Mises Wire

Home | Blog | Standards of Environmental Good and Evil: Why Environmentalism Is Misanthropic

Standards of Environmental Good and Evil: Why Environmentalism Is Misanthropic

November 17, 2006

It is very common for people to talk nowadays about environmental good and evil, but with virtually no explicit statement of the standards by which something is to be judged environmentally good or evil. People are unaware that a standard is always present and that there is more than one such standard. There are in fact two diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive standards of environmental good and evil. The following example will bring them out.

Thirty years ago, the land under the house I live in, in Southern California, was empty desert. Had I wanted to sleep in the same location that my bedroom now stands on, I would have had to bring a sleeping bag, take precautions against rattlesnakes, scorpions, and coyotes, and hope I could find a place for my sleeping bag such that I wouldn't have rocks pressing into my body. If it rained, I would get wet. If it was cold, I would be cold. If it was hot, I would be hot. Going to the bathroom would be a chore. Washing up would be difficult or impossible.

How incomparably better is the environment provided by my house and my bedroom. I sleep on a bed with an innerspring mattress. I don't have to worry about snakes, scorpions, or coyotes. I'm protected from the rain, the cold, and the heat, by a well constructed house with central heating and air conditioning. I have running water, hot and cold, a flush toilet, a sink, a shower, and a bathtub, in fact more than one of each of these things, and I have electricity and most of the conveniences it makes possible, such as a refrigerator, a television set, a VCR, and CD and DVD players.

It's obvious to me that the existence of my house constitutes an enormous improvement in my environment compared with living at the same location on the bare ground, and that the same is true of the existence of virtually all houses in relation to the environment of their occupants. It's further obvious to me that the process of improving the environment in this way starts with developers and contractors who bring in bulldozers and other heavy construction equipment to clear the tops of hills, level and compact the land, build streets, and utility connections, and construct houses.

Yet those who are called "environmentalists" describe the exact same process of development and construction as harming the environment. Why? Because they have a profoundly different standard of environmental good and evil than the one that is present in my example. The standard that is present in my example is that of human life and well-being. What is environmentally good according to this standard is the promotion of human life and well-being, notably, housing construction and the existence of houses. What is environmentally evil is what impairs human life and well-being, such as preventing housing construction.

The environmentalists call the construction of houses evil because, as I say, their standard of value is very different. Instead of taking human life and well-being as their standard of value, they take nature in and of itself as their standard of value. Nature, they say, has intrinsic value, i.e., value in and of itself, apart from all connection with human life and well-being. Thus, in their view, hillsides and empty land, as they exist in a state of nature, together with their wildlife, have intrinsic value. And it is those alleged intrinsic values that are harmed by development and construction. In other words, the harm the environmentalists complain about in such cases is harm only from a non-human, indeed, anti-human perspective.

Here is a classic statement of the doctrine of intrinsic value by one of its leading environmentalist supporters:

This [man's "remaking the earth by degrees"] makes what is happening no less tragic for those of us who value wildness for its own sake, not for what value it confers upon mankind. I, for one, cannot wish upon either my children or the rest of Earth's biota a tame planet, be it monstrous or—however unlikely—benign. McKibben is a biocentrist, and so am I. We are not interested in the utility of a particular species or free-flowing river, or ecosystem, to mankind. They have intrinsic value, more value—to me—than another human body, or a billion of them.
Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, are not as important as a wild and healthy planet. I know social scientists who remind me that people are part of nature, but it isn't true. Somewhere along the line—at about a billion years ago, maybe half that—we quit the contract and became a cancer. We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth.
It is cosmically unlikely that the developed world will choose to end its orgy of fossil-energy consumption, and the Third World its suicidal consumption of landscape. Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along. (David M. Graber, in his review of Bill McKibben's The End of Nature, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Sunday, October 22, 1989, p. 9.)

The doctrine of intrinsic value is present in such statements as the North Slope of Alaska is "a sacred place" that should never be given over to oil rigs and pipelines. It is present in such statements as, "There is a need to protect the land not just for wildlife and human recreation, but just to have it there." It is present in all instances in which forests, rivers, canyons, hillsides, or any other natural formation is presented as automatically deserving to be preserved, irrespective of its value in being put to use by human beings. And, of course, it is present in all the numerous cases in which human life or well-being have been sacrificed for the sake of the preservation of this or that species of animal or plant. Such cases range from the sacrifice of the property rights of human beings for the sake of snail darters and spotted owls, to the sacrifice of untold millions of actual human lives. This last has occurred as the result of the resurgence of malaria because the use of DDT was prohibited in order to preserve the alleged intrinsic value of some species of birds.

