The New Environmentalism: Too Many People, Too Few Trees?

Who says you can’t change the world?” said the Earth Day 1990 flyer: both a challenge and a boast. To find the Baird Auditorium of the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum you had to make your way past the packed crowds of families with small children lined up for the new Dinosaur Exhibit. “In the great tradition of the teach-ins that spawned the first Earth Day,” the brochure continued, there would be a “special day-long forum on strategies for environment and development in the 1990s.” Once more there was to be a teach-in, then. Once more a public display of virtue and correct attitudes, with speakers brought all the way from Berkeley (but this being 1990, not the students but the professoriate would be represented, in the person of John Holdren, professor of Energy and Resources), with Friends of the Earth, Zero Population Growth, the Global Tomorrow Coalition, the Audubon Society, with talks on Resources and Ecology and Ethics and Recycling and Future Generations and (in person) Denis Hayes and Paul Ehrlich. Six dollars’ admission, said the middle-aged ladies at the door. Oh. I’m sure they didn’t charge $6 for teach-ins in 1970.

Paul Ehrlich came to the podium to the accompaniment of warm applause. Teacher, teach us! Tall, thin, and middle-aged, Ehrlich was the voice of Science. He affected the neutrality of the engineer, helpless before the iron laws of nature and bound by oath to give us the facts, nothing more or less. He let us know that he can more than hold his own in the labs, equation-dropping with some I=PAT patter and B (UV-B) banter; but now it’s teach-in time, with the faithful summoned and a few hundred loyal adepts sitting on a Saturday morning in the Smithsonian’s comfortable auditorium. Time to drop the technical mask and give them the bad news in layman’s language.

Prof. Ehrlich is the 59-year-old Stanford University professor of population studies whose 1968 book, The Population Bomb, included highly misleading scenarios of coming famine and the like; in one copyrighted article Ehrlich imagined 65 million deaths by starvation in the U.S. in the 1980s, a decade (as it turned out) of overweight welfare recipients, best-selling diet books and (by decade’s end) 60 million dieting Americans.

No matter, the prophet was once more at the podium, and the audience seemed ready to follow wherever he chose to lead; it delivered up a solid round of applause, for example, when teacher derided the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Washington Times as the “red neck press.” This casual slander of those who disagree with them is of course highly characteristic of those who believe they enjoy a monopoly in morality. Ehrlich added that, in expressing some rather mild skepticism about global warming, President Bush had “caved in to the lunatic fringe of the lunatic fringe.” And here again came the ovation.

Yes, there had been surprises since he wrote The Population Bomb, Ehrlich said, “most of them unpleasant.” For example, the “disappearance of the tropical rain forest.” And the ozone layer? Ehrlich reminded us of what many may have chosen to forget, that in 1970 the ozone layer was supposedly threatened by the Supersonic Transport plane. But after the SST was cancelled, the new enemy turned out to be chlorofluorocarbons, as in aerosol propellants. And of course we now have acid rain with us. True, food production turned out to be higher than anticipated, so that we “only lost 200 million to starvation” in the last two decades. But all this unforeseen food production has served merely to disguise a more serious underlying problem. “Humanity is on the edge,” said the population professor, and the audience was with him, on the edge of its seat.

In Paul Ehrlich we hear the voice of the central planner who is frustrated to see that the world unfolds (in his view) according to no plan at all, and certainly not his. He has a comfortable job in Palo Alto, celebrity status, podiums to speak from, lecture fees and publishers’ advances. Still, the world stubbornly refuses to see the light of reason as revealed to the community of planners. His audience no doubt also included many who were ambitious to plan the lives of others. The mentality was plain in one of Ehrlich’s more arrogant remarks. The U.S., he said, “now has 120 million people more than any sensible analyst thought necessary for any contingency.” The idea here is that nations should be thought of as resembling military units, peopled according to a purpose, not as a result of the free will of those who live in them, which is to say, providentially. Not that! “The birth of a new baby here is 20 to 100 times the disaster it is in Bangladesh,” said Ehrlich, because it consumes that times as many resources.

In the planner’s imagination, pain and suffering, being for the most part unintentional, can be prevented if foreseen. And everything can be foreseen (more or less) if life is planned. Therefore, life should be planned, and those who resist the Plan must be stigmatized as indifferent to pain and suffering. As to the inevitable end of life for all, well, that is a problem that medical research can keep working on; meanwhile, here too pain and suffering can be eliminated, with euthanasia pills, cooperative doctors, and Hemlock Societies. This is the worldview of those who don’t believe in any God and yet seek to fill the divine vacuum by transferring godlike powers to an elite vanguard, born to command.

