At the turn of the twentieth century, President Theodore Roosevelt became embroiled in a public controversy over how some writers and naturalists described the natural world in overly anthropomorphic and sentimental terms. In a 1907 article attacking Jack London, among other writers, Roosevelt popularized the moniker “nature fakers,” those writers whom Roosevelt called “an object of derision to every scientist worthy of the name, to every real lover of the wilderness, to every faunal naturalist, to every true hunter or nature lover. But it is evident that [the nature faker] completely deceives many good people who are wholly ignorant of wild life.”
The “nature” the sentimentalists described was not the real nature, but one conjured from old myths and imaginative projections of human ideals onto an inhuman natural world. Unfortunately, a century later “nature fakers” are still promoting their sentimental myths about nature, only now with serious repercussions for our national interests and security.
These days “nature fakery” lives on in school curricula and popular culture, from Earth Day celebrations to Disney cartoons like Pocahontas. Only now this myth is renamed “environmentalism” and disguised with a patina of scientific authority. Worse yet, this allegedly scientific information provides the basis for government policies that impact our economic productivity and national security. The furor over global warming illustrates this unholy alliance of ancient myth and misleading science. For years we have heard claims that the evidence for global warming caused by human-generated “greenhouse gas” is “incontrovertible,” as the American Physical Society claimed last year in a policy statement, and that “if no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur.”
The proof, however, for such apocalyptic scenarios is incomplete, inconclusive, and weakened by extensive counter-evidence, such as the inconvenient fact that no warming has occurred for the last decade. Yet, from the Kyoto protocols to the recent attempt to impose a carbon tax in the United States, various schemes to “decarbonize” the economy to forestall this alleged environmental catastrophe continue to be proposed, at a potential cost of trillions of dollars.
The most recent example of the malign influence of contemporary “nature fakery” is President Obama’s refusal to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport 700,000 barrels of oil a day 1,700 miles from Alberta, Canada to refineries in Texas. Despite a thorough, three-year review by the State Department that concluded the pipeline posed minimal environmental risk, the project has been delayed because of the same alleged dangers to soil, endangered species, fish, wildlife, and the Ogallala aquifer that the State Department report had already examined. Thus a project that could create tens of thousands of jobs and reduce our reliance on oil imported from hostile countries like Venezuela has been delayed, not because of sound science and a sober cost-benefit analysis, but because of mythic notions about nature that inform the ideology of politically powerful advocacy organizations like the Sierra Club.
How is it that these environmental "crises" gain so much political traction?
How is it that these environmental “crises” and their multi-trillion-dollar solutions gain so much political traction? Money and politics, of course, are important factors. Government funding for “global warming” research and subsidies for “alternative energy” are attractive inducements to promulgate climate change alarmism. Al Gore has seen his net worth increase from $2 million to $100 million over the last decade as a result of his global-warming advocacy and investments in government-subsidized “green energy” businesses.
A more insidious factor, however, is that emotional myths routinely trump rational science in modern environmentalism. Much of the rhetoric that characterizes environmental arguments indulges two powerful myths in particular, the Noble Savage and the Golden Age. Since the dawn of civilization, these ancient stories have spoken to humanity’s anxieties about living in the complex human world of language, law, culture, cities, trade, and technology.
The Noble Savage is that inhabitant of a simpler world whose life harmonizes with his natural surroundings. He does not need government or law, for he has no private property, and hence no desire for wealth or status, nor for their byproducts, crime and war. His existence is peaceful, free from conflict and strife. He takes from nature only what he needs, and needs only what he takes.
Because he is at one with nature, he does not require labor or technology to survive. His social relations are egalitarian, uncompromised by the artificial distinctions of sex or class, the bitter fruits of complex civilization. Political power and hierarchies are unknown to him, as are law and coercion, unnecessary in a world of communal egalitarianism. He and his fellows are, as the seventeenth-century poet John Dryden put it, the “guiltless men, that danced away their time/ Fresh as their groves and happy as their climes.” They embody what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called the “celestial and majestic simplicity of man before corruption by society.”
Environmentalists consider civilization itself to be the enemy.
At the dawn of civilization, when regimentation, complex social structures, and coercive authority began to define human life, the Noble Savage myth appears. This myth provides a powerful means for criticizing the perceived corruption and inequities of one’s own world. The Greeks, for example, used the idealized, simple-living Scythians to their north as foils for the effeminate corruptions of their own culture. For the Romans, the forest-dwelling Germans destined someday to shatter the Western empire appeared as sturdy, simple warriors whose virile strength and virtues were not sapped by the luxuries of decadent Rome.
Jaded Europeans found in the Indians of the New World icons of “purity” and “naturalness so pure and simple,” as French essayist Montaigne wrote, contrasting the Indians’ virtuous simplicity to the corrupt complexity of European civilization. These days, many environmentalists use contemporary hunter-gathering cultures that supposedly still live harmoniously with nature as sticks to beat an unjust, oppressive Western civilization. Environmentalism, then, is not just about our assault on the natural world: it is a full-blown attack on our social, economic, and political structures.
