Earth Day has become a political Rorschach test. Whether the mention of this day summons images of pagans dancing naked around a flowery meadow or kids cleaning up plastic around the school yard depends on which way someone leans in the U.S.’s bipolar political system. For some, the fact that it usually comes about a week after the IRS’s filing deadline is just a reminder that the environment is another tool that the man is trying to use to get into our pockets.
The bigger issue with the environment is that much of the environmental movement is tied up with strongly anti-human sentiments.
We need a more humane environmentalism.
Less Divisive Origins of Earth Day
The environment was not always a political football. At least not to the same degree it is now. In the late 60’s, America’s rivers would occasionally catch on fire, people were concerned about the decline of the bald eagle population due to the promiscuous use of DDT, acid rain was visibly changing the landscape in the Northeast of the United States, and the Great Lakes were dying. There was common concern for the environment.
When the first Earth Day celebration occurred fifty years ago, it was a bipartisan event with more than 20 million Americans participating. Richard Nixon, the Republican who created the Environmental Protection Agency, was president. The movement started out with support from both parties, but the choice to celebrate it on April 22, 1970, which also happened to be Lenin’s 100th birthday, caused some, like Richard Neuhaus, to raise questions about where environmentalism might turn.
It is impossible not to speak of limits when talking about the environment. The simple fact is that Earth’s ecosystems have only so many natural resources and so much carrying capacity for the biproducts of human development. However, discussion among environmentalists has historically focused on the number of humans rather than on efficient use of resources.
Ecology and Population Concerns
Early in the Industrial Revolution, an English clergyman, Thomas Malthus, developed a theory that the world’s population was growing too fast and would eventually lead to mass starvation. In a 1798 book, An Essay on the Principal of Population, he predicted overpopulation would cause low wages, overcrowded cities, uncontrollable spread of infectious diseases, and stunted growth of children. The population of the world was about 1 billion at the time. His concerns did not come to fruition, largely because of technological innovation and regulation that helped improve sanitation.
Paul Ehrlich’s dire predictions in his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, sold millions of copies, predicting that millions of people would starve in short order because the earth had exceeded its carrying capacity. The population was about half of today’s population, at roughly 3.6 billion. He was so confident in the coming shortage of resources that he made a bet with economist Julian Simons on the price of five metals over a decade. Ehrlich honored the bet and wrote Simon a check for $567.07 in October 1990, because the price of those resources had dropped due to their abundance, though the population had jumped by about 1 billion.
Increased Hostility to Humanity
Much of the contemporary environmental movement continues to have population control among its central concerns. Evolutionary ecologist Eric Pianka made news in 2006 for predicting that roughly 90% of humans would die off, due to an infectious disease. He also suggested it would be better for the world if that happened.
The reaction to the Pianka controversy was overblown and politically driven, as opponents accused him of plotting mass murder. That was never true, but that scandal shifted the Overton window by presenting as reasonable an ideal population of humans that is far below current levels.
As a result, there was very little notice when the grandmotherly Jane Goodall commented at Davos 2020 that Earth’s population should be what it was about 500 years ago, or 500 million people. It’s not that Goodall wishes 7 billion people dead, but it would certainly be better in her eyes if most of us didn’t reproduce. There is a deeply anti-human sentiment in even the softest of these suggestions.
Opposition to having children because of concerns over the environment has become a significant theme, including a group of women forming the group BirthStrike, to show solidarity with their decision not to have children until climate change ends. Unfortunately for those forgoing the joys of parenthood, evidence suggests that reducing the number of children does not automatically reduce a family’s environmental impact.
More radically, philosopher Patricia MacCormack has openly argued for the extinction of the human race for the sake of the climate. She has not offered a means for that to take place but claims her vision of a human-less Earth is optimistic and joyful. One is left wondering for whom.
The Dangers of Population Control
Population control, whatever motivates it, is dangerous because it tends to most significantly impact the most vulnerable. The near total abortion rate of babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome is Iceland has largely eradicated that population because they are considered a burden to society.
China’s stringent one-child policy, which has since been somewhat relaxed, created a significant demographic problem for the nation. Due to sex-selective abortion, there is a gender imbalance, with approximately 118 males born for every 100 females. That imbalance has caused significant social issues, including the need to traffick women from other nations to provide brides for the overabundance of men.
Population control leads to strongly anti-human sentiments and is likely not necessary. Many of the dire predictions of previous prophets of population doom have not come to pass. That is not because their concerns were unfounded, but because those making the predictions underestimated the ability of humanity to adapt. As the population has grown, new agricultural techniques have been developed to feed more people. Some of them need further development as they are not permanently stable, but once people get over a certain threshold of subsistence, they take actions to improve the environment around them.
