Death by Environmentalism
by Robert James Bidinotto
19 April 2004
What does it mean in practice to hold a philosophy that declares that pristine nature has intrinsic value in itself, and that regards Man and his activities as intrusive threats to the so-called ecological balance?
I have discussed the history, meaning, and basic premises of environmentalism previously, in my monograph The Green Machine and in my recorded talk "Green Cathedrals," both available from The Objectivist Center. I also explore these issues on my ecoNOT.com Web site.
But here I want to focus on the consequences of accepting core environmentalist premises -- specifically, their deadly impact on human life.
In the same way that so many intellectuals once turned a blind eye to the massacres perpetrated by communists, most intellectuals now evade the three decades of mass destruction and misery perpetrated by environmentalists. Sharing the movement's underlying philosophic precepts and focusing their gaze upon its proclaimed goals, they remain blissfully ignorant of its wretched consequences, or -- when brought to their attention -- excuse them as unfortunate "excesses" wrought by a few overly zealous "idealists," whose hearts are nonetheless in the right place.
It is this self-imposed blindness that we must penetrate, by casting a spotlight on the human costs of this misanthropic movement.
And let's be clear about our real adversaries. The environmental movement's deadliest threats to human lives do not come from its violent fringe characters, that relative handful of "eco terrorists" who set fire to SUV dealerships and research labs. As I aim to show, the environmental movement's worst assaults on human lives are plotted and implemented every day by genteel, well-dressed lawyers, activists, and bureaucrats, working inside the posh offices of mainstream environmental groups and government agencies. While the theatrics of tree-sitters and terrorists grab headlines and provoke public anger, the policies and programs of the mainstream greens command little public concern or opposition. But theirs are the activities that are destroying the lives of millions.
For the most part, these leading environmentalists have remained insulated from scrutiny and inoculated against criticism, chiefly because their philosophic premises are so widely shared by intellectuals, the media, and the public. But another factor also conspires to buffer environmentalists from serious opposition. It's what the nineteenth-century French economist Frederic Bastiat described as the problem of "what is seen, and what is not seen."
Environmentalists always tout nice-sounding objectives: a new protected species, cleaner air, more fuel-efficient automobiles. But these efforts invariably have destructive side effects that are often difficult to trace back to their sources.
For instance, whenever environmentalists prevent the building of hydroelectric power dams in the Third World, they boast of having prevented the flooding of land and the destruction of wildlife and habitat. What is seen are romanticized TV shows depicting herds of elephants, giraffes, and antelope roaming the vast plains of Africa, narrated with manic enthusiasm by the Animal Planet cable network's Crocodile Hunter, to whom every snake and slug is "a real beauty!" And what is also seen are the press conferences where green groups crow about having spared these critters from a man-made ecological holocaust.
What is not seen are the countless human lives they have taken. By depriving Third World people access to the electricity that Western environmentalists take for granted, those people remain mired in poverty, darkness, wretched sanitation, and the resulting diseases and malnutrition that take millions of lives each year. Thanks to the environmental movement, these hapless people's Hobbesian existence will remain nasty, brutish, and short.
Yet few will ever attribute their enduring miseries to environmentalism. Few will link the next plague, famine, or disaster back to green culprits living in New York or Washington. The chain of causes and effects seems too difficult to trace.
Difficult, but not impossible. Let's take a recent horrible example: the deaths of some 15,000 people in France during this past summer's European heat wave.
The French Heat Wave Deaths
According to an Associated Press report (September 9, 2003): "The heat baked many parts of Europe, killing livestock and fanning forest fires, but experts said the heat was more severe in France because temperatures did not drop at night, meaning those exhausted from the daytime heat enjoyed no respite when the sun went down."
However, the high temperatures alone do not explain mass deaths in a modern nation. After all, summer temperatures in the American West soar frequently above 100 degrees Fahrenheit - as they did again last yea - ?without corresponding heat-related deaths. Indeed, climatologist Patrick J. Michaels pointed out on Fox News (August 20, 2003) that "the mean summer temperature in Paris is the same as in Detroit, Chicago, and Denver, and when these American cities heat up to record levels there's no proportional number of excess deaths." What, then, was so different about France?
The Associated Press story gives the following clue: "The bulk of the victims - many of them elderly - died during the height of the heat wave, which brought suffocating temperatures of up to 104 degrees in a country where air conditioning is rare."
This prompts an obvious question: Why is air conditioning so rare in a technologically sophisticated country like France?