This vision of a planned society was adopted as state policy in the Soviet Union in 1917, then in China and elsewhere. These unfortunate countries have since been overwhelmed with evil, pain, and suffering, not to mention the world’s worst pollution. But the underlying dream of a planning elite empowered to regulate the lives of lesser mortals continues to have enormous appeal to Western intellectuals. Earth Day was their big outing, Ehrlich one of their gurus. Notice Ehrlich’s response to a question about China’s one-child policy of coercive abortion. After a preliminary caveat dissociating himself from the slaughter in Tienanmen Square last June, Ehrlich said that China is the “first country to recognize they are overpopulated.” Therefore, he said, despite the “criticism from the idiot right” about forced abortion and female infanticide (which he admitted was a reality), “I think you’ve got to give them a lot of credit for it.”

Later that day Ehrlich showed up with his wife, Anne, at Politics and Prose, a bookstore on Connecticut Avenue, gave a talk to a coterie of the faithful, and signed copies of his new book, The Population Explosion, co-written by Anne. Ehrlich told me that he had not anticipated this new burst of interest in the subject. “We got pushed into writing this book,” he said, signing a copy of The Population Explosion. “We were told that not enough attention is being paid to the population issue. ‘Why don’t you write it again?’ ” He seemed to have forgotten about his Earth Day 1970 article in The Progressive, in the form of a confidential memo by the Secretary of the Environment to the President of the United States, reporting 65 million American deaths by starvation in the 1980s, and a 1999 U.S. population of 22.6 million. He said that was a “scenario,” not a prediction. He said his “biggest mistake” had been to “use scenarios in The Population Bomb,” thereby encouraging his opponents to accuse him (falsely, in his view) of making wrong predictions. In his new Population Explosion, which in fact is a completely different book, Ehrlich makes the ingenious argument that “of course, the entire purpose of the [earlier] book and the scenarios was to stimulate the kind of action that would prevent events such as those described in the scenarios from occurring.”

Earth Day

The next day, Sunday, was Earth Day itself, and the weather was fine. I made my way to the Capitol steps, through the crowds (later estimated at 125,000) that were basically white and middle class. There were bands and celebrities, their curriculum vitae alphabetically compiled in a Celebrity Bio package that came with the press kit. But I am embarrassed to list names apparently so famous yet completely unknown to me. Robyn Hitchcock? Is his or her name familiar to readers? Billy Bragg? Does that ring a bell? Described as “the reluctant social conscience of international pop music,” he has recorded a song “about the economic and personal brutality in the Thatcher era,” according to the Elektra Asylum Records press release.

If the bands and the people they’ve heard of weren’t here, I wonder if people would show up,” an 18-year-old was quoted as saying in the next day’s Washington Post. I felt the same way. The organizers had succeeded brilliantly in putting on an event that attracted normal Americans who were strolling about as though at a fair. “No, no rides,” I heard one man saying to his small son as they entered the fenced-off Earth Day Expo area, containing a big tent with a recreated rain-forest, a windmill large enough to depend on tax credits to generate competitively priced electricity, a log from a 731-year-old tree, and a 20-foot spider-shaped, eco-conscious polystyrene display of objets trouves in garbage bins, ready for recycling; in a word, fashionable.

In amongst the unwary strollers, like carnivores dressed up as vegetarians, were the numerous activists and Natural Resource Defense Council volunteers collecting signatures for petitions to Congress. I was accosted by a young woman seeking support for an “employee protection act” sponsored by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio. The idea of the legislation was to prevent the firing of “company whistleblowers,” which is to say, job security for disloyal employees. I muttered something about the role of free contract in the American way of life, but clearly she did not understand what I was talking about.

There could be no doubt that Earth Day was at its core, but also in disguise, a left-wing event. Its “chair” was Denis Hayes, who has emitted the telltale complaint that the 1980s was “a decade of greed, sleaze and mendacity.” Hayes exempts himself from this indictment, nonetheless working as a lawyer in Palo Alto, where he “enjoyed the money” earned by going after “the former directors and big shareholders of the savings and loan associations that were starting to go belly-up,” according to an article in the Post. Others on the Earth Day list of notables included: Lester Brown, Sam Brown, Joan Claybrook, Barry Commoner, Sidney Drell, Marian Wright Edelman, Jim Hightower, Jesse Jackson, Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.), Ralph Nader, Eleanor Homes Norton, Robert Redford, Ted Turner, Faye Wattleton, Jerome Weisner and Sen. Tim Wirth (D., Colo.); in short, a standing committee of the American Left, ready to coalesce into a coalition on half an hour’s notice, on any one of half a dozen issues ranging from a denunciation of El Salvador to an “expansion” of civil rights.

