Earth Day has changed a lot since its inception in 1970, and not for the better. In the spirit of the time, it started as a touchy-feely, consciousness-raising, idealistic experience. Attendees were prototypic tree-huggers.
In recent years, Earth Day has evolved into an occasion for environmental Cassandras to prophesy apocalypse, dish anti-technology dirt, and proselytize.
Now there's more heaving tomatoes than planting them.
Instead of focusing on how to preserve and protect nature, many of those stumping for Earth Day on Sunday expressed opposition to environment-friendly advances in science and technology, such as agricultural biotechnology and nuclear power. Another pervasive sentiment was disdain for the capitalist system that provides the resources to expend on environmental protection and conservation. (It's no coincidence that poor countries tend to be the most polluted.)
Rachel Carson, Earth Day's Patron Saint
School kids are increasingly involved in Earth Day activities, and many are assigned to read Rachel Carson's best-selling 1962 book Silent Spring, an emotionally charged but deeply flawed excoriation of the widespread spraying of chemical pesticides for the control of insects. As described by Roger Meiners and Andy Morriss in their scholarly yet eminently readable analysis, "Silent Spring at 50: Reflections on an Environmental Classic," Carson exploited her reputation as a well-known nature writer to advocate and legitimize "positions linked to a darker tradition in American environmental thinking: neo-Malthusian population control and anti-technology efforts."
Carson's proselytizing and advocacy led to the virtual banning of DDT and to restrictions on other chemical pesticides even though Silent Spring was replete with gross misrepresentations and scholarship so atrocious that if Carson were an academic, she would be guilty of misconduct.
Carson's observations about DDT were meticulously rebutted point by point by Dr. J. Gordon Edwards, a professor of entomology at San Jose State University, a longtime member of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, and a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences.
In his stunning 1992 essay, "The Lies of Rachel Carson," Edwards demolished her arguments and assertions and called attention to critical omissions, faulty assumptions, and outright fabrications. Consider this from Edwards:
This implication that DDT is horribly deadly is completely false. Human volunteers have ingested as much as 35 milligrams of it a day for nearly two years and suffered no adverse effects. Millions of people have lived with DDT intimately during the mosquito spray programs and nobody even got sick as a result. The National Academy of Sciences concluded in 1965 that "in a little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million [human] deaths that would otherwise have been inevitable." The World Health Organization stated that DDT had "killed more insects and saved more people than any other substance."
Meiners and Morriss conclude correctly that the influence of Silent Spring "encourages some of the most destructive strains within environmentalism: alarmism, technophobia, failure to consider the costs and benefits of alternatives, and the discounting of human well-being around the world."
One of the United Kingdom's great thinkers, Dick Taverne, (a.k.a., Lord Taverne of Pimlico), discusses the shortcomings of New Age philosophy in his book, The March of Unreason. Taverne deplores the "new kind of fundamentalism" that has infiltrated many environmentalist campaigns—an undiscriminating back-to-nature movement that views science and technology as the enemy and as a manifestation of an exploitative, rapacious, and reductionist attitude toward nature. It is no coincidence, he believes, that eco-fundamentalists are strongly represented in anti-globalization and anti-capitalism demonstrations worldwide.
Taverne's views echo those of the late physician and novelist Michael Crichton, who argued in his much-acclaimed novel State of Fear that eco-fundamentalists have reinterpreted traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths and made a religion of environmentalism. This religion has its own Eden and paradise, where mankind lived in a state of grace and unity with nature until mankind's fall, which came not after eating a forbidden fruit, but after partaking of the forbidden tree of knowledge—that is, science. This religion also has a judgment day to come for us in this polluted world—all of us, that is, except for true environmentalists, who will be saved by achieving salvation, in the form of "sustainability."
Environmental Alarmism as a Philosophy
One of Crichton's characters argues that since the end of the Cold War, environmental alarmism in Western nations has filled the void left by the disappearance of the terror of Communism and nuclear holocaust, and that social control is now maintained by highly exaggerated fears about pollution, global warming, chemicals, genetic engineering and the like.
This year's officially designated, exaggerated fear is plastics, and pursuant to the Earth Day theme, "End Plastic Pollution," the Earth Day organizers have produced a "Plastic Pollution Primer and Action Toolkit," which enumerates all the scary warnings that activists should use to "empower journalists" to frighten the public and spur politicians to drastic regulatory action.
How dire is the plastics threat? According to the Earth Day website, it's off the charts: "From poisoning and injuring marine life to the ubiquitous presence of plastics in our food to disrupting human hormones and causing major life-threatening diseases and early puberty, the exponential growth of plastics is threatening our planet's survival." (Except that naturally-occurring bacteria have been discovered that rapidly degrade plastics, and genetic engineering will likely boost their efficiency.)
The eco-fundamentalists often peddle fear in the guise of promoting safety. French writer and philosopher Pascal Bruckner captured their view of the world nicely:
You'll get what you've got coming! That is the death wish that our misanthropes address to us. These are not great souls who alert us to troubles but tiny minds who wish us suffering if we have the presumption to refuse to listen to them. Catastrophe is not their fear but their joy.
The tiny-minded misanthropes have enjoyed some of what they would consider "successes." They have effectively banished agricultural biotechnology from Europe and Africa, have the chemical industry on the run, and have the pharmaceutical industry in their crosshairs. Should we be surprised that plastics are next?
Lord Taverne believes these are ominous trends that conflict with the principles of the Enlightenment, returning us to an era in which inherited dogma and superstition took precedence over experimental data. Not only does eco-fundamentalism retard technologies and the availability of products which, used responsibly, could dramatically improve and extend many lives and protect the environment, but they also strangle scientific creativity and technological innovation.
Defending Science, Reason, and Democracy
With Congress, the administration, and many Americans now firmly on the side of more sensible, more limited regulation, it behooves activists to collaborate in good faith and to support advances in environment-friendly technologies and business models. Among these, we would include ridesharing services, Airbnb, modern genetic engineering applied to agriculture, state-of-the-art agricultural chemicals, and nuclear power, all of which enable us to do more with less but which are regularly vilified by activists.
We are not sufficiently naïve to expect that to happen. Rather, we suspect that activists' eco-fundamentalism will continue to undermine the health and wealth of civilized society.
Lord Taverne observed that when you defend science and reason, you defend democracy itself. Well said, sir, and happy belated Earth Day to you.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Jeff Stier is a Senior Fellow at the Consumer Choice Center and is a frequent guest on CNBC, and has addressed health policy on CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, as well as network newscasts. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and other newspapers around the country.