Mike Gemmell & Jay Lehr, Ph.D.
Mike Gemmell is the founder and president of Restore Our American Republic (ROAR). Prior to founding ROAR, he was a geologist specializing in groundwater resource development, a technical writer, and a freelance writer addressing environmental and other cultural issues. For more information on his professional background please see: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelmgemmell.
Western Philosophers Devolve Individual Rights
The current level of environmental awareness has its origins in the ecology movement, which began in the middle of the 19th century. It developed when the ideas of the Age of Reason were coming under attack.
The fundamental ideas set forth in the Age of Reason were that man’s rational faculty was his means of dealing with reality and that a rational faculty was the property of the individual, not society. One example of these ideas in action was the creation of the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights that explicitly protected the rights of the individual.
By the end of the 18th century, however,Western philosophers began attacking the fundamental ideas of the Age of Reason. The most effective attack was mounted by German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He contended that reality was subjective rather than objective. His alleged proof was that the senses distort reality rather than perceive it.
The German philosopher George Hegel carried the attack on objective reality even further. According to him, reality is inherently contradictory and true reality consists of the identity of opposites. Hegel’s alleged proof involved the use of a dialectic logic (combinations of opposites to form a higher truth).
These attacks on objective reality and Man’s means of perceiving it (senses, logic, rational faculty) were used as a foundation for the attacks on the dominant ideas of ethics. Kant and Hegel contended, in essence, that what appeared to be true (i.e., humans were individual beings) did not represent the higher truth. That higher truth being, individuals were appendages of society. In the “Philosophy of Right,” Hegel states: “A single person, I need hardly say, is something subordinate, and as such he must dedicate himself to the ethical whole. Hence if the state claims life, the individual must surrender it.”
Into this framework of ideas, ecology was born.
In the Beginning
The Origin of the Ecologic World View
Ecology as an identifiable philosophy began with the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel (Ecology in the 20th Century, A. Bramwell, 1989). Haeckel coined the term “ecology” in his 1866 book Generelle Morphologie in which he defined ecology as the science of the relationships between organisms and their environment.
It is crucial to recognize that ecology was, from the very beginning, primarily a philosophic rather than a scientific area of study. Science is the systematic study, observation, experimentation, and development of theoretical explanations to explain some aspect of the natural world. Philosophy defines the fundamental nature of living things and their relationship to the physical world. By analogy, philosophy is the soil of the forest; science consists of the trees within it. Scientific study proceeds from a philosophic framework.
Ernst Haeckel’s scientific work involved the study of microscopic forms of life. From this, he made sweeping assertions about the nature of life and Man’s place in it. Like most 19th and 20th century ecologists, he attempted to influence politics with his ideas.
An understanding of the nature of ecology is necessary to grasp its uniquely destructive power. Although it is philosophical, it has a scientific veneer that has allowed it to intellectually disarm the public.
The Founding Principles
Ecology is Based on Two False Principles
Two fundamental principles form the core of ecologic philosophy: Holistic biology and resource economics. Holistic biology is the doctrine that all life, and even non-life, is part of a larger collective organism. This organism has been called “Mother Nature,” “Planet Earth,” and “Gaia,” to name a few. Ecology’s conception of resource economics asserts that resources available for life should be conserved owing to the inevitable long-term loss of energy due to Man’s activities. Those are the principles. The question is, are they true?
The most fundamental problem inherent in holistic biology is its lack of distinction between the living and the nonliving. Living organisms composed of matter use energy to sustain life. Inanimate matter, on the other hand, releases or absorbs energy in response to external forces. In other words, living things exhibit goal-oriented behavior while nonliving entities do not. As an example, a child running down a hill to fetch water from a lake differs from a rock rolling down the same hill on its way to splashing into the same lake.
In addition to obliterating the distinction between the living and nonliving, holistic biology falsely asserts that biological systems (ecosystems) act as collective organisms. The best argument put forth to support this theory references Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory. This theory has been misapplied to situations in which a number of different organisms react to changes in a given ecosystem (e.g., drought, fire, etc.). Because a number of organisms are reacting to changes in an ecosystem, it is claimed, this represents collectivized behavior orchestrated by Mother Nature.
The appearance of directed behavior by Mother Nature results from the inhabitants scrambling to adjust to altered conditions. Loss in plant biomass, due to a natural catastrophe, means animals that consume plants will have to compete harder to obtain a smaller amount of food. This effect, in turn, ripples up the food chain to affect other animals. In this scenario, a number of organisms are reacting to changed conditions to preserve their individual lives. It is not orchestration of events of a larger collective organism.
