Environmentalism

A must-read article—from 2008—about it from Claremont Magazine.

An excerpt.

On what principle is it,” wondered Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1830, “that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?” Environmentalism didn’t exist in its current form in Macaulay’s time, or he would easily have discerned its essential pessimism bordering at times on a loathing of humanity. A trip down the environment and earth sciences aisle of any larger bookstore is usually a tour of titles that cover the narrow range from dismay to despair.

On the surface this is not exceptional. Titles predicting decline, decay, and disaster are just as numerous in the real estate, economics, and social science shelves, though, ironically, not so much in the religion book racks, where one would expect to find apocalypticism well represented. This is an important distinction: unlike the eschatology of all major religions, the eco-apocalypse is utterly without hope of redemption for man or nature. The greens turn purple at the suggestion that most environmental conditions in rich nations are actually improving, and they bemoan the lack of “progress” toward the transformation of the human soul that is thought necessary for the planet’s salvation. Yet some cracks are starting to appear in their dreary and repetitive story line. Although extreme green ideology won’t go away any time soon—the political and legal institutions of the environmental movement are too well established—there are signs that the public and a few next-generation environmentalists are ready to say goodbye to all that. There are even some liberal authors with environmentalist sympathies who are turning against the environmental establishment. But it is necessary to claw our way through the deepening slough of green despondency to see this potential turning point.

More than 30 years ago political scientist Anthony Downs wrote in the Public Interest of a five-step “issue-attention cycle” through which public enthusiasm for an issue gradually diminishes as we come to recognize the high cost of drastic action, and that the nature of the problem was exaggerated or misconceived. The environment, he wrote, would have a longer cycle than most issues because of its diffuse nature, but it appears that the public is finally arriving at the late stages of Downs’s cycle. Opinion surveys show that the public isn’t jumping on the global warming bandwagon despite a multi-million dollar marketing campaign and full-scale media hysteria. More broadly there are signs that “green fatigue” is setting in. Magazine publishers recently reported that their special Earth Day “green” issues generated the lowest newsstand sales of all issues published in 2008. “Suddenly Being Green Is Not Cool Any More,” read a London Times headline in August.

This has been building for a long time. Three years ago New York Times green-leaning columnist Nicholas Kristof lamented that the environmental movement was losing credibility because of its doomsaying monomania, with the result that “environmental alarms have been screeching for so long that, like car alarms, they are now just an irritating background noise.” Environmental leaders did not take well to his wandering from the reservation. In response to the popular indifference to green alarms, conventional environmentalists have ratcheted up their level of vitriol against humanity and democratic institutions. One of the most popular books of 2007 among environmentalists was The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which projects a “thought experiment” about what would occur if human beings were suddenly removed entirely from the planet. Answer: nature would reassert herself, and ultimately remove nearly all traces of human civilization within several millennia—a mere blink of an eye in the planetary timescale. Environmentalists cheered Weisman’s vivid depiction of the resilience of nature, but what thrilled them was the scenario of a humanless earth. Weisman made sure to stroke his audience’s self-loathing with plenty of boilerplate about resource exhaustion and overpopulation. The book rocketed up the best-seller list, the latest in a familiar genre stretching back at least to Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet in 1948, arguably the first neo-Malthusian doomsday tract of modern environmentalism. Time magazine named The World Without Us the number one non-fiction book of 2007.

Rethinking Democracy

The same view of environmentalism is on display in the Library of America’s American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. This collection, though worthy in some respects, has to be judged a disappointment compared to many other fine Library of America offerings—a shortcoming entirely attributable to the selection of Bill McKibben as editor. (The easier clue is the Foreword by Al Gore.) McKibben is another in the sad line of environmentalists who became bores by endlessly reprising the one-hit wonders of their youth (in McKibben’s case, his mildly interesting 1989 book, The End of Nature). He begins and ends with Henry David Thoreau—”a Buddha with a receipt from the hardware store”—because he thinks environmental writing is to be distinguished from nature writing. Environmental writing, McKibben explains, “takes as its subject the collision between people and the rest of the world.”

