The first Earth Day celebration, a nationwide environmental teach-in, held in 1970, was the brainchild of Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, who was interested in environmental issues. He recruited Rep. Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded liberal Republican congressman, to serve as his co-chair, and they enlisted Denis Hayes, a young activist, to be the national coordinator.
In the spirit of the time, it was a touchy-feely, consciousness-raising, New Age experience, and most activities were organized at the grassroots level.
Sadly, today's Earth Day shares something with the current zeitgeist: It reeks of wokeness and political correctness.
Earth Day has devolved into an occasion for environmental activists to prophesy apocalypse, dish anti-technology dirt, and proselytize for a "woke," liberal agenda. Passion and zeal routinely trump science, and provability takes a back seat to plausibility.
Many of those stumping for Earth Day on April 22 this year will oppose environment-friendly advances in science and technology, such as agricultural biotechnology ("GMOs"), fracking, and nuclear power. A pervasive meta-message will be disdain for the capitalist system that provides the innovation needed for effective environmental protection and conservation. (It's no coincidence that poor countries tend to be the most polluted.)
Ironically, the theme of this year's event – "Invest In Our Planet. What Will You Do?" – includes a progressive wish list, including reducing your "foodprint." For those unfamiliar with this neologism (as we were), a foodprint "measures the environmental impacts associated with the growing, producing, transporting, and storing of our food – from the natural resources consumed to the pollution produced to the greenhouse gases emitted." Ready to give up meat, anyone?
Another of this year's event topics is "regenerative agriculture," a favorite concept of the environmentally woke. But as Andrew Porterfield and Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project have written, "it's a lot like a rebranding of organic farming but with more grandiose claims ... Its supporters in the organic community make a multitude of immodest representations about what organic/regenerative agriculture can do, including 'reversing global warming' and 'ending world hunger,' along with preserving the world's topsoil."
The reality is that regenerative agriculture and its sibling, "agroecology," promote reliance on primitive, low-yielding agricultural techniques the use of which raises food prices and disadvantages the poor.
"Education" features prominently in Earth Day activities, as in, "Fifty years ago, the first Earth Day started an environmental revolution. Now, we are igniting an education revolution to save the planet. . . Through our Climate and Environmental Literacy Campaign, we will ensure that students across the world benefit from high-quality education to develop into informed and engaged environmental stewards."
What might that mean? Well, for a previous Earth Day, seventh graders at a tony private school near San Francisco were given an unusual Earth Day assignment: Make a list of environmental projects that could be accomplished with Bill Gates' fortune. This approach to environmental awareness fits in well with the progressive worldview that the right to private property is subsidiary to undertakings that enlightened thinkers deem worthwhile.
And how interesting that the resources made "available" for the students' thought experiment were not, say, the aggregate net worth of the members of Congress but the wealth of one of the nation's most successful and most innovative entrepreneurs.
Another Earth Day assignment for those same students was to read Rachel Carson's best-selling 1962 book "Silent Spring," an emotionally charged but deeply flawed excoriation of the widespread spraying of chemical pesticides for the control of insects. As described by Roger Meiners and Andy Morriss in their scholarly yet eminently readable 2012 analysis, "Silent Spring at 50: Reflections on an Environmental Classic," Carson exploited her reputation as a well-known nature writer to advocate and legitimatize "positions linked to a darker tradition in American environmental thinking: neo-Malthusian population control and anti-technology efforts."
Carson's proselytizing and advocacy led to the virtual banning of DDT and to restrictions on other chemical pesticides even though "Silent Spring" was replete with gross misrepresentations and atrocious scholarship. Carson's observations about DDT were meticulously rebutted point by point by J. Gordon Edwards, a professor of entomology at San Jose State University, a longtime member of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, and a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences. In his stunning 1992 essay, "The Lies of Rachel Carson," Edwards demolished her arguments and assertions and called attention to critical omissions, faulty assumptions, and outright fabrications.
Meiners and Morriss concluded correctly that the influence of "Silent Spring" "encourages some of the most destructive strains within environmentalism: alarmism, technophobia, failure to consider the costs and benefits of alternatives, and the discounting of human well-being around the world." Sounds a lot like the Earth Day agenda.
One of the United Kingdom's great contemporary thinkers, Dick Taverne (Lord Taverne of Pimlico), discusses the shortcomings of New Age philosophy in his iconic book, "The March of Unreason." Taverne deplores the "new kind of fundamentalism" that has infiltrated many environmentalist campaigns as an undiscriminating back-to-nature movement that views science and technology as the enemy and as a manifestation of an exploitative, rapacious, and reductionist attitude toward nature. It is no coincidence, he believes, that eco-fundamentalists are strongly represented in anti-globalization and anti-capitalism movements worldwide.
In this, Taverne echoes the late physician and novelist Michael Crichton, who argued in his much-acclaimed novel "State of Fear" that eco-fundamentalists have reinterpreted traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths and turned environmentalism into a kind of religion. This religion has its own Eden and paradise, where mankind lived in a state of grace and unity with nature until mankind's fall, which came not after eating a forbidden fruit, but after partaking of the forbidden tree of knowledge – that is, technology. This religion also has a judgment day that will come for us in this polluted world – all of us, that is, except for true environmentalists, who will be saved by achieving "sustainability."
One of Crichton's characters argues that since the end of the Cold War, environmental alarmism in Western nations has filled the void left by the disappearance of the terror of communism and nuclear holocaust, and that social control is now maintained by highly exaggerated fears about pollution, global warming, chemicals, genetic engineering, and the like. With the military-industrial complex no longer the primary driver of society, the politico-legal-media complex has replaced it.
This cabal peddles fear in the guise of promoting safety. French writer and philosopher Pascal Bruckner captured its tone nicely: "You'll get what you've got coming! That is the death wish that our misanthropes address to us. These are not great souls who alert us to troubles but tiny minds who wish us suffering if we have the presumption to refuse to listen to them. Catastrophe is not their fear but their joy."
The small-minded misanthropes have enjoyed some dubious "successes." They have effectively banished agricultural biotechnology from Europe and much of Africa, put the chemical industry on the run, and placed the pharmaceutical industry in their crosshairs.
Lord Taverne believes these are ominous trends that are contrary to the principles of the Enlightenment, returning us to an era in which inherited dogma and superstition took precedence over experimental data. Eco-fundamentalism strangles scientific creativity and technological innovation, blocking the availability of products which, used responsibly, could dramatically improve and extend many lives and protect the environment.
Lord Taverne posited that when you defend science and reason, you defend democracy itself. Well said, Milord, and happy Earth Day to you.
Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was a research associate at the National Institutes for Health and the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology. Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the Consumer Choice Center. Please follow them on Twitter at @henryimiller and @JeffAStier.