It is startling that, after decades of false predictions about impending global doom, environmentalism is gaining strength and popularity in today’s culture-particularly the issue of global warming. Politicians shower us with graphs illustrating alleged correlations between rising carbon dioxide levels, higher temperatures, and rising sea levels. In his popular documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, former vice-president Al Gore urges us to take immediate action against global warming by reducing the amount of human-generated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Pervasive environmentalist alarmism has encouraged the state of California to pass numerous laws aimed at regulating carbon dioxide emissions and financing research on alternative, “eco-friendly” sources of energy.
And the trend extends to college students, many of whom are embracing the cause to fight global warming, as we discovered when we recently surveyed a range of publications at major universities.
Although scientists are far from arriving at a consensus about the cause and consequences of global warming, let us assume for the sake of argument that global warming is real and, more interestingly, that human beings are the cause of today’s environmental crisis. What then is the appropriate response to such an ecological threat? Should we cut back on the use of technological and electrical tools in order to decrease our impact on pristine nature or should we solve our environmental problems by using more technology and industry, the best means of survival available to us?
We found that most students embrace the former alternative. Daily Californian reporter Sarah Kamshoshy documented a recent debate at UC Berkeley on Proposition 87, a plan “that would levy a tax on California’s oil producers” while preventing them from raising gas prices to maintain a profit. The tax revenues would help finance several governmental projects and provide millions of dollars for research on alternative energy sources. Despite their concerns “that it could hurt the state economy,” most students concluded that “the proposition might lead California down a more environmentally conscious path.”
Environmentalists say that Proposition 87 will help fight global warming and decrease our dependence on foreign oil, but UCLA alumnus Michael Helperin realizes that this initiative can achieve no such goal. In a Daily Bruin article, he notes that Proposition 87 “will increase the ratio of imported over domestic oil and add little to the growth of alternative energy.” Forcing domestic oil companies to pay taxes while preventing them from raising prices can only harm their productivity, which would lead us to “increase the quantity of oil we import.” How then could Proposition 87 reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emissions and counteract global climate change? Its only purpose is to punish Californian oil businesses for providing consumers with the energy necessary to fuel their cars and airplanes and heat their homes.
But the most revealing article was written by Thomas Bohnett in the Daily Princetonian. In an article titled “What then must we do?” Bohnett offers his own suggestion for countering global warming. Air travel, he writes, “is a very dirty habit,” one that “can lead to more carbon emissions than driving.” He concludes that we must reduce-if not surrender altogether-our selfish tendencies to “step on an airplane.” “If we give up air travel for pleasure, we can take up the kind of lives in which we don’t need it nearly so much ultimately, the rejection of air travel is an expression of hope, a belief that we can save this world if only we make the necessary sacrifices.”
Air transport is one of modern society’s most important industries: its technological achievements and wide-ranging services have improved the quality of our lives in unprecedented ways. Air travel provides us with a larger selection of vacation destinations, helps broaden our cultural experiences, and offers a more affordable and convenient way to visit family and friends.
Now imagine for a moment that all of us accept Bohnett’s proposal and apply it seriously to our daily lives. We know that the typical college student relies heavily on air travel. Adopting such a lifestyle would imply fewer visits to family and friends and fewer opportunities to study abroad. We would have to rely on more expensive, inconvenient, and slower methods of transportation to reach faraway destinations.
Implementing Bohnett’s self-sacrificial standard would lead us to do the same with automobiles, trucks, air conditioners, and heating systems, not to mention the countless man-made appliances that require electricity. And to take this a step further, we would have to renounce all goods shipped via truck or airplane and all commodities that contain plastic. Essentially, we would have to put an end to our fossil-fuel burning days and say goodbye to everything even remotely dependent on it. But of course we all know that burning fossil fuels is not the only way to generate greenhouse gases. If we really want to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we should also stop eating foods grown in soil supplemented with agricultural lime and perhaps go so far as to stop breathing-after all, why not eradicate man, the root cause of all the world’s troubles?
That is the ultimate implication and consequence of the idea that we should pursue the “intrinsic good of nature” rather than the welfare of human beings-it means the complete eradication of technology and so of human life. Man without technology is a helpless animal. A quick glance at the undeveloped parts of the world or at the times before the advent of industry is more than enough to make one appreciate the vital role technology plays in man’s life. If we implement the doctrine Bohnett and his ilk promote, we would “save this world” not for the sake of man, but from man for the sake of nature.
For decades, environmentalists have troubled us with apocalyptic predictions about the ecological future of our planet. They allege that global warming is real, that the polar ice caps are melting, that Florida will soon disappear under water, and that we will be victims of many more wrathful hurricanes. And because today’s climate “crisis” is the direct result of our industrial achievements-namely cars, airplanes, power plants, and other fossil fuel-burning machinery-the solution, so they claim, is to keep ourselves from using them. But environmentalists falsely assume that men sit idly as temperatures rise year after year or as water creeps higher and higher onto their property. Men instead study nature conscientiously and use that knowledge to find rational solutions to the problems with which nature presents them. Think about how much cleaner our air is now that cars have replaced smoky trains.
Up until now we assumed that mainstream theories about global warming are true. But the causes and consequences of global climate change are topics debated contentiously within the scientific community. Today we do not sufficiently understand the complexities of weather and climate to predict the distant future with meaningful certainty. It will take many more years of rigorous scientific research and further advances in technology to reach such a stage.
But whether or not global warming is real, and whether or not humans are its cause, any solution must be aimed at increasing human welfare-it must take man’s life as the standard of value, not pristine nature.
Kelly Cadenas is a third year undergraduate at Harvard University where she currently pursues a degree in biochemistry.
The Undercurrent is a magazine distributed at college campuses and communities across the country. We release a print edition once per semester, and in the interim, regularly post additional articles, blog entries, and campus media responses reports to our website.
The Undercurrent's cultural commentary is based on Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism. Objectivism, which animates Ayn Rand's fiction, is a systematic philosophy of life. It holds that the universe is orderly and comprehensible, that man survives by reason, that his life and happiness comprise his highest moral purpose, and that he flourishes only in a society that protects his individual rights.
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