Requiem for Environmentalism

CORRECTION APPENDED

Environmentalism is dead; long live the environment!

This pronouncement might seem a touch premature, especially to the 500 million people who will celebrate the 37th Earth Day this weekend—a collective “not dead yet” wheeze. However, these numbers mask the growing irrelevance of the environmentalist movement. Having lost its credibility with alarmist rhetoric and obsolete ideological ballast, the movement must develop a moderate discourse while challenging its previous assumptions and outdated theories.

The contemporary environmentalist movement faces a stark choice: change tactics or fade into irrelevance. Over the past decade, environmentalists have achieved few political victories and utterly failed to influence the general public. As indicated by a recent MIT study, the public knows little about environmental problems, and cares less. Out of 21 national and international issues, Americans ranked environmental problems 13th, well below terrorism, taxes, crime, and drugs.

Alarmism—the environmental movement’s basic strategy—has led to this dead end. Since Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” the movement has been dominated by doomsday scenarios. Even on the first Earth Day in 1970, biologist George Wald predicted that “civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken.” Fortunately, such apocalyptic forecasts have repeatedly proven to be wrong.

Take biologist Paul Ehrlich’s popular Malthusian broadside, “The Population Bomb.” Farsighted Ehrlich predicted that a “population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make,” causing world-wide famine and the death of “hundreds of millions of people” annually from starvation. Oops—in the subsequent 35 years, increased agricultural productivity exceeded population growth and the total amount of cultivated land barely increased.

Ehrlich is hardly alone; the environmental movement has spawned a remarkable number of would-be Cassandras. Between 1970 and