Monday, March 29, 2010

The Dehumanizing Pretentions and Inanities of Earth Hour

Environmentalists, in a gesture to spur governments to enact ever more restrictive environmental laws, called on the world to turn off all lights and electrical appliances at 8:30 p.m. local time on Saturday, March 27th. The environmentalists claim that the reduced demand for electricity would cause a significant reduction in greenhouse gases and, thusly, benefit Mother Earth. Many government buildings around the world, from the Mother of all Parliaments in London to the State University in Moscow, went dark, as did offices of major corporations such as Coca Cola on this side of the Pond.

In the 1960’s the term “radical chic” was applied to well-to-do socialites who became enamored with the Black Power movement. These tough-guy and tough-gal wannabes held cocktail parties in upper class New York apartments in order to rub shoulders with thugs advocating the overthrow of legally constituted government. Their dabbling in anti-Americanism was very much like children taking their first roller coaster ride—they got a nice thrill without much concern that there was really any risk involved. The same can be said of those who accede to the demands of the Earth Hour advocates. One can be “earth chic” by turning off the lights for an hour without much concern that the lights will come back on at the flick of a switch later in the evening.

As masters of public relations Earth Hour promoters were careful not to go too far in their demands. For example, they did not advise that governments turn off traffic lights or that hospitals shut off life supporting medical equipment. Nice of them, wouldn’t you say? But what about other uses of electricity? Just where do the Earth Hour advocates draw the line and what is their criterion for doing so?

From a practical point of view, it is hard to believe that electricity generating companies would be able to reduce their output knowing that the lowered demand would last for only one hour. A more likely scenario is that tasks that can be performed at just about any time, such as running the electric clothes dryer, will be bunched into the time frames before or after Earth Hour, causing spikes in peak power demand that would require more not less electric power production.

But let’s play along and say that demand for the one hour of electricity is lost forever along with demand for electricity. We turn out the lights, sit in the dark, and, in effect, lose one hour of our collective lives. What exactly has been accomplished? OK, that may be a little too hard to comprehend, so let’s lengthen the Earth Hour to an entire Earth Day, whereby we turn off all non-essential power usage (however that is defined) for an entire twenty-four hours. Shops close. Restaurants close. Sporting events are cancelled. Cultural centers, museums, grocery stores, laundromats, factories…all close. Surely, electric power production may be reduced by some significant amount, along with a concomitant reduction in greenhouse gases. But this perhaps significant reduction in greenhouse gases has come at the cost of loss of production. And it is production that generates the purchasing power to command consumption. Without sufficient production the lights just may not come on again at the flick of the switch.

Why Man is Different

The philosophical assumption behind Earth Hour is that energy use harms Mother Earth. If this is so, why are traffic lights and life supporting medical devices exempt? If man is harming Mother Earth, he must be stopped! But man is different from other species in his rationality, his free will, and his inherent recognition that by cooperating with other men he can improve his lot above mere existence in a rude, cold, and terrifying state of nature. It is man’s nature to cooperate under the division of labor that has given him all the comforts of modern life that the Earth Hour advocates decry as harmful. They are not. When combined with protection of private property and economic calculation under a money-price system, man reorders nature’s physical properties to produce goods on a sustainable basis.

It is a gross misunderstanding of Nature to claim that it contains only so much quantity of resources and that once employed these resources are lost forever. Nature’s resources are limitless. The physical properties of nature may change, but, as Einstein proved, matter and energy cannot be destroyed. Man’s ability to exploit nature is limited only by his level of technological development and degree of social cooperation.

It is man’s ingenuity that allows him to exploit the hidden utility in what everyone once believed to be useless natural objects. Most of what we today call resources were useless and even hindrances until man processed them in some manner. Oil, uranium, trees, even water are useless until man alters them in some way to make them useful. We have no use for oil that seeps from the ground, uranium that is embedded in rock, standing trees (aside from the few that provide shade over man’s abodes), or water that flows in rivers or stands in lakes. But we do have use for petroleum products of all kinds, uranium to power nuclear reactors, a multitude of wood products, and hydroelectric power and potable tap water. But all of these resources require productive enterprise to make them useful, and that is what the Earth Hour advocates claim is harmful.

The consequence of Earth Hour or a more expansive Earth Day would be to reduce men to the status of the animals, consuming nothing because we produce nothing. But without the ability to engage in capitalistic productive enterprise not even traffic lights and life saving medical devices would be available and not one man in a million currently alive would survive. Neither vote seeking governments nor pandering corporations seeking protection from environmental extremists should succumb to its inhumane pretentions and inanities. So, turn on the lights and enjoy what man has accomplished. Your Mother Earth would be proud of you.

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