Environmentalism Should Not Be a Religion

By Novak, Michael | The American Enterprise, January-February 2005 | Go to article overview

Environmentalism Should Not Be a Religion


Novak, Michael, The American Enterprise


The single most original and successful social movement of the late twentieth century was environmentalism. It arose seemingly out of nowhere, yet immediately grew into a huge majority. It swept in new legislation that effected stunning gains in air quality, water purity, and the return of forests and wildlife. During the same period, three rather large mistakes were made by enthusiasts who went too far.

First, environmentalism was cast as a new religion, an exaltation of innocent nature. Some Greens scarcely acknowledged that nature sometimes works against the well-being of humans. Through volcanic eruptions and many other natural activities, for example, nature spews far more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than human beings do. Nature's emissions may be a far greater part of "global warming" than environmentalists will admit. By idealizing nature, some Greens lost sight of practical problem-solving.

Second, some enthusiasts brought socialist economic prejudices to their views of environmentalism. Faced with any environmental problem, they immediately applied a socialist analysis and a statist solution. Thus the quip arose, "Environmentalists are like tomatoes: They begin green, but by the end of the season they are red." In short, eco-socialism masqueraded as environmentalism.

Third, some environmentalists have adopted the rhetorical style and outlook of hell-and-brimstone preachers. They warn of the end of the world and demand punishment, sackcloth, and conversion. U.S. Senator and nearly successful Presidential candidate Al Gore, for instance, demanded "bold efforts to change the very foundation of civilization." The language of pessimism, apocalypse, and self-reform colors discussion of the environment. Dissenters are treated as sinners.

The pessimistic, apocalyptic litany of the Green requiem is recited almost daily in the media. One famous formulation of the dirge, by Bjorn Lomborg, runs as follows:

Our resources are running out. The population is ever growing, leaving less and less to eat. The air and water are becoming ever more polluted. The planet's species are becoming extinct in vast numbers--we kill off more than 40,000 each year. The forests are disappearing, fish stocks are collapsing, and the coral reefs are dying. We are defiling our Earth, the fertile topsoil is disappearing; we are paving over nature, destroying the wilderness, decimating the biosphere, and will end up killing ourselves in the process. The world's ecosystem is breaking down. We are fast approaching the absolute limit of viability, and the limits of growth are becoming apparent.

The truth is, all these claims have been proven false.

Likewise with the famously mistaken "limits of growth" proclaimed by the Club of Rome in the heyday of environmental activism. It turns out that whatever vital resource the doomsayers wish to choose, its price continues to fall in the medium- to long-term, as new supplies or substitutes are discovered, and demand is reduced by market adjustments to price.

The refusal of some environmental activists to recognize their own great successes--and the extremism of their apocalyptic views--has begun to undercut their credibility. All the harsh environmentalist attacks on automobiles, for example, ignore the stark problems linked to the horses that cars displaced. In the year 1900 there were more than 20 million horses in the United States, with a combined transport capability equaling three quarters of the carrying capacity of all U.S. railroads. The average horse required about 39 pounds of food per day, or five tons per year. Some 25 percent of all U.S. farmland--93 million acres--was tied up just growing that horse feed.

In addition, each horse produced about 12,000 pounds of manure and 400 gallons of urine per year. Millions of horses on city streets were thus toxic for public health and offensive to public cleanliness. …

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