During 1990 my nation, Australia, was graced by the visits of two North American thinkers anxious to help us get our national house in order. The thinkers in question - Drs. Paul Ehrlich and David Suzuki - loom large among the stars in the radical environmentalist sky. Whilst in Australia they were asked by a television journalist anxious for a ten-second “spot” to state in twenty-five words or less the basic conviction they most would like to communicate to their “down-under” audience. Their answer was simple. “Economic growth,” they asserted, “is not the answer to the great environmental problems of our age. Economic growth is itself the key problem.”
Taking that utterance as their text, Drs. Ehrlich and Suzuki went on to deliver an impassioned homily, a homily taking the form of a list of evils allegedly spawned by economic growth: A population explosion; the inability of the planet to provide food sufficient for its allegedly exponentially increasing human numbers; the depletion of resources; the wanton destruction of fragile ecological chains; the extinction of many nonhuman species; the introduction into the food chain of deadly pesticides; the pollution of the air and of waterways. On and on went the litany of evils.
In spite of the exaggerations and, indeed, fictions promoted by some extreme environmentalists, not a few of the issues distressing Drs. Ehrlich and Suzuki merit serious concern. Yet these issues raise distinct problems: conceptual, ethical, economic, historical, and scientific. An attempt adequately to address all these problems within this short essay would be an exercise in superficiality. Yet an article on environmentalism that ignored the bulk of these problems would be no less superficial. One can but attempt to discover and walk the via media between an attempt to cover too much ground and a failure to cover sufficient ground.
Inasmuch as the “villain” of many extremist environmentalist scenarios is the reality cited by Drs. Ehrlich and Suzuki—namely, economic growth—I have decided to preface my remarks by an outrageously lengthy aside. That aside addresses a simple question: What is meant by the expression “economic growth?” In an attempt to answer that question, let us consider together some economic history.
I begin with a simple proposition: For the overwhelming majority of men, women and children who have walked this earth, life has been, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “poor, nasty, brutish and short.” It has been an ongoing battle, usually lost, to secure the material goods needed for bare survival.
We forget this. The study of history for many of us was little more than gossip about the lives of a privileged elite. We focused upon the lot of Pharaohs and Kings and Queens and Generals and their favorites—the “ruling class” if you wish—but filtered out the sorry economic situation of the masses. Two recent economic historians describe the truth thus:
If we take the long view of human history and judge the economic lives of our ancestors by modern standards, it is a story of almost unrelieved human wretchedness. The typical human society has given only a small number of people a humane existence, while the great majority have lived in abysmal squalor. We are led to forget the dominating misery of other times in part by the grace of literature, poetry, romance and legend, which celebrate those who lived well and forget those who lived in the silence of poverty. The eras of misery have been mythologized and may even be remembered as golden ages of pastoral simplicity. They were not.
Economists have devised many measures indicating a people's economic well-being: Gross Domestic Product, the capital invested per worker, and so on. Yet a more useful indicator is average human life expectancy. That “indicator” at least reflects something as to the ordinary person's access to adequate food, clothing, and shelter.
Scholars by and large agree that average human life expectancy in Sumeria, the oldest civilization of which we human beings can claim knowledge, was somewhere in the early 20s. When in 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip first sailed into Sydney Cove and my nation, Australia, was “discovered” by Europeans, average human life expectancy in Europe and in the USA was somewhere in the mid-20s. In 1800 average human life expectancy was, in France, 24 for males and 27 for females. Seven millennia—7000 years—had passed. Yet the economic lot of humanity, reflected by average human life expectancy, had improved but marginally.
A change, however, quietly was underway. During the 16th century A.D. the Netherlands and later England “chanced” upon the embryonic beginnings of the modern free-market economy. That economy was unintentionally conceived by a new understanding of the rule of law and the role of government, and a new system of property rights.