The myth of the Golden Age, which the West has inherited from Ancient Greece, is another idealization of the lost simplicity of living in a complex society. This myth imagines a time before cities and technology, when humans lived intimately with a benevolent nature that provided for their needs and for lives of leisure, health, and happiness, free as they were from the unnatural desires and appetites created by civilization. With no private property, gold, or other wealth, greed and status-hunger did not exist. There was, consequently, no reason for social strife, slavery, war, trade, and crime, not to mention the law, courts, governments, prisons, and all the other trappings of a civilization whose degeneracy corrupts people and thus requires these oppressive controls.
Alas, the Golden Age passes away, and we are left in our own world: the Iron Age, a miserable time of sickness, hardship, war, crime, vice, hunger, and conflict, all following the creation of an unnatural civilization with its repressive laws and greed for wealth, what the Roman poet Ovid called the “cursed lust for having.” Civilization itself is the greatest evil, for it has come between our natural mother, the earth, and us humans. It has also forced us to repress our instincts.
In both of these myths, civilization—the world of cities and technology, laws and wars, alienation and fear—is the source of our troubles. Technology, in particular, is a villain in this interpretation of history, for it has alienated us from nature and fostered the miseries of war and competition for wealth. For the ancients, navigation, mining, metalworking, and farming signified our loss of pristine natural innocence.
Of course, our impact on the earth must be continually assessed.
For us moderns, the rise of industrialism and what the poet William Blake called its “Satanic mills”—crowded cities, mechanized warfare, high-speed transportation and communications, carbon-based energy, and all of the social and psychological consequences of these changes—have made this old myth even more appealing, which is why we find it everywhere, from advertisements to movies. The anti-globalization and Occupy Wall Street movements, dressed up in Marxism or anarchism, are driven by these old idealizations of pre-industrial and primitive societies, the mythic fantasies of a leisurely life passed in the bosom of nature.
Much of what passes for environmentalism these days simply rehashes these ancient myths. In his bestseller Earth in the Balance, the most famous publicist of human-caused global warming and “sustainable” green energy, Al Gore, regularly fulminates against “our increasingly aggressive encroachment into the natural world,” and the “froth and frenzy of industrial civilization” brought on by our “technological hubris.” This technophobia recalls the mythic Golden Age, when the pine-tree had not yet been cut down to make ships, and plows and picks did not “wound” the earth, as Ovid puts it.
The modern versions of these ancient myths are as full of apocalyptic fervor as the old tales themselves. Rachel Carson’s vision of a world without birds because of D.D.T. use, Paul Ehrlich’s prophecies of societal collapse because of overpopulation and resource depletion, and, of course, the doomsday scenarios of rising sea-waters and melting ice-caps spun by today’s proponents of human-caused global warming all recycle the Iron-Age myth, in which human technology and corruption inexorably lead to ecological collapse and the destruction of the human race.
Just consider the lurid rhetoric in the Sierra Club’s argument against the Keystone XL pipeline, which it calls the “Pipeline to Apocalypse” and an “ecological horror” that will leave behind a “post-Apocalyptic moonscape”––this despite the fact that 50,000 miles of pipelines already crisscrossing the lower 48 states have not led to such environmental destruction. Meanwhile, we continue to rely on oil imported from dysfunctional, autocratic, and hostile regimes despite our possession of vast reserves of oil and natural gas that could make this country energy independent.
These eco-topian myths are powerfully attractive because they offer therapeutic solace to the urban-dwellers who chafe at the complexity of modern life and the trade-offs required by modern technology. All the while, that same technology makes them the healthiest, most physically comfortable, and best-fed people in history.
A pleasing and sentimental “nature fakery” is dangerous when it fuels policies that should be based on a rational cost-benefit analysis, and that should put people and their flourishing first. Rather than pleasing myths, we need what environmental writer Gregg Easterbrook calls “ecorealism,” the sober conviction “that logic, not sentiment, is the best tool for safeguarding nature,” and that an “accurate understanding of the actual state of the environment will serve the Earth better than expressions of panic.”
Of course, our impact on the environment continually needs to be assessed, because this world and its resources are all that we humans have to ensure our survival. And we owe it to our children and grandchildren not to thoughtlessly squander or wantonly pollute these resources. But in the end, our obligations are primarily to people and their well-being, not to an inhuman, cruel nature as indifferent to Homo sapiens as it has been to the millions of species that are now extinct.
Bruce S. Thornton is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He received his BA in Latin in 1975 and his PhD in comparative literature–Greek, Latin, and English–in 1983, both from the University of California, Los Angeles. Thornton is currently a professor of classics and humanities at California State University in Fresno, California. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays and reviews on Greek culture and civilization and their influence on Western civilization. His latest book, published in March 2011, is titled The Wages of Appeasement: Ancient Athens, Munich, and Obama's America.