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Earth Day a reminder of the benefits of industrial progress

Planet Earth for Earth Day

 (NASA)

It's Earth Day, and you know what that means. We’re supposed to think about how we’re impacting the Earth. But notice: it’s always assumed that we’re have a negative impact, and that we should resolve to lessen it. But are we--and should we?

Well, consider this question: Is there any better environment for humans throughout history than the one we live in today? The further back we go  50, 100, 200, 500 years--the less impact humans had. But would you want to live back then? In particular, would you want to live before the Industrial Revolution, which has been radically transforming human life for 200 years?

If you want to live in an environment that is safe, healthy, clean, and otherwise hospitable to human life, today’s highly-industrialized environment is without equal. Where previous generations faced the risk of disease from simply drinking water, which was often contaminated by animals, we have clean water, thanks to man-made reservoirs, treatment plants, underground pipes, and indoor plumbing. Where previous generations walked streets contaminated by large quantities of human and animal waste, we can conveniently and safely dispose of it thanks to sewer systems and the garbage industry. Where previous generations faced large-scale death whenever there was a severe freeze or heat wave, we can live in a comfortable climate year-round, thanks to sturdy homes and modern, high-energy heating and air-conditioning.

And the list of positives goes on. Thanks to industrial agriculture and transportation, we have grocery stores full of healthy food year-round. Thanks to modern transportation, we have unprecedented access to the rich cultural experiences and natural beauty that the world has to offer. Many of the benefits of today’s environment are reflected in life-expectancy and population statistics: the average person lives longer, in better health, than ever before.

In sum, human beings have made the Earth a far, far better place to live for ourselves. Yet even though life is better than ever, we are wracked with green guilt over our industrial development. We hear endlessly that our “footprint”--i.e., our impact on nature--is too big, and that we must “go green” by making a smaller one. We are made to feel guilty for the impact that we have on land, on water, on plants, on animals. But impacting nature is precisely how human beings survive and flourish.

Nature, untamed, is not very friendly to human beings. It doesn't give us the food, clothing, shelter, and medicine, let alone leisure time, that we need. All of these require that we use our intelligence to develop nature to make it more suitable to human life--that we develop our environment. This means lots of mining operations, construction, roads, housing tracts, office parks, refineries, factories, hospitals, shopping centers, automobiles, airplanes, and research labs. Above all, it means lots of energy production and energy consumption, to power the industrial machines that make our environment so hospitable.

Why, then, do environmentalists champion non-impact, opposing new power plants, drilling rigs, housing developments, and mining operations at every turn?

One rationalization is that industrial life is “unsustainable,” since we will supposedly run out of resources. But the amount of available resources has dramatically increased, not decreased (and no resource has ever been exhausted) over the last 200 years, thanks to the kind of human ingenuity that can turn once-useless rocks into iron ore, once-useless oil deposits into gasoline, and once-useless uranium into electrical power.

Another rationalization is that our lifestyle causes too much pollution. But our air and water quality are better than ever, thanks to the wealth and technology of our modern industrial civilization. What about the “pollution” by CO2 emissions impacting climate? Observe that those who spread Hollywood horror scenarios about a “climate change catastrophe” are utterly indifferent to the fact that fossil fuels have made all climates far more livable for humans.

The key determiner of human well-being going forward is not whether the average temperature goes up two degrees, but whether human beings engage in sufficient development to cope with whatever the climate, natural or man-made, throws at us. More development means more irrigation systems, such as those that turned Southern California and Las Vegas from hostile deserts to sought-after paradises. It means more sturdy structures to protect humans from hurricanes. It means more energy for ample heat and air-conditioning.

A real environmental catastrophe would be a world in which we cut down on these things--a world in which we stopped improving the Earth. Let’s not let that happen. Let’s improve our environment through industrial progress.

Alex Epstein is the Founder of the Center for Industrial Progress. Find him on Facebook at facebook.com/thepursuitofenergywww.facebook.com/thepursuitofenergy and Twitter at @AlexEpstein.

Alex Epstein is author of the new book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels (Portfolio/Penguin November 2014).