Economics & Environmentalism

A very nice reflection from the Action Institute.

An excerpt.

“Far from damaging brains and killing seals, applying basic economics to the environment preserves it.

“The industrial revolution that began about 200 years ago has changed humanity’s relation to, and attitudes about, nature completely—and sometimes it has generated new views about God and nature, such as from the Transcendentalists of the 19th century. In the first half of the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville reflected that in America, civilization ended where the wilderness began; life along the frontier was one of “wretchedness,” and the wilderness itself generally “impenetrable.” To de Tocqueville, the scattered frontier settlers represented “an ark of civilization in the middle of an ocean of leaves.”i How different from the Puritans’ “errand into the wilderness” of the 17th century, or de Tocqueville’s rendering of the American frontier, is the Transcendentalist attitude toward the wilderness that quickly emerged along with industry, as best expressed in William Wordsworth’s poem:

‘One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good
Than all the sages can.’

“Perry Miller, the great scholar of American Puritanism, reflects on the implications of the Transcendental view of nature:

‘From vernal wood (along with Niagara Falls, the Mississippi, and the prairies) [America] can learn more from that source more conveniently than from divine revelation? Not that the nation would formally reject the Bible. On the contrary, it could even more energetically proclaim itself Christian and cherish the churches; but it could derive its inspiration from the mountains, the lakes, the forests. There was nothing mean or niggling about these, nothing utilitarian. Thus, superficial appearances to the contrary, America was not crass, materialistic: it is Nature’s nation, possessing a heart that watches and receives.’

“In practical terms, we can see that in wealthy industrialized nations, it became no longer necessary for the vast majority of people to be “tillers of the soil,” securing a tenuous existence through sweaty labor over “cursed” ground. Indeed, in the United States and Europe over the last century, the proportion of the population engaged in farming has fallen from more than 75 percent to less than 5 percent.

“The central insight of environmentalism is that humanity’s great leap in material progress has come at a high cost to nature.

“The rapid material advance of the last 200 years has provided more comfortable lives in several meaningful ways: It has led to longer lifespans, conquest of diseases, and the ability of the human population to grow more rapidly and securely than at any time in previous history. (It also has provided the means of transforming social and family relations, liberating women from historically “women’s work” on the farm or in the home.) In other words, human ingenuity, technology, and innovation have largely succeeded, in wealthy nations at least, in approximating the abundance of the Garden of Eden.

“However, no exertion on humanity’s part, and no conceivable innovation in technology, can succeed in re-creating the original innocence of humans in the Garden of Eden. There is perhaps a corollary here: This approximation of Eden still partakes fully of human sin.

“The central insight of environmentalism is that humanity’s great leap in material progress has come at a high cost to nature: we tear down entire mountains for their minerals; divert rivers and streams and drain swamps to provide water for modern agriculture and urban use; clear large amounts of forests for other uses, often disrupting crucial habitat for rare animal species; and too often dump our waste byproducts thoughtlessly into the air, water, and land.

“Human ingenuity, technology, and innovation have largely succeeded, in wealthy nations at least, in approximating the abundance of the Garden of Eden.

“But this insight contains a paradox. Environmentalism arose precisely because we have mitigated the material harshness of human life through the Industrial Revolution; as Aldo Leopold, author of the classic environmental book A Sand County Almanac, put it: “These wild things had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast.”iv It is no coincidence that environmental sensibility arose first and has its strongest influence in wealthy nations. The affluent society does not wish to be the effluent society. Meanwhile, the poorest and most undeveloped nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America today suffer the worst environmental degradation and have the least public support for environmental protection. The wealth and technological innovation (spurred more by markets than government dictates) of industrialized nations provides the means for environmental improvement and remediation.”

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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