Ecology’s resource economics, asserts that resources used are resources irretrievably lost. A review of energy transfer disproves this theory.
The earth is continually bathed in energy via the sun. The earth rotates so that areas receive energy during the day and radiate energy into space during the night. Energy that is not daily radiated back into space is incorporated into biologic organisms (photosynthesis, for instance) or into various physical systems (weather cycles, etc.). Energy is continually in transit, but is not lost in either physical or biological systems.
The use of fossil fuel resources for energy illustrates this principle. Fossil fuels have been used as energy sources for several centuries. If their use represents an irretrievable loss, then the cost of these resources should increase with time. In fact, the opposite is true. Rather, the costs of these resources relative to per capita income, when adjusted for inflation, have been declining for decades (Population Matters: People, Resources, Environment & Immigration, J. Simon, 1990).
Simply and truthfully put, energy is a renewable resource as are other material resources. Energy is contained in all forms of matter, as Einstein proved. His famous equation, E=MC2, simply means energy and matter are different form of one another. Each time Man unlocks an energy source, it is used to enhance his life and then, via one route or another, is transferred to earth’s physical or biological systems. It is not lost. The same is true for material resources. They change form, but they are not truly destroyed through Man’s use.
Natural law decrees that matter can be converted to energy and vice-versa. Man, with his rational faculty, discovered how this could be accomplished more efficiently over time by identifying better methods of extracting known resources and discovering new resources. From wood burning fire, to wood burning stoves, to coal, to oil, to nuclear fission, and someday to nuclear fusion, each step of the way has unleashed more efficient ways to use energy. This is why the more efficiently energy is used the higher the standard of living that can be maintained.
Founding Principles to Historic Folly
Militant German Ecologists Pursue Their World Vision
It was inevitable that ecologists would advocate force in bringing their ecologic ideals to life. False ideas cannot be implemented through rational discourse and the policies proceeding therefrom. In 1905, Haeckel became president of the Monist League which advocated the implementation of the ecologic ideal by force. By the 1920s, the Back-to-the-Land movement and its anti-technologic ideal were in full force and capitalism was being actively attacked by ecologists. Capitalism was seen as being individualistic, not oriented toward nature, wasteful of resources, and non-holistic.
Coercive laws and other restrictive regulations are the first steps taken when people attempt to implement false ideas. These controls breed further controls. However, the ideas breeding these controls, or at least their destructive effects, will eventually become apparent to individuals within society. With time, more and more people will react by trying to influence the political process. Political pull then becomes the dominant force directing the movement of a culture. This was the atmosphere of the 1920s and 1930s in Germany, and ecologic ideas were a major contributor to it.
In the 1930s the ecologists’ Green Revolution reached full flower in Germany. Their rallying cry, “Blood and Soil,” was an ecological slogan indicative of the ecologists’ holistic vision of biological roots to the soil. In the political sphere, ecologists lobbied successfully for antivivisection laws (prevention of animal research for medical purposes), creation of nature reserves, implementation of organic farming (known as biodynamic farming), and the redistribution of large land holdings to the German peasants (Back-to-the-Land movement).
These laws became the policies of a political party that incorporated a major portion of the ecologist’s political agenda. The party also believed in the “Blood and Soil” ethic, and was known as the National Socialist Party. Its leader was Adolph Hitler.
Adolph Hitlers become possible when a culture is unable to resolve the contradictions in its philosophic framework. People eventually become confused, disoriented, and vulnerable to someone like Hitler who promises them answers to all their problems.
From Kant to Hegel to Haeckel to Nazi Germany, one country’s ideas and one country’s actions, this can hardly be termed as a coincidence.
Kant preached self-sacrifice for one’s fellow man; Hegel preached self-sacrifice for the “organic whole,” and Haeckel preached self-sacrifice for “Mother Nature.” Kant’s ethics were tailor made for a totalitarian state, although he didn’t explicitly advocate it. Hegel did. Haeckel did. The leading ecologists of the 1930s did – and they got it.
An ideology built on a false foundation of ideas is by its nature unstable. The German people had been inculcated with the concept of “unity” for more than a century. They believed it, but the rest of the world remained to be unified. Ecologic ideals were eventually seen as an impediment to the technological development needed for Germany’s war effort. As a result, organic farming efforts were harassed by the SS and the Back-to-the-Land Movement faded during World War II.
With the end of World War II, Nazism and associated philosophic ideas such as ecology went into hibernation in Europe. However, German philosophy had not reached the climax of its influence in the United States.