Productive output—say food—grew. The population increased. So far, so familiar. Again and again new discoveries had led to increased productivity and a resultant increase in population. Nature, however, had played a cruel trick. The rate at which material output grew rapidly had been surpassed by the rate at which populations expanded. The final state invariably proved to be worse than the initial state, the goods and services available per person decreasing. Escape from this Malthusian trap seemed impossible. Yet the seemingly impossible became a reality in the Netherlands, in England, and later in other nations embracing a free-market economy. In such nations the rate at which productive output increased kept ahead of the rate at which populations grew. The quantity of food and other goods and services available per person kept expanding. Sustained economic growth - an ongoing increase in available per capita goods and services - became a reality. Decades, indeed centuries, passed. The capital—crudely, the tools and machinery—available per worker in capitalist nations increased. By the middle of the 19th century extraordinary wealth in terms of capital existed. The control of this capital was steered, in free-market economies, toward those best able to anticipate and least wastefully to satisfy the wants of the masses. Productive output soared. Real wages kept climbing (and this, incidentally, took place before the creation of trade unions as we today know them). Material abundance, rather than destitution, became the normal human lot. Each new birth began to be celebrated as a new source of creativity rather than lamented as yet another mouth to be fed and another body to be clothed. An economic quantum leap had been made.
Today, an historically unprecedented situation is, in Europe, in the USA, in Australia, in Japan, in Singapore, in Hong Kong, and in other nations enjoying a market economy, simply taken for granted. Material abundance is widely perceived as the “normal” state of affairs. Supermarkets boasting groaning shelves and bulging freezers occasion no surprise. The fact that the 4% or less of the US working populace directly involved in agriculture manage to feed and entire nation and a great deal of the rest of the world as well is registered, if at all, as an interesting scrap of information that might one day prove useful in a game of Trivial Pursuit.
Let me make my point another way. Every morning most inhabitants of the USA and of other capitalist nations awaken knowing that they will eat during the day, be clothed, and find a place to sleep when evening falls. Most have enjoyed at least elementary education. Most have traveled beyond the place of their birth. Most take for granted time that is theirs to use as they choose. Most have had some say as to where they live and what they do to earn a living. Most have access to culture beyond the capacity of their immediate environment to create. Most will live into their seventies, the average human life expectancy today nearing in capitalist nations the so-called natural human life expectancy. Simply, most are, from an historical perspective, unbelievably wealthy. What for millennia was but a dream is today a reality.
Even the questions haunting men and women have been transformed. Today, the privileged beneficiaries of a free-market economy are bewildered by destitution and by famine. “Why poverty?” they ask. By so asking, they make it clear that material abundance is being perceived as the normal human lot. Yet, historically speaking, destitution is the norm. The appropriate question is “Why and how the historical oddity we call material abundance?” Famines in Ethiopia and elsewhere and predictions of famine in what remains of the USSR occasion bewilderment. Yet famine, one of the four dreaded horsemen of the Apocalypse, long has been the constant companion of humanity. The historically appropriate question is “Why and how the absence of famine?” not “Why famine?”
Sustained economic growth has transformed the human situation. It has made possible for the many a standard of living surpassing that once enjoyed only by a privileged few. It has extended to the multitudes a truly civilized, truly human, existence.
Yet extreme environmentalists refuse to regard sustained economic growth as an unambiguous good. There is, they insist, a “down-side.” Economic growth has unintentionally spawned environmental disaster. Economic growth must therefore be curbed.
It is vitally important that the drastic nature of this prescription be noted. Some extreme environmentalists realize the implications of what they are advocating, arguing that drastic situations require drastic remedies. Many, however, do not. They castigate economic growth yet do not really understand what the term signifies and what, historically, the reality of economic growth has done to make possible—indeed actual—a humane existence for the masses.
