Earth Day 1990. In front of the local library a few dozen people dressed up like Hollywood extras in a movie about the 60’s are “carrying signs that say hurray for our side,” while all over town there are alleys full of garbage, creeks choked with old mufflers and rusted appliances. In New York, Chicago, and most large cities, hundreds of thousands of urbanites gather to celebrate their oneness with nature by listening to electrically produced music blasted through massive electronic sound systems. The results will be marketed by international record companies that batten on the ignorance and gullibility of children.
Most of the protests against Earth Day came from celebrity journalists who resented the intrusion of celebrity actors and celebrity singers into their domain. In the midst of all this rejoicing, I felt like a Jehovah’s Witness on the first Christmas after his conversion: sympathetic to the cause but convinced that the celebration and the rhetoric are worse than misguided.
Earth Day is one of the many secular holidays in the revolutionary calendar that has replaced the Christian year. Not so long ago Easter and Christmas, Halloween and All Saints’ Day joined with such patriotic celebrations as the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln (and, in some states, of Lee and Davis), Independence Day and Memorial Day. Today old-fashioned Americans may still celebrate those ancient holidays if they wish, but most of the national energy is devoted to political awareness: Martin Luther King’s birthday. Women’s History Month, holocaust remembrances. Labor Day; and the New Puritan holidays—the National Smoke-Out and the like; and the meaningless days decreed by Congress to boost the sales of greeting cards: Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Grandparents’ Day.
There is nothing holy about Earth Day and these other secular holidays; they are without roots or significance. What is more, most of them are global and abstract, celebrating mothers and working men and minority victims all over the globe, and while we are demonstrating against acid rain in Canada and the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica, we are doing nothing to improve the quality of our own life or that of our neighbors.
The one notable exception to the pattern of global commitment/local irresponsibility were the many tree-planting projects undertaken all over the United States, but tree-planting was the one Earth Day activity to be generally criticized as a “cop-out.” Johnny Appleseed has gone the way of all our other national heroes. A few thousand fruit trees, more or less, what difference can they make to a world that is poisoning itself to death? Besides, by planting alien species of apple trees, Johnny was probably disturbing the fragile ecosystem of the American continent. And it is not enough to be concerned with North America. The new interdependence of human societies requires a global response.
I do not know offhand where and when environmental globalism started, but 1970 was a banner year. It was not only the year in which the first Earth Day was celebrated, but in 1970 the first important argument in favor of global regulation was made by George Kennan in the April issue of Foreign Affairs. In “To Prevent a World Wasteland,” Kennan called for “the establishment of a single entity” to oversee and coordinate research on environmental questions. Since it was only certain countries that had the means and the will to do something about the problem, an international organization on the UN model was not feasible. Instead, Kennan imagined a consortium of advanced nations taking the lead.
Kennan’s was the first and virtually the last sensible statement on the global politics of environmentalism. By the end of the 70’s, Jimmy Carter’s human-rights internationalism had become the preferred style of political discussion (a style heartily adopted by the Reagan administration). The Global 2000 Report to the President prepared at Carter’s direction set the government’s seal of approval upon the globalist hysteria:
Vigorous, determined new initiatives are needed if worsening poverty and human suffering, environmental degradation, and international tension and conflicts are to be prevented. . . . The needed changes go far beyond the capability and responsibility of this or any other single nation. An era of unprecedented cooperation and commitment is essential. . . . Further cooperation among nations is also needed to strengthen international mechanisms for protecting and utilizing the “global commons”—the oceans and atmosphere.
This call for “international mechanisms” is not wishful thinking. Short of world government, there are already in place an assortment of treaties, protocols, and United Nations agencies that constitute a de facto international regime. Nations have always signed treaties and made common cause with other sovereign states, but in recent years these international agreements have seemed to require a complicated bureaucracy with its own objectives.
What this means in practical terms has been candidly described by Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos in their “Unofficial Report Commissioned by the Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment.” This 1972 report, really more a manifesto than a report, is aptly entitled One Earth, and it spells out the process—as informal as the report—by which international mechanisms inevitably supplant sovereignty:
All intergovernmental institutions are still, ultimately, creatures of national governments, but a large amount of their day-to-day work is sufficiently and obviously useful that a measure of authority and initiative.comes to rest with them. They acquire support within national government from the relevant ministries and agencies which, in turn, find useful constituencies within the ranks of international organizations. This is, none of it, a formal departure from sovereignty. But a strict literal definition of sovereignty gets blurred in practice and the existence of continuous forums for debate and bargaining helps instill the habit of cooperation into the affairs of reluctant governments.
This description could be applied, with equal accuracy, to the internationalization of relief, financial assistance, and so-called human rights. From one perspective, the process of internationalization sounds like a conscious conspiracy to subvert the authority of nation states and to replace them with world government. But for the internationalist illuminati, it is only a rationalization of politics that is designed to save us from ourselves. Nations, private property, individual liberties—all of these things might once have been good in and of themselves, but they now stand in the way of the planet’s security. Since the security, of nations depends on the health and security of the world, we must take the bold step of “Redefining Security,” the title of a recent Jessica Tuchman Mathews article in Foreign Affairs.
