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The Costs of the Environmentalism Cult

by Bruce S. Thornton // FrontPage Magazine

California is in the third year of a drought, but the problem isn’t a lack of water. The snowfall in the Sierra provides enough to help us ride out the years of drought. All we need to do is store it.

WaterArchives.org via Flickr

WaterArchives.org via Flickr

But California hasn’t built a new dam in 35 years. Worse than that, every year we dump 1.6 million acre-feet of water––about enough to serve 3.2 million families for a year––into the Pacific Ocean in order to protect an allegedly “endangered” 3-inch bait-fish called the Delta smelt. California’s $45 billion agricultural industry, a global breadbasket that produces nearly half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables, is set to take a huge hit, with hundreds of thousands of acres left fallow and the San Joaquin Valley region’s already sky-high 17% unemployment destined to increase.

Meanwhile President Obama continues to dither on approving the Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada. The latest in a string of environmental impact studies since 2008 has determined that the pipeline poses no threat to the environment. Indeed, it will lessen spills and pollution by transporting oil by pipeline rather than by more risky trains. Nor will abandoning the pipeline reduce carbon emissions, as the 830,000 barrels of oil will simply go someplace else, most likely China, the world’s leader in carbon emissions. What will happen is up to 40 thousand American jobs will not be created, and dependence on imported oil from hostile countries like Venezuela will not be reduced. Meanwhile because the pipeline crosses our border with Canada, Secretary of State John Kerry, a long-time environmentalist scold who as a Senator in 2012 voted against an amendment approving the pipeline, will probably end up making the decision.

These are just two of numerous examples of how environmental policy harms our economic interests. Empowered by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, these policies cost the economy $353 billion a year, according to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and untold billions more in oil wells left undrilled on federal lands and infrastructure like dams not built because of the numerous pettifogging environmental impact studies that look for risks that are the equivalent of the danger that a man could drown in one-eighth of an inch of water.

Before around 1960, anybody other than a crank would have been flabbergasted at such suicidal stupidity and policies one would expect from an enemy or a rival. An illiterate farmer in the 19th century knew you had to husband natural resources and protect them for the future, but he would never have idealized a harsh natural world that only stubbornly and by dint of hard labor produces sustenance for humans. But that was before environmentalism evolved into a cult for an affluent society of people so rich that they can take for granted their protection from nature by technology and industrialism, all the while it demonizes a modern world those same people couldn’t live without for five seconds.

What makes this cult particularly dangerous, however, is its patina of science that suggests such attitudes are not an expression of a sentimentalized romantic nature-love, but rather the fruit of reason and scientific fact. But behind all the quantitative data and mathematically based research lies a fundamental incoherence about humans and their relationship to nature. As usual, behind bad policy lies bad philosophy.

The central mistake of the romantic environmentalist is to gloss over the profound differences between human beings and the natural world. We are not “natural” creatures. What makes us human is everything that exists nowhere else in the natural world: the mind, language, consciousness, memory, higher emotions, and culture. None of these exist even in the highest primates. Apes do not craft tools, marry, name their offspring, bury their dead, live by laws or customs, or respect inalienable rights. This radical uniqueness of human identity means that we do not have a “harmonious” relationship with nature, but an adversarial and conflicted one. The natural world is the alien, inhuman realm of blind force, indifferent to suffering, death, and beauty. It is meaningless, for only humans bestow meaning on the world. And that meaning reflects our knowledge that each of us is unique, a creature that appears only once, and that each of us must die.

Most important, unlike everything else in the natural world ruled by necessity, humans are free. As French critic Luc Ferry writes, “Man is free enough to die of freedom.” And from that freedom comes morality, all the things we are obligated to do or not do, particularly in regard to our fellow humans. The nexus of consciousness of our individual uniqueness and necessary death, our freedom to choose to act against nature’s determinism, and our moral obligations to one another is what makes us unnatural––and human. Nature is our home only by dint of our alteration of it to make it suitable for such creatures, and that process is one of conflict and struggle against the brutal forces of extinction and destruction that have characterized the natural world for the 3.6 billion years life has existed.

The unnatural uniqueness of humans makes talk of “harmony” with nature the Disneyesque fantasy of rich people protected from nature’s cruelty by a high-tech civilization. Thus the proper view of nature should be how do we interact with our world and use its resources in order to benefit the greatest number of humans today, and to ensure that those who come after us have the resources to live well. Every environmental policy should start with that assumption. And we should determine the goods we want from nature––from economic development to the preservation of natural beauty––through the democratic process, not by the diktats of self-selected elites who mask their preferences as science rather than taste, and enlist the coercive power of the federal government to impose those subjective preferences at the expense of the well-being of everybody else.

