A Discussion of Environmentalism Part II: The Moral Component

In Saturday’s post, I began to respond to this column on the National Review Online website.  I pretty much responded to the author, Jim Lacey’s criticism of Al Gore.  But that wasn’t the meat of the piece.  Lacey goes on to question why environmentalists and liberals “get away with” claiming the moral high ground. 

His next target is Rachel Carson, author or Silent Spring and an early voice of modern environmentalism.  Silent Spring was about the ecological effects of environmental use of DDT to kill mosquitoes.  Yes, the chemical, when widely dispersed killed mosquitoes, but it also did a lot of other damage to the environment.  Carson’s efforts resulted in a ban on DDT agricultural pesticide.  Lacey repeats the claim from the “better living through insecticide crowd” that the ban has resulted in 20 million malaria-related deaths in developing countries, making Carson a monster on par with Hitler and Stalin.

Well, it’s important, once again, to look at those pesky facts.  Carson never advocated banning DDT as a means to control disease vectors.  Apparently that’s the technical term for mosquitoes when talking about their role in the spread of disease.  She was concerned that wide environmental dispersion would become ineffective due to natural selection.  DDT resistant bugs survive and make baby DDT-resistant bugs, but she believed it would be acceptable to use it in a targeted manner.  Apparently, those predictions of DDT-resistant mosquitoes have borne out in countries that have yet to observe the ban.

From there, Lacey goes on to attack people concerned about genetically modified crops as being against feeding the world’s hungry and advocates of public assistance as wanting to create a permanent underclass that is dependent on the government for help.

I’m not going to go into a point by point rebuttal of each of Lacey’s point.  Some of his facts are faulty, others are used to take a valid example of a liberal idea that did not work well as evidence that all liberal ideas are fatally flawed, or worse, are part of a sinister plot to keep the poor down. 

I’ll concede that not every liberal idea is a great one.  Housing projects come to mind as a perfect example.  The concentration of poverty in one community in the guise of affordable housing did not work.  It simply concentrated all the social problems that come with poverty in one area without the influence of living in a community with neighbors who have the skills to break out of the cycle of poverty.  This does not mean that liberals were trying to create a ghetto.  It means that they came up with a bad idea.

And what about GM food crops?  Isn’t it good to have crops that can grow in the desert in order to feed more people?  This is a tricky question.  It reminds me of a talk given at a ministry that I volunteered with.  The speaker painted a scenario of helpless children floating down a river.  Of course the impulse is to pull the children safely to shore.  But they keep coming.  Eventually, someone has to go upstream to put a stop to whatever is putting the kids in the water in the first place.  The same goes for hunger.  There are people right now who are in desperate need of the kind of food aid that is facilitated by GM  crops.  Unfortunately, there are real concerns that GM crops like corn are harming our ecosystems.  I’m no expert on the subject, but planting large scale crops in soil not meant to support such crops is bound to have negative ecological impacts. 

And therein lays the dilemma.  Do you cut food supplies now to save the planet, even at the cost of starving people?

Of course not, yet that is the kind of zero sum thinking that Lacey is promoting in his arguments.  He uses it to say that people who are concerned about developing countries going through a hydro-carbon based industrial revolution that the planet can’t handle want to deny rural doctors refrigerators for medical supplies. 

What this really does is pit the short term  humanitarian crises of today against the long term well-being of the Earth’s ecosystems and by extension, future humans, and he portrays it as either or.  But there are solutions that can serve both causes.

Let’s look at malaria.  My church works with a ministry that digs wells for villages in Uganda and Rwanda.  The wells are a source of water that keeps the villagers away from mosquito infested standing water.  A kid who doesn’t have to go to the infested water doesn’t get bitten, doesn’t get sick, doesn’t miss out on education and does grow up to become someone who can help his or her village.  Ship some mosquito nets and you’ve helped fight malaria without resorting to DDT. Win-win. 

There are solutions like these for all sorts of problems, solutions that don’t force decision-makers to pit the present against the future.  Some are harder than others and they have varying cost-benefit ratios, but they are there if we have the will to look or them and put them into practice.  In so doing, we need to look at what’s right, not for us or for a corporate bottom line, but for meeting human need.  Sometimes those solutions can come from the market.  Sometimes they can’t. 

I think a big part of the problem is, in fact, that decision-making is focusing entirely too much on those bottom lines.  I think too many Americans of many different religions have become so enamored of the free market that it has become an object of worship. That needs to change.  The market is good for some things and bad for others, but just as God created the Sabbath for humanity, and not vice versa, the market is a tool of humanity and should be used in service to human need.  If human needs are subverted to the demands of the marketplace, something is occupying too great a status in our hearts and minds. 

So my response to Lacey is that he is posing a false choice.  Rather than choose between current  needs and future concerns, we need to seek out just and sustainable methods for meeting human needs now and in the future.  That may involve decisions that harm the bottome line of petrochemical companies or reject harmful market demands, but when we free ourselves from artificial restraint of our search for solutions, there are win-win scenarios everywhere.

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About Andrew

I'm a Christian, American, liberal, geeky, thoughtful, Northwest-transplanted Angeleno husband, father, and pundit who writes about anything he can think of.
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2 Responses to A Discussion of Environmentalism Part II: The Moral Component

  1. Starlene says:

    Wow! You nailed that, Andrew. I have to say that you’ve exposed some missing elements to what the original author claimed and you’ve gone deeper on the issues in a more satisfactory manner. You really got to the heart of the matter which is that it doesn’t have to be an “either/or” situation. I think, yes, there are *some* situations where there isn’t a perfect solution that holds an acceptable solution for both the present needs and the future concerns. However, that doesn’t mean that there can’t be many more situations where some creativity, teamwork, and the ability to consider solutions outside of “party lines” will provide a better solution.

    I imagine it took you quite a bit of time and effort to craft your posts. Thank you for doing that. I may not agree with all of your politics but you certainly do provide a bridge that helps me to understand why you believe and support what you and many other liberals do, and in a surprising number of instances, that we aren’t as far apart as it seems at first glance.

  2. Andrew says:

    Thanks. I’ve found that “liberals” and “conservatives” are not nearly as far apart as is portrayed in the media. We’re all just people trying to figure it all out. I’ve found that respectful conversation can go a long way toward bridging those divides without forcing the abandonment of deeply held values.
    That’s why I try to avoid name calling, even in the course of robust debate with folks.

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