The Atmospheric Phantom
An Objective Take On Environmentalism
In Political Order and Political Decay: From The Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy, Francis Fukuyama (1952) goes into detail about the role of the American and - specially - the British forestry bureaucracy in the development of a professional State bureaucracy, as opposed to the patrimonial government based around local political leaders.
In this article, and in every other piece of work in this website, the term “liberal” is used in its original meaning, i.e. those who use Liberty as the political standard of value, not in its modern, corrupted meaning of “progressive” or “sympathetic to the Democratic Party”.
In the more general context of the entire history of the USA, Taft can not be considered a liberal or a conservative, as he advocated and implemented several statist policies such as price controls and trade tariffs. In the narrower context of the Progressive Era, however, Taft was certainly more concerned with individual freedoms than the politicians of both the Democratic Party and Roosevelt’s more progressivist section of the Republican Party.
Interestingly enough, despite his personal opinions about the value of a life in touch with nature, Thoreau was a staunch advocate for private property and individual rights. Responsible for coining the term “civil disobedience”, the author went so far as to be arrested for refusing to pay taxes to fund a war he disagreed with. Most preservationists influenced by Thoreau’s naturalism, however, did not share his political values.
In his book The Moral Equivalent of War, James argues that the state of mind experienced in the context of war has a good side to it, insofar as it promotes the voluntary sacrifice of the individual towards the common good. According to him, it is necessary to seek moral equivalents to war, so that this particular state of mind can be triggered without the need for an actual war.
Auy Rand: The Russian Radical, 1995, C. M. Sciabarra, p.245
Fires in the Amazon, talks of a Green New Deal in America, investigations on environmental crimes in China, and UN summit speeches from presidents and teenage girls. Environmentalism has not been an obscure topic for quite a while now, but it has certainly gained a renewed popularity over the past year.
On one side, talks of a scientific consensus that comes close to absolute truth, according to which Man’s actions are causing unprecedented changes to the world, which might make it uninhabitable to future generations. On another, a skepticism about climate and environmental science, the green agenda and even the scientific community as a whole that varies between the reasonable and the outright paranoid. What exactly is going on with our world?
The goal of this article is to present the reader, in a simple yet concise manner, with the gist of what we know about climate change, the environmental movement, and the different perspectives on what should or should not be done about it, distinguishing scientific knowledge from political ideology. To achieve that goal, we will analyze the history of the many environmental movements, from 19th century American conservationism to the modern theories on climate change, focusing on the value of their origins, motivations and predictions.
Conservationism, Preservationism and Progressivism
Scientific and secular environmentalism has its beginning in the start of the 17th century, with the works of John Evelyn (1620 - 1706), British pioneer in forestry. His book Sylva is the first treaty to consider forests and natural environments as scarce resources, that must be explored in a sustainable manner so as to avoid their depletion. Not only did his work influence an entire generation of European intellectuals, it was also essential to the development of a professional bureaucracy in the United Kingdom, with the Imperial Forestry Department in British India being one of the first examples of a professional bureaucracy in the western world .
Despite its pioneer nature, Evelyn’s work was essentially a treaty on how to manage a scarce resource (timber), and not a more general treaty on the conservation of ecosystems. Modern environmentalism, although influenced by European conservationism, has its roots in the environmental movements of late 19th and early 20th century America, which became the stage for ardent debates between liberals , conservationists and preservationists.
When confronted with the question of how to handle forests, more conservative republicans, such as William Howard Taft (1857 - 1930) adopted the liberal position of defending private property, arguing that the maintenance of forest land was not the role of government, and that the owner of a stretch of forest should be able to do as he pleased with his own land. In the middle of the Progressive Era, however, when the original American values of Liberty and Property were under harsh attack from social movements, and government owned vast areas of land, the liberal position had but a marginal influence on public policy. The real debate was between conservationists, who saw nature as a scarce resource that needed to be explored rationally, and believed that this could not be done without government intervention; and preservationists, who viewed nature as a good in itself, which should not be consistently explored at all.
Influenced by the naturalist cultural movement led by artists such as painter Albert Bierstadt (1830 - 1902) and writer Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862) , preservationists like John Muir (1838 - 1914) and his Sierra Club argued for the value of human contact with untouched nature, which they considered a source of spiritual and intellectual enlightenment. American philosophy, however, was dominated by the Utilitarianism and Pragmatism of the Progressive movement. With the ideas of authors like John Stuart Mill (1806 - 1873), who argued for moral collectivism and government intervention towards the common good, and William James (1842 - 1910), who preached the creation of moral equivalents to war as a way to drive people towards altruistic sacrifice, making up his philosophy, Theodore Roosevelt (1858 - 1919) found conservationism to be the perfect agenda with which to expand government powers and professionalize the American government.
