By Mike Gemmell
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.
(Originally published in Rational Readings on Environmental Concerns, 1992, ed. Jay Lehr)
The driving force behind the environmental movement is the idea that nature is a value regardless of its utility to man. Its wonders are to be preserved rather than modified. Modification is destruction according to the environmentalist creed. The more extreme elements of the environmental movement such as the group Earth First say this explicitly. To one degree or another, the environmental mainstream believes that nature’s value is separate from its relationship to human well-being.
What is the appeal of environmentalism? Why does it persist when its leading proponents such as Paul Ehrlich and Steven Schneider keep prophesying disaster after disaster that never occur? In my judgment, its appeal has two components: the manipulation of fear in regards to the dynamics of capitalism, and the offering of an allegedly positive alternative to relieve that fear. This is the same technique used by intellectuals to attack capitalism for the last 200 years. However, earlier intellectuals addressed the social aspects of capitalism while the environmentalists concentrate on the dynamics of capitalism as related to man’s transformation of nature.
Capitalism is a political-economic system that is dynamic by nature. Its implementation led to the transformation of society and nature by breaking down social class barriers and by the use of technology to create industrial civilization. The transformation of both society and nature is inseparable for the flourishing of capitalism.
Sustaining the dynamics of capitalism requires an understanding and acceptance of change. It requires a consistent philosophic perspective showing that the inherent changes brought about by capitalism represent an overall improvement in the quality of life. Unfortunately, from its very inception its defenders have not displayed that perspective. For example, a prominent thinker of the Enlightenment, John Locke, combined elements of collectivism with individualism in his moral theories.
In the social realm, the contradictions of the Enlightenment thinkers were exploited by Rousseau, Marx, and others. They manipulated people’s fear of change by asserting that workers would become slaves under capitalism, and they offered a seductive vision of utopia based on communal solidarity.
After 200 years of trying to implement this vision its intellectual bankruptcy has finally become apparent. The realization that the individual must take responsibility for himself and not look to the state is being revived around the world. However, the defense for the other half of capitalism, the transformation of nature, has not fully emerged. Consequently, the environmental movement has moved into the void.
The environmentalists have employed the same technique as early intellectuals of manipulating peoples’ fears of the dynamic changes inherent in capitalism, this time in regard to nature. In the 1970s it was the fear of global cooling; whereas now it is global warming, the ozone layer, etc. Their allegedly positive alternative to capitalism is to claim that man can live in harmony with nature if he does not alter it with industrialization.
But their alleged love of nature is a smokescreen for their underlying fear (not to mention loathing) of the dynamics of capitalism. Their motives have been revealed as evidenced by their almost total lack of concern over Saddam Hussein’s torching of Kuwait’s oil fields. This action was the worst man-made environmental disaster in human history. (Even so, indications are that the effects are localized and the environment will recover. It remains to be seen whether the people of Kuwait will.) Yet, the reaction of the environmental community was lukewarm, at best. On the other hand, Exxon, in 1989, accidentally ran a tanker aground, lost millions of dollars, was convicted of a criminal offense, and still had the environmental community on its back like a pack of vultures.
The environmentalists have promoted the idea that nature is benevolent to the point that it has become religious dogma with nature as their god. They refuse to acknowledge that an advanced technological society is on balance safer than a non-technological society and they twist scientific data to support that view. Freedom from religious or ideological intolerance is a fundamental right in the U.S. and environmental mainstream is blatantly violating it.
The defense of capitalism needs a philosophical perspective that integrates environmental values into a capitalistic context. However, for this to occur the standard of value has to be the enhancement of human life.
Nature is not inherently benevolent; yet it is inherently understandable. It is the inherent logic of natural laws that allow us not to simply utilize nature but to improve upon it. It is through knowledge that a genuine reverence for nature can develop. It this knowledge that allows us to deal with nature with confidence rather than with the chronic fear propagated by the environmentalists.
Man’s mistakes pale next to the destruction caused by natural forces. The Amoco Cadiz spill of 1978 was six times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez, yet within two years the French Brittany coast had recovered with the exception of some marsh areas which took several years longer (Political Economy Research Center, April 1991 News Release). From a broader perspective, the divisions between different periods of geologic time scale have been delineated based on mass extinctions. For example, at least twice in geologic history, at the end of the Paleozoic Era and the Cretaceous period (225 and 65 million years ago, respectively), up to 75% of the species on earth died out.
Even with these catastrophic changes the ecosystems of the world recovered and evolved. But Life does not end at the level of an ecosystem just as human life does not end at the level of society. The ecosystem in the natural world and societies in the human world are abstractions describing the interactions of living organisms. They are not themselves entities capable of making life-sustaining decisions.
When individual human life is held as the standard, the pro-human form of environmentalism will naturally develop. No one cares more about nature than those who deal with it on a continuing basis for their livelihood. I have witnessed this phenomenon while attending the Redwood Region Logging Conference in the Pacific Northwest. The loggers of the Northwest care about the health of the forest. They know its rhythms, why it changes, and how to utilize it for human well-being. They know that short-sighted harvesting techniques lead to the depletion of valuable resources. People like the loggers in the northwest truly deserve the dual term – industrialist/environmentalist.
Should we expect the new industrialist/environmentalists to be perfect custodians of the environment? Of course not. But it’s a good bet that none of their mistakes will wipe out 75% of the species on the planet. Furthermore, through the application of science, technology, and a philosophical perspective that holds human life as the standard of value, their mistakes will be insignificant compared to the benefits they bring to both mankind and nature.
Lead essay for Rational Readings on Environmental Concerns 1992 and originally printed in
The Free-Market Environmentalist
Vol 1, No. 3, August 1991
Mike Gemmell is the editor and publisher of The Free-Market Environmentalist. He was previously affiliated with Dames & Moore as a project manager; and with Woodward-Clyde Consultants as an assistant project hydro-geologist.
Mr. Gemmell received his B.S. in geology from the University of California; and his M.S. in hydro-geology from California State University. He has contributed to Ground Water Monitoring Review and is a regular contributor to The Free-Market Environmentalist.