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The Importance Of Sustainability Man’s Intellect Must Come to the Rescue

Guest Column
Kennet Belenky

In his column “Bush’s Environmentalism: Anti-Nature, Pro-Man” [April 13], Matt Craighead rehashes the ideas in Ayn Rand’s essay “Environmentalism: The Anti-Industrial Revolution.” In this essay Ayn Rand confuses environmentalists, hippies, socialists, drug users, Luddites, and misanthropes. While there may be a correlation between the groups, they are not one and the same, and should not be treated as such. On a more humorous level, Ayn Rand also makes ludicrous statements like, “Man cannot survive in the kind of state of nature that the ecologists envision -- i.e., on the level of sea-urchins or polar bears.” I consider myself a staunch environmentalist, yet I do not believe that we should resort to a life of filter feeding. In fact I’m not ready to renounce antibiotics, central heating, cars, electricity, or countless other amenities. With that said, I will refrain from judging a movement by its zealots and focus on the more substantial deficits in the Objectivist logic.

Craighead argues that man is essentially naked and helpless save for his intellect. This may be true, and intelligence is sometimes accompanied by foresight. In the past, animals faced with the prospect of depleting all available resources have not had the luxury of foreseeing their own demise and averting it. Famine is the inevitable result. Man’s intelligence gives us the unique opportunity to curb our resource consumption to fit the constraints of our environment.

This brings me to an important distinction. Environmentalism can be broken into two parts, conservation and sustainability. I will concede that conservation is largely a matter of aesthetics (although anybody who believes in paving the Earth for aesthetic reasons should have their head examined). Sustainability is a matter of life and death, and is intrinsically tied to the quality of life for humans. Central to sustainability are two very simple concepts. If we produce pollution faster than the environment breaks it down, the world will be filled with pollution. If we consume resources faster than they are produced, we will run out of resources. Reserves can delay this effect, but cannot eliminate it.

Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling amounts to a minor increase in oil reserves. According to the article, “America Wakes To A Crude Reality,” published on the MSNBC web site, the oil in the ANWR is approximately 10 billion barrels, equal to less than two years’ worth of imported oil. Even more shocking is the realization that “improving the fuel efficiency of cars by just three miles per gallon would save as much oil as could be tapped from the refuge.” This reduction in domestic oil consumption could also be attained through a small reduction in hours spent driving, owning a car instead of an SUV, or living closer to the workplace.

Craighead’s argument that Bush’s environmental policies are “pro-man” is based upon two fallacies. The first fallacy is that Bush’s motive for increasing oil production is to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. In Bush’s proposed budget, he cut funding to alternative energy research and the Department Of Energy. Both of these programs are essential for finding sustainable sources of energy. It is more likely that Bush is interested in selling oil, for the benefit of his colleagues in the oil industry. The second fallacy is that an increase in resource consumption translates to an improvement in the human condition. Is our life better because our car has a more powerful, less efficient engine? Is it a sound investment to cut down a tree in order to publish a few copies of Hustler? Is a FOX Reality Special worth the resources required to produce it?

Resource consumption does not directly map to improvements in the quality of life for consumers. We, as consumers, should ask ourselves, “Is it worth it?” not with regard to money, but with regard to the impact it will have on the environment.

Unfortunately, a reduction in individual resource consumption will not stop the problem of resource depletion. Reducing our footprint as individuals amounts to a linear decrease in consumption, which pales in comparison to the effects of exponential population growth. No matter how much we reduce our individual consumption, as long as our population grows exponentially we will still consume all resources.

In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins does a back-of-the-envelope calculation showing that if current birth rates continue unabated, within 500 years the population of Latin America will expand to permit standing room only on the continent. If we as a race wish for continued existence, free from atrocities such as mass starvation, plague or war, we must eliminate population growth, possibly even resorting to negative population growth in order to maintain the quality of life which we deem essential.

Kennet Belenky is a member of the Class of 2001.