Picture the scene: I am shoveling shavings into the team wagon, stooping over in my patched overalls and faded flannel shirt to scrape the barn floor clean, now and then climbing into the wagon to tread down the mounting heap. The young man who owns the new barn, the new tractor, the new hydraulic log loader, the new portable sawmill, the used planer (only ten thousand dollars) that made the shavings, the young man who owns all these sophisticated machines and who is something of a hippie, a belated celebrant of the 60’s, nods at my horses in their tattered harness and says,

“Pretty soon we’ll all be using ’em,” adding as an explanation, “Greenhouse.”

“Oh, baloney,” I reply dismissively. He looks at me reproachfully; I have failed to play my allotted part. He goes away to the other end of the barn to admire more of his expensive machinery while I finish cleaning up the shavings.

It is a scene rich in ironies, but what strikes me first is the young man’s ignorance, something he shares with other environmentalists. They appear to know nothing, literally nothing about their situation in this material world, where all of us are wholly dependent, physically and mentally, on an unfathomably complex, pervasive structure composed of things and thoughts, matter and spirit, called Civilization, as old as the first tool-using man, as new as a space station—or a hydraulic log loader. As individuals we choose or reject bits and pieces of that structure (most of it becomes part of our lives without our conscious knowledge), but in the history of the species such choices are meaninglessly trivial. Human beings create, maintain, and add to the structure, and it sustains and carries forward the life of the group. It is not possible for us, as a group or a generation, to dismantle a significant portion of it without suddenly or drastically impoverishing our lives. Quite innocent of all such knowledge, innocent even of the profound and incredible implications of what he is saying, the young man fatuously predicts the resurgence of horse power.

The obvious ironies—that an affluent user of sophisticated machinery should condescend to remark my use of horses as a prophetic gesture; that I, to all appearances a rare specimen of the nearly extinct race of hippie-homesteaders, should be granted environmental approval by a veritable apotheosis of inappropriate technology—are not the cream of the jest by any means. There is a deeper irony: my wife and I, who have been living the much-touted “simple life” (with a vengeance) for 30 years, who own no motor vehicles at all, are ardent champions of everything environmentalists deplore—we preach the virtues of capitalism, of technology, of nuclear power, and so on. Our life has taught us by the kind^ of hard experience unknown to any environmentalist the importance of the forces of development in the modern world. When you cut 25 cords of firewood by hand, you appreciate a chain saw; when a cow is down with milk fever, you are thankful for modern medical research; when you own woodland, the knowledge of contemporary forestry is a boon. And we know that behind those specific things is the structure of our civilization, that neither the saw nor the medicine nor the forestry is an isolated entity, that they are fruits of human reason and imagination impelled and energized by a dynamic civilization.

We, too, were once environmentalists, but knowledge cured us—with an assist from the “simple life.”

The specific incident grew out of a conflict over the use of herbicides in the forests on Cape Breton Island (where we live) in Nova Scotia. We had always supported the island environmentalist group in its continuing battles with the local pulp mill over forestry practices, but on this occasion I noticed, in one of the group’s mailings, the citation of a study that had long been discredited. I became uneasy. What did I really know about the herbicide? About forestry? Beyond the glib slogans of the group, what did I know? That realization was the beginning of the end of my environmentalism, a point of view that is so stupid and so irrational that it can only thrive in a closed atmosphere of cocksure ignorance.

So I began searching for knowledge, and that finally led me to the pulp company’s forest ranger for our district. How many books and scientific articles Mike brought me to study over the next year, how many miles of highway and dirt road and logging trails I have traveled in his company, I cannot guess, but it has all added up to a lot of knowledge, even if I have not wholly assimilated all of it. Because it was hard—scientific, technical material—and though I have a couple of degrees and was even a “perfesser” once, my field was literature. As I thought about the kind of knowledge Mike had, and the kind I had, I began to see a hitherto unobserved distinction: we environmentalists, mostly 60’s people, belong to a group, greatly expanded in the increasingly affluent times since the end of World War II, composed of middle-class and upper-middle-class people, who have spent more and more of our time in school, usually studying the humanities or the social sciences and related subjects. At one time, a liberal arts education was a discipline of mind, a training in mental rigor and clarity, but it has steadily deteriorated over the last forty years until it is now too often little more than a prolonged exposure to fashionable attitudes. Mike the forest ranger, however, came out of the working-class technician tradition; he had a good high school education plus a one-year course in Forestry School. Furthermore, there has been a parallel divergence in the fields of technical and liberal arts education: knowledge in practical areas has burgeoned; to understand the work of forestry today requires a mastery of technical detail almost unimaginable forty years ago. As a liberal arts education has become ever more nebulous, forestry (or agriculture or mining, or any of a number of subjects) studies have become more technical, complex, and rigorous. It is not surprising, then, that environmentalists should have very simpleminded notions about how to manage endeavors like forestry, nor is it remarkable that middle-class people in general, those who do not do the technical work of the world, should be taken in so easily by the crazy claims of environmentalists.

This knowledge of Mike’s was a revelation to me, and I stress it here because I do not think it is widely recognized; I do not think we realize the degree of knowledge and competence that the farmer, the forester, the fisherman, et al., in their millions must have for society to function as smoothly as it does. We are all familiar with the form of knowledge that lies behind this, theoretical science. We know that in certain highly complex affairs we require expert guidance from men and women who have worked long and hard to acquire and develop knowledge about matter that is so abstruse and abstract that it must be translated for us. We value science, and despite some ambivalence, we trust scientists. But we don’t know enough, we don’t appreciate enough, the knowledge of the men and women who do the work of the world.