In an interview, Michaels told me that a major reason is the impact of environmentalism on government energy policy. To address the alleged threat of global warming, France, along with the rest of the European Union, has imposed steep energy taxes in order to reduce energy consumption. As a result, Michaels explained, energy costs to consumers in France are about 25 percent higher than to consumers in the United States. At the same time, average incomes in France are considerably lower than those in America, which, in relative terms, makes electricity there all the more expensive.
Sure enough, the high energy taxes have worked exactly as the environmentalists planned: they have reduced energy consumption. Seeking ways to cut their electric bills, French citizens realized that air conditioners consume more energy than almost any other household appliance. For the poor and the elderly, especially, air conditioning simply became unaffordable. So, by the millions, they decided to forgo the amenity that environmental taxes made so expensive. Air conditioning, so universal in America, became in France an indulgence of the well-to-do. As Chantal de Singly, director of the Saint-Antoine hospital in Paris, put it in Le Monde (August 19, 2003), the heat wave revealed two classes of French citizens: "the France of the air conditioned versus the France of the overheated."
So, to address the purely hypothetical risks of possible future global temperature increases that might average a few piddling degrees, the greens imposed energy taxes that made it impossible for many of its most vulnerable citizens to protect themselves against the foreseeable and preventable impact of a summer heat wave.
However, in the green campaign against energy consumption, the fatalities caused by French environmentalists do not begin to rival those caused by their American blood brothers.
The CAFE Carnage
By now, everyone has heard of the environmentalist war on sport utility vehicles, or SUVs. Columnist Arianna Huffington made SUV-bashing a central theme of her malignantly strident and mercifully abortive campaign for California governor. The environmentalist argument against these large, spacious, comfortable vehicles so popular with consumers is that they are gas-guzzlers that increase our use of fossil fuels and thus allegedly contribute to global warming.
The attack on SUVs is only the latest skirmish in the greens' war against cars, especially big cars. In 1975, Congress enacted a law requiring the Department of Transportation to impose fuel-efficiency rules on the automobile industry. These so-called corporate average fuel economy ratings, or CAFE standards, currently mandate that new cars meet a 27.5 miles per gallon (mpg) minimum, while light trucks and SUVs get at least 20.7 mpg. The fuel ratings, posted on the windows of all new cars in automobile lots, are "what is seen." What is not seen, though, are the grisly by-products of these standards, because they lie quietly out of public view - in local morgues, from coast to coast.
You see, it is a simple matter of the laws of physics. Bigger, heavier vehicles are much safer to drive than similarly equipped smaller vehicles. Owing to their greater mass, big cars better absorb the impact of collisions. Owing to their greater interior space, they also better protect occupants from injury. But larger, heavier cars also burn more gasoline. In short, there is an inescapable tradeoff between greater fuel efficiency and greater safety. That is why environmentally correct minicars have almost three times the rate of fatalities as the biggest SUVs.
And that is also why the CAFE standards have been so lethal. To meet the high-mileage fuel efficiency standards, automakers have been forced to downsize vehicles, making them smaller and lighter, using plastics instead of steel, and reducing interior space. In the tradeoff between saving gasoline and saving lives, the government rules willingly sacrifice lives.
I say "willingly" because this tradeoff is well understood and has even been mathematically calculated, repeatedly. In 1989, a study by scholars at Harvard University and the Brookings Institution estimated that the CAFÉ standards had resulted in a 14-27 percent increase in highway fatalities, which translated to between 2,200 and 3,900 additional deaths per year. Similarly, a study by the National Academy of Sciences, released in August 2001, estimated that the CAFE requirements had contributed to between 1,200 and 2,600 deaths in a single year, and ten times that many serious injuries.
That is roughly comparable to the loss of life in the destruction of the World Trade Center . . . except that it's repeated every year. According to an analysis by USA Today (July 2, 1999), since their imposition in 1975, the CAFE requirements have been responsible cumulatively for a whopping 46,000 highway deaths. If, like the National Academy of Sciences, one multiplies that number by ten to estimate serious injuries, one arrives at total casualties approaching half a million people.
Since the carnage caused by the CAFE standards is so well known, one might think that environmentalists and their allied "consumer advocates" would be leading the charge for their repeal. After all, theirs is a movement that rages indignantly over even minute, hypothetical health risks, such as those stemming from minuscule trace residues of pesticides on apples. But where are they in the face of this bloodbath on our streets?