The Ecology Movement Takes Hold in the U.S.
The 1960s saw the climax of the influence of German philosophy in the United States and, not coincidentally, resurgence of the ecology movement.
The 60s were a poignant example of the power of philosophic ideas. With the end of World War II, the modern socialist ideas fueled by the ideas of Kant, Hegel, and others lost their appeal as a moral force. Intellectuals began to see what living for “society,” “mankind,” etc., meant in practice. This confusion led to skepticism toward any philosophic perspective. (The Ominous Parallels, L. Peikoff, 1982)
Student activists were explicitly antibusiness, anti-profit, anti-family, anti-reason, and anti-establishment. Tom Hayden accurately summarized their outlook in 1968: “First we will make the revolution, and then we find out what for.”
It is literally impossible to be skeptical toward everything. To do so is to completely paralyze thought and the human life that depends on it. Some allegedly positive values slipped in: the free speech movement, the peace movement, and the nature movement also known as the ecology movement.
The free speech movement was thinly veiled nihilism. A small group of leftist radicals on the U.C. Berkeley campus led by Mario Savio demanded the right to say whatever they thought, whatever and whenever they thought, and accused anyone who opposed them of restricting their free speech. The free speech movement eventually died. Its proponents failed to realize that flag burning and other nihilistic displays would not endear them to the American people.
The peace movement was somewhat more successful. Largely through this movement’s influence, the U.S. withdrew from the Vietnam War. The essence of this movement was that force should not be used, even in resisting force initiated by others. This movement continues to affect the thinking of U.S. leaders today.
However, the ecology movement was the undisputed winner in the movements started in the 1960s. It had one of America’s most treasured values defending it – science, or to be precise, a small number of scientists claiming to represent science. They were, in essence, the 20th century version of Ernst Haeckel, philosophers masquerading behind the veneer of science.
Ecology’s 20th Century Mother
19th Century Falsehoods Are Resurrected
Rachel Carson began the resurrection of the ecology movement with the publication of Silent Spring in 1962. She identified some legitimate problems involved in the use of pesticides. However, she didn’t stop there. She made sweeping statements about how the profit motive, capitalism, and industrial society were to blame for the problems caused by pesticide use. Her partly scientific approach, combined with her emotionally-charged prose, brought her book to a wide audience.
The widespread readership of Carson’s book prompted further attention. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb: Population Control or Race to Oblivion? In which he asserted that widespread death and famine would unfold worldwide if population and the associated industrial technology that was consuming enormous amounts of energy were to go unchecked. In 1969, Senator Edmund Muskie hosted senate hearings focusing on environmental problems, during which biologist Barry Commoner claimed that to save the environment, a change in the political and social system, including changing the U.S. Constitution, would be necessary. Uncontrolled technology was once again the culprit.
Probably the most prominent scientists to join the fray were Rene Dubos and George Wald. Dubos was a highly respected microbiologist at Rockefeller University. George Wald won a Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1968. Dubos’s message was that Western society, which was based on science, technology, and economic growth, was careening toward the death of the human race. The “unity” of life was very fragile and exhibited an “egg-shell” delicacy. Wald contended that unless society was reorganized, he could not see “how the human race will get itself much past the year 2000.”
These sentiments vividly illustrate the resurrection of the ideas of the 19th century ecologists. Holistic biology references such as death of the human race, unity of the planet, and an “egg shell delicacy” are clearly evident. References to ecology’s resource economics such as uncontrolled technology, economic growth, and excessive population overconsuming resources come through unmistakably.
Philosophic Corruption To Scientific Lunacy
Studies at MIT Fuel the Ecology Movement
When bad ideas are resurrected, destructive actions based on those ideas will inevitably follow. Two studies performed by MIT at the height of the environmental concern of the late 1960’s bear this out.
The first study was published in 1970 and was titled “The Report of the Study of Critical Environmental Problems” (SCEP). The “study assessed the impact of Man’s activities on earth” and stated explicitly:
- That critically needed scientific, technical, economic, industrial, and social data were fragmentary, contradictory, and in some cases unavailable.
- Few projections existed for rates of growth of various industrial sectors, relevant domestic and agricultural activities of Man and associated energy demands.
In fact, discussing specific results such as global warming, effects of oil spills on marine life, and discharge of industrial effluents into the ocean, the consistent response of this study was that not enough data were available. The statements concerning the authors’ understanding of global issues are particularly revealing:
- “CO2 seems to have been increasing throughout the world at about 0.2 percent per year… but the length of records is too short to place much emphasis on the deviations from a linear trend.”