I have laid so much emphasis on the issue of knowledge because when I saw how it functioned in forestry, I remembered an obvious truth that had been suppressed, even denied during my environmentalist years: all civilization is ultimately based on our control and manipulation of nature. The story of mankind’s ascent from the cave can be told in terms of that growing mastery. It is a truth just as obvious that nature is so vast and so complex that whatever control we achieve is always partial, feeble, tenuous. That control grows out of knowledge, most broadly conceived, and not confined to knowledge, scientific or technical, that bears directly on the physical world. Wishing always to improve our lives, to make them longer and healthier and freer, less burdened by labor, even wiser, we must ever work for the knowledge that will extend our control over nature. “Control,” however, is not quite the right word. The more we study crops and their pests, for instance, the more refined our methods become for promoting the crops and diminishing the pests: we breed stronger, resistant crops; we learn how to take advantage of weather, of the enemies of pests, of the biology of the pests themselves; our intervention becomes more selective and effective. We may call that control, but it should be more precisely defined as increased knowledge enabling us to work more intelligently with nature. Perhaps the best way to put it is to say that in struggling against entropy, against the natural tendency to let things slide, in struggling for a more orderly, more productive world, we strive against nature, but in the tactics, the details of how we go about it, we can only work with nature.

When environmentalists demand that we remake our societies “in harmony with nature,” they reveal their own ignorance: everything we do is in harmony with nature—how could it be otherwise? What they want is the abandonment of sophisticated knowledge in favor of primitive forms.

People have short memories. We easily forget what life was like in the recent past, just as we quickly discount the material advances made in our own day. I live on an island where the principal highways were not paved until the 1950’s and 60’s, where phones and electricity were not ubiquitous until thirty years ago, where until World War II most of the rural people worked from before dawn until after dark to gain a poor living from thin soil in a harsh climate. That may sound like paradise to environmentalists, but it tells me a different story: that within the memory of living inhabitants people have looked on helplessly while men bled to death in hay fields, while women died in lonely farmhouses from puerperal fever, and that where life is hard now, a short time ago it was much much harder.

Our lives are always constrained. We are nature’s creatures, after all, and cannot escape biology. But insofar as mankind has knowledge, and thus a measure of power over the natural world, to that degree is our constraint eased. Living on this island, where the knowledge and the power came late, I have seen what that means.

A couple of simple, obvious, basic, but neglected truths: life means change and development, the incessant emergence of problems (and opportunities) that are solved (and seized) and recreated in new forms in the press of further change. Once we threw our garbage in the back of the cave, then we heaved it into the river, later we hauled it to the town dump, and today we burn it to generate electricity. But our choices and expectations are mainly determined by our collective wealth; in a nation where three square meals is a luxury, people will not be concerned about elaborate garbage disposal systems. The wealth created in the West since the end of World War II has made us care about clean air and water, and it has also given us the means to achieve such desires. This cannot be overstressed. Knowledge, wealth, and improved practices go hand in hand. Real environmentalism, the actual improvements in the environment, are solely due to our growing affluence, especially in the last forty-five years. We may call this rational environmentalism: the wish for measures to protect or develop environmental amenities that promise tangible benefits at a reasonable cost.

The environmental movement, however, believes that wealth is the problem, not the solution. Greens take great solemn delight in telling us that the only way we can save our “injured planet” in the short time left to us is by lowering consumption, dismantling modern industry, curbing if not eliminating capitalism, and slowing technological development. In other words, it is only by reversing the flow of knowledge and development, it is only by becoming poorer that we can live environmentally pure lives. Astoundingly stupid as this is, it is typical of Greenism in all its aspects. For instance, why all the fuss about recycling? It only has a point when it is commercially viable. There is, and always has been, a market for various used materials, but beyond that recycling is counterproductive because it creates costs for no benefits. Every idiot proclaims that he is saving trees by using recycled paper—what for? Trees will only die if they’re not harvested, and contrary to the Green myths, the total forest inventory in the United States has been growing substantially since 1920. We are not running out of wood at all. That’s the essence of Greenism: absurd “solutions” for nonexistent problems. Global warming, greenhouse effect, ozone layer depletion—they’re all frauds.

Greenism is, in fact, the latest manifestation of a Utopian, Manichaean world view fueled by hatred of modern bourgeois Western civilization. Unable to muster the maturity to recognize the impersonal forces of change, these fanatics see plots everywhere: the forces of light are locked in desperate struggle with the forces of darkness, crises impend, apocalyptic thunderheads tower on lurid horizons, and simpleminded but immensely appealing melodramas are enacted again and again on the wide screen of the cooperative media.

A persistent theme in Green literature—”where every prospect pleases and only man is vile”—is misanthropy, another aspect of utopianism, always contemptuous of human beings as they are. Unwilling to believe in the intelligence, ingenuity, and imagination of other people, their favorite cause is population control. Like all zealots, they are strongly urged to power, and they contemplate coercion and repression, pushing recalcitrant citizens around, with obvious satisfaction. So any sensible solutions to real environmental problems are vehemently rejected; their ideas must triumph and they must be in power to enforce them. There can be no compromise with the forces of darkness.

Meanwhile, the “wounded” planet, unscathed, rolls on its diurnal course. oblivious to the hysterical delusions frenziedly trumpeted on its surface.