I live in the best environmental conditions in the history of mankind. Even in Chicago, my air and water is far cleaner than the air and water used by cavemen thousands of years ago. There are more natural resources today than there were before the industrial revolution. I am less likely to die or be harmed by nature than virtually every person born before me. The environment is the cleanest, healthiest, safest, and the most conducive to human life it has ever been.
To most people, this idea is impossible to imagine. What about the factories and their smoke stacks sending unpronounceable chemicals into the air around us? What about the depletion of finite natural resources? What about factory farming, pesticides, and slash and burn agriculture? What about the hundred or more years of nearly unregulated pollution which has torn minerals out of the ground, cut down trees, dumped PCBs into rivers, pumped carbon into the atmosphere, blown the tops off of mountains, stripped mined rolling hills, and generally pillaged planet earth?
This feeling of pessimism in the face of unprecedented environmental success is largely a result of a failure to properly conceptualize what the environment is. The two ecological definitions of “environment” from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary are:
- the circumstances, objects, or conditions by which one is surrounded
- the complex of physical, chemical, and biotic factors (as climate, soil, and living things) that act upon an organism or an ecological community and ultimately determine its form and survival
Clearly the circumstances, objects, and conditions of the vast majority of people on earth are sublime in the sense that we are wealthier, healthier, and safer than ever. I live in an apartment with heating and air conditioning, and with a refrigerator which keeps food imported from around the world fresh. My livelihood persists regardless of weather conditions (except maybe in extreme circumstances) and provides me with a standard of living superior to that of 19th century European kings. The second definition is just an extension of the first, and factors in the global network of social and economic interactions which provide me with my standard of living.
Yet these definitions do not represent the standard conception of environment. The conception we are taught in school, and further assaulted with in common parlance, is that the environment is a giant, amorphous blob of “stuff” which includes forests, the air, rivers, oceans, and other parts of the planet without any cohesive unifying element between them. For some reason, we must protect this environment from the “harm” of human interaction. An untouched pile of coal in the ground is a part of a healthy environment; getting that coal out of the ground and putting it to human use is bad for the environment.
The key component left out in this conception is the personalized nature of the environment. There is no single environment except in an extremely broad, meaningless sense that we all live on the same planet. In a more functional sense, my environment is determined by the things and areas which I directly interact with, not by distant places and things which I will never directly perceive.
The average river in America in 10,000 BC had fewer industrial pollutants in it than the average river in America today. The same can be said about most air and soil. Yet my environment is cleaner and healthier than those of cavemen. I use soap, ventilation, filtration systems, germ theory, and all of the facets of modern life to clean my environment for personal use.
On the other hand, cavemen used to light fires in their caves whenever they were cold and breathe in smoke for hours on end. They urinated and defecated in the same water sources they bathed in and drank from. They ate animals filled with dangerous bacteria and parasites. Who had the cleaner environment?
But those are external alterations, the cavemen still had the cleaner natural environment. So what? What good was it to cavemen that the air two hundred yards above their head was clean, or that the water upriver was free of man-made pollutants (but not the excrement of animals)? Who cares what the “untouched” environment is like? We always interact with our environment to shape it to our needs. Our ability to use reason to shape nature to our will is what separates humans from animals.
When you look at it this way, we can see that the environment used to be terrible. For most of human history, the environment would kill us when it was too warm, too cold, too rainy, not rainy enough, or when it produced too many insects, or did anything that our primitive technology couldn’t respond to. This caused men to desperately “destroy” the environment by cutting down trees, mining coal, and damning rivers so that the “untouched” environment wouldn’t kill us when weather patterns randomly shifted. Yet it is economic advancement and technological growth which is blamed for the lion’s share of “environmental decline” today. In reality, it is the exact opposite case.
In the introductory paragraph, I originally wrote, “the environment is the cleanest it has ever been in the Western world” rather than the whole world, but I soon realized my error. It is true there are places where impoverished individuals labor under skies darkened by soot and water poisoned by toxins, but even the vast majority of them have better environments than they did fifty years ago. The water is a little bit dirtier, but it is probably better filtered, and their food is more plentiful, their clothes of a higher quality, and their houses better built. “Sweat shop” laborers in India and China would rather work in a Nike factory next to a polluted river, than on a subsistence farm in the untouched countryside. Based on the migration movements within these countries, clearly they prefer the environment of one over the other.
What about climate change or other large scale environmental shifts caused by human interactions? I do not know to what degree human beings cause global environmental changes, but to the degree they theoretically do, the best solution is to further augment the environment to our needs. When humans first migrated north out of warm climates, their response to coldness was not to move back south, but to kill animals and wear their fur. When humans faced high infant mortality rates, their response was to improve agriculture to get a better food supply, not to stop having as many children. When the use of horses threatened the growth of cities, man started using the car, instead of moving to the country side.
Let there be no mistake, the left’s view of the environment is mystical and anti-human. It puts inanimate objects and mindless beasts on a higher moral level than conscious humans. It says that man must sacrifice himself so mountains can look pretty and water can be clear. Most importantly, it holds the standard of environmental health to be the degree to which nature is not used by men. By extension, the healthier the environment is, the more impoverished mankind is.
This false conception must be tossed aside. The environment is the surroundings of each individual, and the standard of its health is the value it provides to the individual. Do not think of human beings as a pox upon the earth, but rather think of the earth as a tool for human beings.
Credit to Alex Epstein for enabling me to understand many of these arguments.