As it is today, the biggest beneficiaries of our civilization indulge a sentimentalized nature love the cost of which is borne by others. They attack the technology and the free-market economic system that have created the unprecedented wealth, comfort, and leisure that they take for granted, but that their policies deny to others less privileged. The irrationalism and hypocrisy of modern environmentalism is a “black-market religion,” as Chantal Delsol puts it, a feel-good cult that makes its adherents feel superior to the grubby masses and the corporate barbarians who create the wealth and products that make their existence possible. Meanwhile jobs are not created, economic growth is burdened by costly regulations, and our national interests are compromised by the failure to exploit our country’s resources. That’s too high a price to pay just so some people can enjoy a pleasing fantasy.

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About victorhanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture. He recently published an historical novel The End of Sparta (2012), a realistic retelling of Epaminondas invasion and liberation of Spartan-control Messenia. In The Father of Us All (2011), he collected earlier essays on warfare ancient and modern. His upcoming history The Savior Generals(2013) analyzes how five generals in the history of the West changed the course of battles against all odds. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson, who was the fifth successive generation to live in the same house on his family’s farm, was a full-time orchard and vineyard grower from 1980-1984, before joining the nearby CSU Fresno campus in 1984 to initiate a classical languages program. In 1991, he was awarded an American Philological Association Excellence in Teaching Award, which is given yearly to the country’s top undergraduate teachers of Greek and Latin. Hanson has been a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California (1992-93), a visiting professor of classics at Stanford University (1991-92), a recipient of the Eric Breindel Award for opinion journalism (2002), an Alexander Onassis Fellow (2001), and was named alumnus of the year of the University of California, Santa Cruz (2002). He was also the visiting Shifrin Professor of Military History at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland (2002-3). He received the Manhattan Institute’s Wriston Lectureship in 2004, and the 2006 Nimitz Lectureship in Military History at UC Berkeley in 2006. Hanson is the author of hundreds of articles, book reviews, scholarly papers, and newspaper editorials on matters ranging from ancient Greek, agrarian and military history to foreign affairs, domestic politics, and contemporary culture. He has written or edited 17 books, including Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (1983; paperback ed. University of California Press, 1998); The Western Way of War (Alfred Knopf, 1989; 2d paperback ed. University of California Press, 2000); Hoplites: The Ancient Greek Battle Experience (Routledge, 1991; paperback., 1992); The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization(Free Press, 1995; 2nd paperback ed., University of California Press, 2000);Fields without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea (Free Press, 1996; paperback, Touchstone, 1997; The Bay Area Book reviewers Non-fiction winner for 1996); The Land Was Everything: Letters from an American Farmer (Free Press, 2000; a Los Angeles Times Notable book of the year); The Wars of the Ancient Greeks (Cassell, 1999; paperback, 2001); The Soul of Battle (Free Press, 1999, paperback, Anchor/Vintage, 2000); Carnage and Culture (Doubleday, 2001; Anchor/Vintage, 2002; a New York Times bestseller); An Autumn of War (Anchor/Vintage, 2002); Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (Encounter, 2003),Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), and Between War and Peace (Random House, 2004). A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, was published by Random House in October 2005. It was named one of the New York Times Notable 100 Books of 2006. Hanson coauthored, with John Heath, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (Free Press, 1998; paperback, Encounter Press, 2000); with Bruce Thornton and John Heath, Bonfire of the Humanities (ISI Books, 2001); and with Heather MacDonald, and Steven Malanga, The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan Than Today’s (Ivan Dee 2007). He edited a collection of essays on ancient warfare, Makers of Ancient Strategy (Princeton University Press, 2010). Hanson has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune, New York Post, National Review, Washington Times, Commentary, The Washington Post, Claremont Review of Books, American Heritage, New Criterion, Policy Review, Wilson Quarterly, Weekly Standard, Daily Telegraph, and has been interviewed often on National Public Radio, PBS Newshour, Fox News, CNN, and C-Span’s Book TV and In-Depth. He serves on the editorial board of the Military History Quarterly, and City Journal. Since 2001, Hanson has written a weekly column for National Review Online, and in 2004, began his weekly syndicated column for Tribune Media Services. In 2006, he also began thrice-weekly blog for Pajamas Media, Works and Days. Hanson was educated at the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA, Classics, 1975, ‘highest honors’ Classics, ‘college honors’, Cowell College), the American School of Classical Studies, Athens (regular member, 1978-79) and received his Ph.D. in Classics from Stanford University in 1980. He divides his time between his forty-acre tree and vine farm near Selma, California, where he was born in 1953, and the Stanford campus.

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