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Don’t Let Earth Day Rebuke Henry Ford

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Don’t Let Earth Day Rebuke Henry Ford

Op-ed in The Detroit News

Earth Day this year seems to be getting less promotion than usual.
Al Gore is nowhere to be seen. There are few preening eco-celebs
lecturing us about our driving habits from the doors of their private
jets. About the only thing I’ve seen is the exhortation by some
Nickelodeon child stars to turn lights off for one minute on Earth Day.

This
scaling back of ambition suggests that our straitened financial
circumstances have made us think again about what Earth Day really
means. That’s a lesson that we should remember when times are good
again.

It’s not easy to find a statement about what Earth
Day is for. Earthday.net says it is the birthday of the environmental
movement. Earthday.gov—the only official federal government site for a
holiday (there is no FouthofJuly.gov)—says it is “a time to celebrate
gains we have made and create new visions to accelerate environmental
progress. Earth Day is a time to unite around new actions.” The
Wilderness Society features an essay by the late Wisconsin Senator
Gaylord Nelson, who claimed to have founded Earth Day to force the
issue of the environment on to the national stage.

In all,
this is mere fluff. In practice, Earth Day has meant, as the federal
government’s Web says, legislative and regulatory “gains” for the
environment. Such “gains” include the ban on DDT
use, which has contributed to the decimation of the American elm here
and millions of deaths from malaria in Africa because of a de facto
international ban lobbied for by the environmental movement.

That
would be “gains” like the passage of the Clean Air Act, which studies
have shown has had little effect in cleaning up genuine pollution, but
is now being used to stop the building of desperately needed power
plants. And then there’s the Endangered Species Act, which, as the
authors of the best-seller “Freakonomics” have noted, creates perverse
incentives for landowners to kill and dispose of endangered species on
their land, in case the feds use the act to move in and take over.

In
other words, the alleged environmental gains have come at a price.
Earth Day is emphatically not about humanity living in harmony with
nature. It is instead about a choice between humanity and nature.

When
environmentalists talk about man’s impact on the Earth—which they
always portray as harmful—what they really mean is the impact of
increases in human well being. Earth Day advocates regard as harmful to
the Earth everything that humans have done, using the unique abilities
afforded by intelligence to prolong life, reduce suffering and make
existence more rewarding.

That is why environmentalists
advocate imposing barriers to building and other constructive human
activities. Yet in the circumstances we now face, we recognize the
conflict. We need new infrastructure, but we cannot build it—which
recently led three former California governors to warn about the
burdens that environmental laws place upon their state. That’s why this
year, for the first time ever since polling on the subject since the
1970s, Gallup found that more people said the economy should take
precedence over the environment, rather than vice versa.

Perhaps
people are starting to realize that Earth Day is not really pro-Earth,
but anti-human achievement. To celebrate Earth Day is to rebuke Henry
Ford and the Wright Brothers, Ben Franklin and Enrico Fermi, and all
the great innovators and inventors our civilization should celebrate.
We have certainly devised means to conserve resources and protect
fragile environments, but it is the wealth civilization brings that
enables us to do so. Destroying wealth and blocking progress inevitably
degrades both human welfare and the environment.

So today, I
suggest celebrating not Earth Day, but Human Achievement Day. To come
out of the economic crisis, we need to celebrate the spirit that will
get us through.

Iain Murray is a director of projects and
analysis and senior fellow in energy, science and technology at the
Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington.