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Environmentalism: Don't Judge It by Its Extremists

Environmentalism: Don't Judge It by Its Extremists

5 Mins
October 21, 2010

February 2001 -- In recent months, the Environmental Liberation Front (ELF) has claimed responsibility for acts of arson across the country, thereby becoming the latest in a string of radical environmental groups to move into the media spotlight. Burning business offices and torching private homes are among the activities ELF has triumphantly heralded as "success," estimating that it has caused damages in the millions of dollars. But ELF is not alone.

Their spiritual allies, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the "Justice Department," have claimed responsibility for acts of violence ranging from arson and vandalism to mailing medical researchers envelopes booby-trapped with razor blades. These groups' violent actions and explicitly anti-social ideologies (the most extreme of which are detailed in Ted Kaczynski's manifesto and in A Declaration of War--Killing People to Save Animals and the Environment) have been the target of much well-deserved criticism, and the mainstream environmental movement has distanced itself from such radical greens. Even formerly radical organizations like Earth First! have issued public condemnations of violent tactics.

Clearly, the mainstream environmental movement should not be condemned for the actions of self-proclaimed extremists. Just as the NRA does not bear culpability in the Oklahoma City-bombing, Greenpeace is not responsible for the actions of the Unabomber. The mainstream environmental movement should be judged solely on its own words and deeds.


So what are those words and deeds? And how do they differ from the words and deeds of the extremists? Obviously, the mainstream environmental movement shares many anti-capitalist and anti-industrial sentiments with the radical greens, but its methods are non-violent. Members of the mainstream environmental movement do not engage in acts of terrorism, they engage in policy debates. They do not send letter-bombs, they lobby. They do not vandalize, they regulate. Because of this non-violent, regulatory agenda, the mainstream environmental movement is spared the outrage reserved for its terrorist compatriots.

Nevertheless, mainstream environmental policies result in the deaths of millions of people.

A principal cause of these deaths is the environmentalist campaign for a global ban on DDT. This past December the United Nations Environmental Programme met to draft an international treaty governing some twelve toxic chemicals, including DDT. The treaty, set to be signed in May 2001, will place an immediate ban on most of the twelve chemicals. DDT will not be banned entirely but will be subjected to additional regulations and restrictions. For instance, the U.N. further narrowed the already limited scope of allowed use--production and sale of DDT is restricted to the few countries granted specific exemptions--and has laid out a time-line for the eventual elimination of allowed use.

What will be the consequences? Since it was first used during World War II, DDT has been the cheapest and most effective insecticide ever developed. It helped stop typhus epidemics during and after WWII and was absolutely essential in the successful eradication of malaria from North America and Europe. DDT also contributed heavily to the significant reduction of malaria outbreaks in Africa and the Far East, and it remains what it has been for the past fifty years: the most effective malaria control agent in the world.

This last point has become significant of late, for malaria cases are increasing worldwide. An article in the July 2000 issue of the distinguished British medical journalLancet reports that the problem is at its worst in South America, where in certain areas the at-risk population has more than doubled since 1996. The accelerating epidemic is also being felt throughout Africa, as well as in countries that were thought to have eradicated the disease, such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, and both North and South Korea. Malaria rates are starting to surpass levels not seen since the early 1940s--despite the continued but limited use of DDT in certain areas. With an annual, rising death toll of 2.7 million, the answer is not the further reduction of DDT application but a relaxation of current regulations.

Yet "mainstream" environmentalists have been critical of the U.N. treaty, arguing for further restrictions on production, sale, and use. Building on their successful campaign to ban DDT from most of the industrialized West in the 1970s, the environmentalists are adopting a zero-tolerance policy on the continued use of DDT. Their chief reasons are based on an unproven allegation that DDT might inhibit the reproduction of certain species of birds and other wildlife.

Note well: This is not a case where harm to humans is being weighed against benefits to humans. The reason is that DDT has virtually no adverse effects on humans. In the more than fifty years that DDT has been used, studied, analyzed, and debated--there has been no evidence of DDT's causing harm to humans. In fact, following the EPA hearings that led to the U.S. ban on DDT (hearings that lasted seven months and produced over 9,000 pages of testimony), the presiding judge concluded "DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard to man… DDT is not a mutagenic or teratogenic hazard to man." Malaria, however, is a definite and proven hazard to man.