Mathews, formerly director of the Office of Global Issues at the National Security Council, argues that we have already included international economics in our definition of national security. Now it is time, “she says, to expand that definition still further by adding global environmental concerns. This will, of course, require “new institutions and regulatory regimes to cope with the world’s growing environmental interdependence.” What does this mean, in practice? “Put bluntly,” she says—and it is amazing how ingenuous these people can be—”our accepted definition of the limits of national sovereignty as coinciding with national borders is obsolete.”
How is it possible to think on the global level? Most of us lead lives that are so tightly circumscribed by the petty round of children’s lunch boxes, weekly Rotary meetings, and the annual trip to the beach or the mountains, that we can rarely bring ourselves to consider the fate of the county, much less of the country. Man is a tribal creature, not a global angel that takes in whole continents at a single glance. Environmental globalism would require a whole new political ethic to guide us in our local and national deliberations. Previous ethical systems, including those that claimed to be universal, acknowledged the importance of private, familial, local, and national loyalties, but a global ethic would be more concerned with the interrelationship between an Illinois landfill site and the greenhouse effect.
One model, commonly referred to, is that of Spaceship Earth. Since we are all on this ship together, we have to begin thinking not just of ourselves but of the welfare of the ship, crew, and passengers without whom survival is impossible. But Spaceship Earth is an image, not an ethic. A liberal philosopher once asked me, as we were walking back from a banquet, if I did not believe we were all together on Spaceship Earth. I stepped onto the hotel elevator and explained, “Yes, but my spaceship has compartments and classes made up of families, nations, and interest groups, while on your ship they all fly steerage.” The elevator door closed, cutting short his reply.
The most recent attempt to lay the groundwork for such an ethic is Robert Goodin’s “International Ethics and the Environmental Crisis” in the 1990 issue of Ethics & International Affairs. Goodin thinks it is necessary to go beyond Ward and Dubos’ prediction of eroding sovereignty and even beyond Mathews’ insistence that environmental globalism is in the national interest. He rejects both the old international law conception of shared rights and the newer notion of shared duties, which require us to take care of our own affairs and encourage us to put pressure—short of intervention—on other regimes that fail to live up to our standards. Goodin’s preference is for a model of what he calls shared responsibilities. It is not enough to reach minimum standards of decency or air quality ourselves, if outlaw nations are dragging the general average down. If we share responsibility for the whole earth, we must assume the responsibility to make up for the deficiencies of other states.
As a model of shared responsibilities, Goodin proposes the family, where “it is thought to be perfectly proper to use the force of law to extract child support payments from financially solvent parents who have chosen to leave their children.” The most obvious conclusion is that responsible countries like the United States should invade the Soviet Union and compel the Soviets to clean up their country, but Goodin shrinks from violent confrontation and argues that “each nation would be responsible for making good any shortcomings,” whenever other nations fail to do their part toward meeting agreed-upon objectives.
But why is it illicit to model international relations on the family? Robert Nisbet in The Quest for Community (just reissued by the Institute for Contemporary Studies) revealed that the roots of totalitarianism lie in the urge to reimpose community. The communitarian institution par excellence is the family, and to speak of the national family invites the charge of fascism. It would make as much sense to impose the model of international law upon the family, which is exactly what the United Nations has in mind with its declaration of children’s rights.
Goodin’s internationalism is only the culmination of several decades of environmentalist thought. First they made war on local and state governments by insisting that the federal government should have control over vast stretches of land. Then came the assault on private property and free enterprise in which businesses were saddled with regulations that did little to clean up pollution but did succeed in centralizing and consolidating the economy: big businesses can afford the team of lawyers and scientists and propagandists spawned by regulatory agencies; small businesses cannot. Up until now, environmentalism has meant the consolidation of economic and political power in the hands of national government acting in concert with national business. The next step, inevitably, is for control to be concentrated in the hands of international agencies that will seek the collaboration of multinational corporations. Together, they will monitor the fuel supply of Spaceship Earth; together, they will manage the global commons.
What unconscious irony lies in that phrase so beloved by environmentalists, “the global commons.” What little progress that has taken place in our political and economic understanding of conservation is centered in the realization that it is precisely such common lands that have been most misused throughout history. In work done by Garrett Hardin, John Baden, Richard Stroup, and others, it has been shown in case after case that privately owned land is far more likely to be taken care of than land that nobody owns. A similar insight lies behind George Fitzhugh’s observation that in Europe a nobleman’s horses were taken care of better than his peasants, who were worse off, he argued, than slaves in the American South. To love your neighbor as yourself, he concluded, you first must have a property in your neighbor.
Instead of internationalizing environmental concerns, we must find ways of privatizing and localizing conservation efforts, to give people a sense of owning and being owned by the land on which they live. Given the choice, most Americans do not choose to live under conditions of poisonous filth. But take away their power to make decisions over their lives and property, and they will be content to let government agencies clean up the streams that flow through their neighborhoods; centralize economic decision-making, and they will lapse into the luxury of reckless consumerism; provide every incentive to irresponsibility, and they will fall into the toils of what Mr. Reagan so aptly called the Safety Net.
