no good. They were desperate for help from any quarter, and thought that perhaps I might assist them—somehow. The last I heard from them, they were on the point of being evicted. Their case needs to be mentioned because it brings home the point that more is at stake than just the truth—important as the truth is. Environmentalism has many victims (I believe that this is the correct word here), people who through no fault of their own have had their lives uprooted, ruined, even lost as they were caught up in the machinations of the environmentalist movement. This couple was living the very same pastoral dream, the dream of a life lived close to the land in a preindustrial agricultural lifestyle, that inspires so many environmentalists. Nevertheless, they became victims of environmentalism.
While environmentalists tried to silence me with words or threats of physical violence, many other people encouraged me to continue with my investigations. I listened politely to both sides and waited for the dust to settle, concerned that the peace and quiet of my home life not be interrupted by environmental activists or media intrusion. But I quietly continued my program of research into the phenomenon of environmentalism. This book is the result.
I have always loved nature, yet I am not an environmentalist. From the time I was a small child, I loved animals, loved the outdoors, loved the spectacle of sunshine and storm. Among my fondest memories is that of my first trip, at the age of 6, to the Rocky Mountains with my parents. I remember shrinking in my sleeping bag as the bears sniffed around the edges of the tent at night. I remember drinking crystal water straight from mountain streams. I remember sitting on a mountainside looking down on so many pine and spruce trees that they looked smooth as a carpet down below. Growing up a city boy with sidewalks underfoot, I dreamed of living in a cabin in the woods. That dream was just a dream, and my daily reality is still the city, still the sidewalks. But my love of nature, of living things, remains. I still go to the mountains, and into the woods, whenever I get the chance.
So why am I not an environmentalist? Do we not hear every day of the devastation of nature, of the pollution of our air and water, of the extinction of species, of global warming? Do we not see these things for ourselves? Isn’t nature in a state of crisis? Having studied this question in some depth and breadth, I can confidently say: No. It has suffered some shocks, all right, but it’s hardly in a state of crisis. There are many things that remain to be done, and should be done, to improve the health of the environment. Nevertheless, long after you and I have passed from this world, long after the human population has shrunk to its preindustrial levels, long after the highways and cabins and ski lifts have returned to earth, nature will still be here, thriving and beautiful.
I am someone who hates waste and excess. When I take a shower I turn down the water as low as I can; I write on both sides of a sheet of paper; my cars have been chosen for fuel efficiency and whenever feasible are parked in favor of motorcycle, bicycle, or walking. That’s just the way I am—I guess I have absorbed the ethics of my parents, who lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s: Waste not, want not. Whatever the reason, I am struck and saddened by the profligacy and waste I see all around me, the lights kept blazing all night long, the buildings heated though no one is in them, the hordes of huge vehicles rushing everywhere at once on the roads. It would be really persuasive to say to everyone, “Cut back, or there will be an environmental disaster!” But the facts simply do not support this contention. Nice as it would be to pull out this trump card in an argument, I will instead stick to the truth. When all is said and done, it is more important to save the truth than it is to save material goods.
Environmental science—which is not to be confused with environmentalism— reveals nature to be very robust. It is not weak, no matter how many times you may have heard it described as fragile, sensitive, delicate, as though it were a structure of sticks and straws held together by spider webs. Certainly, we humans have had an effect on nature, but that effect is largely on our own sensibilities, and concerns our feelings about nature rather than the health of nature as such. When we see a clear-cut forest, our feelings are aroused; we see the death of the trees as a wound we have inflicted on the tender body of nature herself—but what the retired professor of forestry who visited me said is indeed true. In fact, nature destroys more trees every year by lightning-sparked fires than loggers mow down with their chain saws. Indeed, nature would destroy much more forest than it does now if it were not for our efforts to spot and put out forest fires.
If you have ever wandered through a burned forest, you will witness a far more thorough desolation than anything you will see in a clear-cut. After a forest fire, the trees, the shrubs, the grasses, the very soil itself is burned away, right up to the edges of streams and lakes. Nothing stirs. This is what nature does as part of her everyday business. By comparison, a logged forest is teeming with life, with rabbits, deer, and elk that come to munch on the newly verdant ground cover that had previously been suppressed under the dark forest canopy. But despite the desolation of the burned forest, despite the mournfulness we feel among the charred trunks that stand like lonely sentinels, forest fires play a role in the natural cycle of death and renewal.
