Environmental sensitivity is now as required an attitude in polite society as is, say, belief in democracy. But now that everyone from Ted Turner to George Bush, Dow to Exxon has professed love for Mother Earth, how are we to choose among the dozens of conflicting proposals, restrictions, projects, regulations and laws advanced in the name of the environment
? Clearly not everything with an environment
al claim is worth doing. How to choose?
There is a simple way. First, distinguish between environment
al luxuries and environment
al necessities. Luxuries are those things it would be nice to have if costless. Necessities are those things we must have regardless
. Then apply a rule. Call it the fundamental axiom of sane environment
alism: Combatting ecological change that directly threat
ens the health and safety of people is an environment
al necessity. All else is luxury.
For example: preserving the atmosphere-stopping ozone depletion and the greenhouse
effect-is an environment
al necessity. In April scientists reported the ozone damage is far worse than previous thought. Ozone depletion not only causes skin cancer, it also destroys plankton, the beginning of the food chain atop which we humans sit.
The reality of the greenhouse
effect is more speculative
, though its possible consequences are far deadlier: melting ice caps, flooded coastlines, disrupted climate, parched plains and, ultimately
, empty breadbaskets. The American Midwest feeds the world. Are we prepared to see Iowa acquire New Mexico's desert climate? And Siberia acquire Iowa's?
Ozone depletion and the greenhouse
effect are human disasters. They happen to occur in the environment
. But they are urgent
because they directly threat
en man. A sane environment
alism, the only kind of environment
alism that will win universal public support, begins by declaring that nature is here to serve man. A sane environment
alism is entirely anthropocentric: it enjoins man to preserve nature, but on the grounds of self-preservation.
A sane environment
alism does not sentimental
ize the earth. It does not ask people to sacrifice in the name of other creatures. After all, it is hard enough to ask people to sacrifice in the name of other humans. (Think of the chronic
public resistance to foreign aid and welfare.)
Of course, this anthropocentrism runs against the grain of a contemporaryenvironment
alism that indulges in earth worship to the point idolatry
. One scientific theory-Gaia theory-actually claims that Earth is a living organism
. This kind of environment
alism likes to consider itself spiritual. It is noting more than sentimental
. It takes, for example, a highly selective view of the benignity of nature. My nature worship stops with the April twister that came through Kansas or the May cyclone
that killed more than 125,000 Bengalis and left 10 million (!) homeless.
alism is one founded on Protagoras' maxim that "Man is the measure of all things." Such a principle helps us through the thicket
al argument. Take the current debate raging over oil drilling in a corner of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. Environmentalists, mobilizing against a bill working its way through the U.S. Congress to permit such exploration
, argue that Americans should be conserving energy instead of drilling for it. This is a false either/or proposition
. The U.S. does need a sizable energy tax to reduce consumption
. But it needs more production too. Government estimates indicate a nearly fifty-fifty chance that under the ANWR lies one of the five largest oil fields ever discovered in America.
The U.S. has just come through a war fought in part over oil. Energy dependence
costs Americans not just dollars but lives. It is a bizarre sentimental
ism that would deny oil that is peacefully
attainable because it risks disrupting the calving grounds of Arctic caribou.
I like the caribou as much as the next man. And I would be rather sorry if their mating patterns are disturbed. But you can't have everything. And if the choice is between the welfare of caribou and reducing and oil dependency that gets people killed in wars, I choose man over caribou every time.
Similarly the spotted owl in Oregon. I am no enemy of the owl. If it could be preserved at no or little cost, I would agree: the variety of nature is a good, a high aesthetic good. But it is no more than that. And sometimes aesthetic goods have to be sacrificed to the more fundamental ones. If the cost of preserving the spotted owl is the loss of livelihood
for 30,000 logging families, I choose family over owl.
The important distinction is between those environment
al goods that are fundamental and those that are merely aesthetic. Nature is our ward. It is not our master. It is to be respected and even cultivated
. But it is man's world. And when man has to choose between his well-being
and that of nature, nature will have to accommodate
Man should accommodate
only when his fate and that of nature are inextricably bound up. The most urgentaccommodation
must be made when the very integrity
of man's habitat-e.g., atmospheric
ened. When the threat
to man is of a lesser
order (say, the pollutants from coal- and oil-fired generators that cause death from disease but not fatal damage to the ecosystem), a more modulated accommodation
that balances economic against health concerns is in order. But in either case the principle is the same: protect the environment
-because it is man's environment
alists will call this saving nature with a totally
wrong frame of mind. Exactly. A sane-a humanistic-environment
alism does it not for nature's sake but for our own.