Taxing Us for Breathing
2007-03-14 0:00

By Robert Tracinski |

Last week, the New York Times published an extraordinary editorial complaining that "Right now, everyone is using the atmosphere like a municipal dump, depositing carbon dioxide free." The Times editors suggested that the government "start charging for the privilege" by imposing a "carbon tax."

We all knew it would eventually come to this: the New York Times thinks the government should tax us for breathing.

Of course, the editorial was supposed to be aimed at big corporations who build coal-fired power plants--but why should the logic stop there? Right now, eight million people are walking around on the streets of New York City heedlessly inhaling precious oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, treating the skies over their fair city "like a municipal dump, depositing carbon dioxide free." Shouldn't they be forced to pay for the "privilege," too?

And the connection is a logical one, because the generation of power by industrial-scale power plants is as much a vital activity as breathing.

I mean this in a literal, biological sense. In biology, "respiration" doesn't just refer to the act of breathing; it refers to the chemical reactions made possible by breathing. My dictionary defines this sense of "respiration" as "the processes by which a living organism or cell takes in oxygen from the air or water, distributes and utilizes it in oxidation, and gives off the products of oxidation, especially carbon dioxide." (Wikipedia has all the biochemical details.)

Sound familiar? That's right: there is no difference in principle between your cellular mitochondria and a coal-fired power plant. Our lungs take in oxygen and emit carbon dioxide so that they can provide the energy our cells use to keep us alive and to allow us to move, to grow, to thrive. Ditto for the power plants. They augment the biological process of respiration with a process you might call "industrial respiration," which we can define as follows: the processes by which a living civilization takes in fuel, distributes and utilizes it in oxidation, and gives off the products of oxidation, especially carbon dioxide.

There is an old, tired slogan used by environmentalists: that the Amazon jungle is the "lungs of the earth," because its mass of overgrown vegetation works the opposite way our lungs work: plants take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, so that the Amazon allegedly produces something like 20% of the world's oxygen. It turns out this isn't true. An old-growth forest like the Amazon releases more carbon dioxide, from rotting vegetation, than it absorbs. But the problem with that slogan is much deeper. It denies the fact that the real lungs of the earth--or at least, the lungs of global human civilization--are power plants. They take in fuel and turn it into the energy we use to live.

For all of their "green" pose, environmentalists don't have a genuine biological perspective on the world. They regard mankind as if we were non-biological. They talk endlessly about the "ecosystem" required for the survival of every creature on earth--but they never ask what is mankind's means of survival.

Man's primary organ of survival is his brain. We use our minds to understand the world around us, to derive scientific principles, and then to put science to work for us by rebuilding our surroundings to better suit our needs. The inscription that rings the rotunda of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago--built in an age that had a better appreciation for progress--sums it up perfectly: "Science discerns the laws of nature. Industry applies them to the needs of man." That is the real biological imperative of human existence.

Industry is not "unnatural," not in any fundamental sense. It is the product of our biological means of survival, our minds, and it is the means by which we secure our survival and extend the reach of our action. And central to all of this is the development of "industrial respiration," the process by which we turn oil, natural gas, coal, or uranium into energy we can use.

That's why it is absurd to complain that America is "addicted" to oil. An addiction is an unhealthy dependence. So would you say that you are "addicted" to breathing, because you feel like you will die if you stop doing it? Of course not. The only difference between industrial respiration and the kind that we do with our lungs is that a human body can only use a limited quantity of energy, while the power made available to us by industrial respiration is unlimited. That's not a problem. In fact, it's the whole secret by which we rose from the cave to the skyscraper--and from the campfire to the power plant--with the result that we can now reliably stretch our lives into their eighth decades and beyond. It is the added power from industrial respiration that makes the modern human animal a healthy, vigorous, thriving organism.

That is why the environmentalist crusade against industrial power plants is so dangerous. In attempting to construct a phantom threat to our survival, the dubious theory of anthropogenic global warming, they are attempting to suppress the central source of human vitality.

What would you say if someone told you that he was concerned you might get sick because it's hot and humid out--and then told you that his "cure" was to constrict your supply of oxygen by 80%? Would you believe that he was sincerely concerned with your health? Well, you had better start asking the same question of Al Gore and the rest of the global warming fanatics, because that's exactly what they're trying to do. In denouncing fossil fuels, they are seeking to tax, reduce, and ultimately to eliminate the fuels that provide our civilization with 80% of its energy. Their goal is a fatal constriction of the process of industrial respiration.

That is the deepest, fullest reason why a "carbon tax" is just as dangerous as a tax on breathing.

If we really care about the biological health of human civilization, we need to guard it against the environmentalist charlatans who are seeking to suffocate the real lungs of the earth.

Robert Tracinski writes daily commentary at He is the editor of The Intellectual Activist and

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