The Environment Should Not Be Our Top Priority

The Health of The Environment: And The Health of Those in The Environment

What’s more important: the environment's well-being or the prosperity of humanity? We live on a planet containing life and vibrant ecosystems. It is a primary ethical priority to strive for the thriving of life. However, it seems that too much concern for the well-being of our planet can be harmful to human life.

Before we begin, we should rip off the bandaid of climate alarmism. Things are going to be okay. It’s not the end of the world. Even in the most severe predictions, humanity will survive. As the earth warms, areas that become too hot are balanced by new areas that are melting and becoming habitable. Humans have migrated for the entirety of our history and we will adapt to future migration. We will rise to the occasion of whatever threatens our civilization. Our technology to produce food has increased exponentially, which will supplement food sources that could be potentially affected. There are more trees on earth today than there were 100 years ago. Since the year 2000, developed countries have been consistently reducing their carbon emissions. Engines and carbon emissions are continuing to be made more efficient as we improve our technology. Since 1975, the CO2 emissions of the average vehicle have been cut in half due to innovation and development in the industry. Increasing efforts have been made to clean up the garbage from our oceans, with astonishing success. International consensus is being reached to stop overfishing our oceans. Breakthrough technologies are continually being developed to benefit our environment, such as this enzyme created by scientists in 2020 that breaks down plastic in just a few hours. And not to mention the development of nuclear fusion technology that will provide humanity with unlimited clean energy, effectively phasing out fossil fuels.

We’re going to be okay. But this hasn’t stopped the dark side of environmentalism that displaces human well-being as the most important ethical objective.

The environment should not be our top priority. Human well-being and the prosperity of human communities should be our top priority.

Oftentimes human flourishing includes a harmonious and sustainable relationship with our environment. However, this environmentalism is not for the sake of our environment, but for the sake of human beings. It is important to clarify this distinction between priorities. Some environmentalists view environmental concerns as necessary for human survival. While another school of thought believes the environment is important for its own sake. The former places human well-being as the top priority, while the latter places human well-being beneath the well-being of the environment. If we consider the environment as our top priority, then human well-being becomes a secondary value. When discussing ethics and the best path forward, the well-being of humans and the striving for prosperity is the chief priority. To do otherwise is to consider the concerns of people as beneath an objective independent of human wellbeing.

An argument can be made that harmony with our environment is the best course of action for the sustainability of human civilization. The key to this environmentalism is that it places human well-being at the center of our ethical concerns.

This is not to deny the importance of environmental concerns. The environment is important. And the environment is only important because it is necessary for prosperity and human well-being.

The past several decades have seen the rapid growth of Western environmentalism. Although cultures and philosophies that give ethical consideration to their environment are common throughout history, we’re witnessing the birth of a uniquely Western environmental movement — with religious intensity. Originating in North America at the same time religious affiliation is on the decline, environmentalism provides a worldview and value structure to fill the cultural void in the absence of religion. The fundamental priority of human well-being seems forgotten in some Western environmental circles. Particularly in the more radical kind.

Whereas some cultures in the past have viewed their environment as an ethical concern, modern environmentalists seem to consider care for the environment as the ethical concern. These advocates seem to hold the environment's health as their fundamental ethical objective. While there’s nothing wrong with caring about the health of our environment and local ecosystems, placing environmental values above concerns for human well-being is counterproductive to the goals of a just and prosperous society.

Yes, the environment should be an ethical concern. But it’s not the ethical concern. The environment is not the most important thing. Human beings and the well-being of our communities are the most important thing. When the environment is considered as the most important ethical objective, the needs and concerns of humans take a backseat to an ideology devoted to the health of our planet above the health of human beings.

Of course, the health of our environment impacts the well-being of humans. Famines are not good for our community. Let’s prevent those. Smog and toxic air quality that leads to adverse health effects should be avoided. Overfishing our oceans to the point of extinction of our species’ most widely consumed food source also seems like a bad long-term solution for human well-being. These environmental concerns place human needs at the heart of the discussion, as they should be. The advancement of well-being, prosperity, and human flourishing is the centerpiece of ethical consideration, not the health of our environment. Let’s not forget this.

When it comes down to it, the needs of human beings are more important for our ethical deliberation. Unnecessary suffering to non-human life should be avoided. But when it comes down to the needs of human communities versus the needs of plants, animals, and the climate, human needs seem to be more important. This is not to say we should beat our pets and clear-cut forests willy-nilly. But if a situation comes down to “saving the turtles” or saving the 4 million people who die annually from avoidable deaths, due to inhaling smoke from wood-burning stoves that could be avoided by adopting fossil fuels such as oil or gas, then the turtles can respectfully wait their turn. And if there are no turtles left, then they will join the ranks of 99.9% of all species that ever existed on earth that no longer exist.

