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April 22 marks Earth Day and millennials might think it goes back at least 100 years, or maybe all the way to the nation’s founding. Actually, Earth Day started only 48 years ago in 1970, but it was an occasion of significance. As Randy Simmons, Ryan M. Yonk and Kenneth J. Sim showed in Nature Unbound: Bureaucracy versus the Environment, Earth Day launched the modern environmental movement. The core belief of this movement was that human beings were a kind of invasive species and that if humans are not around, nature returns to a pristine state of harmony and balance. As the authors show, disturbance and change, not balance and harmony, best describe nature.
Earth Day prompted legislators to pass the Clean Water Act (1972), the Clean Air Act (1973), the Endangered Species Act (1973) and to create bureaucracies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, with a current budget of $6.1 billion. This Earth Day, millennials might ponder how in 2015 the EPA spilled three million gallons of toxic wastewater in southern Colorado’s Animas River, polluting an entire river system and creating a certified ecological disaster. Millennials might wonder why EPA boss Gina McCarthy did not get fired. That is because, whatever damage they may cause to the environment, federal agencies are essentially a no-fire zone, with little if any accountability. So powerful bureaucracies and their unelected bosses are not exactly worthy of celebration.
All age groups might think of Earth Day as a religious holiday because it hails a kind of fundamentalist pantheism. In effect, it immanentizes the eschaton with a secular version of Biblical prophecies. This new religion also issues commandments that have little to do with empirical inquiry and marshals considerable hostility to human rights, especially property rights.
As Nature Unbound shows, human beings are part of nature. The environment does better when public policy respects that reality and protects property rights instead of violating them. When Earth Day recognizes that reality, it will truly be worthy of celebration.