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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Environmentalism

Whole Earth Festival is coming up, and this is a good time to think about environmental issues. We frequently encounter people praising “sustainability,” “eco-friendliness,” and being “green.” But what do these terms really mean? Often these terms are associated with taking care of the environment or “minimizing our impact” on the environment.

The environment is really just our surroundings — not just the complex biological and physical relationships in nature, but also the human environment. But if we care about living long and healthy lives and getting access to the most efficient and reliable sources of energy to promote the human environment, we have to exploit nature. That is the means by which humans have always conquered the problem of survival.

It was capitalism (the political-economic system that protects individual rights and leaves people to pursue their values and act on their judgment free of government coercion), and the industrial progress that followed its establishment, that allowed men and women to continually improve our human environment. We developed systems to purify water, discovered ways to reduce the presence of disease-carrying germs and discovered how to contain waste in safer ways through sewage systems.

With fossil fuels taken from nature, we have made our lives immeasurably superior through automobile, airplane and train transport. Many of our clothes are even synthesized with oil products. Our lives are amazing and long, and our population is more than a hundred times larger than it was when this country was founded. That is a true achievement.

When people speak of minimizing our impact on the environment by being “sustainable” (in capitalism, no mode of production is “unsustainable” due to the system of prices) or “green,” they are clearly not speaking of the human environment. They speak of the non-human environment — the polar bears, the whales, the trees, the soil and so on. Minimizing our impact on these really means lowering our standards of living and the quality of our production for the sake of nature. It means rejecting the greatness of industrial progress.

Don’t think that environmentalists who call for minimizing our impact on the environment are looking out for the interests of humans. Aside from advocating for rights-violating regulations and often opposing nuclear power (which is extremely safe: the Fukushima disaster, an unusually disastrous failure, did not result in any deaths), environmentalists call for the use of inefficient energies such as solar and wind power.

If those energy sources were really better, they would win out on the free market, without help from the coercive government subsidies that environmentalists often cherish.

To be sure, the burning of fossil fuels creates waste, as does nuclear energy. There is no form of energy for humans that does not create waste: Consider the fossil fuels that are necessary to mine the metals required to build and transport solar panels and wind turbines.

The point is that we should not merely focus on the negatives and then deem these energy sources unsustainable or dirty. Given the context, i.e. how our lives depend so much upon fossil fuels and exploiting the environment more generally, we should figure out constructive ways to deal with problems such as pollution. We need to keep it away from the air people breathe or water people drink (which, by the way, can be done with individual property rights).

Take a moment during the Whole Earth Festival not to condemn the impact of humans on the natural environment, but to celebrate how we have improved our condition through the ingenious use of natural resources.

TRISTAN DE LIEGE can be reached at tflenaerts@ucdavis.edu.

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