The Impossibility Of Minimizing Your Environmental “Impact”

I like the word impact, especially in sentences of the type, “The missile impacted on the insurgents’ hideout, killing all inside.” But it leaves me cold and vaguely homicidal to hear it used as environmentalists do when what they mean is influence, as when they ask us to “Minimize our environmental impact.”

The usage battle, sadly, is lost. I acknowledge the defeat, but I can’t bring myself to hold hands with my former enemy. However, since the word is in widespread use, I cannot avoid it; though I can strangle it with quotation marks.

To the real point: environmental activists are asking the impossible. The only way to minimize your environmental “impact” is not to be born. Any other option, including your mother exercising her right to “choose” after you have been conceived, will see you have some “impact.”

Every breath you take is an “impact” on the environment, even those breaths you take in the womb. Even stronger, in order to live you must have food, which means you must kill. To live is to kill: your life necessarily causes the death of many. Thus, the longer you live, the more “impact” you will have.

Given that you are not dead now, the only possible way to minimize your future “impact” is to fall upon your sword forthwith, taking care to tumble naked into a hand-dug shallow grave far from any water shed. There is no other choice—except that a sword may be swapped with a sturdy sharp stick.

These are simple, inescapable facts of logic, given that we accept that great utilitarian Jeremy Bentham’s definition that minimize means “to reduce to the smallest part or proportion possible.” That is also the mathematical definition. The smallest part or proportion possible here is none.

Environmentalists are thus gibbering when asking people to minimize their “impact.” It is obvious they cannot believe the words they have been using, because we have not seen many demonstrations of altruistic earnestness. Instead of, say, Sierra Club officers walking that last mile into the woods to show the world how its done, these wide-eyed folks jet to a distant city to beg for money, funds which are needed so that meetings can be held to decide where to next fly to. No officered activist has ever been seen sharpening his stick.

What about calls to reduce your “impact”? Reducing is not minimizing. It is clearly possible to reduce without having to sacrifice yourself to Mother Earth. For example, you can take one less breath a day, or one fewer spoonful of wheat, drive one less mile, drink one fewer cup of wine. Anybody can reduce!

This isn’t satisfactory, because it is difficult to believe any activist would be satisfied if all pledged, and all fulfilled that pledge, of eating one less spoonful a day. It is easy to see that calls for “reductions” are akin to pleas to “Tax the rich!” Vapid political slogans which are purposely vague. And any moves towards definite, practical definitions are resisted.

The reason for this is obvious. If an environmentalist (or socialist or whomever) says, “By reduce, I mean X” then the danger is that X, whatever it is, will obtain. That is, the details in X might come to pass. And if they do—if X is fully implemented—the activist will be forced to acknowledge his success. But the moment he does, he is out of a job, he will have lost his calling, he will have agitated himself onto welfare.

So it is to his infinite benefit to never say what he means, to use only loose and watery phrases. This way he can ever be safely unsatisfied. And fully employed.


  1. DAV

    My biggest impact is when I tackle the environment.

  2. Ray

    When you see people like Al Gore living in a mansion and flying in a private jet, it’s difficult to treat their exhortation to reduce our impact seriously.

  3. Speed

    Oft used meaningless phrases:

    o As little as possible
    o As much as possible
    o As fast as possible
    o As quickly as possible
    o As cheaply as possible
    o As soon as possible
    o As quietly as possible
    o As efficiently as possible
    o As cleanly as possible
    o As safely as possible
    o As generously as possible

    So whenever you hear a politician use one or more of the above, run as far away as you can, as fast as you can.

  4. Seriously? This is your quibble? Mathematical precision is a lofty goal in everyday or political speech. I wonder to what extent you achieve it? Do you actually contend that environmentalists get together and reach consensus on an item such as “we must not target specific goals, to do so would give “them” the opportunity to reach said goals and thereby render us useless”?

    As for Al Gore, he’s a living, breathing straw man. If he’s the most hypocritical human ever to have lived, it changes nothing.

  5. obiwankenobi

    Nuclear reactors having a small footprint have minimal impact (until LOCA occurs) compared to, say, windmills.

    Uranium mines, now called In Situ Leach Uranium Recovery operations, having a small footprint with minimal surface disturbance, have minimal impact compared to, say, coal mines.

    I could go on; but, why?

  6. Dennis

    Having worked in the U.S. Forest Service for 35 years and dealt with the environmental movement on a daily basis, I soon came to the realization that words matter in politics, and that everything involving the word “environment” is politics. Therefore, I would extend your suggestion that the word impact means “influence” to environmentalists. It is a value judgement, and serves to signal that your discussion is political rather than ecological (It is unfortunate, in that vein, that the National Environmental Policy Act refers to “impacts” because that, of course, sets the stage for a political discussion). The word “impact” has been taken to imply that every perturbation on the natural world by man (in a wonderful mixed metaphore by a Forest Service Chief, “…wherever the hand of man sets foot”) is a negative influence.

    Of course from an ecological standpoint all perturbations, regardless of source, are simply that and the ecosystem will incorporate them in turn in its inexorable path forward. Robert Ingersoll wrote in the late 1800’s that, ” In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments – there are consequences.” One can’t state the reality of man and nature better than that.

  7. You can look at this (long) thread where I tried (in vain) to strangulate the concept of ecologic function in double-quotes.

    The concept of ecologic function leads to the concept of ecosystem service. This leads to the concept of payment for ecosystem service.

    Dennis is right. Words carry deep import and today’s ‘high-level concepts’ become foundations in tomorrow’s pyramids. He who controls Nature (its meaning that is) controls the world.

  8. I dunno. Environmentalists get pretty worked up about reducing. Remember the “No Pressure” video? They got rather militant about reducing energy usage by 10%.

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