But let me backtrack. I began by affirming that at least some of the problems concerning environmentalists are real problems. Consider the following statement. It is taken from a lecture delivered in Moscow during September 1990 by Dr. Boris Orlov, director of the Modern History Division of the USSR Academy of Sciences. “[In] the USSR there are, besides Chernobyl, at least 290 areas of aggravated pollution, equal to seven times the territory of France .... The total dumping of untreated waste into our rivers and lakes equaled in 1989 34 billion cubic meters. After a discussion of the need to save Russia's greatest national river, the Volga, the dumping of untreated waste into its waters, far from being reduced, has quadrupled.” Interestingly, however, Dr. Orlov then asserted that “behind this blatant mismanagement one can see ... the logic of the totalitarian mentality with its habit of collective irresponsibility.”
That final assertion merits thought. By and large, environmentalists in Western nations argue that only extensive governmental regulation of a free-market economy, or indeed the abolition of such an economy, can “solve” environmental problems. Yet in what remains of the USSR those most concerned with environmental issues point to a politically planned economy as a primary cause of the problems occasioning them concern. Let us put the question as to which—if either—of these diagnoses is correct temporarily on “Hold.” I merely note at this point that the simplistic notion that the extensive fettering or abolition of the free-market economy will solve all or most environmental problems collapses. Such problems are at their worst in nations operating with administrative command—socialist—economies.
Vaclav Havel, the past president of Czechoslovakia, detailed in his first presidential speech some of the environmental problems cursing his nation, actually stating that “we have today the most contaminated environment in Europe.” Actually he was in error: The prize for “the most contaminated environment in Europe” goes to Poland. Moving to the East, it is worth noting that Deng Xiaoping has conceded that under Chairman Mao environmental devastation was rampant, many forests being reduced to deserts, over 8 million acres of the North Chinese plain being made alkaline and thus rendered unproductive, and many rivers being so polluted that fish migration all but ceased, fish for a time disappearing from the national diet. Bluntly, environmental problems, far from being less intense in socialist than in capitalist nations, are “writ large” in such nations.
Hence, perhaps, the castigation by Drs. Ehrlich and Suzuki and other extreme environmentalists not of capitalism per se but of economic growth. Yet the data we have been considering raise a question. Economic growth is much greater in capitalist than in socialist states, as a veritable army of East European and Soviet economists today conceded. One would therefore expect, if economic growth is the generator of environmental problems, such problems to be at their worst in capitalist nations. They are not. The point is not decisive, but it at least should make one pause before “buying” the extreme environmentalist package.
To recapitulate. One: Many of the problems concerning environmentalists are real problems. Two: The claim that sustained economic growth must be brought to a halt if these problems are to be solved is a truly drastic claim. Three: The environmental track record of socialist nations leads one to question the claim that the free-market economy, or economic growth per se, is the “cause” of environmental problems.
Point four. Developed capitalist nations have enjoyed two transitions. The first I have discussed: the transition from destitution being the norm to material abundance being the norm. The second transition is usually called the demographic transition.
Given destitution, a high death rate obtains. A high birth rate is thus necessary if a population is to replace itself and if there is to be a reasonable chance that sufficient children will survive their parents and maybe make available the necessities for survival to those parents in their old age. The high birth rate and the high death rate in effect cancel each other out. The population is stable.
As a nation slowly makes the transition from destitution to abundance, the death rate drops. The old birth rate continues. Naturally, the population begins to grow.
But then comes the third phase of the transition. Material abundance is the norm. The death rate is low. So, however, is the birth rate. The population stabilizes. Interestingly, this stabilization was well under way in now developed nations before the advent of modern contraceptive techniques.
The key figure is the so-called total fertility rate—that is, the average number of children born to each woman. That figure must (assuming no deaths) be slightly greater than 2 if a population is to replace its numbers. The truth is, in the U.S., today 1.9. It is the same in Australia. In the Netherlands it is 1.6. Bluntly, were it not for immigration, most developed, capitalist nations would be suffering the slowing of economic growth that invariably accompanies a decline in population numbers.