It is crucial that people recognize the distinction between the two standards of environmental good and evil and that the standard of the environmental movement is fundamentally that of the intrinsic value of nature, not that of human life and well-being. Given its standard of value, it is certainly not possible to accept as sincere or well-motivated any of the claims the environmental movement makes of seeking to improve human life and well-being, whether in connection with its allegations about global warming, the ozone layer, acid rain, or anything else.

Indeed, environmentalism's acceptance of the doctrine of intrinsic value implies a profound hatred of man and a desire to destroy him. Such statements as those of Mr. Graber, that I quoted above, expressing a wish for a virus to come along and kill a billion human beings, are not at all accidental. They are logically implied by environmentalism's standard of value.

Acceptance of the doctrine of intrinsic value, as I wrote in Capitalism, "inexorably implies a desire to destroy man and his works because it implies a perception of man as the systematic destroyer of the good, and thus as the systematic doer of evil. Just as man perceives coyotes, wolves, and rattlesnakes as evil because they regularly destroy the cattle and sheep he values as sources of food and clothing, so, on the premise of nature's intrinsic value, the environmentalists view man as evil, because, in the pursuit of his well-being, man systematically destroys the wildlife, jungles, and rock formations that the environmentalists hold to be intrinsically valuable. Indeed, from the perspective of such alleged intrinsic values of nature, the degree of man's alleged destructiveness and evil is directly in proportion to his loyalty to his essential nature. Man is the rational being. It is his application of his reason in the form of science, technology, and an industrial civilization that enables him to act on nature on the enormous scale on which he now does. Thus, it is his possession and use of reason—manifested in his technology and industry—for which he is hated." (p, 82)

The primitive hunter-gatherers who were modern man's remote ancestors left virtually no mark whatever on the rest of nature. The alleged intrinsic values destroyed in their gathering and eating nuts and berries and in their hunting, killing, and eating animals were quickly and automatically replenished by nature. The pre-industrial farmers who were modern man's more recent ancestors left an imprint on nature that was essentially limited to plowed fields and primitive villages. And though somewhat more enduring, it was still very limited in extent. Great limitation of extent characterizes the enduring mark left by the pyramids, the ruins of towns and cities built in antiquity, and the stone castles of the Middle Ages.

In contrast, the modern man of capitalism clears entire forests and jungles; he drains swamps and irrigates deserts. He changes the balance of nature by decimating and destroying entire species of plants and animals and, though not often mentioned, radically increasing the populations of others, whose characteristics he alters to suit him. He establishes mechanized farms, large numbers of major towns and cities, indeed, giant metropolises. He builds factories, roads, bridges and tunnels, dams and canals. He digs mines, sometimes moving entire mountains in doing so, and drills for oil and gas, often reaching depths of several miles. From the perspective of environmentalism and its doctrine of intrinsic value, these activities, which leave a large and enduring mark on a vast swath of the rest of nature, constitute the destruction of intrinsic values on a massive scale and thus characterize modern man as the doer of massive evil.

Keeping all this in mind, it follows that it is absolutely perilous for human beings to allow themselves to be guided by policies recommended by the environmental movement, especially when doing so would impose great deprivation or cost, such as would be entailed in having to make radical reductions in carbon dioxide emissions to combat global warming. Nothing could be more absurd or dangerous than to take advice on how to improve one's life and well-being from those who regard one's wealth and happiness as a source of harm, who accord one the status of vermin, and who wish one dead as the means of preserving nature's alleged intrinsic values. Indeed, not only Mr. Graber, but also other prominent environmentalists have expressed a wish for human deaths on a scale that far surpasses all those caused by the Nazis and Communists combined.

The danger of accepting environmentalist claims, it must be stressed, applies irrespective of the scientific or academic credentials of an individual. If an alleged scientific expert believes in the intrinsic value of nature, then to seek his advice is equivalent to seeking the advice of a medical doctor who was on the side of the germs rather than the patient, if such a thing can be imagined. It is the equivalent of a Jew asking the medical advice of a Dr. Josef Mengele.

All advice, all policy recommendations emanating from the environmentalist movement must be summarily rejected unless and until they can be validated on the basis of a pro-man, pro-wealth, pro-capitalist standard of value. Such a standard will never imply such a thing as the destruction of the energy base of industrial civilization as the means of addressing global warming.

The environmental movement is the philosophic enemy of the human race. It should be treated as such. If we value the material well-being and, indeed, the very lives of billions of our children and grandchildren, we must treat it as such. We must treat environmentalism as our mortal enemy.

This article is copyright © 2006, by George Reisman. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce and distribute it electronically and in print, other than as part of a book and provided that mention of the author's web site www.capitalism.net is included. (Email notification is requested.) All other rights reserved. George Reisman is the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996) and is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics.

Follow Mises Institute

Add Comment