But how would such an approach even begin to solve the problems of acid rain or oceanic pollution, problems that do in fact transcend national boundaries? This is one place where we have had too little, rather than too much, national assertion by the federal government. It is not as if states have never made non-aggression pacts or agreements on trade. The cumbersome machinery of bilateral agreements and international law could easily be made to serve in environmental disputes. But, some will say, there are governments that simply do not care. What would we do, if it were discovered that Cuba was systematically poisoning the Caribbean and injecting chemical toxins into the air of the United States, or maliciously killing off our fisheries? Suppose we had already exhausted all the routine remedies of international bargaining. I do not know what George Bush would do, but I would declare war.
What I have tried to sketch—and very crudely—is a political ethic of environmentalism that takes the crisis seriously (as most conservatives do not) but does not provide justification for the centralization and consolidation of power that will inevitably make matters much worse in all respects. So far the sketch has confined itself to utilitarian assumptions of life, health, and social stability. These struggles will not be decided, however, on the battleground of costs and benefits. Economists can waste whole forests of trees on graphs, but they will not convince Jeremy Rifkin or the Sierra Club; nearly a hundred years ago W.H. Mallock had already demonstrated that Marxism would be nothing but a very efficient system of centralizing power within a party structure, but the Bolshevik coup d’etat took place right on schedule. Credo quia absurdum, and once a man has claimed the moral high ground there is no arguing with him.
Today, it is the Greens who have seized the high ground, and unless we can find our own ethical Thermopylae, they will proceed to mismanage the global commons until their world empire falls apart, and the survivors play out a script compounded of Bladerunner, Mad Max, and A Canticle for Leibowitz. Nature, believe me, always has her way in the end, and if we will not listen to her gentle reminders—famine, AIDS, and cancer—she has harsher lessons in store. Nothing has emerged in modern times to overturn any of the ancient platitudes that pass for the iron laws of history: as you sow, so shall you reap; a fool and his money are soon parted; you have made your bed, now you must lie in it; God is not mocked.
Like so many conflicts in the modern world, the struggle among environmentalists is ultimately religious, not political. The Greens would like to see themselves as pagans, who have reverence for Mother Earth, but they are not. That chapter of our experience was closed even before the Emperor Julian attempted to revive Greek paganism as a systematic alternative to Christianity. When rationalist modern man seeks refuge in nature-worship, it is to magic and diabolism that he inevitably returns. He will drink drugged herbal teas, gaze into crystals, and count the stars in the desert sky looking for the number that will define the infinite. He will take many wives, only to sacrifice the children on the altars of Baal or zero population growth. He will reverence not the bright and beautiful creatures of Olympus but the goddesses of earth and night and their squalid spawn of furies, harpies, and feminists. He will reject the Christian calendar, but not in favor of the ancient rituals that mirrored the endless tide of the seasons; no, the new calendar will have no roots in anything resembling love of nation or love of god or love of man; it will be hatred that is celebrated: hatred of Europe and America, hatred of Christianity and a civilization created by Christians, hatred of all mankind, with the accent on man.
A compact sealed in hate is nothing better than a conspiracy. The older moralities of Aristotle and Jesus are rooted in love. We are just, not when we are compelled by law not to do certain things to strangers, for what we do out of fear or compulsion is not even in the moral domain. Our justice lies, rather, in what we do out of love for our family, friends, and neighbors; for the things of creation and for the Creator himself Demonstrations against Exxon and denunciations of the evil “other people” serve only to poison our hearts as we are poisoning our air and water. The Reverend Sidney Smith’s advice to himself, “Take short views, hope for the best, and trust in God,” can hardly be improved upon. It is precisely the reverse of the antihuman environmentalism that speaks the language of secular trends, global catastrophe, and embittered atheism.
None of us, individually, can save the world, but a great many individuals banded together in a millennialist mob just might succeed in destroying it. Power corrupts more than character, and as the sap of human energy is sucked up higher and higher into the branches away from the roots, it has curdled and begun to cut off the circulation. What we can do as individuals is to take back responsibility over our own lives. If we are absolutely devoted to the cause of the environment, then we should probably move into the country and try our hands at horse farming. If we want to be part of a movement, then we had best join an anti-modern religious community: the Amish, who are thriving and growing, now number over 120,000 in the United States.
Are there no political options for those of us who lack the stamina of Wendell Berry? Of course there are, but they are the same options open to us on every political question: locally, we can work to see that human-oriented environmental policies are adopted in our own towns and counties; beyond that, we can always support whatever initiatives would allow the states to take back the powers usurped by the central government. As for the fate of the world, the best you can do is to work against any candidate or party that employs the language of human rights and environmental globalism.
It would be a great mistake to invest much faith or energy into political solutions. You will either become corrupt or, what is worse, embittered. Faced with the loss of personal autonomy and the cancerous growth of government, we are all tempted to go into rebellion, to declare our city a nuclear-free zone, to go off chasing whalers and commercial fisherman—mistaking ordinary working men for ogres and windmills for angels. It is a temptation which, like the temptation to run for Congress, ought to be resisted by anyone who worries about the state of his soul.