Nor should one suppose that there are adequate alternate methods of malaria control. With regard to those that have been tried, even the environmentalists' studies conclude that they are far less effective than DDT application--and far more expensive. Of course, malaria is most dangerous in impoverished Third-World countries, where budgets are restricted. And that fact is not lost on environmental organizations, for they routinely cite a lack of funds as a significant factor in the spread of malaria. Even so, mainstream environmentalists continue to advocate a total and complete ban on DDT.


An environmentalism more concerned with the welfare of wildlife than the welfare of millions of people might seem radical. But this is not radical environmentalism; this is mainstream environmentalism. In fact, given the history of the environmental movement and DDT, it could be called biblical environmentalism.

In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote the "bible" of the environmental movement, Silent Spring, the title of which referred to the possible loss of songbirds owing to DDT poisoning. In her book, Carson cast DDT as the chief villain, alleging at one point that DDT could be responsible for a cancer epidemic affecting "practically 100 percent" of the human population. Since there was and is no known link between DDT and cancer in humans, Carson based her astounding claim on a 1961 cancer epidemic among rainbow trout, an epidemic that was later linked to aflatoxin, a naturally occurring carcinogen.

Today, Silent Spring has achieved mythic status among environmentalists, and the book is routinely compared to Uncle Tom's Cabin. Implicit in that analogy is the assumption that possible threats to songbirds and trout are evils comparable with human slavery. And that disturbing attitude of moral equivalence pervades not just fringe environmental groups but mainstream ones as well. After all, Al Gore, whose introduction to Silent Spring makes that very comparison, nearly became president of the United States.

But are such statements just hyperbole? Does the mainstream environmentalist movement actually rank human life no higher than (and perhaps not as high as) subhuman life? A look at the movement's political agenda supports the second hypothesis. How else can one explain a desire to ban, not just DDT, but other agricultural pesticides, the genetic modification of crops, and high-yield corporate farming as well. If successfully implemented, these proposals would so limit agricultural production--especially in Third-World countries--that they would make the worst Malthusian predictions come true. Do environmentalists care? No. If their program leads to famine, the environmentalists have a ready answer. As one official with the Agency for International Development said, referring to children living in areas suffering a malaria epidemic, "Rather dead than alive and riotously reproducing."


Here, then, is the paradox. The radical environmentalists get a bad press because they make the condemnation of humanity a central and explicit part of their manifesto--and they carry out the violent destruction of property. Mainstream environmentalists have the same implicit ideology but subtler means of carrying it out. Instead of the radical's campaign of arson and booby-trapped envelopes, the mainstream environmentalist urges adoption of a dictum called "the precautionary principle." This is the standard by which environmentalists would like us to judge and respond to the potential danger of various activities and substances. As formulated by a Greenpeace spokeswoman, that principle states:

When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary  measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

Notice first that this principle insists action need not be based on evidence, only on assertion, specifically on someone's raising threats of harm. The history of the environmental movement makes clear that its members are more than willing to be the ones who raise those threats and who ensure that the "precautionary measures" will emerge as "regulatory restrictions." In this way, they can gain their ends through mere allegation.

Notice, too, that the precautionary principle states human health is simply one of a number of factors to be considered in evaluating the potential impact of a program or policy. But notice, most importantly, that when human life is weighed "in the balance" with environmental factors, as it is in the case of malaria prevention, it is not human welfare that receives the benefit of the "precautionary measures." Since banning DDT "raises threats of harm" to "human health," why would it not be reasonable for governments to take "precautionary measures" against such a ban.

Because the environmental movement operates under a morality that viciously slights the value of human life. If people seriously believe that cancer rates among rainbow trout can be mentioned in the same breath as human slavery, then they will believe that a risk to wildlife populations justifies restricting effective malaria control. Bizarre as it seems, they will pronounce a death sentence on millions of people as a "precaution" against doing unproven and unlikely harm to birds.

In 1970, Ayn Rand published The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution. In it, she analyzed the morality at work in environmentalism. She recognized that value systems which treat trout as the equals of human beings will always end up sacrificing humans to save the fish. And she argued that such systems were immoral and indefensible. Rand was right. If the mainstream environmental movement is clearly and consistently committed to an agenda that has fatal consequences for millions, it should be judged even more harshly than those radical environmentalists who openly commit arson and mayhem.

This article was originally published in the February 2001 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.

Patrick Stephens
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Patrick Stephens
Environment and Energy
Ideas and Ideologies
Regulation and Taxation