Where, for example, is U.S. Green Party candidate and automobile critic Ralph Nader? Here is a man who made his reputation denouncing American autos on safety grounds. Well, in 1989 Nader was helping fellow environmentalists plot their infamous national scare campaign over trace amounts of alar on apples when he paused for an interview. Asked what kind of car was least safe, he replied: "The tiny ones." Asked what car he would buy, he answered: "Well, larger cars are safer, there's more bulk to protect the occupant. But they are less fuel efficient." (Woman's Day, October 1989).
So even then Ralph Nader clearly understood the inescapable tradeoff between saving gasoline and saving human lives. Yet that has not stopped him from pushing the very regulations he knows to be lethal. On October 25, 2000, during his presidential campaign, Nader wrote a letter to the Sierra Club that declared: "I support raising the CAFE standard to at least 45 miles per gallon for cars."
Picture the additional bloodshed on the highways if everyone were forced, by Nader and his Sierra Club pals, to squeeze themselves into the frail little econo-box death traps that could possibly meet such a preposterous fuel standard.
This is not an instance of simple ignorance of consequences, an example of "what is not seen." The CAFE standards' grisly cost in human lives is understood by environmentalists such as Nader and the Sierra Club. But to such true believers, human lives are far less important than advancing their green crusade.
So far, we have seen that environmentalist campaigns and regulations are responsible for the deaths of many thousands around the world. But all these examples combined do not begin to rival the deadly results from a single environmentalist effort: their war against DDT.
The DDT Disaster
Before the 1930s, insect-borne diseases were responsible for taking millions of lives each year. In 1935, India alone endured an estimated 100 million cases of malaria and up to a million deaths. Elsewhere, as late as World War I, typhus epidemics killed at least three million Russians and untold millions more across Europe.
But in the late 1930s, Paul Hermann Müller discovered that tiny amounts of the chemical that came to be known as DDT killed just about every insect he used it on. Soon, other remarkable qualities of the pesticide were discovered. Even when some mosquitoes eventually developed resistance to its toxicity, DDT still acted as a repellent and irritant, driving them out of homes before they could bite.
Better still, there were few apparent toxic side effects on people. The U.S. military began using DDT in 1942 to fight malaria and typhus, which had been decimating combat units in Italy and the Pacific theater. They sprayed soldiers, dusted beaches, even deloused concentration-camp survivors with DDT, without any apparent ill effects. This saved millions of Allied troops from succumbing to malaria, typhus, and the plague, and spared the camp survivors by killing off typhus-carrying lice. As A.G. Smith of the British medical journal Lancet put it: "If the huge amounts of DDT used are taken into account, the safety record for human beings is extremely good."
DDT also proved to be far more economical than any alternative pesticides, which can be as much as two to four times more expensive. This is an especially important consideration for poor people in the Third World.
After the war, the United States launched a global malaria eradication project that by the early 1960s had almost eliminated the disease from southern Europe, the Caribbean, and much of eastern and southern Asia. In India, for example, malaria's horrific annual toll in lives plunged dramatically, from a million deaths per year to fewer than 50,000 total cases of malaria infection in 1961.
For his discovery of an affordable way to fight mosquitoes, lice, and other disease-carrying pests, Müller was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize in medicine. "To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT," the National Academy of Sciences later reported. "In little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million human deaths, due to malaria."
But all that changed in 1962, with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Her thesis was that DDT and other pesticides entered the food chain, accumulating in the bodies of animals and especially birds, thinning their eggshells and eventually wiping out species. Carson also used colorful anecdotes to suggest a cancer danger to humans.
Silent Spring was the book that sparked the modern environmental movement. The Environmental Defense Fund launched itself with lawsuits against DDT use and was soon joined by the Sierra Club. They pressured the fledgling Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to hold hearings on the chemical. Even though the presiding administrative judge concluded that DDT was not a hazard to man, EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus, a member of the Environmental Defense Fund, banned it anyway in 1972.The U.S. ban became the spearhead of a worldwide assault on DDT. Under pressure by green groups, other wealthy countries joined in the ban and began to restrict funding for DDT projects.
In 1962, Rachel Carson had declared the common robin "on the verge of extinction" and forty other bird species imperiled. All are still here, and most are thriving, a few perhaps owing to the ban on DDT. But millions of people whom Carson deprived of pesticides are not here, for, predictably, the international ban on DDT soon caused a staggering resurgence of malaria. According to the World Health Organization, "There are at least 300 million acute cases of malaria each year globally, resulting in more than a million deaths." (Some estimates go as high as 500 to 900 million annual infections and 2.7 million deaths.)