They have profited immensely from the almost universal cooperation of the U.S. news media (some of whose representatives have openly boasted of their willingness to cast aside the cloak of neutrality on the issue of the environment), and from the generally submissive, easily co-opted nature of most normal Americans, who will tend to assent without complaint if enough people tell them something often enough. In fact, the Left greatly benefits from the very quality of “apathy” that they so frequently deplore in “middle America.” An alert public would hardly accept such nonsense as today’s purported “environmental crisis,” now being both fomented and used by the enviro-media complex to gain passage of more and more restrictions on business activity.

Dubious Data

Nothing, absolutely nothing that we have been told by Earth Day promoters and their allies should be accepted as true without skeptical appraisal and independent verification; this includes claims that the earth is warming, or that acid rain is increasing, or that ozone depletion is harmful, or indeed anything more than cyclical; or that the air is dirtier or the water more polluted. As Gregg Easterbrook reported in an independent-minded article in The New Republic: “The air and water are getting cleaner, not dirtier. Acid rain may be preventing global warming. Smog protects you from ozone depletion. Family farmers dump more chemicals than toxic waste sites,” and “nature kills more species than humanity.”

In a speech at Harvard University, Budget Director Richard Darman said that environmentalism has become a “green mask under which different faces of politico-economic ideology can hide,” there being two varieties in particular, one “pro-growth, market oriented and pluralistic,” the other “anti-growth, command and control and centralistic.” Darman was too tactful to add that the evidence is now overwhelming that the environmental damage is greatest in countries with command economies, which is to say where the absence of private property rights permits state officials to pollute the environment without any way of holding them responsible for their actions. Private property, the institution which ensures that people reap the rewards and penalties of their own acts, is the great protector of the environment. Where property rights are weak or non-existent, e.g. in Arab or Communist countries, desertification and pollution will follow.

Nonetheless, our mainstream environmentalist leaders, heavily represented at Earth Day, continue to wage war on property rights. Their strategy is to try to drum up a state of emergency, following which emergency powers will be transferred to the state. Environmentalists who have stressed the role played by collectivized ownership in the degradation of the environment, such as Garrett Hardin, the author of the influential article “The Tragedy of the Commons,” (published in Science magazine in 1968) are quietly ignored. Which strongly suggests that the current environmentalist leadership (as opposed to the rank and file) is more interested in what Darman called “command and control” than it is in environmental quality.

The sequence of speakers and entertainers on the Capitol Building steps suggested that more was in the air than green-camouflaged politics, however. There was also a strong religious component, with a hard-to-define aura of pantheism and pre-Christian paganism about it. (And, as when the Rev. Sun Myung Moon embraced Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow at about the same time, it was difficult to say whether the Earth worshipers were being used by, or were using, the political activists whose stage they were sharing.) Gods and goddesses were frequently invoked. His voice amplified by giant speakers, someone called Tom Campbell asked the crowd to “show reverence for our Sky Father and Earth Mother.” My dim recollection of Earth Day, 1970, is that it was something like Woodstock II, the second installment of Ozzie and Harriet’s Nightmare. Now these people have grown up, some have gone into politics, others enjoy tenure at the universities where they registered their first protests, others have found Sky Father and Earth Mother.

“Earth Day is every day,” said a singer called Robbie Romero, “and we must protect her from the enemies of the human race.” A row of guilt-stirring squaws and Indians stood behind him. He sang:

The sacred water ran to the sea,

Oh great spirit keep us free,

I pray to you great spirit, please hear me.

Before leaving the podium he turned to the crowd and reminded them: “Save your mother.”

The actor Richard Gere, greeted like Tom Cruise by some cries of “ohmigod!” and teenage screaming, was for some reason seeking “ecological justice” in Tibet, to which end he read a statement by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The Rev. Dr. Donald Conroy, president of the North American Conference on Religion and Ecology, used the words “creator” and “creation” half a dozen times in the course of a very short statement, and it occurred to me that in all this Gaia consciousness-raising there is an inchoate resistance to the standard-issue, nineteenth-century conventional wisdom of blind-chance, random mutation materialism by which we still all live in the late twentieth century.