Again and again environmentalists predicting a population explosion fall for what has been called a “Gary Cooper trend.” That name is taken from an early film in which Gary Cooper starred. He, a mere male, was charged with the care of a growing baby. In a sexist age that was perceived as amusing in itself! More. As an engineer he created numerous mechanical devices to aid him in his vocation, including an ingenious machine whereby diapers could be changed. He decided to measure his charge's rate of growth during her third month. Having done so, he communed with his slide-rule and, as they say, “freaked out!” Within a few years the baby would have become a “Ten-Ton Tessie!”
The fallacy leading to his prediction of disaster is obvious. Yet it is precisely this fallacy that informs the dire prognostications of the “population explosion” brigade. In reality, a sophisticated rather than a Gary Cooper trend obtains.
Obviously precise and detailed predictions vis a vis population are impossible. Yet a plethora of hard-nosed studies are available. I refer to studies by the World Bank, the United Nations, the US Census Bureau, the Population Reference Bureau, and even Worldwatch. Essentially, they are in agreement. A couple of years ago this planet welcomed its five billionth inhabitant. By 2000 the earth's human population will have reached six billion. GIVEN that developing nations make the transition from destitution to material abundance, the earth's population will stabilize in about 150 years at approximately ten through twelve billion.
There will be ample room. Today, human settlements occupy less than 1% of the world land area and farmland less than 10%. More: If one takes seriously the fact that the economic arrangements under which a people live dictate the number of people comfortably residing in a given area, the spaciousness of the earth as humanity's home is further increased. Capitalist Hong Kong, which is little more than a rock, supports 14,000 people per square mile. Socialist Ethiopia is unable to support a mere 100 people per square mile. As a matter of fact, if the six billion human inhabitants of earth we can expect by 2000 lived as densely as do the inhabitants of mid-Manhattan, the smallest state of the smallest continent in the world—my nation!—could more than accommodate them.
But notice the condition. Growing populations will stabilize if and only if the economic growth uniquely associated with free-market economies continues.
What about food? What are we to make of those environmentalists lamenting the planet's inability to feed an increased population?
I believe that there will be a “food problem” when the nations today yet to commence or in process of completing the transition from destitution to material abundance have “made the move.” It will be the problem today cursing developed nations: a glut of food and inhabitants desperately seeking out a diet that will reduce their weight without totally denying them the culinary delights God most unfairly has concentrated in fattening and otherwise unhealthy foods! The stories today revealing the significant trend are “non-trendy” stories about farmers going to the wall and agricultural prices being artificially propped up, governments paying farmers NOT to utilize all the arable land at their disposal. (Did you know that your government pays farmers NOT to utilize some 78 million acres of farmland, an area equal to the combined areas of Indiana, Ohio and much of Illinois)?
Let me summarize the most conservative figures available. The world today grows its food on some 2.8 billion acres. Five billion additional acres of arable land can be added without worrying deforestation. (I am defining “arable” only by reference to existing technologies, a foolishly conservative definition in that already the technology exists to grow bounteous crops on black, sticky, verticil soils, soils not so long ago regarded as useless.) Sequential cropping—that is, growing more than one crop per annum—gives us an additional 4000 million acres. Already we have virtually tripled the land available for food production. We are, so to speak, “home and hosed.”
Yet we haven't even begun! Today the world produces an average of 0.8 tons of grain per acre (thinking of, say, cattle in terms of the grain necessary if they are to flourish). Lord Todd of Cambridge notes that if the 2,800 million acres of arable land today utilized for food production were farmed with the efficiency that land is farmed in the Netherlands, that 0.8 tons per acre could be increased to 4 tons per acre. Factor in high-yielding grains (ensuring, of course, a range of such grain types to avoid genetic vulnerability). Factor in recombinant DNA. Factor in hydroponics. Factor in such enchanting creatures as the “beefallo,” a hybrid with thrives on poor quality grain, grows rapidly, and produces more and leaner meat than do ordinary cattle.
