The Pristine Myth of Environmentalism

Mark Coppenger | Southern Baptist Theological Seminary | Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Pristine Myth of Environmentalism

July 8, 2009

Anyone who’s endured Al Gore’s global warming “documentary,” An Inconvenient Truth, knows that environmental activists are quite susceptible to delusions of moral superiority. One episode of South Park pictured a town choking on “smug” (not smog) because they all drove hybrids. But the humor reflects a subtle reality: The green movement finds people to be inconvenient, toxic, and even disposable. Whether this attitude stems from a selfish desire for more personal wilderness or from the panic generated by bad science, the results can be deadly.

Consider Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book, Silent Spring, turned the world upside down. Ignoring the Fall, she labored under the “pristine myth” that nature in itself is benign. She wrote, “[M]an, alone of all forms of life, can create . . . carcinogens,” but she missed such naturally-occurring cancer producers as the bracken fern and radon gas.

When she tied the widespread use of DDT to thinning birds’ eggs, the U.S. banned this pesticide (a chemical compound for which Paul Muller won the Nobel Prize in 1948) and virtually eliminated its employment worldwide by refusing to trade with nations using it. Alas, so many millions have died from the consequent proliferation of mosquitoes that more deaths can be traced to her book than to the reign of Pol Pot – even though her intentions were good.

Enchanted with the pristine myth, environmentalists romanticize the lives of primitive peoples. The naturalist John Muir wrote, “Indians walked softly and hurt the landscape hardly more than the birds and squirrels . . .” But in his book, 1491 (the year before Columbus arrived), Charles Mann helped lay that foolishness to rest. Instead of gentle campers, Europeans discovered irrigation-canal diggers in Arizona, mound builders in Illinois, and underbrush burners in New York.

The Native Americans knew you had to wrestle with Mother Nature to survive. Subduing the earth can be messy as poor people hack away at squalor using the best equipment they have, whether a stone ax or, in today’s developing world, a dilapidated taxi. But they are on track to eventually appropriate the best technology that democratic capitalism and a growing middle class can supply. So, whether they suffer the blight of Mogadishu or the sooty towns of China’s Shanxi province, they can work toward the day when they or their children might enjoy the drinkable water, breathable air, and life expectancy comparable to that enjoyed by residents of London or New York.

In his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, Danish statistics professor Bjorn Lomborg, demonstrates that the “great fable” that “doomsday is nigh” is nonsense. Yet the global-warming and population-growth scaremongers persist in despising God’s command to “be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth.”   Zealots don’t want to hear “the inconvenient truths” that the ice cap is melting on car-less Mars, that the earth’s 6.5 billion people could huddle in Houston, and that new pesticides, fertilizers, plant hybrids, and farm management techniques have meant astonishing gains in agricultural productivity. So they attempt to strangle the baby of economic development in the crib -- or they urge couples to not fill cribs with children in the first place. These modern-day disciples of Thomas Malthus and Paul Erlich (The Population Bomb) are not content with over-contraception; some, such as University of Texas biologist Eric Pianka, speak appreciatively of pandemics that could wipe out millions. 

Not all environmentalists are “deep ecologists,” who find algae as valuable as people. But a disturbing number of environmentalists rail against “anthropomorphism” and “speciesism,” and long for the day when far smaller human populations will mean bigger swamps and more gnats.

The Bible teaches wise stewardship, not abusive, wasteful exploitation. But people are made in the image of God, and our worship of the Creator should lead us to treasure, not denigrate, the crown of His creation. In God’s wise design, people and nature can thrive together.

Mark Coppenger is a professor of Christian apologetics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, managing editor of Kairos Journal, and pastor of Evanston (IL) Baptist Church.