Catholic Allure

One can see also that environmental enthusiasm is likely to make inroads into any part of the U.S. Catholic Church not firmly rooted and grounded in orthodox faith. The moral torpor, the widespread sense of accidie is palpable in the pews after the American hierarchy’s 25-year effort to transform the Church into a gentler, kinder annex of the Department of Human Services. With church attendance declining and budget shortfalls increasing, something more inspiriting will have to replace the social gospel. Liberation theology has had its day, and even if the voters of Nicaragua, not to mention Eastern Europe, had not so thoroughly repudiated the idea of class warfare as a stratagem to legitimize the exercise of totalitarian power by a ruling elite, rank and file Catholics would have had enough of preferential options for the poor, indignation from the pulpit about income distribution, and clergymen who seem to want nothing more than the good opinion of John Kenneth Galbraith.

So our intellectually restless theologians will be off and looking for something new. Mother Earth will do quite nicely, I should imagine. The universalism of the appeal to save the world, the whole world, and everything in it (possibly excepting corporate polluters), is in any event far more suited to religious sensibility than class warfare. A recent issue of Commonweal (January 26) with a long article entitled “The Sacrament of Creation: Toward An Environmental Theology,” by Michael J. and Kenneth R. Himes, suggests that the theologians are already off and running in this direction. I even found myself agreeing with some of their less obscurely expressed points, for example that “the human abuse of non-human nature has spurred a harsh reaction by defenders of the environment, who exhibit a brand of ecological activism and environmental romanticism that borders on the antihuman…. The environmental romantic mirrors the fundamental outlook of the technocrats. Both see humanity at odds with nature.”

Moreover, I suspect that we are only beginning to hear from the New Age “geologian” (as he calls himself), Fr. Thomas Berry. Again, rather to my surprise, I found myself in partial sympathy with the man, particularly his claim that we have lost “the sense of a pervasive divine presence in the natural world.” I am not sure that this is, as he claims, because “the ‘book’ of the natural world” was displaced (thanks to the invention of the printing press) by the literal book of the Bible. The modern emphasis on texts, he claimed in a New Age interview reprinted by Genesis), “essentially weakened our sense of the natural world as our prime revelatory experience,” and led to “a decline in the genuine religious experience of all life as sacred.” This is controversial, but at least it is interesting, which is more than one can say for pulpit socialism.

A more straightforward explanation for our lost sense that the natural world makes manifest the handiwork of God is of course the theory of evolution, which came along a good deal later than the printing press. If it’s true that the natural world did arise as result of the purely random interplay of blind, lifeless molecules and atoms, then what basis do we have for holding that it arose because God created it? Our sense of reason tells us that if the former explanation is sufficient, the latter explanation is redundant. New Age enthusiasts and Earth cultists seem to be ambivalent about this point. On the one hand they use the word “creation” all the time, and one senses that, in practice they don’t really believe in Darwin at all; yet many of them would not enjoy being called creationists, and they won’t (as far as I know) come out of the closet and accuse the evolutionists of lacking evidence that evolution in fact occurred, or of preaching the ideology of materialism in the guise of practicing science.

The fact remains, however, that New Age spiritualism and Darwinian materialism could hardly be more antithetical. Yet the materialists Paul and Anne Ehrlich (on the dust jacket of their new book, she is described as an Honorary Life Member of the American Humanist Society), and the spiritualist Mother Earthers were happily sharing the same podium at Earth Day 1990. They are bound to come into conflict sooner or later. In fact, there was perhaps a presentiment of this conflict when Ehrlich was signing books at the Connecticut Avenue bookstore.

After his talk, a young woman quietly asked Ehrlich what he thought of Richard Dawkins’s book, The Selfish Gene. Ehrlich endorsed the book, as he also did Dawkins’ more recent work The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins is a conventional Darwinian, perhaps one of the last of the breed, and Ehrlich was standing shoulder to shoulder with him. He told the woman that there was “no real argument” against the still-conventional view that humans are genetically programmed to “outreproduce” their fellow earthlings. This mid-Victorian view of nature as red in tooth and claw is viewed disapprovingly by progressively minded biologists today, and it is beyond the pale as far as the New Age movement is concerned. Ehrlich’s message, it turned out, was not so much from the 1960s as from the 1860s. I saw a chagrined shadow cross the young woman’s face, and in that shadow perhaps one could see the outline of the theological battle that lies ahead. Oh, how the teacher had disappointed after all!


  • Tom Bethell

    Tom Bethell is a senior editor at the American Spectator. A graduate of Trinity College, Oxford, he is the author of several books including Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages (1998); The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (2005); and Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher (2012).

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