When we say, “the environment,” we usually mean the natural world and its processes, the plants and animals which we collectively call the biosphere. It is an age-old debate in philosophy, however, whether human beings themselves are part of “the environment” in the same way that every other living creature is. Because human beings are self-aware and uniquely capable of intentionally making permanent changes to their surroundings, many theorists have considered humans to be the only organism on earth that is in some important way not of the earth.
Among other things, humans not being part of the “natural” world means that it is possible for the interests of those two entities—nature and humans—to diverge. In this view, the interests of humanity are not just separate from the rest of the natural world, but often in opposition to it. What is good for human society is often assumed to be bad for the rest of the planet. Bad in the sense of being generally disadvantageous, but more specifically a moral violation of the planet’s pre-human sanctity and purity.
One does not have to search too long to find prominent examples of this attitude. Paul Watson, a leading eco-theorist who co-founded Greenpeace and later founded the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, has written that “The planet’s ecosystem is a collective living organism and operates very much like the human body…Humans are presently acting upon this body in the same manner as an invasive virus with the result that we are eroding the ecological immune system.” He goes on to recount “I was once severely criticized for describing human beings as being the ‘AIDS of the Earth.’ I make no apologies for that statement.”
Following leaders like Watson, modern environmentalism is significantly influenced by a reverence toward nature qua nature that is hostile to human existence and flourishing. Fortunately, most of our environmental law and policy is not based on that “naturalistic” version of environmentalism. Most of our actual environmental progress, in this country and around the world, has been made by advancing a more humanist vision, in which we as human beings protect ourselves from nature while also regulating our impact on nature. But we do this for our own health, safety, and aesthetic pleasure. We regulate human interactions with the natural world to enable our own continued prosperity.
Our major environmental statutes in the United States, like the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, have proved politically durable because they sought to protect the air, water, and land for us, not just from us. In justifying the burdens placed on producers, consumers, taxpayers, and property owners by these laws, proponents of environmental regulation are quick to point to the direct human benefits of limiting the amount of, for example, sulfur dioxide in our air and of arsenic in our drinking water. These long-standing statutes certainly have their critics—some of them are my own think tank colleagues—but they are at least based on the goal of human well-being.
Not just that, but their passage and implementation have been undertaken in the context of balancing human health impacts with other important societal concerns, including protecting property rights and promoting employment and economic growth. Attempting to achieve that balance has been notably controversial at times, but the U.S. political system generally requires compromise in order to implement major policy changes. The result has been that measurements of environmental quality and human health have both significantly improved over the last several decades, all while GDP has also increased.
So, while most environmental policy in the U.S. has been inspired by a desire to advance human health and welfare, the anti-humanist vision of environmentalism has continued to serve an influential minority interest. The Endangered Species Act (ESA), for example, has been perceived by many critics to be targeted at preserving nature for its own sake rather than accruing any tangible benefits to human beings. While a public opinion poll would likely reflect a positive view of the general topic of preserving species, the Americans who have been most closely subjected to the act’s requirements would likely be less positive about its legacy.
The ESA is notorious for the way in which it burdens private landowners with regulatory takings, and the federal government does a poor job at accounting for the uneven economic impacts of the law’s enforcement. The Supreme Court’s decision in Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hiram Hill (1978) stated the lopsided expectations of the law quite clearly, finding that “It is clear from the Act’s legislative history that Congress intended to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction—whatever the cost.” This attitude—that a given environmental objective is so important that the government must disregard any cost considerations—is an extravagant and unconstrained approach to policy making.
I call this unconstrained in part as a reference to the distinction the economist Thomas Sowell advanced, of a constrained vs. unconstrained view of society and government. The constrained view—broadly consistent with the ideas of our Founding Fathers—suggests that human beings are by nature given to abusing and fighting over political power, and thus governing structures have to be limited and divided. The constrained view also acknowledges that our most important societal problems are not amenable to permanent solutions but are simply a matter of competing interests and values and thus can only be balanced toward a least bad resolution. The unconstrained vision—more amenable to Progressive theorists—holds that governments should be empowered to require good outcomes and eradicate bad outcomes, and obviously then assign behaviors to one of those categories.
There is no better example of the conflict between these two visions than today’s one, big environmental issue—climate change. Global climate change rules the roost not only because it is allegedly the most dangerous, but because it also largely subsumes the more traditional concerns, like air and water quality, forestation, and biodiversity, because a significantly changing climate will, of course, impact all of these issues as well. And while there are many sources of greenhouse gas emissions, the main focus is energy production around the world, specifically coal, oil, and natural gas being burned as fuel.
Policies should be based on a reasonable standard by which marginal preferences for environmental amenities are weighed against preferences for things like dividends, salaries, innovation, and growth.
