Man vs. Nature

By Peter Schwartz (Sacramento Bee, April 23, 1999)

For the first time in American history, the government is ordering the destruction of a dam–for environmental reasons.

This July, Edwards Dam, a small hydroelectric facility on the Kennebec River in Augusta, Maine, will be torn down by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Its crime? It is blocking the path of fish that swim upstream to spawn. As recounted in a N.Y. Times article, “the hindrance the Edwards Dam posed to migratory fish outweighed the benefit it provided in electric generation.”

On Earth Day, it is worth noting this event, for it illuminates the essential meaning of environmentalism. The closing of Edwards Dam is the implementation of environmentalism’s fundamental, though often unrecognized, tenet: that man ought to be sacrificed for the sake of nature.

The common view of environmentalism is that its goal is the betterment of mankind–that it wants to purify our air and clean up our parks so that we can live healthier and happier lives. But that is a very superficial interpretation. When environmentalists are faced with a conflict between the “interests” of nature and those of man, it is man who is invariably sacrificed. If there is a choice between electric power for human beings and swimming lanes for salmon, it is always the fish that are given priority. If there is a choice between cutting down trees for human use and leaving them untouched for the spotted owl, it is always the bird’s home that is saved and human habitation that goes unbuilt. Why?

Because the requirements of human life are not the standard by which environmentalists make their judgments. Their goal is to maintain nature in its virginal state–despite the demonstrable harm this inflicts upon people. They want to preserve wildernesses, to enshrine wetlands, to tear down dams and levees–i.e., to prevent the man-made “intrusions” upon nature.

In the case of Edwards Dam, for instance, they want to protect the salmon not because it is a source of food–or of any other human value. (They regularly denounce hatcheries as “unnatural” and commercial fishing as the “exploitation of nature”–and the very eating of animals as insensitive “speciesism.”) Rather, they regard the “welfare” of the salmon as an end in itself–for the sake of which man must forgo the benefits of the dam.

Environmentalists often declare their philosophy openly. For example, David Graber, an environmentalist with the National Parks Service, described himself as among those who “value wilderness for its own sake, not for what value it confers upon mankind. . . . We are not interested in the utility of a particular species, of free-flowing river, or ecosystem to mankind. They have intrinsic value, more value–to me–than another human body, or a billion of them.”

David Foreman, founder of the organization Earth First, bluntly stresses the environmental irrelevance of human beings: “Wilderness has a right to exist for its own sake, and for the sake of the diversity of the life forms it shelters; we shouldn’t have to justify the existence of a wilderness area by saying: ‘Well, it protects the watershed, and it’s a nice place to backpack and hunt, and it’s pretty.'”

The environmentalist goal, in other words, is to protect nature, not for man, but from man.

But this means that man must suffer so that nature remains pristine. Human beings survive by reshaping nature to fulfill their needs. Every single step taken to advance beyond the cave–every rock fashioned into a tool, every square foot of barren earth made into productive cropland, every drop of crude petroleum transformed into fuel for cars and planes–constitutes an improvement in human life, achieved by altering our natural environment. The environmentalists’ demand that nature be protected against human “encroachments” means, therefore, that man must be sacrificed in order to preserve nature. If “wilderness has a right to exist for its own sake”–then man does not.

Litter-free streets or pollution-free air–or any provable benefit to man–is not what environmentalists seek. Their aim is to eliminate the benefits of the man-made in order to preserve–unchanged–nature’s animals, plants and dirt.

Earth Day is an appropriate occasion for challenging the environmentalists’ philosophy. It can be the occasion for recognizing the Earth as a value–not in and of itself, but only insofar as it is continually reshaped by man to serve his ends.

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