Human Achievement & The Earth Are Not In Conflict
I attended the Human Achievement Hour at the Competitive Enterprise Institute over the weekend, a several hour party and networking event. Designed to be the counter to Earth Hour—you know, that time when hippies everywhere turn off their lights for an hour to supposedly show solidarity with Mother Nature—it involves lots of lights, food, drink, and even had a streaming video of it. (In case you saw me on there, I apologize. I never wanted to hurt people with my ugliness.)
But even uglier than me were some of the comments on the event’s Facebook page. Many called it “stupid,” even “evil,” and one person who said “I wasn’t going to turn my lights off, but now I will.” To which I ask these people, why?
There seems to be a misconception that somehow, free market capitalism and individual liberty are in direct opposition to saving the environment. This is not at all the case. Looking at history, what places have the best environments, the best air quality, the most protected wildlife refuges? It’s not in places like Eastern Europe, swamped in smog, or places like India or China or South America. They’re in places that have well defined property rights and a free market system. It all goes back to the Lorax and the Tragedy of the Commons: if you put private property rights in something, people will care about it.
And I think there is a lot to care about the planet. While personally, I find global warming to be overblown (and not necessarily anthropogenic, though it does exist), there are many other concerns we need to think about. The deforestation in the Amazon bothers me, as we’re not seeing a renewal of natural resources we see in modern economies thanks to slash and burn—and considering that the trees there provide a great quantity of the oxygen we breathe, we should all be worried. Lesser genetic biodiversity may also have severe consequences for our planet. And of course, polluting our water supplies hurts everybody—humans and nature alike.
I’ll give Al Gore one credit: when I saw him present his An Inconvenient Truth at Hamilton College when I was in high school, he said one thing that made sense. There was a picture of a scale up on the screen, with bars of gold on one hand and the planet Earth on the other. He said, “You can’t spend the bars of gold if the Earth is destroyed!” He’s right (in that one instance.)
The mistake the proponents of Earth Hour—and the opponents of Human Achievement Hour—make is that they fail to recognize how human technology, even dirty technology, is absolutely necessary for our lives today. Turning off our lights and getting rid of what we have today will not make us better off. In fact, hundreds of millions, if not a few billion, people would die from starvation and lack of medicine, as the survivors endure considerably worse lives: sicker, hungrier, shorter. Like it or not, we’re dependent on our technology. We need the dirtier technology first, before we can refine it and create cleaner technology later.
We don’t have to be in opposition. The market has already shown this; while I’m sure a factor in their increased sales was government tax credits, gas-saving hybrids have exploded over the past decade because people wanted them. No matter how many tax credits out there, if people didn’t value saving gas and having less emissions, companies would still not make them. The same thing goes for “green” energy and other technologies. You think people don’t want solar power? Maybe not yet, because its not efficient enough, but once it gets up there, they will. People are experimenting all the time with recycling and renewable energies, from using the grease from McDonald’s as jet fuel or burning old tires to heat homes. And somehow they want to rip out the technological foundation from underneath these green experimenters? I don’t understand.
It is through human achievement that we now have the ability to actually care for our planet. Previously, when we were still working on subsistence, we didn’t have the time to give much thought to planet Earth. But now we do, and to celebrate that, we shouldn’t be turning off our lights. We should be finding new and cleaner ways to power them—and leave them on.