There are several environmentalist claims that are now regarded to be virtual truisms. These particular assertions rest on premises that are never defined, much less challenged, yet function as moral imperatives that urge immediate and continual action. One example concerns the contention that specific actions (or inaction's) are necessarily good if they "help the environment". For example, it is alleged that recycling or throwing a can into a special container (often a different color) so that a special truck will drive to your house, pick it up, and take it to a special place (other than a landfill), while concomitantly leaving a piece of aluminum in the ground in another location, "helps the environment." Such action, it is believed, is unquestionably moral and to take a contrary action would be regarded as tantamount to (if not literally) a criminal offense.
So, what exactly does it mean to "help the environment"? First, what exactly is the environment? Is the environment the totality of all that exists or is it the totality of all that exists EXCEPT man? It seems that environmentalists mean the latter. But why doesn't the environment include my living room, my garage, or my automobile? After all, if I install an air conditioner or a plasma television in my home, haven't I helped my environment? If I cut my lawn, haven't I helped my environment?
The other key concept is that of help. Help is defined as: "the activity of contributing to the fulfillment of a need or furtherance of an effort or purpose." The idea that the environment requires help implies that nature (evidently, the universe sans man) has a kind of preferred state or even a purpose that each person is duty bound to assist in accomplishing. What exactly is this state and why should we strive to reach it? Is this particular state the one nature was in yesterday, last year, last century, or a million years ago? It's not clear.
Of course, it is obvious that nature constantly changes. Climate changes naturally moving from higher temperatures to ice ages and back. Land masses slowly move. Earthquakes, volcanoes, meteors, lightning, hurricanes and other violent, cataclysmic events continually change and reshape the earth. Millions of species of animal and plant have come into and gone out of existence. One day, when the sun burns out, the earth as we know it will be completely destroyed. Naturally, given our short life span, such changes are practically imperceptible, but the point is that the earth constantly changes according to natural law, and no particular state is preferred. Nature, less man, has no purpose - it just is.
To see this more clearly, consider a planet that has no humans, such as Jupiter. Is there any action that would help Jupiter's environment? What would this even mean? For example, should we attempt to maintain the concentrations of hydrogen and helium in its atmosphere as of a certain date? The idea that one can help the environment apart from an evaluation of how that action affects man is utterly meaningless. A particular action can only be evaluated as "helpful" in the context of the fulfillment of man's needs.
Given this, how can one assert that recycling helps the environment? Does aluminum care if it is in a mine, in my refrigerator, or in a landfill? In fact, given that recycling costs money (which is why many cities fine people for not recycling instead of paying for the garbage…), it implies that it takes more effort to recycle than to simply make new things. These costs are comprised of the materials and labor it takes to collect the refuse and reform it into something usable. Since it takes more resources to recycle than to make something new, recycling is actually a profoundly wasteful activity as it relates to man's life. Then why do environmentalists regard recycling as a help to the environment?
Additionally, if someone says we should clean up some land site, it implies that the land is "dirty". In fact, we often hear that some area of the earth is dirty and are admonished to keep the planet "clean". Given that the earth is literally made of dirt, what does "clean" mean in this context? When environmentalists discuss cleaning the earth, often it seems they mean removing man's products from an area and putting them in another area. One good reason might be that a particular material is dangerous to humans. However, dangerous chemicals exist naturally too. A snake's venom is poisonous as is poison ivy as are certain kinds of mushrooms and insects. Water is even dangerous if you drown in it. But, would killing snakes and bugs or digging up poison ivy in a certain area be considered "cleaning the environment"? Would building a home to protect from natural elements be considered a form of "cleaning the environment"? Why not?
Concerns over the byproducts of man's activities or even natural processes causing harm to human life is entirely legitimate. For example, if I dump a dangerous chemical into a stream from which animals drink and then someone eats the animal, perhaps, that person will inadvertently ingest the poison. Clearly, this is a real potential problem which raises legitimate scientific questions and involves issues in property and liability law. Who owns the stream? Was the chemical known to be poisonous? Who owned the animals? Who processed the animal meat and did they test their product for chemicals? Although technology changes, these problems are not new. They are the essence of common law and an objective legal system which upholds property rights is the proper framework to deal with such matters.
Although the above example might count as a subset of what appears to concern environmentalists, is man's health and well being really their concern? When they say we should "help the environment", do they really mean help man's environment? Environmentalists, recognizing some need to ground their concerns in a form that relates to human life, go to fantastic lengths to make this connection and obfuscate their true motives. For example, we are told about the need for biodiversity, sustainability, conservation, and global warming - concepts that allegedly pertain to man's ability to survive.
But do any of these concepts really have anything to do with man's survival? Doesn't man's survival depend on his ability to think and produce? Doesn't it depend on our ability to continually find better ways of reshaping the environment to fulfill our needs? Doesn't it depend on providing an industrial and technological base upon which we can solve even the most complex natural problems, including protecting ourselves from natural change? Doesn't freedom and capitalism allow man the rule of law and property rights to resolve land use, to produce wealth, and to adapt to changing circumstances, i.e., to effect true human sustainability?
Recently, in an area where I lived, environmental groups sued to stop the construction of a major biotechnology park because it was proposed that the park be constructed in an orange grove containing some wetlands. Their lawsuit wasted time, money and impeded the development and scope of the project, ultimately resulting in less research on biotechnology. If they were truly concerned with human life, wouldn't they recognize the benefit of such a park against the development of an orange grove? Does concern for man provide an explanation for such a suit and countless suits and regulations that stop these kinds of developments across the country? Does it explain why they chain themselves to trees rather than allow the tree to be used for lumber or why they admonish us to make do with less material conveniences in order to minimize carbon footprint?
The only possible explanation for their ideology is that they regard the environment as a value apart from man, i.e., they regard the environment (without man) to be intrinsically valuable which is a contradiction in terms. Nothing is valuable without a valuer. Such an ideology requires environmentalists to see man as an enemy since man must reshape the earth to survive. When they say an activity will "help the environment", they mean it. They see natural processes as some kind of preordained sequence of events which must not be tampered with at any cost. They see their efforts at thwarting human progress to be a step towards helping the earth reach its anthropomorphized "goal." And given the extraordinary destruction to human life that their policies entail from development restrictions, to cap and trade taxes, to calls for global governmental environmental police, we better start understanding what they really mean.