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If one believed in cosmic irony, then the ongoing eruption of that unpronounceable Icelandic volcano might be taken as a message from Earth to those who will tomorrow celebrate the fortieth “Earth Day.” Although humans may stand in awe of the home planet, the home planet has absolutely zero concern for them. Meanwhile the disruptions in travel and trade caused by the vast cloud of volcanic ash give a tiny glimpse of the kind of world that environmental radicals praise: clear, blue, air traffic-free skies above, frustrated and deprived people below.

Earth Day, while masquerading as all about positive ecological values, was conceived in hysteria and has evolved as a focal point for ideological opposition to industrial society and the benefits it brings to ordinary people.

Here’s how celebrity doomster Paul Ehrlich described global prospects on the first Earth Day in 1970: “In ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish.” Biologist and future presidential candidate Barry Commoner joined in the act, declaring “Civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind. We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation.”

Two years later, the UN’s Stockholm conference on the environment was held as a festival of alarmism. Then the Club of Rome unleashed its Malthusian projections that many resources would be exhausted before the end of the century.

The 1970s and 1980s were marked by a slew of costly environmental legislation, and yet somehow the climate of eco hysteria never abated. Indeed, the more industry was forced to spend, the shriller the cries became. And yet the human ingenuity unleashed by increasingly free markets brought more and more people out of poverty.

By 1990, global warming had begun to emerge as the Mother of all environmental issues, although, as Al Gore noted on the 20th Earth Day, it was merely “the most serious manifestation of a larger problem: the collision course between industrial civilization and the ecological system that supports life as we know it.”

Nothing more clearly indicated that if there was one message the Earth Day crowd has always vehemently rejected, it is that the human environment is actually improving, primarily because of the spread of capitalist society, whose environmental sensitivity increases naturally with wealth (Indeed, the growth of the professional environmental movement is the clearest proof of that fact). When, around the 30th Earth Day, Bjorn Lomborg published The Skeptical Environmentalist, which used official statistics — and some rare objectivity — to establish that things were improving on all fronts, he was comprehensively vilified by the environmental establishment.

Radical environmentalism is clearly not a matter of objective analysis; it is a religious faith rooted in the same fetid anti-capitalist historical compost heap that had been accumulating since the Industrial Revolution, and whose first bitter fruit was Communism.

Radical environmentalists have often suggested that they have to exaggerate problems as a spur to action, but exaggeration means that priorities are skewed and resources are wasted. Much green policy is both costly and counterproductive. Iceland’s volcanic disruption has demonstrated what fads like “eating local” really mean: less variety and higher costs at home; less jobs for producers — often poor ones — abroad.

Since the first Earth Day, environmental NGOs have gained enormous political influence. If one seeks a single current example of that clout, it would be in the legal witch hunt against “climate change criminal” Syncrude over the inadvertent death of a flock of ducks on an Alberta tailings pond.

The environmental movement has done enormous damage to the poor. One of the founding documents of the Earth Day movement was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which raised hysterical concerns about pesticides and led to the banning of DDT, at the cost of millions of lives. Campaigns against genetically-modified food and in favour of subsidized biofuels have also caused much hardship. Even environmental guru Stewart Brand, inventor of the “Whole Earth Catalogue,” recently admitted that “the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about … We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool.” The movement’s relentless push for wind and solar subsidies has also been hugely costly and disruptive while producing none of the promised breakthroughs.

The first Earth Day was steeped in the self-indulgent spirit of “the counterculture,” of fighting “The Man.” Ironically, the one that takes place tomorrow has giant corporate sponsors including Procter and Gamble, Siemens, Wells Fargo, Philips and UPS, every one a hypocritical proponent of eco-socialist “sustainability” and “fighting” man-made global warming, whether it exists or not.

The good news is that the public is less willing to buy the bill of catastrophic Earth Day goods. Everybody wants a clean environment, but priorities have to be balanced and costs have to be reasonable. Meanwhile that unpronounceable volcano spews on.

Financial Post, 21 April 2010