We are constantly being exhorted to “save the planet.” Indeed, saving the planet has become the de facto religion of politicians, business elites, and intellectuals in the West, replacing Christianity’s earlier mission of saving individual souls. But what does the environmentalist slogan actually mean? On examination, the phrase means saving the planet from us—that is, from human beings and our works.
What is more, the very concept of “the planet” turns out to be incoherent. The use of “the planet” as a synonym for “the environment,” instead of as a description of the Earth as one of the planets in the solar system, appears to be only a generation or two old. The term “environment” itself is a recent coinage: In 1828 the British writer Thomas Carlyle, a well-known critic of democracy, coined the term “environment” to translate the German word umgebung in an essay on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was only in 1956—six years before I was born—that the English word “environment” was used for the first time in print to refer to the ecosystem. And the term “ecosystem” itself was coined as recently as 1935 by the British natural scientist A.G. Tansley.
The term “ecology” was invented in 1873 by the German scientist Ernst Haeckel, and his work owed much to his own environment of 19th-century Romanticism, typified by a bias against society and civilization and a pantheistic awe before an idealized Nature. German romantic culture is the native soil from which our own modern environmentalism has grown, and many pseudoscientific elements of popular environmentalism that are unthinkingly assumed to be rational and progressive are in fact legacies of a passionately reactionary 19th-century Romantic tradition. One is the dubious idea of the web of life—no species of plant or animal can become extinct without harming all the rest. This is nonsense, because species have come and gone for billions of years, without necessarily causing the extinction of great numbers of other species. In some cases the disappearance of some kinds of plant and animal life has opened up opportunities for others, in the way that the extinction of the dinosaurs allowed mammals to expand into new niches.
The notion of a self-regulating ecosystem disturbed by human activity that would automatically restore itself to a “natural” condition if not for human interference is another bit of unscientific nonsense taken on faith by the green lobby. The evidence suggests that greenhouse gasses in the industrial era have warmed the Earth’s atmosphere. But it is also true that global temperatures have fluctuated wildly for billions of years, most recently in the Pleistocene ice ages. Human civilization developed in one of several warm “interglacial” spells following repeated expansions of ice to cover much of the Northern Hemisphere. In addition to fluctuations like these, there are catastrophic events that alter the climate and wipe out many species, like the asteroid or comet thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs and many other animals and plants on Earth. Contrary to what you would assume listening to green propaganda, if the human race vanished tomorrow the climate would not “stabilize” but would continue to fluctuate dramatically over time—at least until the gradual warming of the sun evaporates the oceans and turns the Earth into a steam-shrouded desert world in half a billion years, if the predictions of contemporary astrophysicists are correct.
But there is a crucial difference, according to the belief system of environmentalists. If an asteroid annihilates the dinosaurs, that is natural and not a crime. But if a local species of frog becomes extinct because officials drain a malarial swamp and replace it with a civic water reservoir that saves millions of people from infectious diseases, that is mass murder (of frogs).
According to the peculiar ethics of mainstream environmentalism, practically any modification of “the environment” or “the ecosystem” or “the planet” or “nature” is, by definition, harmful. Developers who cut down woods and build housing subdivisions are evil, because they are displacing the local plants and wildlife. Electricity that powers life-saving hospitals and air conditioners or heaters in buildings is sinful, if it is generated by coal or oil or natural gas that emits carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Paved roads? Forget it. They turn wild animals into roadkill.
In short—every single modification of nature by humanity is evil by definition, according to the popular conception of environmentalism.
Saving the planet has become the de facto religion of politicians, business elites, and intellectuals in the West, replacing Christianity’s earlier mission of saving individual souls.
It might seem that the term “planet,” as it’s used by the greens, has no fixed meaning whatsoever. But that would be a mistake. “The planet,” in the lexicon of environmentalism, is defined in contrast with what it is not: the “Not-Planet.”
The Not-Planet includes all human beings. In environmentalist ideology, we humans are not part of “nature” or “the environment” or “the planet.” We are something outside of nature: an alien, destructive force, modifying “the planet” from without. By this standard, all buildings and cities and other human settlements that billions of people depend on for their survival are rendered alien excrescences harming “the planet.” The sand on a beach is “the planet” but the moment you build a sand castle, the sand in the castle becomes Not-Planet. You have taken sand which might have been used by a beach crab for its burrow. How dare you!
Not all plants and animals are included in “the planet,” either. For environmentalists who are romantically nostalgic for the lifestyles of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, agriculture itself is an abomination, replacing “natural” ecosystems with farms and ranches populated by human-modified strains of grains and vegetables and fruit and livestock. A wild buffalo is part of “the planet” but a free-range cow on a ranch or a cow in a feedlot is not. The coyote that dwells in a suburb and kills and eats a pet poodle is “the planet,” but the poor pet poodle, like its grieving owner, is an interloper on “the planet.”
In 2015, George Monbiot lamented in The Guardian that, measured by weight, 60% of the mammals on Earth are livestock, and that while the human population is growing at 1% a year, the livestock population is growing at 2.4%. Global average meat consumption per person is 43 kilograms a year, but swiftly heading toward the U.K. level of 82 kg. The reason is Bennett’s law: As people become richer, they eat more protein and fat, especially the meat and milk and eggs of animals.
Like chimpanzees, our closest relatives, we humans are omnivores who enjoy the taste of meat. Our precursors are thought to have hunted many large herbivores—mastodons, sloths, giant armadillos—to extinction to satisfy their appetites. In my part of central Texas, indigenous Americans drove herds of buffalo off of cliffs and killed the maimed and dying animals in order to have barbecues. Raising bovines in feedlots is more efficient, and, while cruel in many ways, it is no more cruel than stampeding them over bluffs, breaking their bones and spearing them with sharpened flints.
Humans are not the only species that hunts prey or modifies its surroundings to gain an advantage. It is our self-flagellating that sets us apart from other animals, not the fact that we change “the environment.” Is it a tragedy when a beaver family builds a dam, creating a lake that floods a field, drowning other animals and killing the plants and trees that grew there? If the answer of self-described environmentalists is no, if all animals except for humans are allowed to modify their environments for the benefit of their species at the expense of other species if necessary, then environmentalism is a weird cult that is founded on misanthropy.
By arguing that environmentalism is a post-Christian, Euro-American secular religion, hostile to society and civilization—and livestock and pets!—I do not mean to suggest that all policies advocated for by environmentalists are misguided. It is in our own self-interest to outlaw the dumping of poisonous wastes into rivers and watersheds. It may also be in our own self-interest to mitigate atmosphere-heating greenhouse gas emissions with costly measures of various kinds. But there are costs to mitigating climate change as well as benefits, and rational people can prefer a richer but warmer world to a poorer but slightly less warm one. All of these individual policies benefit humanity, so there is no need to justify them on the basis of a romantic creed that defines “the planet” or “the environment” in a way that excludes us and our works.
Michael Lind is a columnist at Tablet and a fellow at New America. His most recent book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.