But attempting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to counter climate change is not, as is sometimes posited, analogous to marginally reducing air and water pollutants in previous generations. The idea that we can go from an economy powered overwhelmingly by fossil sources to one with zero fossil sources is a bit like ordering the airline industry to reduce its dependence on airplanes. When Covid-19 was first ravaging the globe in 2020, there were many news stories noting that greenhouse gas emissions were also falling, suggesting that this was a kind of environmental silver lining to the pandemic. But what it really shows is that energy consumption is tied very closely to prosperity and human welfare. Emissions went down because millions of people were unemployed, and the work of society was simply going undone. The quickest and most efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is clear—simply lower everyone’s standard of living.
While climate activists do frequently warn of projected hazards to human health and welfare that could come from a warming planet, their rhetoric also reveals motives based on naturalistic fallacy, the logical error that something must be good or desirable simply because it is “natural.” The Environmental Defense Fund, for example, does acknowledge on the climate change section of its website that human health is at issue, but puts those concerns second, after its top worry, which is that “climate change plunders the planet.” Some critics speak of the need to punish and humble an arrogant industrial society that has disrespected the earth by altering it in unprecedented ways, and for selfish reasons. Sociologist Eileen Crist of Virginia Tech, for example, wrote for the journal Science in 2018 how the world’s biggest environmental problem is “human supremacy,” a loaded and tendentious attempt to create an analogy to civil rights activism that has rightly denounced white supremacy.
Some policy advocates are also quite clear that the climate crisis is not just an opportunity to redress the affronts to the earth’s sanctity, but to deliver reparations to the exploited proletariat as well. Prominent writer and activist Naomi Klein’s bestselling 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, posits that climate change can be a “rare catalyst” to fuel dramatic political change that will, she hopes, end corporate influence, block free trade, and lead to the nationalization of the energy sector, among other ambitious goals.
But one of the great ironies of modern politics is the extent to which unbounded environmentalism based on purity and naturalistic fallacy—rather than human welfare—has managed to confound even its own long-term goals. We know that the United States is still overwhelmingly dependent on hydrocarbon energy and how unlikely it will be to achieve popular net zero targets without simply turning off the lights. There is, of course, one technology that is low-carbon, affordable, reliable, proven to work, and already widely deployed around the world: nuclear power.
Unfortunately, the opposition to nuclear power is woven deeply into the DNA of the environmental movement and has been one of its most reliable targets. Environmental activists in the 1970s—true to hippie stereotypes—overlapped significantly with the international peace movement. The effort to stop the production and proliferation of nuclear weapons led many activists to oppose the use of peaceful nuclear power as well, and the resulting decline in support for expanding civilian nuclear capacity has resulted in far greater greenhouse gas emissions today than would have otherwise been the case. This unconstrained view—that nuclear fission was an unnatural threat to the earth and needed to be banned entirely rather than managed carefully—would likely have been enough, on its own, to guarantee that current net zero goals would not be possible.
Anti-nuclear policy, however, is not the only example of self-defeating environmental activism. Land use planning and environmental review—particularly the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)—will likely also, ironically, end up sabotaging climate policy in the United States. As my Competitive Enterprise Institute colleague Mario Loyola has written, “The NEPA process has become a thicket of red tape and litigation risk that often serves to block or endlessly delay needed infrastructure projects.” Increasingly, the projects it blocks will likely be renewable energy facilities. As Loyola wrote for The Wall Street Journal in April of this year, “every new energy project has to go through the same federal approval process as any other infrastructure project—a process so convoluted, costly, time-consuming and unpredictable that it’s a wonder any infrastructure project gets built in America.”
This, of course, is a problem for an environmental movement that would like to see a net zero economy operating in our current lifetime, especially if that is supposed to happen without embracing nuclear power. The only way forward in that case is a massive expansion of renewable energy projects around the country, at a deployment pace that dwarfs that of recent decades. And while wind, solar, and geothermal technologies have the reputation of being “cleaner,” such utility infrastructure is still going to require millions of tons of steel, concrete, cobalt, lithium, and fiberglass spread over millions of acres of the country. The permits necessary for such a huge proliferation of projects to be financed and constructed would take decades to complete.
The anti-nuclear and anti-development campaigns were both driven by an effort to stop as many of the offending projects as possible, rather than measure and weigh their marginal costs and benefits. We did not, of course, end up with zero nuclear power plants or zero new infrastructure projects, but only because the environmentalists who pursued those goals were less politically powerful than they would have liked to be.
The real goal should be energy and environmental policy that provides clear benefits to everyone. Policies should be based on a reasonable standard by which marginal preferences for environmental amenities are weighed against preferences for things like dividends, salaries, innovation, and growth. Smart managers and policymakers will avoid, to the greatest extent possible, commitments based on appeals to naturalistic purity rather than wealth creation and human flourishing.