Is environmentalism fundamentally illogical?

Environmentalism claims that the fate of the Earth is in human hands, while exhorting us to abandon our mastery


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CALGARY, Alta. March 13, 2016/ Troy Media/ – Political activists and legislators are fond of stating that economic and environmental policy ought to be harmonized. This notion, however, sometimes rests upon a fundamental misconception.

The notion of harmonization can be misleading, for it often treats the economy and the environment as though they were initially two distinct things, hanging opposite each other on the scales in balance, awaiting Lady Justice to re-establish equilibrium.

When we believe that the economy and the environment are independent objects in space, or distinct spheres in the world that must be somehow reunited, if at all possible, we begin with a false premise for public policy and legislation. It is no wonder then that we find two radical camps of environmentalism and what might be called economism locked into ideological dispute.

This misconceived distinctiveness of the two realms emerges in large part from our imagining the environment as the pristine natural world – pure, wholesome and benevolent – that is (or ought to be) demarcated from the world of commerce measured in the currency of cash.

From this perspective, the value of nature and the value of money are incommensurable, certainly when either one for that matter is loved – even deified – to the contempt of the other.

Holding to such an unadulterated image of the environment tempts us into thinking human beings are not always already in nature, but that we somehow stand distinct from it – that we are outside of nature and ultimately trespass upon entering the environment, particularly when engaging in production and exchange, to say nothing of extracting natural resources.

The consequences of this kind of thinking can be perverse, as found in the most extreme forms of environmentalism. It is replete with romantic ideals and even anti-humanist notions – sometimes to the extent that human beings are deemed parasitic and an affront to the purity of nature, and ought therefore be eliminated.

This shift in thinking is recent. As Rupert Darwall outlines in his work [popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”1″]The Age of Global Warming: A History[/popup], “During the course of the 20th century, mankind’s relationship with nature underwent a revolution.” Whereas at the beginning of the 20th century “human intervention in nature was regarded as beneficent and a sign of the progress of civilization,” by the end of the century “such interventions were presumed harmful unless it could be demonstrated they were not.” What eventually followed was the “pervasiveness of doomsday predictions.”

This presumption of harm betrays a loss of pride in our human achievements, not least regarding our creative and commercial capacities. Furthermore, when such pride dissipates, we lose sense of the proper responsibility we bear in our position as the Earth’s dominant species – the humility of good mastery that keeps pride in check.

Thus it appears that the closer we have come to apparently mastering nature, the more we long for the mythical restoration of nature’s innocence, if not our own.

It is no surprise then to find environmentalism often claiming at once that the fate of the Earth is in human hands, while likewise exhorting us to abandon our mastery and return to nature, to behave like all the other species. Such incoherence denies the greatness of dominion as much as it misunderstands human nature.

Instead, if we begin by acknowledging that we are always already in nature, and that we are the unique beings that likewise act into nature – the species that cannot help but transform nature, insofar as it is human nature to do so – we better come to understand that our economic activities are integral to our very nature and are therefore anything but unnatural. Consequently, we grasp that the economy and the environment are inextricably intertwined.

Rather than seek perfect harmony or static balance for – or between – the economy and the environment, instead a sense of personal responsibility arises. Some refer to this disposition as one of stewardship. It is often connected to a sense of the importance of place, and of activity on a local and personal level. Importantly, it eschews resorting to transnational treaties or state regulation that otherwise divorces or dissolves personal responsibility.

Whatever title it may be given, it is from this coherent perspective that thinking and action of and in the world ought to arise.

Troy Media Columnist Trevor Shelley completed his PhD in political science at Louisiana State University. His book, “Liberalism and Globalization,” will be published in 2016 with St. Augustine Press. Trevor is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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One Response to "Is environmentalism fundamentally illogical?"

  1. Avatar
    Phil Elder   March 15, 2016 at 9:34 am

    Important questions arise here. I like this formulation (often credited to Herman Daly) that “the economy is the wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment”. Secondly, more attention should be paid to the concept of free will – Trevor appears to gloss over this.

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