In his important new book, Eco-Imperialism, Paul Driessen notes that "over half the victims [of malaria] are children, who die at the rate of two perminute or 3,000 per day" the equivalent of 80 fully loaded school buses plunging over a cliff every day of the year. Since 1972 [the year of the EPA ban], over 50 million people have died from this dreaded disease."Once again, the spectacle of mass death and its cause are well known to scientists, doctors, political leaders, and environmentalists worldwide. Yet though the health and environmental scares about DDT have long been refuted, and even in the face of a body count that makes the slaughter by Hitler and Pol Pot seem comparatively benign, the environmentalist movement is still fighting to maintain the DDT ban and to extend it to those nations not yet on board.
In 2000, while malaria was killing two million people, environmentalactivists led by the World Wildlife Fund were promoting the Stockholm Convention, a U.N. treaty on so-called persistent organic pollutants that would have banned DDT worldwide for all uses. Meanwhile, Roll Back Malaria - a consortium of environmentalist groups, aid agencies, and international institutions funded by the World Health Organization - has issued a 40-page action plan for reducing countries' reliance on DDT, with the goal of eventually eliminating its use for public-health purposes.
Taking their cues from such influential members of Gang Green, governments and international agencies have added their money and power to maintain the death count. For example, during negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, the Clinton administration made Mexico's phasing out of domestic DDT production a side deal in the treaty.
Richard Tren, head of the group Africa Fighting Malaria, says that UNICEF, as well as the international aid agencies of Sweden, the United Kingdom, Norway, Japan, and Germany, have told him that they refuse to fund DDT projects. The World Bank currently finances a malaria-control project in Eritrea, on condition that the nation does not use DDT. The U.S. Agency for International Development stated that its "activities are focused to reduce reliance on the pesticide DDT," instead "emphasizing prevention, medical intervention, and mosquito nets dipped in pyrethroid" - all measures that have failed dismally to stop the spread of the disease.
Meanwhile, lacking funds to combat malaria on their own, most African nations are forced to accept the restrictions imposed by these international funders.
Thanks to environmentalists, the once nearly vanquished disease of malaria has become the mother of all massacres. But the scale of slaughter will only increase if they are allowed to implement their other pet schemes.
The War on Food
But perhaps nowhere are the anti-human motives of the environmentalist movement clearer than in their war on our most basic necessity: our food.
Environmentalists and "animal rights" activists have assaulted virtually every aspect of food production, distribution, and consumption. They assail pesticides and agricultural chemicals that have boosted yields and ended global famines. They attack safety measures such as food irradiation, which destroys microorganisms that kill 5,000 to 10,000 Americans annually. They block farmers and ranchers from expanding their use of land and water, and raising chickens, cattle, hogs, and sheep. Now they are targeting our diets, even declaring - as a New York Times writer did recently - that we produce "too much food" (Michael Pollan, October 12, 2003).
These are integral aspects of their broader agenda to restrict the presence of people on the planet. For if they cannot mandate population control, they seek to accomplish the same objective by allowing deadly diseases to run rampant and by depriving people of basic necessities, such as food.
Am I exaggerating? The October 2003 issue of The Atlantic Monthly carried an eye-opening article by Jonathan Rauch: "Will Frankenfood Save the Planet?"
"Frankenfood" is the pejorative environmentalists use to describe genetically modified or engineered crops. It is meant to conjure images of mad scientists (to greens, there are no other kind) who maniacally manipulate nature, with apocalyptic results. Rauch's investigation of genetically engineered food, however, presents a very different picture.
The problem the world faces, he explains, is this. Within the next half century, global population is expected to soar about 40 percent, to around 9 billion, before leveling off. During those coming decades we have to find ways of feeding all those new mouths. However, 38 percent of the earth's land area is already used for crops or pasture. We have exploited existing technology to the point of diminishing returns in squeezing greater yields out of that land. The global need for more food and jobs has driven desperate people to expand into previously untouched areas, cutting down more forests. It's also led to increased use, sometimes overuse, of pesticides and other agrichemicals - which is every environmentalist's worst nightmare.
Biotechnology, however, promises a way out of this grim future scenario. Crops can be genetically engineered to resist harsher climates, insects, diseases, and fungi. At test sites, yields have demonstrably and dramatically increased, without the use of more chemicals. This means we may well be able to feed those coming billions on existing farmland, rather than having to expand further into forests and wilderness areas. And we can do it safely, while reducing our reliance on chemicals.