It is difficult for us to accept death. Millions of years of evolution have ingrained in us a love of life and a horror of death. But we must remind ourselves that death is just the other side of the very same natural process that gives us life. Ephemeral creatures such as human beings tend to overlook nature’s big picture: Whether it falls to the logger or to lightning, the forest grows back, at least until the next ice age crushes it under miles of ice. And even then, after a few hundreds of thousands of years, the ice will retreat and the forests march toward the poles once again. There is no wonder that we fail to notice this big picture, given that our lives occur in a flash against the almost inconceivably huge background it presents.
Every summer I return to one of the most beautiful—and busiest—national parks on the planet. The marks of human beings are many. Sprawling towns have sprung up to house, feed, and entertain the legions of vacationers. The highways are clamorous rivers of cars, trucks, trailers, and recreational vehicles. The people in these vehicles wish the other vehicles were not there. They wish that they had the highway all to themselves, that they had nature all to themselves. They complain about the traffic, about the noise, about the crowds of people—and about the destruction of nature. Yes, the people in these vehicles have environmentalist sympathies. They don’t like the traffic that they themselves create. They would like to see nature untamed rather than under their own wheels. They would like to see nature reign rather than subdued by human beings—all from the comfort of their front seats.
Yet, despite the highway, the motels, the towns, the many marks of humankind, nature does, in fact, still reign. An hour’s walk into the woods beside the highway takes you to a place few people witness, where lodgepole pine perfumes the air, where purple fireweed blooms unseen, where grizzlies and black bear are the local authorities. By the time you have reached the ridge of the mountain a few miles back from the highway, the highway is invisible, and nothing can be heard but the wind, the birds, the insects, the distant whisper of rushing water—the same sounds that have filled these mountain passes for thousands of years. Over the ridge you see range after range of mountains invisible from the highway. They are topped with glaciers glinting in the sun, the remnants of the last ice age, and down below you see valley after cool green valley. These realms are open to those few people who take the time, the trouble, the energy, to walk—not to mention the risk of crossing paths with an angry or hungry bear. This place, and millions like it, was here through all the innumerable wars and armistices, all the loves and losses, all the comings and goings of human history, and was untouched by them.
Figure I.1 World population peak. The United Nations estimates that world population will peak at just over 9 billion people in 2075, the year when the birth rate falls below the death rate. Because we are living longer due to steady increases in life expectancy, the population peaks very gradually, with the old heavily outnumbering the young. Birth rates continue to fall slowly and death rates continue to rise slowly up to 2100, causing accelerating population shrinkage. (Based on UNDESA 2004, pp. 5–17.)
The bottom line of this book is good news: This place on the mountain ridge, this lovely wilderness, will remain. I cannot give you a guarantee, for no one knows the future with certainty. Still, we can, and do, rely on reasonable expectations for the future—as we must. To live today we must have some belief about the morrow. And the vast range of evidence indicates that most human development will happen not in the wilderness, but along the highways, on the farms, in the towns, and in the cities. Not every one of the millions of places like this one on the mountain ridge will remain untouched, but most will. And by the end of this century, when human population is in the beginning of its long decline (Figure I.1), this place on the mountain ridge will be visited even less by human beings.
Eventually, inevitably, wilderness will begin to reclaim territory borrowed from it for awhile by humankind, and once again nothing will be heard but the wind, the birds, the insects, and the whisper of distant waterfalls. That is the good news.
If you cannot accept it, ask yourself why not. If you truly love nature, is it not cynical to reject this good news absolutely? If, on the other hand, you are willing to admit at least the possibility of good news, then please read on.
- University of Victoria, Canada, December 3, 1999 ↩
- Notable among these is Andrew Weaver, a climatologist and one of the lead authors of the vastly influential Assessment Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. ↩
- His research (Lewis 1992; Lewis and Wang 1992, 1998; Lewis et al. 1993) involved measuring the temperature at various levels below the surface of the ground using boreholes. As is well known, the surface temperature of the ground is transmitted slowly downward through the underlying soil and rocks to yield a temperature record. The average surface temperatures going back for decades can be recovered from such measurements. His research showed that a sudden and permanent warming of a few degrees occurs when the ground cover, typically forest, is removed. The amount of warming correlates well with the heat energy that would have been used in transpiration by the trees that have been removed. This warming cannot be explained by global greenhouse warming, since it occurs all at once, at the time of deforestation for the different sites. Since most temperature records come from places where widespread changes in ground cover have occurred, these findings could explain temperature rises in these records on a basis other than anthropogenic global warming. ↩
- In subsequent chapters, especially Chapter 5, we will have opportunity to explore further the rise of “environmental science” and its implications for both environmentalism and science. ↩
- James Gary Shelton; see his book Bear Attacks (1998). ↩