Due to Roosevelt and the conservationists, Congress passes the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, which imbues the president with the power to turn forests into public property, which would result in the nationalization of millions of acres of land, the creation of hundreds of national parks, and the institution of countless governmental agencies. Conservationism had won its first political battle and became the dominant environmental ideology during the progressive era, however, as C.M. Sciabarra put, “To evade one fact is to introduce a contradiction into one’s consciousness, which, left unchecked, must engender further contradictions” , and conservationism would again be challenged by preservationism in the 20th century.
From the Collectivist Mistake to the Environmental Apocalypse
In Law, Private Property and Air Pollution, Murray Rothbard (1926 - 1995) shows why environmental issues cannot be solved by interventionist public policy, but only by the proper application of the principle of private property by the court system. Ayn Rand (1905 - 1982) is even more radical in her condemnation of the ecological ideology as a whole, stating in The Lessons of Vietnam that it advocates Man’s return to “the state of grunting subanimals digging the soil with their bare hands”. In the more apologetic side of both liberalism and its corollary rejection of government intervention, Milton Friedman would still criticize direct government intervention as an instrument of environmental preservation, arguing instead for more market-based policies, such as the uniform pricing of carbon emissions.
A good example of this is fluvial water resources. Rivers are better understood as a system than an entity - the moment you destroy a river source or stop its flow due to siltation, it is permanently destroyed, and all the resources for which it could have been exploited over an indefinite amount of time are now gone.
Few things demonstrate the influence that marxist intelectuais had on the environmental movement from the 50s onward better than the fact that the first Earth Day was celebrated on Lenin’s 100th birthday, and that it is still celebrated on his birthday.
Deep ecology is an environmental movement based around the idea that any and every living being possesses value, regardless of its relationship to Man. Arne Naess (1912 - 2009), the Norwegian ecologist credited with coining the term cites Carson and her Silent Spring as one of his main influences.
In The Green Crusade, environmentalist Charles T. Rubin (1952) analyses the data used by Carson and argues that they do not merit the conclusions she arrived at regarding DDT’s damage on human health. Tests conducted by the World Health Organization nearly 15 years after Rubin’s publication agree with his conclusions.Research conducted by multiple ecological organizations, such as the Audubon Society and the Patuxent Wildlife Research
Center also contradict Carson’s claims about the destructive effects of DDT in animal population, showing that the American bird population did not decline, but greatly multiplied while DDT was being widely used.
Thomas Robert Malthus (1766 - 1834) was an english scholar, responsible for writing An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he argued that the population increased at geometrical rates, while food supply increased arithmetically, which meant people were doomed to starve some time in the future. The problem with Malthus’ and any malthusian theory is the underestimation of Man’s capacity to produce, based on the failure to identify the source of production: Man’s intellect.
In his Population Bomb Ehrlich uses a positivist methodology based primarily on statistical modeling to claim that population growth would lead to mass starvation by the 80s at the latest. After the unequivocal failure of his predictions, the author wrote another book in 1990, renewing his apocalyptic predictions. Questioned about his repeated failures in 2004, Ehrlich’s answer oddly looks like it was taken straight from one of the pseudo-scientists portrayed by Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged: "Fifty-eight academies of science said that same thing in 1994, as did the world scientists' warning to humanity in the same year. My view has become depressingly mainline!”.
In his own website, Skeptical Science, Holdren dedicates a page to the idea that the advertising of a scientific consensus, by itself, drives newer research to agree with that consensus.
Roosevelt’s conservationism was problematic insofar as it justified an increase in the State’s power and an attack on private property, but it had two redemptive qualities. The first of these qualities was the direct approach it had to specific problems, which it attempted to solve with specific solutions; public action, under conservationism, consisted in identifying a place that possessed a specific resource which, at least theoretically, would disappear unless the government intervened. The second of these qualities was the identification of a real problem; liberal literature is unanimous in the conclusion that nationalizing an area is not an adequate means of preserving it , but it is a fact that certain important resources, if irresponsibly exploited, can disappear .