So biotechnology could solve a pending hunger crisis, spare millions of lives and millions of acres of wilderness, and free us from dependency on chemical "poisons." Every environmentalist's dream, right?
Well, that conclusion rests on an assumption: the assumption that environmentalists are motivated primarily by a love of nature, rather than by hostility to Man's presence in it. Rauch went to the Web site of Greenpeace, where he found this: "The introduction of genetically engineered (GE) organisms into the complex ecosystems of our environment is a dangerous global experiment with nature and evolution. . . . GE organisms must not be released into the environment. They pose unacceptable risks to ecosystems, and have the potential to threaten biodiversity, wildlife and sustainable forms of agriculture."
Note that Greenpeace is worried primarily about the hypothetical "risks" of genetically engineered crops. And the risks they are worried about are not to humans, but to "biodiversity, wildlife and sustainable [organic] forms of agriculture." Those risk - and not the risks of mass starvation are "unacceptable."
And at the Web site of the Sierra Club, Rauch found an echo of the Greenpeace position in Sierra's endorsement of the so-called Precautionary Principle.
The Precautionary Principle is the greens' ultimate weapon. It is the principle that no new technology should be permitted unless it is first proven to have no downside risks or negative consequences. Of course, no new machine, mode of transportation, medical treatment, means of communication, energy source - no invention of any kind - would have ever passed such a test. Every new technology throughout history has had some negative aspect. Every vaccine, for example, harms at least a handful of people who are allergic to it, even though it may save millions of lives. So we weigh risks against benefits constantly. We adopt innovations not because they are perfect or pose no risks, but because they are a demonstrable improvement over what we have had before.
But the Precautionary Principle demands a platonic perfection of every new technology, in effect treating them as "guilty until proved innocent." And it proposes that the force of law prevent the introduction of anything new unless it somehow can be proved to be without risk to anyone. The Precautionary Principle amounts to the enshrinement of fear over progress. Its consequence would be the idealization of stagnation.
Yet that's the premise mainstream environmentalists uniformly endorse. Says the Sierra Club: "In accordance with this Precautionary Principle, we call for a moratorium on the planting of all genetically engineered crops and the release of all GEOs [genetically engineered organisms] into the environment, including those now approved" [emphasis added].
In other words, the Sierra Club would retroactively ban the use of biotechnology in agriculture, even in those cases already scientifically demonstrated to be safe and effective.
Consider the stakes for human lives and well-being. Then consider where the environmentalist movement has cast its lot.
This is "idealism?"
Here is Rauch's own explanation for the greens' otherwise unfathomable opposition to an "earth-friendly" technology:
"For reasons having more to do with politics than with logic, the modern environmental movement was to a large extent founded on suspicion of markets and artificial substances. Markets exploit the earth; chemicals poison it. Biotechnology touches both hot buttons. It is being pushed forward by greedy corporations, and it seems to be the very epitome of the unnatural."
So, because of their fundamental hostility to self-interested human activity, environmentalists would much rather that we face the prospect of mass starvation than allow anyone to profit by preventing it, or use "unnatural" means to do so.
But this should not come as a shock. Starting, as they do, from the premise of nature's intrinsic value - a value independent of any valuer or purpose - environmentalists are driven by that premise's inescapable logic to consistently oppose every human effort to use the planet. To use the planet means to change it; and if untouched wilderness and undisturbed "ecosystems" are ends in themselves, then Man can have no moral right to feed, clothe, or house himself.
So far, only the most outspoken fanatics of the movement are willing to state this view so explicitly, though every day their numbers increase and their voices get louder. But the inner logic of environmentalist premises drives even the most naïve and benign among them to oppose, ever more consistently, every activity that sustains human life on the planet.
Some visitors to my ecoNOT.com Web site have expressed reservations at the harshness of my criticisms of the environmental movement. But in this article I have surveyed the actual toll in human lives from this movement's activities. And my brief survey does not begin to measure the full magnitude of destruction and misery caused by people who should know better - and who often do.
Many people are willing to give environmentalists the benefit of the doubt and help them maintain their public façade as well-meaning idealists. But whenever the naked consequences of their actions are made clear - when they are confronted with the reality of diseased babies and starving children, of crushed automobiles and disintegrating spacecraft, of sweltering apartments and blazing forests - and when even then they fail to recoil in horror and repudiate their agenda, such people may be called many things. But "idealist" is not one of them.
And I, for one, mean for the world to know that.