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What is the final objective of the environmental movement?

Jim says: Back when rivers were so thick with sludge one could walk across them and the skies so orange with pollutants one could watch fresh paint peeling off houses, it seemed to make some sense to tidy things up a bit. We have done that in the developed countries of the world. And granted, there are liquid and gaseous pollutants we can not see. As we have learned about them, we have cleaned them up, too.

What I don’t understand, and because I don’t understand it may even fear it, is what the environmental movement’s final end game is. Is it to eliminate all smokestacks and discharge pipes? Is it to bring every aspect of every business under full and complete control of government? What is it?

When a life is lost in an automobile accident, a lawsuit seeking damages is often filed by the decedent’s relatives and estate. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, a fairly rigid application of actuarial tables and the decedent’s future financial obligations (such as rearing children) are used to determine the amount of award. It is a fairly cut and dried process. It seems difficult to accurately determine quantity and source of deaths around the world attributed to environmental causes. The claims vary widely not only due to the objectives of the reporter, but also due to a lack of clear definition of what is an environmentally related death.

Unlike you, I don’t view pronouncements on such matters by Nobel Laureates as factual for I view the Nobel selection process as purely political and awardees merely winners of politically correct popularity contests. However, when one looks at the actuarial tables from around the world, one comes to some rather quick conclusions. First, life expectancy worldwide still varies greatly, leading one to suppose that in those areas where life expectancy is low, a combination of poor preventive medicine and poor environmental controls may be causing short-lived experiences. Secondly, in developed countries, life expectancy improved significantly up until about the 1970s and since then has improved only by a minuscule amount. This can lead to two conclusions. First, environmental efforts today should focus on those countries with low life expectancy—this is where the biggest effect benefiting the most people can be had. Two, in cases where life expectancy is already high and has a track record of improving only by the slightest amounts, it perhaps is time to ask what is the financial cost to society for the next tiny incremental improvement (keeping in mind the widely accepted standards used in auto accidents, cited above). For instance, in the United States, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control, the life expectancy for both sexes, all races, as calculated at birth has increased from 77.0 years in 2000 to 77.8 years in 2005 (latest data available). If one accepts the most pessimistic data one can find, 40% of all deaths are environmentally caused. This might lead one to grossly conclude that environmental improvements since 2000 have lengthened lives by 16 or 17 weeks. What is this worth? The answer is not that it is worth an infinite amount of money.

This is personal with me. I say this as a survivor of a cancer that was apparently caused by chemical (fertilizer) pollution. Was it worth spending what could only be categorized as half the lifetime wages of an average worker to save only my life? From a cold and hard financial point of view, the best I can say is I don’t know. I certainly can not say an unequivocal yes.

On another angle, governments and scientific organizations have long looked at pollution at its source, not at the results. Yet, the issue is implicitly the results, for if there were no living beings of any kind on Earth, we would not be worried about cleaning up this planet (I base this observation on noting how little we spend or seem to even care about pollution on the other planets, even the really nasty ones).

So why do vast programs such as the Kyoto Protocol look at sources at all? Why don’t they look at local actuarial tables and focus resources on improving these, by whatever means appropriate? Is this because, as I stated at the beginning, I am suspicious of the environmental movement’s ultimate end game?

Travis says: As to your fear that the “environmental movement’s final end game is…to bring every aspect of every business under full and complete control of government,” I think you are confusing means and ends. As someone who digs Jesus, I would prefer that 100% of the population profess Christianity, but I will not be killing infidels to help achieve that goal. Likewise, regulation can prove a useful tool where environmental externalities exist, when the private costs of pollution and environmental degradation are lower than the public costs. But the goal of the environmental movement is not to regulate, the goals are to maintain species diversity, to decrease the amount of human-placed carbon in the atmosphere, to restore fisheries, to preserve ecosystems, and to encourage people to curb unsustainable consumption patterns.

What should scare you about the environmental movement is its vein of biocentrism, which rejects your anthropocentric actuarial tables. Not that most environmentalists are misanthropes. On the contrary, most would agree with your contention that people in the developing world have been underserved and deserve greater attention. But many environmentalists also see inherent value in the natural world beyond its utility in satisfying human material desires. Some believe that endangered species have a right to continue to exist, even if unique habitat preservation causes human inconvenience. Some see an unspoiled Rocky Mountain vista as ineffably beautiful, worthy of preservation and protection, rather than thinking, “I wonder how we could knock those things down and make that space useful.” Worst of all, some environmentalists believe that property rights are not always absolute.

These disconnects are essentially matters of faith and conscience. You either value the existence of wild polar bears that you will never see, or you do not. You either see humans as having dominion over the natural world, or you see humans as a component within a broader ecosystem. You weigh the evidence, and either decide that the risk of human-caused climate change is worth mitigating, or not. But unlike private religious practice or personal ethics, we must make social decisions on how to value our shared environment. People want to be free, so decisions by fiat and authoritarian hyper-regulatory regimes will be rejected.

To ultimately succeed, the environmental movement will have to win the battle of hearts and minds. There is no “endgame” to the environmental movement. I yearn for pristine rivers, pure air, and ample wild places, and I suppose that I could make a list of goals that includes plenty of numbers and percentages. But I would settle for year-after-year burning less fossilized carbon, using fewer dangerous pesticides, seeing more fish with lower levels of mercury in the oceans, convincing more people to trade a little convenience and comfort today for a cleaner and richer environment tomorrow. In other words, we need continuous improvement, which sometimes involves sweeping new policies, but more often involves subtle, incremental change.

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