The inherent contradiction of progressivism’s collectivist premise, however, necessarily leads to the rejection of both the epistemology needed to properly identify problems, and the adoption of Man’s life as the ultimate standard of value. It is not possible to consistently and effectively defend the rational epistemology one needs to identify problems at the same time one defends the irrationality of government intervention as a solution to problems, and it is not possible to argue for the value of human life at the same time one denies the value of individual rights. Because of their contradictions, Utilitarianism and Pragmatism start to gradually lose ground to ideologies like Positivism, Marxism and Post-modernism, and this cultural change brings about changes to the environmental movement.
The first great work of contemporary environmentalism was Rachel Carson’s (1907 - 1964) Silent Spring, as it combined the use statistics and logical reasoning to argue for an ecological problem of global proportions with the ethical stance that nature has a value onto itself. Her work claimed that the use of synthetic pesticides in general, and Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) in particular, would lead to the destruction of entire ecosystems and, ultimately, of the human species. Successfully uniting the Post-Modern primitivism of the hippie movement with the anti-capitalism of Marxist academia and the political interest in expanding government power of Positivist bureaucrats, Carson considerably changed American society. Amongst other things, the success of her work led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the beginning of the Deep Ecology movement, and the banning of DDT in America, and eventually world-wide.
The prohibition of DDT and its unfortunate consequences are quite symbolic when it comes to Carson’s preservationism. Despite its alleged damaging effects on people and the environment, which are highly questionable from a scientific perspective , DDT is unquestionably one of the cheapest and most efficient pesticides in history, and its use was instrumental in eradicating malaria in Europe and in the US. Libertarian think-tank Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) goes as far as to say that the African epidemic of mosquito-transmitted diseases is directly related to restrictions on the substance, stating that “…millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm. That person is Rachel Carson…”. In Brazil, where I was born, DDT was ultimately banned in 1998 - the same year we had the first of many Dengue fever epidemics.
As preservationism replaced conservationism in the environmental agenda, Carson’s alleged man-made apocalypse was but the first of many. Throughout the following decades, multiple theories that were Malthusian in nature started to gain visibility, such as Paul Erlich’s Population Bomb , the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, and M. King Hubbard’s (1903 - 1989) Peak Oil. According to all of these works, which gained notoriety in the 60s and which are based primarily on Positivist statistical modeling, the human race should be living under post-apocalyptic conditions for at least 20 years now.
The Atmospheric Threat and The Academic Consensus
The first wave of environmentalism was defined by forestry and conservationism, and by the use of government intervention to legally conserve certain natural resources. The second wave of environmentalism comes with a resurfacing of preservationism, the use of positivist pseudo-scientific methodology, and predictions of disasters at a global scale. With the failures of the second wave’s predictions, a third wave of environmentalism starts to become prominent in the 80s, characterized by its focus on the Earth’s atmosphere, and by the increasing use of meta-research, i.e research that presents, not a specific idea, but a compilation of the ideas of the scientific community.
The first relevant work to discuss the danger of human emissions into the atmosphere was John Holdren’s (1944) theory on global cooling, which predicted that the use of fossil fuels and aerosols would cause the Earth’s temperature to drop to dangerous levels. The obvious and grotesque flaws in his predictions did not stop Holdren from being named senior advisor to, and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy under president Barack Obama, but his theories changed, drastically and unapologetically, until they matched the current predictions on anthropogenic global warming.
It has become fairly commonplace to hear that 97% of climate scientists agree that global warming is a dangerous and urgent matter, and that it is caused primarily by human actions, as opposed to natural causes such as solar and volcanic activity. The idea of a consensus has its roots in a meta-research done by John Cook in 2013, that analyzed 12.465 academic papers (which an initial filter brought down to 11.944) on the subject, and grouped them according to their conclusions on the existence of global warming, the magnitude of the problem it represented, and the role that human activity played on it. Cook has stated, in numerous occasions, that his research shows that 97% of scientists agree that global warming is an urgent, man-made problem.
The fact that meta-researches are an essentially positivistic tool of analysis, that replaces the scientific method - the individual proposition of a logically valid causal relation with sufficient empirical evidence that supports it - by a collective process is a subject that merits a discussion of its own. Science has always been made by exceptional individuals despite the established consensus, not the other way around, and the fact that public funding directed at researches are focused on academics that do not contradict an established consensus is highly problematic . The more immediate issue, however, is that the data compiled by Cook himself contradicts his claim. A quick “ctrl+f” in Cook’s publication, which is readily available to the general public, is enough to see that only 64 of the over 12 thousand papers compiled fit his “1” group, that is, agree with his claim that global warming is real, dangerous and primarily man-made - a mere 0.5% of the scientific community.
