Concern for the environment has accomplished wonderful things since the 1940s. Both businesses (not widely acknowledged) and government (given far too much credit for the positive changes and a pass on the negative ones) worked to clean up the nation’s air and water. Our environment is the cleanest it has ever been since the onset of the agricultural/husbandry age more than two millennia ago.

That’s great news, right? 

There’s more that we can accomplish, of course, but exactly what that is and how best to do it are matters of furious contention. It is undeniable that economic growth and technological change have had the strongest effect in reducing pollution: the transition from the industrial age to the postindustrial one has cleaned up our air, land, and seas admirably.

Hence, policies that suppress the continued progress of this trend are to be avoided for environmental reasons as well as for their affect in slowing the spread of prosperity to greater numbers of people in this nation and around the world.

Many people, however, don’t quite understand these realities and, often with the best of intentions, subvert the cause of human betterment. 

Over at National Review Online, the site’s newly appointed managing editor, Peter Suderman, writes about an interesting new documentary, Mine Your Own Business, by Irish filmmaker Phelim McAleer, which Suderman describes as a "clear-yed look at the true impacts of mining and the nefarious tactics of its opponents." According to Suderman’s account, the film vividly shows how left-wing activists pursue an agenda explicitly designed to thwart economic growth, and how damaging that is to the poorest individuals, communities, and nations among us.

Instead of acknowledging economic realities about human life and searching their hearts to find room to support what is best for the poor, many Western environmentalists simply ignore the appalling human damage their policies cause, as documented so well in Michael Crichton’s brilliant novel State of Fear. As a perfect example of the mindset, Suderman recounts the following scene in the film, in which Mark Fenn of the radical environmentalist group the World Wildlife Fund explains how dire poverty in foreign lands is a good thing:

Fenn opposes a proposed mine in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar on the grounds that it would destroy “the quaintness, the small-town feeling” that he so admires.

Of course, while Fenn, who boasts on camera of his $35,000 boat and the foundation of his new beachfront home, luxuriates in first world comfort, most of the town’s residents live in dire poverty. When asked why locals should be denied the economic opportunity that would come with the mine, he calmly explains that, although they might not have terribly good healthcare, or shelter, or nutrition, they have a stress-free life that can be valued by — I kid you not — the number of times they smile per day. Even if they did get money, he explains, they wouldn’t know how to spend it. As he tells it, they tend to blow their cash on parties, booze, and stereo systems. Not everyone, it appears, can have his taste in beach houses and catamarans.

Fenn’s attitude isn’t just witless, it’s sickening, and it’s indicative of the general level of smug, out-of-touch elitism that haunts the environmental movement. “Regional character,” “simple life,” “quaintness,” “small-town feeling,” “local history” — these are just warm, fuzzy phrases trotted out by anti-growth environmentalists to deny wealth and opportunities to residents of poor regions. And, as in Fenn’s case, they’re often markers of ugly condescension toward third-world residents.

I wouldn’t tar all environmentalists with this brush, just as it would be grossly unfair to characterize all skeptics as tools of business interests, but the attitude Suderman and McAleer identify here is a real one, widely documented elsewhere. It’s something we do need to consider when judging environmental policies, and I’m glad to see that McAleer has brought it to light in the cinema.