Since it's World Environment Day, let's celebrate all the many achievements made in improving the human environment over the last three millennia -- in other words, in improving the surroundings of man, and making the external conditions of human life better. If the concept "environment" is to have any meaning, then this is it. After all, taken literally, as Ross McKitrick points out [pdf], the phrase 'the environment' as popularly used is a "vacuous truism."
[It] includes everything between your skin and outer space, and as such it covers too much to be meaningful. I can understand being “pro-environment,” since this amounts to being in favour of the world’s existence. The difficulty is trying to picture someone being against it...
I think he's too kind there. He's right however to say that this popular usage of the term 'environment' is "insufficiently precise," and amounts only to a bland generalisation waiting for someone to fill it with nonsense and scaremongering:
... [U]sing the general word “environment,” instead of more specific terms, tends to detach any ensuing discussion from the prospect of measurement with real data. We can measure specific types of pollution, biological conditions, resource scarcity, etc. But there is no way to measure the “environment” as a whole... In the absence of specific measurement, or even agreement on what we ought to be measuring, the discussion too readily seems to get framed in the language of crisis.
He sure got that right. If we want to be specific, if we want the term 'environment' to actually mean something, then it's not this bland generalisation we should refer to, not the preservation of things that have no value at all to man, but the valuing of things that do.
If the concept 'environment' is to have any meaning, then this is it -- and contrary to the claims of self-declared 'environmentalists,' mankind has been hard at work since time began making our environment better. This is, after all, why most of us get up and go to work in the morning: to make our immediate environment better for ourselves. As George Reisman puts it,
It is important to realize that when the environmentalists talk about destruction of the "environment" as the result of economic activity, their claims are permeated by the doctrine of intrinsic value. Thus, what they actually mean to a very great extent is merely the destruction of alleged intrinsic values in nature such as jungles, deserts, rock formations, and animal species which are either of no value to man or hostile to man. That is their concept of the "environment."
If, in contrast to the environmentalists, one means by "environment" the surroundings of man--the external material conditions of human life--then it becomes clear that all of man's productive activities have the inherent tendency to improve his environment--indeed, that that is their essential purpose...
Thus, all of economic activity has as its sole purpose the improvement of the environment--it aims exclusively at the improvement of the external, material conditions of human life. Production and economic activity are precisely the means by which man adapts his environment to himself and thereby improves it.
So much for the environmentalists' claims about man's destruction of the environment. Only from the perspective of the alleged intrinsic value of nature and the non-value of man, can man's improvement of his environment be termed destruction of the environment.
We've been improving our environment since recorded time began, since the first man and woman shooed a bear out of its cave and began building a fire on which to roast it; from the time our benefactors first began making beer back in Mesopotamia; from the time when we began planting crops to eat, and breeding animals to serve our needs; from the time we began building roads and bridges to take our goods to market; and mines and factories and power stations to produce goods to be taken there ... what we've been doing all this time -- or at least, what our predecessors were doing, since we've been falling down on the job, has been making our living environment better. Which means taking what nature has provided, and putting it in a more useful relationship to ourselves.
This is what it means to live as a human being -- what it means to improve the environment -- not denouncing our productive ability and seeking forgiveness from Gaia for having the temerity to inhabit her surface, but transforming nature's bounty to our ends.
To make the point another way, just reflect for a moment on the survival prospects of a bare naked human being in a place like the deserts of Arizona, or the tundra of Siberia, or in the cold, rainy drizzle of a West Coast winter. None of these environments offers much immediate comfort to that naked beast. But now see what happens when we improve these environments for human habitation: We build sheltering houses to keep out the rain, and to combat the extremes of temperature we build fires and install air conditioners, and truck in the fuel to keep these running. And, since self-sufficiency in desert or tundra is not possible, and even in moderate climates hardly desirable, we truck in food too to fill up our cupboards. Instead of sleeping on the ground we install beds; instead of relying for conversation on the same stories that have been told for thousands of years, we stock a library, or install a flat screen television hooked into as many channels as we can afford; instead of relying on random berries to get us merry, we build liquor cabinets and buy fridges and stock them with all the necessaries of good living.
This is what it means to improve the environment, and this is what human beings have been doing and working towards since recorded time began.
And since it's World Environment Day, let's just pause for a minute to reflect that the doctrine of so called environmentalism that World Environment Day promotes puts this all at risk. The doctrine that says trees, rocks and mud puddles (and snails) take precedence over living, breathing producing human beings puts at risk the wealth, success and livelihood of every human being on the planet.
So in this context, let's pause to give credit to the Chief Executive of Exxon Mobil, who proudly declares that his company views it as its "corporate social responsibility" to continue to supply the world with fossil fuels.
If only New Zealand's Energy minister could say the same with respect to his portfolio.
NB: I'm indebted to George Reisman for most of these important points.
UPDATE: Poneke says it more plainly:
The posters boldly proclaiming KICK THE HABIT were mildly puzzling. ... Today’s campaign is World Environment Day, and the habit we’re meant to kick is carbon dioxide. I kid you not. How extraordinarily bizarre. The United Nations is campaigning against carbon dioxide, was the news. Verily, the lunatics have taken charge of the asylum. Carbon dioxide, as every schoolkid knows, is what we exhale as we breathe, and which is absorbed by trees and other plantlife to enable them to grow, giving out the oxygen we need to live. Declaring war on carbon dioxide is declaring war on ourselves, and the trees. Without it, there would be no environment, or at least, no environment as we know it, Jim.