There is a tendency in the environmental movement to present the actions of human beings as fundamentally alien to nature and thus harmful to it. A radical fringe among ecologists holds that the very existence of humans, which happen to be a species resulting from natural evolution, is about as beneficial to Mother Nature as a cancer.
This view of nature, a deep background feature behind the creation of Earth Day, is not new. The idea that Nature is in fragile balance and under constant threat from human greed goes back much further than is generally believed.
In his treatise On the Testimony of the Soul published more than 1,800 years ago, at a time when the world’s population was about 30 times lower than it is today, the theologian Tertullian noted with horror that humans have “become a burden to the Earth; the fruits of nature hardly suffice to sustain us; there is a general pressure of scarcity giving rise to complaints, since the Earth can no longer support us.” Fortunately, he added, “plague and famine, warfare and earthquake, come to be regarded as remedies.”
Human existence was also long blamed for changes in the weather, as researchers Hans von Storch and Nico Stehr explained in a recent scientific article. Well before a supposed “consensus” blamed our use of coal, oil and natural gas for climate change, periods of cooling or heating over the last few centuries were attributed to various manmade causes such as witchcraft, deforestation, the invention of the lightning rod and then wireless telegraphy, cannon shots in the First World War and nuclear testing.
But don’t go telling green activists that the absence of warming for more than a decade leaves open the possibility that our modest greenhouse gas emissions can be added to this list! The verdict is final: Humans must pay for their sins, for how can we be increasingly numerous and increasingly wealthy without causing harm to our ecosystems?
As paradoxical as it may seem, it is still entirely possible to raise the number and living standards of human beings while reducing their environmental impact. The key to this paradox is very simple: A larger and more prosperous population does not just mean more mouths to feed but also more brains and more creative people, as well as more resources for creating new technologies. Human beings are not just exploiters of nature but also remarkable resource creators whose actions, without this being their primary aim, generally have beneficial effects in environmental terms.
For example, the development of natural gas and hydroelectricity have led to a sizable reduction in demand for coal and heating wood, thereby lowering pressure on forests and greatly improving air quality in cities. Moreover, the quest for profit is constantly pushing managers and technicians to do more — and do it better — by reducing their resource consumption reusing their waste rather than throwing it away into nature at a loss.
Who remembers now that, little over a century ago, gasoline was a waste material from kerosene production (refined from petroleum) that nobody knew what to do with? Or that the invention of cars and trucks considerably reduced the quantity of farmland needed to feed horses, which were themselves a harmful source of pollution and diseases?
It was not regulation or green activism that provided for improvements in the quality of our environment over the last few decades but rather a process inherent to the market economy, leading to ever more efficient innovations and an ever more economical use of resources. When will we see an Earth Day where it is finally recognized that the market’s invisible hand also has a green thumb?
Pierre Desrochers est chercheur associé à l'Institut économique de Montréal.