But enough. Save, perhaps, to point out that although agricultural production in Europe, the USA, and Australia is less efficient than it should be because of governmental intervention in and thus distortion of the market, nations enjoying market economies are able to feed themselves (either directly or by means of trade) and actually carry the burden of feeding socialist states. On this I urge you to beg, borrow, buy but do not steal a volume by a Swedish economist, Sven Rydenfelt: A Pattern for Failure (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984). Rydenfelt patiently examines the agricultural record of some fifteen socialist nations, from Cuba through Tanzania to China. The story is invariably the same: sheer disaster. The most interesting cases are nations that once enjoyed an essentially capitalist economy but decided to abolish such an economy in favor of socialism. With terrifying rapidity, acute food shortages are generated. (Julius Nyere of Tanzania managed to pull such a shortage off in a mere decade, a nation once self-sufficient in food and actually exporting corn being reduced to utter dependence upon foreign aid for the most basic of food-stuffs.)
So much for food. But is not sustained economic growth fast gobbling up irreplaceable, finite resources?
Some quick points.
First, what IS a resource? Typically, environmentalists speak of resources as though they are just somehow “there,” waiting to be collected and used. But such is not the case. Resources are created.
Consider. Oil once was not a resource. It was simply a nuisance, a useless black “stuff” occasionally frustrating human activities. But then some uses for oil were discovered. Oil could be used to make ink and, strange to say, perfume. Centuries later another use for oil was discovered, and it became an extremely useful resource. Simply, the “thing” plus imaginative creativity BECAME a resource.
We know precious little about imaginative creativity, in Julian Simon's phrase, the “ultimate resource.” Yet this we do know: Only in a social order where all are at liberty to experiment, and “successful experiments” are automatically registered AS “successful” and “reinforced,” can imaginative creativity flourish and enrich the lives of all. On this, some sad comments penned by the magnificent Russian dissident Sarakov merit thought. He notes that ALL the exciting “breakthroughs” of the last seven decades—in medicine, in communication technologies, and so on—originated in free rather than in “scientifically planned” societies.
Point two. Distinctions exist between resources. Some, such as fossil fuels, are depletable. Use them and they are gone. Some, like fish and timber, are renewable. Some, for example various minerals, are reclaimable. Some, such as water, are preservable. Conflating and confusing these categories of resources (as environmentalists typically do) makes for careless, misleading thinking.
Point three. The free-market economy is perhaps the most efficient means known to humanity for the conservation of resources. It does this in several ways.
During the late 1950s and early '60s a shortage of copper became apparent, this shortage first being signaled by a rise in the money price of copper relative to other metals. Immediately people began using less copper. More to the point, immediately people both realized that a demand for an alternative to copper existed and had the incentive—the despised “profit motive”—to seek out such an alternative. Someone, somewhere, mixed sand and imaginative creativity, and fiber-optics became a reality. Almost overnight, the tens of hundreds of thousands of tons of copper used to manufacture the cables enabling individuals and nations to communicate became redundant.
Again, the market values an enterprise in terms not of its present but of its future earning capacity. You own, let us say, a farm. That farm provides you with an income. The farm itself, however, is an asset. You can sell it. The selling price of your farm, however, is dictated by its future earning capacity. If topsoil is lost or the soil is salinated, the future earning capacity of your farm is reduced and its market price falls. Simply, the incentives are such that it would be irrational to go for a short-term gain at the cost of a long-term loss. Your time horizons, so to speak, are broadened. If your property rights in the farm are secure and your children can inherit the farm, your time horizons are even further widened. Compare the political control of a farm or another asset, where typically time-horizons are constrained, frequently extending merely to the next election.
Counting my admittedly separate points vis a vis resources as but one point, I move to point six, namely, pollution. I begin with some history.
The Industrial Revolution, a product of the free-market economy, led to widespread pollution in the form of factory smoke. Yet a framework existed within which the victims of such pollution could seek and obtain redress. People were deemed to “own” the air in and around their homes. Were that air “invaded” by smoke from a factory, the factory owner was liable under the torts of nuisance, trespass, and negligence. The “costs” of the polluting smoke were passed back to the polluter responsible, not imposed upon the innocent people whose property rights had been transgressed.