Andy May, a petrophysicist with 42 years of experience in the private sector - specifically in the prospection of oil and natural gas - in multiple continents has fortunately spared us the trouble of compiling the data on the predictive power of the models used by organizations like the UN to deal with the issue of global warming in the image below. I have also kindly done the reader the favour of independently checking the data compiled by May, and can state that it is correct. All the data is public and free, and the reader is not only welcome, but actively encouraged to check it for himself. Nothing replaces direct intelectual activity.
As the image above shows, only the Russian model INM-CM4, which has considerably different Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity (ECS) parameters than most models, has provided predictions that approximate the data provided by satellites and meteorological balloons, but its predictions are not alarming in the slightest. Furthermore, despite its predictive power, its predictions are very different from the average one would find in a meta-research of climate models, making it a bad model by the very same positivistic standards of authors like Holdren. But if there is not a consensus on global warming, what exactly does that entail? Why does the idea of an environmental apocalypse remain popular? Shouldn’t one trust the opinions of specialists? Shouldn’t we pay attention to the consequences of human activity on the environment?
An Objective Environmental Perspective
An objective perspective on the environmental issue involves three points. The first one relates to the rational attitude one must have regarding academic production; the second refers to the political aspect of science; and the third has to do directly with the attitude one should have towards nature and natural resources.
Academic production does not exist in a vacuum, and as James was already advertising over a century ago, the feeling of panic can be quite politically profitable. Be it the war on drugs, terror or pollution, dishonest people always have much to gain - both in terms of money and in terms of political power - by creating an urgent enemy, that needs individuals to forfeit their rights so that it can be properly fought.
As my father has always told me, “Numbers are cowards. If you squeeze them enough, they’ll tell you anything you want to hear”. Meta-researches and statistical modeling are an essentially positivistic methodology, that ranges from the somewhat useful to the outright fraudulent, and is downright anti-scientific insofar as they can say whatever their authors want - and most researchers will usually say whatever their financiers want to hear. It is up to the individuals to carefully go over any and every scientific research whose claims they wish to consider “the scientific truth”, analyze its methodology, its data and its logical steps rationally and objectively.
Whatever the scientific information available is, on any subject, it is also paramount for one to keep in mind that the individual's rights to Life, Liberty, Property and the Pursuit of Happiness never present a problem to life in society - they are precisely the solution to social problems, as they are based on Man’s nature primarily as an individual, and secondarily as part of a larger whole. Whatever the problem, be it the abuse of chemical substances or the irresponsible exploration of natural resources, it must be solved within the limits of individual rights, or they will make the original problem worse, and create new problems.
Forsaking individual rights to solve a specific problem is forsaking individual rights to solve any and every problem that might come up, and therefore forsaking individual rights altogether, as it sets a dangerous and inescapable precedent. It means that the act of identifying a problem no longer happens by means of exceptional individuals in a field making a discovery, and rationally convincing others to voluntarily take action to solve it, but that government bureaucrats have the power to define what the relevant problems are to the whole of a nation’s people. It also means that, even if there is a consensus on a problem, the way in which it is gonna be solved will be decided in a centralized manner, by government officials with power over people’s lives, through the sacrifice of some - and not by enterprising individuals to the benefit of all.
There is some truth to the conservationist position of Roosevelt. There are many resources, such as rivers and forests, that must be explored carefully if one wishes to keep them from disappearing. Conservation by itself, however, is not a value. What matters is how one produces the most value out of natural resources over time, not how long one is able to produce value for - and a government bureaucrat with a stable income and no market experience is far less qualified to make that choice than a private owner whose livelihood depends on it.
There is also some truth to the preservationist position, as Thoreau masterfully demonstrates in Walden. The contemplation of nature might bring us spiritual and intellectual benefits, as demonstrated by the fact that people voluntarily chose to go to zoos, reservations and camping sites. That value, however, is not and cannot be intrinsic to nature, as Deep Ecology claims, but is a result of Man’s interaction with it, and still has Man as the ultimate standard of value. Whether the value they create is worth as much as the cost (including the opportunity cost) of preserving an area is a question that can only be answered by the market.
The solution to any environmental problem will never come from an emotional attitude with tyranny as its end. The solution can only come, and does come every day, from a rational attitude and its corollary: freedom.