Don’t Let Earth Day Rebuke Henry Ford

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. says it is the birthday of the environmental movement.—the only official federal government site for a holiday (there is no—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.