- “The area of greatest uncertainty in connection with the effects of particles on the heat balance of the atmosphere is our current lack of knowledge of their optical properties in scattering or absorbing radiation from the sun or the earth.”
- “Research is most needed in providing a closer specification of the present state of the planet and in developing a more complete understanding of the mechanisms of interaction among atmosphere, ocean, and ecosystem.”
Simply put, the authors of the study had little understanding of how the planetary systems worked. Nevertheless, the study rampantly speculated on the disastrous events that might occur if ill-understood chemical reactions reacted with ill-understood planetary systems, etc., etc.
In 1972, the “The Limits of Growth” study was published. It concluded that the human race had perhaps 100 years left to live if its course remained unchanged. The study recommended an immediate end to economic growth. Not surprisingly, considering the prestige of MIT’s name combined with these startling recommendations, more than three million volumes of the study were sold worldwide.
Although this volume in sales indicates some outstanding merchandising skills, it doesn’t necessarily follow that great scientific methodology was part of the product. And, in fact, these “scientists” forgot to consider a small factor – the intelligence and resourcefulness of minds other than their own.
The study took present rates of growth and consumption and projected them over time while assuming that energy resources would remain static, They ignored or were unaware of the following:
- People would discover new resources.
- People could improve technology and utilize known resources more efficiently.
- Population growth rates do not continue exponentially or indefinitely. When industrialization occurs, birth rates fall,
These studies were ridiculed by Nobel Prize winning economist Gunnar Myrdal, among others. Unfortunately, the scattered public statements were not enough to counteract the immense circulation of volumes of the study. (Source for facts on “SCEP” and “Limits to Growth – The Apocalyptics, E. Efron, 1984, Chapter 1)
These studies acted as a catalyst to implement ecologic philosophy as public policy. In 1970, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created, and laws were rapidly promulgated concerning pesticides, air and water pollution, toxic substances, use of resources, and a host of other issues concerning “the environment.”
In many cases, these regulations responded to legitimate problems. Air and water pollution were occurring, and the misuse of toxic chemicals had been clearly documented. However, the sweeping scope of the laws addressing these issues indicated that the actual problems were seen not as instances of isolated ignorance or misuse, but as mere examples of a much larger problem. The legislation was based on ecology’s fundamentally flawed principles of holistic biology and resource economics.
Expanding Individual Property Rights Offers a Free-Market Solution
The philosophic roots of capitalism are presented in Ayn Rand’s 1967 book, Capitalism the Unknown Ideal, and are the foundation for free-market solutions to environmental issues, The fundamental principle that must be applied to environmental issues is individual rights. In most environmental contexts, this principle is, specifically, individual property rights.
All human beings are individuals. We are not part of some collective organism called Humanity, Society, Mother Earth, etc. Because we are individuals we must be able to function as individuals, which means we must have the right to own property. Property rights also properly extend to those resources we obtain by our efforts. This includes land, air, water, minerals, oil, etc.
By expanding the principles of property rights to include air, water, and other mediums, the legitimate problems we face can be addressed without coercive laws and regulations.
Air Property Rights
Pollution occurs when property rights for a given medium are not properly specified. Air as a common pool resource requires a different application of property rights than land, but the principle is still valid.
More than one equitable, objective method is available for assigning property rights to air in a basin. Assigning effluent rights on the basis of the size of land holdings is offered here as one method. (Non-landowners would rent air effluent rights as with other property rights)
As an example, assume a basin has an area of 1,000 acres and a carrying capacity of 1,000 units/day of an effluent (the equivalent of 1 unit/day/acre). If two landowners in the basin owned 0.5 and 5.0 acres, respectively, under this method they would be entitled to emission permits for 0.5 and 5.0 units of effluent per day, respectively. These permits would apply to stationary and non-stationary (automobiles, etc.) sources of pollution.
If one landowner generates less effluent than his permits allow, he could sell some of his permits to another landowner in the basin. The application of property rights allows all parties to pursue their own interests while simultaneously being protected from potentially destructive actions, such as impacts from pollutants, by others.
Such an approach would also foster technological innovation to reduce effluents further. When effluent reduction translates to lower costs via selling of effluent permits, higher profits will follow.
About the Authors, Free-Market Environmentalists
As ones who have spent a significant portion of their lives in the outdoors; we know the beauty and value of the natural environment. And as ones who believe in material prosperity, we know the value of the industrial environment. It is our hope that this essay has shown you we can have both in the same world.
Environmental quality and economic prosperity are achievable goals.
Originally published in
Rational Readings on Environmental Concerns