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Posted on Sun, Dec 6, 2009 : 2:56 p.m.

The incoherence of modern environmentalism

By Will Warner

It's clear that a changing climate will change the environment. But why is a changed environment a harmed environment? Environmentalism gives conflicting and ultimately incoherent answers.

When asked this question, the typical person who calls himself an environmentalist answers that change will drown the Maldivians and bring on monster hurricanes to ravage the coastal cities, drought leading to famine, sifts in the Earth’s fertile regions leading to war.

Agree with him that a changed environment is a harmed environment if people are harmed, and he recoils. He knows that true environmentalism, sometimes called deep ecology, rejects and resents the notion that it is concerned with the welfare of mankind, calling that way of thinking "superficial." Deep ecology holds that the environment is a thing unto itself, with its own moral standing that we must honor.

Deep ecology goes nowhere, however, because it rests on an assumption that is clearly silly: the way things are now are the way they are supposed to be. Because the supposition is absurd, no one acknowledges it, but, without it, deep ecology cannot explain why a changed environment is a harmed environment. Unless we image that the Earth has a correct temperature, sea level, size of ice cap, concentration of gases in the atmosphere, degree of forestation and complement of plants and animals, and unless Iowa is the natural corn capital of the world, not Saskatchewan, and if effects adverse to people do not count, a change in any of these variables does no damage. Change is only harm if there is a way things are supposed to be.

There is evidence that true environmentalists make the assumption I ascribe to them. Scientists speculate about how long it will take to stop global warming and then roll back. Roll it back? Once the Earth has stabilized at a higher temperature, the biosphere will be adapted to those conditions. Rolling things back will not resurrect the species lost along the way and will harm the plants and animals at home in the new conditions. Why would we instigate another period of rapid climate change? Only one reason: The way things are now are the way they are supposed to be.

Most climate change models have us moving toward an average worldwide temperature 10 degrees warmer than 1000 years ago. If, coming out of the ice ages, the atmosphere had stabilized at that temperature instead of where it did, who can doubt that we would now call that temperature "correct" (despite the non-existence of polar bears), and that we would fear a decrease to the temperature we are currently so desperate to preserve?

By denying its underpinnings, environmentalism renders itself incoherent. Its adherents could save it by admitting that those underpinnings are value judgments and defend them as such. But this is not going to happen because people like to think that their deepest beliefs arise not from value judgments but from an apprehension of objective truth.

For the rest us, it is high time we stopped granting that environmentalists occupy the moral high ground. On the contrary, I assert that effects adverse to people do count, that it is about people, that the alleviation of human suffering and support of human aspirations must be our prime concern. We should stop investing inanimate objects such as water and air with moral standing, and return to calling the environment by its former name: natural resources.

For our own sakes, can we stop climate change? Who knows. Can we adapt to it? We better. Will there be extinctions? Yes, like the 30 billon that have already occurred. Is extinction tragic? I suppose, in the way that everything about life is tragic, embedded as it is in our indifferent universe.

The extinction of humans would be tragic beyond measure, however, because the human mind is the only known locus of meaning; without it, the universe would be not merely indifferent, but pointless. The fate of this miraculous creature called Man is the question of overriding interest. That is my value judgment.

Will Warner lives in Lodi Township and is a self-employed software development engineer. He can be reached at


Rork Kuick

Tue, Dec 8, 2009 : 7:42 a.m.

On Candy Shells what-I-see method of estimating the carrying capacity: My understanding is that we are not showing that we can live sustainably in north America even at current population levels. To give just one example, the Chesapeake Bay, one of the jewels of our planet, is barely a crumb of what once was. Antarctica also has allot of "unused" acres. I think the wishful thinking is, that if there is any possibility of doubting that an ecological change is bad, we should take that as license to carry on with the usual destruction.

Thick Candy Shell

Mon, Dec 7, 2009 : 11:27 a.m.

How can anyone say we are overpopulated?????? If we are overpopulated in a few areas, maybe, but it is the same warm and fuzzy people that have promoted that. I look at the U.S. and see MILLIONS of acres of open land being unused. I can't figure how that can be overpopulated.

R Elliott

Mon, Dec 7, 2009 : 10:49 a.m.

It's not "we can live with change", but that we have no choice about living with change. Control of the natural changes that this planet has experienced over the ages is beyond the ability of mankind. Certainly we should minimize our impact, but at the same time, don't assume that we have complete control, or that we can arrest all change relative to climate, or the physical landscape.


Mon, Dec 7, 2009 : 9:34 a.m.

I have no idea about Mr Warner's general views n thngs, but his editorial misses much of the point. There are many different varieties of "environmentalism" and one cannot claim that all of them are incoherent. His main notion, that we can live with change, makes no sense at all. Never before has this planet been so overpopulated. From the environmental point of view, this is probably the one major factor that is driving all other problems. but it also means that any changes in temperature, climate, sea-levels, etc., might have catastrophic effects on the lives of millions, as the shifts in where and how people are to live will undoubtedly result in unimaginable misery for many, not to mention other forms of life. Is this what we really want, or should we at least try to prevent some of this from happening.

Rork Kuick

Mon, Dec 7, 2009 : 9:34 a.m.

I might add that it seems prudent to limit the effects when their impact is uncertain: First, do no harm.


Mon, Dec 7, 2009 : 9:16 a.m.

True environmentalists believe that man should limit his negative effects on the environment, period.


Sun, Dec 6, 2009 : 8:49 p.m.

What a strange set of blinders Will Warner wears. One wants to ask him a few questions about his own assumptions. The ones that have led to his strongly held, and specifically human centric, "value judgments". For example, exactly how is it that human beings bring meaning to the universe if the potential for meaning exists in the very fabric of the universe for us to "bring" it out? Is the manifestation of meaning then not part and parcel with the universe? Depending on the answer to above, how is it, that the universe is indifferent to it's own incubation and delivery of the human species? A species that it's self is a work in progress. If we, as a species, are the sole "miracle" of the evolutionary process, what might that tell us about the nature of the evolutionary process? If humans do manage to over exploit the "natural resources" without regard to the essential balances that brought "us" into existence, are we really all that special? If we drive ourselves and many others out of existence, what would be the lesson, for the next creature who fills this prized niche as the "only known locus of meaning"? I would suggest, that it be to respect the process, and not "assume" that the new equivalent of the raccoon or the protozoa is in someway less than themselves. Humans as a species, have blindly taken over the reins of evolution. What makes the results therefrom somehow the definition of meaning? Because, we are elaborately aware of ourselves and our works? Where resides the very template of this self awareness? In us?