On the topic of implementing fossil fuel production, it isn’t always more negative for the environment. In the case above of wood-burning stoves, it should also be remembered that burning wood also releases carbon into the atmosphere and requires tremendous deforestation and destruction to local ecosystems to maintain the demand of people who burn wood for heating and cooking. Switching wood-burning stoves to fossil fuel energy sources can have benefits for the environment. While natural gas is harmful to the environment, implementing fracking and burning natural gas is less harmful to the environment than burning coal or oil, and is currently more feasible than renewable resources. However, since fracking is harmful to the environment and does not fit with the tenants of radical Western environmentalism, environmental advocates refuse to acknowledge the nuance of environmental considerations through their opposition to fracking initiatives and paint all fossil fuels with the same broad brushstroke.

It’s also interesting to note the difference in scope between the modern Western environmental movement and the environmentally-conscious cultures of the past. For example, environmentalists often cite the relationship between Indigenous peoples and their environment as an ideal the Industrial West should aspire towards. Indigenous peoples held great respect for their environment and regarded themselves as its stewards. They would thank the spirit of the wildlife they killed for food, used the entirety of the animal to avoid wasting their sacrifice, and tried to live in harmony with their resources rather than dominating nature. This Indigenous environmentalism is radically different from modern Western environmental movements. Whereas Indigenous environmentalism cared about their environment as a priority, Western environmentalists care about the environment as the priority. Environmental goals have transcended local considerations for ecosystems, air quality, and wildlife to focus on the health of the earth as a whole. And environmental considerations are no longer one ethical goal among many. Rather, environmentalists consider most environmental concerns to be the most important value, above concerns for human well-being.

The more radical environmentalists advocate for banning non-electric cars, planes, cattle farming, single-use plastic and non-recyclable materials, fossil fuel usage, and even fireworks. It doesn’t matter the good that comes from these technologies — if something harms the environment, it should be banned in the eyes of modern environmentalists. If something’s not recyclable, it should not be produced, regardless of the good it can provide our species. However, I suppose that when our quality of life inevitably erodes due to the restriction of the needs and luxuries we enjoy, at least we can take solace in our commitment to the environment. The environmental gods will smile on our sacrifice.

The Western environmentalist movement also seems to disdain the advancements of industrial society. The creation of automobiles, air conditioning, pharmaceutical medications, and industrial farming, to name a few technologies, has contributed to the most peaceful and prosperous period in human history. And not just for people living in North America and Europe. Millions of people are being lifted out of poverty around the globe every year thanks to our industrial technology. This is unprecedented in human history and is a cause for celebration. Western environmental movements seek to undermine this improvement in human life. They seem to believe that the health of our environment is more important than the goodness and prosperity of human life. Let environmental initiatives come, but not at the expense of human flourishing.

Of course, it’s easy for Western environmentalists to see the big picture from the mountain on which we view the world. Only this mountain isn’t natural. This mountain is forged from iron and steel. Industry and production have forged this mountain with blood and sweat bathing the foundations. Fossil fuel combustion and electricity production has propelled our rise to the top, and now Western environmentalists dare to look down to the valley below and discourage the use of technologies that have made us prosper.

This sentiment is best expressed by India’s Environment Minister, Bhupender Yadav, at the 2021 United Nations climate change conference.

“How can anyone expect that developing countries make promises about phasing out coal and fossil fuel subsidies? Developing countries still have to deal with their poverty reduction agenda.”

We want to make the costs of owning a gasoline car unaffordable, while electric options are out of reach for most people. We want to restrict fossil fuel production in our countries, only to import them from less environmentally conscious facilities in foreign countries. We want to increase the cost of living for the poorest among us so that the planet can be saved. We want to reduce our carbon emissions and see an unwavering commitment from our allies to the health of our planet at the expense of human flourishing. Our planet’s climate and environment are important, insofar as human prosperity is our ultimate ethical aim.

Of course, if humanity destroys its environment, humanity will die. It seems like a harmonious and sustainable relationship with the environment is an important priority, but it is not the most important priority. Care for environmental well-being is rooted in the more fundamental priority — care for human survival and prosperity.

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Matthew McKenna

Matthew McKenna

When facing hardship and burned by flame / We look to myth for where to aim / As stories of old were understood / Extract the gold and make it good.