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The ‘noble savage’ myth pollutes our actions on climate change

By Matthew Delaney

We may have outgrown the myth of the “noble savage,” but that legacy still damages environmental policy across the globe. 

You’ve likely heard of the myth, at least in its best form — when European colonizers ventured to foreign lands and met with indigenous tribes, the colonizers described them as quintessential humans. They were free from the structures and sins of the increasingly modern world, almost as if they were closer to God in a way these adventurers were not.  

Helen Gardner from Deakin University in Australia summarized these sentiments well. What she said started with Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau had made its way into theology and eventually into the observations of British explorer James Cook, (who, ironically, was later killed by indigenous tribe in Hawaii): 

“They live in a Tranquility which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent Houses, Household-stuff, they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholesome Air, so that they have very little need of Clothing …” [emphasis added]. 

Already you could see the seed being planted that native people had this magical connection with the environment that helped them preserve in a way we couldn’t fathom. It’s why there was that famous anti-pollution “Crying Indian” ad of the 1970s that leads off with the line “Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country.”   

It’s hard to miss how this caricature, though egregiously romanticized and not to mention, false (more on that in a bit), have informed our current direction on climate policy. 

We feel as if extracting natural resources such as coal, oil, and gas are “taking” from the planet. Some organizations, like activist group Last Real Indians, believe the use of fossil fuels is literally “raping” Mother Earth, a word they used 10 times in one April blog post. And we’ve come to justify that feeling scientifically by drawing a straight line from this horrific act to the rise in carbon emissions that are changing the climate. 

Countries the world over have been sprinting away from fossil fuels as a result. 

This summer, the European Union proposed to aggressively reduce emissions by taxing carbon heavy imports. Additionally, they proposed to stop producing combustible engine cars by 2035 and make 40% of the EU’s energy come from renewable sources by the end of the decade. 

China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, has even gotten in on the “green” action. President Xi Jinping promised the nation would start no new coal plants abroad in September. There’s also been the goal of the nation reaching “peak emissions” by 2030 and becoming carbon neutral. Their government seeks to stop greenhouse gases from all sectors of the economy by 2060. 

The U.S.’s own Green New Deal, which got a de facto test run during the Spring 2020 lockdowns at the start of the pandemic, may not come to fruition. That doesn’t mean the climate hysteria is going away anytime soon. 

First, America rejoined the symbolic Paris Climate Accord. Now, we’re setting our own 2030 emissions goal for a 50% reduction because, remember, the world is going to end in T-minus 9 years according to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

This is all in a bid to embody the noble savage ethos, but even that’s a lie. 

Cultural Survival, an indigenous advocacy organization, published an article 30 years ago refuting that point directly. 

Author Kent H. Redford cited multiple fields of scientific study that believe “most tropical forests have been severely altered by human activities before European contact.”  

That included, “Evidence of vast fires in the northern Amazonian forests and of the apparently anthropogenic origins of large areas of forest in eastern Amazonial [sic] suggests that before 1500, humans had tremendously affected the virgin forest, with ensuing impacts on plant and animal species. These people behaved as humans do now: they did whatever they had to feed themselves and their families.” 

We had the knowledge in 1991 that the Indians weren’t some mystical stewards of the forest who could talk to trees and animals a la Disney’s Pocahontas. And yet, we’re still striving to bring that image to life.  

This commitment is starting to cost majorly. Back in 2019, Germany’s dedication to renewables like wind and solar, known as the Energiewende, was seen as a pending failure by one domestic magazine. That is due to its nearly $580 billion price tag that has been rewarded by the inefficient production and storage of energy. 

As anti-climate alarmist Michael Shellenberger argued in Forbes, “Solar farms take 450 times more land than nuclear plants, and wind farms take 700 times more land than natural gas wells, to produce the same amount of energy.” 

The quest for renewables has been met by shocks from reality as well. The United Kingdom’s natural gas shortage, spurred by pandemic-related work stoppages, was compounded by calm weather that left wind power wanting. 

China’s own ambitious carbon emissions goals have suppressed the supply of coal, and combined with the communist regime’s price controls, factories have responded by reducing output, so they won’t operate at a loss. This friction point is that blackouts are thought to be a common part of life in the nation’s northeastern industrial hub. 

One of the benefits of our modern cushy-ness is we’re sensitive to when it suffers drastic changes. Backtracking on our standard of living is rarely acceptable, hence why relying on literal “green” energy in nuclear power could be the antidote to this problem. It’s something many European countries are warming up to. The U.S.’s own Office of Nuclear Energy has done its part in highlighting the benefits of nuclear energy on preserving the environment. 

(That would require us to get past the myth that every power plant worker is Homer Simpson, and every mishap will cause Chernobyl or Fukushima-level events, but I digress…) 

Despite the glorification of the simple, eco-friendly existence that comes with living as indigenous people did, we should know by now that it is, and always has been, a myth. We’ve already let too many falsehoods cloud our attachment to the truth — from gender being a made-up concept, to masculinity being toxic, and racism infecting the air we breathe. 

Let’s drop the fabled tale of the noble savage and its template for living in harmony with Mother Nature once and for all. 

Like all our myths, it’s the biggest thing standing in our way of making the world a better place. 

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Matthew Delaney


Matthew Delaney is a local journalist based in Washington, D.C. When he’s not questioning why he joined the media, he’s doing his part to restore some of its credibility with quality work

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