Let me start this post by noting how much better things are since I was a kid. I remember watching news stories about Lake Eerie catching on fire from pollution, and just how polluted our major rivers were. You can read about them here, here, and here. The very effective add campaign that had the crying Indian (see YouTube clip) still resonates with those of my generation. I’m always flabbergasted when I see someone throw litter on the ground or out of a car window.
Add campaigns and government focus helped drastically reduce pollution and believe it or not, America hasn’t been cleaner in over a 100 years. We’ve also made great strides in protecting endangered species. When I was a kid alligators, bald eagles, bison, and grizzly bears were on the brink of extinction. Now all of them are off the endangered species list and have made tremendous strides.
We continually hear about how bad pollution is, yet, the fact is, the country has never been cleaner. Whether it’s air, water, or soil, America is better now than it was when these issues came to the forefront. But there is a problem, and its not the environment.
The greatest environmental challenge facing us today is the challenge of distinguishing reality from fantasy, truth from propaganda or alternative facts . Perceiving the truth has always been a challenge to mankind, but in the information age (or as we can call it now, the disinformation age) takes on a special urgency. We must daily decide whether the threats we face are real, whether the solutions we are offered will do any good, whether the problems we’re told exist are in fact real problems, or non-problems.
As an example of this challenge, I want to write in today’s blog (being Earth day) is about environmentalism. I want it perfectly clear, I believe it is incumbent on us to conduct our lives in a way that considers all the consequences of our actions, including the consequences to other people, and especially consequences to the environment. I believe it is important to act in ways that are sympathetic to the environment, and in turn the earth. After all, it’s the only planet we know that has bourbon, bacon, beer and wine! I believe the world has genuine problems and I believe it can and must be improved. But I also think that deciding what constitutes responsible action is immensely difficult, and the consequences of our actions are often difficult to know in advance
Today, one of the most powerful religions in the world is environmentalism. Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for today’s scientist and University elite. Why do I call environmentalism a religion? If you look carefully, you see that environmentalism is in fact a perfect representation of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs. There’s an initial Eden (Gaia), a paradise (before man), a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of using man’s knowledge, and as a result of our actions, there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all environmental sinners, doomed to wallow in our filth, unless we seek salvation. Salvation is sustainability. Sustainability is the new gospel of the church of the environment. Just as organic food and California water-conscious wine are its communion.
In reality there was no eco-Eden. There never was. What were the good old times for which people yearn? The wonderful mythic past? Is it the time when infant mortality was 80%, when four children in five died of disease before the age of five? When one woman in six died in childbirth? When the average lifespan was 40? When plagues swept across the planet, killing millions in a stroke. Or was it when malaria killed millions (and still does) every year. Is that our eco-Eden?
Honestly, those with a romantic view of the natural world as a blissful eco-Eden are only held by people who have no actual experience of nature. People who live in nature are not romantic about it at all. They may hold spiritual beliefs about the world around them, they may have a sense of the unity of nature or the aliveness of all things, but they still kill the animals and uproot the plants in order to eat, to live. If they didn’t, they would die.
We need to take care of our environment and we also need to stop the trend of the religion of environmentalism. We need the environmental movement, and such a movement is not very effective if it is conducted as a religion. Environmentalism needs to be absolutely based in objective and verifiable science, it needs to be rational, and it needs to be flexible. And it needs to be apolitical. To mix environmental concerns with the frantic fantasies that people have about one political party or another is to miss the truth; there is very little difference between the parties, except a difference in pandering rhetoric. The effort to promote effective legislation for the environment is not helped by thinking that the Democrats will save us and the Republicans won’t. Political history is more complicated than that. Never forget which president started the EPA: Richard Nixon. And never forget which president sold federal oil leases, allowing oil drilling in Santa Barbara: Lyndon Johnson. So get politics out of your thinking about the environment.
Another reason to reject environmental religion is more pressing. Religions tend to be dogmatic in their beliefs; they are sure they know it all. The fact of the matter is the environment is incredibly complex, evolving system, and we usually are not certain how best to proceed. Those who are certain in their beliefs are demonstrating their personality type, or their belief system, not the state of their knowledge. Our record in the past, for example managing national parks, is telling. Our fifty-year effort at forest-fire suppression is a well-intentioned disaster from which our forests will never recover. We need to be humble, deeply humble, in the face of what we are trying to accomplish. We need to be trying various methods of accomplishing things. We need to be open-minded about assessing results of our efforts, and we need to be flexible about balancing needs. Embracing a dogma doesn’t help.
In the end, non-partisan, clear-eyed science offers us the only way out of politics of fear. Science is about discovery, not dogma. And if we allow science to continue to be politicized, then we are lost. We have entered the modern version of the dark ages, an era of shifting fears and wild prejudices. These ideas are transmitted daily through websites to people who don’t know any better. This is not a good future for the environment or humanity.
But as I started this post, things are better than they were. Don’t let anyone tell you different. The future is bright – as long as we continue to take care of our planet and realize that fear sells and good news doesn’t – we can see through the prophets of doom. Happy Earth day – pick up some litter, plant a tree, and be happy.