Such attitudes soon pervaded Western culture, expressed in pseudo-scientific form by Sigmund Freud, who wrote that “what we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery, and that we should be happier if we gave it up and returned to primitive conditions.” More recently, Al Gore, the great champion of global warming “science,” remains the high priest of this green cult, recycling old Romantic clichés. He whines in Earth in the Balance about our “technological hubris” and “technological alchemy,” which have driven an “increasingly aggressive encroachment into the natural world” and created the “froth and frenzy of industrial civilization.” Such bromides were stale by 1856, when Gustave Flaubert satirized them in Madame Bovary.
These old ideas lie behind much of what passes itself off as “environmental science.” Salvation from our ancient sin of creating science and technology will come from restoring that ruptured bond with a benevolent nature. Keeping the environment pristine and “natural” by closing it off to development or recreation becomes government policy, one ruthlessly enforced by the aptly named Environmental Protection Agency, rather than the more practical environmental management agency. Bounties of resources like oil and natural gas are left undeveloped to “protect the environment,” and forests are banned from logging or even thinning. Carbon-based energy is proscribed, and billions in pork is distributed to “clean energy” alternatives. Starting in kindergarten, school curricula are crammed with the environmental gospel and its rituals like recycling, and its holy days like Earth Day. And “natural,” “organic,” and “green” have become potent marketing lures for attracting consumers.
Even worse, all this propaganda is passed off as “environmental science.” But at its heart lies the old nature myths founded on an erroneous assumption: that humans are natural creatures whose most fulfilling happiness comes from restoring that lost bond with the simpler, more authentic natural world. In fact, humans are not natural creatures. Our bodies come from nature, but our humanity comes from our minds and free will. Everything in nature is determined by the laws of physics, and has no intrinsic value or worth, no beauty or meaning other than what humans give it. As French philosopher, Luc Ferry writes, man:
Is indetermination par excellence: he is so oblivious to nature that it can cost him his life. Man is free enough to die of freedom . . . His humanity resides in his freedom, in the fact that he is undefined, that his nature is to have no nature but to possess the capacity to distance himself from any code within which one may seek to imprison him.
Human freedom and consciousness make man literally unnatural, his choices and actions often spontaneous and uniquely capable of being creative and destructive.
The untouched nature glorified by romantic environmentalism, then, is not our home. Ever since the cave men, humans have altered nature to make it more conducive to human survival and flourishing. After the retreat of the ice sheets changed the environment and animal species on which people had depended for food, humans in at least four different regions of the world independently invented agriculture to better manage the food supply. Nor did the American Indians, for example, live “lightly on the land” in a pristine “forest primeval.” They used fire to shape their environment for their own benefit. They burned forests to clear land for cultivation, to create pathways to control the migration of bison and other game, and to promote the growth of trees more useful for them.
And today we continue to improve cultivation techniques and foods to make them more reliable, abundant, and nutritious, not to mention more various and safe. We have been so successful at managing our food supply that today one person out of ten provides food that used to require nine out of ten, obesity has become the plague of poverty, and famines result from political dysfunction rather than nature.
That’s why untouched nature, the wild forests filled with predators, has not been our home. The cultivated nature improved by our creative minds has. True environmentalism is not nature love, but nature management: applying skill and technique to make nature more useful for humans, at the same time conserving resources so that those who come after us will be able to survive. Managing resources and exploiting them for our benefit without destroying them is how we should approach the natural world. We should not squander resources or degrade them, not because of nature, but because when we do so, we are endangering the well-being of ourselves and future generations.