Government in the United Kingdom and in this nation decided, however, that industrial progress was a social good. The curbing of such progress by the courts was thus deplored. So what did government do? It changed laws relating to nuisance, trespass, and negligence. Specifically, entitlements to clean air were transferred from the private to the “public” domain where, not surprisingly, they were “captured” by industrialists. Crudely, air and the waterways were declared to be “public goods.”
Private property rights in air and waterways were abolished. (If you wish to read the sorry story in detail, I recommend a paper by Joel F. Brenner entitled “Nuisance Law and the Industrial Revolution” [Journal of Legal Studies, 1974] and a volume penned by Morton L. Horowitz, The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860 [Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1977].)
The effects of this denial of private property rights were inevitable. Since air was a “public good,” the costs of smoke pollution could be passed with impunity by industrialists upon those whose persons and property they had invaded. Worse. The absolution of polluters from responsibility for the consequences of their activities meant a total absence of incentives to develop non-polluting technologies.
In a sense, the point is so obvious that comment is redundant. We Australians are notorious polluters. With careless abandon, we dump our garbage in “publicly owned” rivers and forests. Yet we hesitate to toss that garbage into our neighbors' swimming pools. If we were so to do, we would be in big trouble, the courts recognizing and enforcing our neighbors' clearly defined property rights. Where such precisely defined and efficiently enforced property rights exist, we are “forced” to behave in a socially responsible manner.
Now of course there are problems. I purchase a car. Before so doing, I calculate the costs. The cost of the vehicle itself, of maintenance, of gas, of registration, and so on. The costs I ignore are those I impose upon my neighbor, the noxious fumes emitted by my car invading his person and property. Yet even if the courts were to defend my neighbor's property rights (including his property rights in his own person), problems would exist. How is he to determine which of numerous cars were responsible for invading his property rights? Should his redress be directed against car manufacturers? Against the owners—usually governments—of the roads in his immediate environment? It is not clear. The point is, however, that until an individual's property rights are defended by the courts, the courts will not seek for, let alone discover, means whereby redress can be effected with minimal transactions costs. Nor, and I stress this, will the signals and incentives leading to the discovery of non-polluting technologies be forthcoming.
I am arguing that pollution is essentially an economic, not a scientific, problem. As an aside, I note that it is not a new problem. I spent several enchanting hours perusing Australian newspapers from the 1850s. They carried story after story about pollution, albeit without using the word. Apparently soot was everywhere, being generated by the coal burnt not only by industrialists but by ordinary householders seeking warmth. The streets were littered with disease-breeding horse manure, the “haunting, wistful fragrance of ammonia” making life other than a joy for those walking along the sidewalks. The water supply was a breeding ground for a nasty bug causing dysentery. I am prepared to wager that a perusal of newspapers published in this nation at the same time will reveal comparable stories. A change in technologies meant simply a change in pollutants! Today, the most worrying pollutants are gases: carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, sulphur dioxide and so on. Combatting them poses not insoluble problem: What is required are devices that trap, dilute, destroy or absorb them. Yet the resources necessarily deployed to create such devices will not be forthcoming until the costs of pollution are shafted home to the polluters. The most efficient means whereby this is achieved is, I submit, the rigorous enforcement of private property rights.
I move to my seventh and final point. A subset of environmentalists, fortunately relatively small yet unfortunately somewhat influential, would sneeringly condemn all of my prior six points. I refer to environmentalists espousing so-called deep ecology.
“Deep ecologists” affirm that human beings, like all species, are but part of an unspeakably complex web of biological interdependencies. Fiddle at one point and unimagined consequences follow. Reality is like a cardcastle. Remove one card and the entire castle collapses. Worse. The card removed may well be an entire, irreplaceable species. That species has value in and of itself. That value is no less than that ascribed to humanity. To assert otherwise is an exercise in anthropocentric hubris, that is, pride. More. To interfere with what is found in nonhuman “Nature” is itself a morally indefensible expression of such pride.