Positive Steps Toward Improving Ecology
Environmental proposals that focus mainly on reducing the population or activity of humans are not likely to be successful. There is a bias in human nature toward creation and procreation, as creatures made in the image of God.
If we are to take serious steps to improving the Earth’s ecological health, we need multi-pronged solutions to environmental problems.
The ozone hole is recovering because it was addressed through regulation that drastically reduced the CFCs released into the environment. Individuals played a part by shifting to products that did not damage the ozone. Corporations responded to consumer demand and regulations to develop refrigeration technologies that did not require certain ozone-damaging refrigerants. Big problems require holistic solutions.
If climate change is a significant issue, then it would make sense to work on solutions along all three prongs. And yet discussions tend to focus on using stringent regulations to minimize human population and control human activity. Or, like Jeremy Rifkin in The Green New Deal, some activists tend to promote questionable technological options, like large-scale battery storage and widespread surveillance, instead of seeking to improve more proven technologies, like nuclear power, to reduce the negative impact of human activity. There is a need for more discussion of conservative proposals that would benefit the Earth’s ecosystems.
Market driven solutions to compensate ranchers for lost cattle have, arguably, encouraged the restoration of wolves to Yellowstone. A similar approach to encourage property owners with endangered or threatened species to preserve shrinking habitat could undermine the negative incentives of the current Endangered Species Act, which encourage people to “shoot, shovel, and shut up” rather than find themselves unable to use their land. Narrowly targeted regulations can be crafted to internalize the normally external costs of waste from consumer goods by incentivising product return programs for technology to encourage recycling programs that minimize the need for mining operations.
Just as significantly, a conservative environmentalism must include forming families and communities that consider the impact to the ecosystem along with price when making consumer choices. Having solar panels on your home should not be a marker for political progressivism (as my neighbors assumed when mine were installed), it is a reasonable economic investment and a sound ecological decision. Concern about food grown with agricultural methods that minimize animal containment and reduce soil compaction should not remain codewords for opposition to the benefits of Western Civilization. Part of shaping a more humane environmentalism is forming people that value humanity to speak to the problem.
Conservative Voices on the Environment
Through the past few decades, conservatives have largely been silent, ceding the debate to those with significantly different ideological goals. The continued misanthropy of parts of the environmental movement have encouraged political and social conservatives to distance themselves from many of the measures intended to reduce negative human impact. We need to offer a more humane environmentalism, which will require those with a more positive view of humans to engage in meaningful discussions about climate change and the environment.
To some extent these discussions are ongoing among conservatives, moreso outside of the United States. In the UK, the former Prime Minister Teresa May and the Tory Party offered a twenty-five year plan to improve the environment. The late Sir Roger Scruton did significant work on developing a conservative environmental philosophy that encourages proper valuation of the natural world and equipped the “little platoons” of society to seek the common good by reducing human impact while he was at the American Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank. The American Conservative has also been steadily beating the drum of the need for a crunchier conservativism.
Among theological conservatives, interest in creation care tends to ebb and flow as the feeling of economic prosperity. The pioneer of the movement was Francis Schaeffer, whose Pollution and the Death of Man remains one of the most theologically helpful arguments for Christian pursuit of creation care. The creation care movement, a theologically orthodox expression of environmentalism, reached a significant high-point just before the Great Recession before wilting under other social and economic concerns. Significant interest appeared to be on the rise again in the past few years, but the current economic woes threaten to overwhelm concern for the environment. If we really value all of God’s creation, especially humans, then we cannot allow economic considerations to become the sole point of focus in the coming recovery.
Humans consume natural resources, but we also are producers. Solutions to environmental degradation need human solutions. The problem is not that there are too many humans, it is that humans are using too much of the wrong resources in the wrong ways. These are problems that need more virtuous humans making better consumer choices, pursuing policies that include environmental considerations alongside economic ones, and human minds directed toward solving the real problems we face.
In popular perception, the environment has become a progressive political issue. And yet, as Scruton wrote in his book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet, “Conservatism and conservation are two aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources and ensuring their renewal.” As fissures begin to form in the tenuous alliance between conservatives and libertarians, this may be the time for a legitimate environmental movement to form on the right.
Before an immediate crisis forces our hands, people who value humans as uniquely made in the image of God need to put forward humane proposals to develop virtue that shapes individual choices, helps people value environmental quality within a market economy, and pursues the least restrictive society that can sustain those ends.