It was probably too much to expect that McKibben would balance the usual suspects such as Rachel Carson, Lynn White, Paul Ehrlich, and Garrett Hardin with such intelligent dissenters as Julian Simon, Terry Anderson, Frederick Jackson Turner, and R.J. Smith. But McKibben’s adherence to environmental correctness is so narrowly conceived that he excludes a number of American authors who offer worthy reflections on man and nature. His tacit premise that man is not part of nature, or is opposed to the rest of nature, necessarily constricts the range of perspectives that can be brought to bear on the broad idea of “the environment.” So though his collection includes Theodore Roosevelt, by representing American environmental writing as beginning with Thoreau, it excludes worthy earlier reflections such as Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (or any of Jefferson’s other agrarian reflections that can be read as precursors to Wendell Berry, who is included in McKibben’s reader), or Tocqueville’s prescient observations on American wilderness, our emerging attitudes toward it, and its relation to our democratic character.

McKibben and many other environmental writers affect an indifference toward, or transcendence of, politics in the ordinary sense, but ultimately cannot conceal their rejection of the liberal tradition. Here we observe the irony of modern environmentalism: the concern for the preservation of unchanged nature has grown in tandem with the steady erosion in our belief in unchanging human nature; the concern for the “rights of nature” has come to embrace a rejection of natural rights for humans. McKibben is one of many current voices (Gore is another) who like to express their environmentalism by decrying “individualism” (McKibben calls it “hyperindividualism”). Finding that individualism is “the sole ideology of a continent,” he explains:

Fighting the ideology that was laying waste to so much of the planet demanded going beyond that individualism. Many found the means to do that in the notion of ‘community’—a word almost as fuzzy and hard to pin down as ‘wild,’ but one that has emerged as an even more compelling source of motive energy for the environmental movement.

This is not a new theme for McKibben. Al Gore employed the same “communitarian” trope in his first and most famous environmental book, Earth in the Balance (1992), where, in the course of arguing that the environment should be the “central organizing principle” of civilization, he suggested that the problem with individual liberty is that we have too much of it. This preference for soft despotism has become more concrete with the increasing panic over global warming in the past few years. Several environmental authors now argue openly that democracy itself is the obstacle and needs to be abandoned. A year ago a senior fellow emeritus at Britain’s Policy Studies Institute, Mayer Hillman, author of How We Can Save the Planet, told a reporter, “When the chips are down I think democracy is a less important goal than is the protection of the planet from the death of life, the end of life on it. This [rationing] has got to be imposed on people whether they like it or not.” (Hillman openly advocates resource rationing.) Another recent self-explanatory book is The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy by Australians David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith. Shearman argued recently that:

“[l]iberal democracy is sweet and addictive and indeed in the most extreme case, the U.S.A., unbridled individual liberty overwhelms many of the collective needs of the citizens…. There must be open minds to look critically at liberal democracy. Reform must involve the adoption of structures to act quickly regardless of some perceived liberties.”

Whom does Shearman admire as an example of environmental governance to be emulated? China, precisely because of its authoritarian government: “[T]he savvy Chinese rulers may be first out of the blocks to assuage greenhouse emissions and they will succeed by delivering orders…. We are going to have to look at how authoritarian decisions based on consensus science can be implemented to contain greenhouse emissions.” Separately, Shearman has written:

 “To retain an inhabitable earth we may have to compromise the eternal vicissitudes of democracy for an informed leadership that directs. There are countries that fall within this requirement and we should use them to initiate more active mitigation…. The People’s Republic of China may hold the key to innovative measures that can both arrest the expected surge in emissions from developing countries and provide developed nations with the means to alternative energy. China curbs individual freedom in favour of communal need. The State will implement those measures seen to be in the common good.”

Perhaps the film version will be called An Inconvenient Democracy.

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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