One could make a few scientific or philosophical points. For example, those defending this position not infrequently misrepresent the nature of biological reality. They hold up a sort of snapshot of what, at a given point in time, exists. They display the incredibly complex chain of dependencies which, at that frozen moment, obtains. Yet nature is not a snapshot. It is more like a moving picture and a three dimensional picture at that. An ongoing process is at work. Every day species die and new species evolve. Existing chains of dependency are destroyed and new chains formed. This is the very essence of the game—I perceive it as God's game—we call evolution.
Yet fundamentally we are dealing not with a scientific or even an essentially philosophical stance. The environmentalist embracing “deep ecology” has made a religious commitment. Nature is divine. To interfere with the “natural,” non-rational, non-moral order is evil.
This religion should be familiar to those of us within the Judeo-Christian religious heritage. It is the old nature religion of those who, in biblical days, worshiped the fertility goddess Ashtaroth and her consort Baal. In its secular form, if you will allow me that somewhat paradoxical phrase, it is the worship of Ashtaroth and Baal as demythologized by Jean Jacques Rousseau and fostered by the present-day descendents of the culturally disoriented minority making up the “new Left” of the silly '60s.
It is a strange religion. Nature is divine. It would seem to follow that “Her” ways should be humanity's ways. Yet “Her” ways are horrific. For example, a human being introducing a deadly pesticide into the food chain is faithfully imitating, not defying, “Nature.” Nature protects plant species against predators, basically insects and fungi. This protection takes the form of naturally occurring pesticides. The chemical analysis of plants reveals, as has been stated, a “horrible zoo of nasty things.” Potatoes contain solanine and chaconine. Tomatoes contain tomatine. Alfalfa sprouts contain canavanine. Each of these substances in unspeakably more deadly than is, say, DDT.
Actually, a ceaseless war between plants and bugs obtains. A strain of insect immune to an existing natural pesticide evolves. Victory for the bugs. Sooner or later, a new pesticide is created. Victory for the plants. On and on it goes.
So what? Just this. What nature does randomly, human beings can do with thought. Human beings can attempt to calculate the consequences of their actions. They can learn from experience. They can attempt to rectify errors. If “Nature” bears a Godlike face, that face is the face of humanity. Which is just, I submit, what one would expect if human beings truly are made in the imago Dei, the image of God.
Nature is not divine. It is the creation of God, not a god or a goddess. When treated as divine, the superficially benign face of nature is revealed for what it is. Invariably, human sacrifice is demanded. The worshipers of Ashtaroth and Baal did it. The Aztecs did it. The devotees of the eerie nature religion informing Nazism did it. Not surprisingly, the “deep ecologists” recommend it.
I quote from an essay appearing in Earthbound: New Introductory Readings in Environmental Ethics (ed. Tom Regan, New York: Random House Press, 1984.) “Massive human diebacks would be good. It is our duty to cause them. It is our species' duty, relative to the whole, to eliminate 90% of our numbers” (p. 269.) Or consider the following, taken from a J. Baird Callicott's In Defense of the Land Ethic (New York: State University of New York Press, 1989): “If it is not only morally permissible, but, from the point of view of the land ethic, morally required, that members of certain species be abandoned to predation ... or even culled, how can we consistently exempt ourselves from a similar draconian regime? We too are only 'plain members of citizens' of the biotic community” (p. 92.)
We Christians know that the worship of Nature—the worship of Ashtaroth and of Baal—is idolatry. We also know that the worship of Mammon, an ugly little godling who would have us believe that the creation of wealth, an undoubted good, is the supreme or only good and that the acquisition of such wealth can satisfy our deepest yearnings, is also idolatry. Thus my final word is not economic but theological. I believe that sound economics points us in the direction we must walk if feasible answers to the environmental problems of our age are to be found. More importantly, however, I affirm that sound theology is an imperative if we are to avoid the veritable holocaust extreme environmentalists would unleash upon this planet, a planet that belongs to God yet which the Holy One has entrusted to our fallible care.