Rational Environmentalism in 2020

Find a balance between human welfare and environmental concerns

Environmental issues sit at the top of many Michigander’s list of policy priorities for 2020. But discussions about electric vehicles, solar panels, climate change, animal rights and many other issues are often emotionally charged, and can easily morph into ideological warfare, with both sides digging in and resorting to lobbing rhetorical bombs at each other. Is there room for rational debate in 2020?

There is, but it will not be easily obtained. Partisans and the media often fan the flames of environmental debate, as confrontation and divisiveness can serve their purposes well. Here are a few considerations that might help foster more reasonable conversations about environmental issues.

Some perspective on climate change: the early Earth experienced massive climate change for hundreds of millions of years when mass extinctions occurred, such as the Permian extinction and the Chicxulub asteroid that radically altered the environment and wiped out the dinosaurs. But no one mourns those events because no self-reflective life existed when they occurred. Consider a lifeless planet or even a lush planet without self-reflective life. Is it a disaster if a supernova destroys the planet? Nearly everyone would say “no,” and no one would lose sleep over it.

The lesson here is that it is self-reflective life, human life, that imparts value to the environment and grieves at damage to the natural world. As such, human life must be pre-eminent in discussions about climate change. No matter the damage humans have caused the environment, the welfare of humans should be at the center of any climate change action. Though we may value and nurture all life, from the snail to the chimpanzee, without self-reflective life, living things experience nothing more than determinative phenomena.

A related reminder is that human rights and individual liberty go hand-in-hand with environmental protection and improvement, evidenced by the fact that the cleanest environments are in places where human rights are honored and protected. Not China, Russia, Venezuela, Iran, Turkey or North Korea. The demand to protect the natural world proceeds from free peoples with adequate food, shelter and legal rights, not controlling governments. Expanding individual liberty is a key component of making the world a cleaner place.

Understanding risk can help us decide where to focus our attention and energy. For instance, we often hear about the risks to human health associated with certain chemicals or the chemical composition of our water and air, but in our daily activities we routinely accept risks that are even more “dangerous” to our health, such as driving, biking or skiing. This doesn’t mean we shake off concerns about these chemicals, or water and air pollution, but we should keep these concerns in proper perspective and seek to understand the degree of risk that corresponds to the amount of chemical present before we make it a high priority.

A final reminder: Do not let your effort to save the world get in the way of cleaning up your community. A downside of the hyperawareness we have of climate change is that it can drown out local and, sometimes, more pressing concerns. Too many politicians and advocacy groups promote bold and sweeping national or international policy objectives that may distract from, or even hinder, important regional and local problems. Frequently, we can make more progress by focusing locally and regionally, knowing that best practices will cascade to the world at large, as has occurred in the last century with many technologies and practices.

A literary image that might help those who differ politically or ideologically is the Shire, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings book trilogy, a land where liberty, commerce, spirited debate and love of nature coexist. Tolkien’s hobbits refuse to choose between commerce and nature, or between freedom and responsibility to community, or between frank communication and civility. We can have that too, if we agree that balancing human welfare and environmental concerns is possible, and even perhaps the best approach to developing effective environmental policies.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.