The Environmental Movement

By Virginia I. Postre


On Earth Day, Henry Allen of The Washington Post published a pointed and amusing article. In it, he suggested that we’ve created a new image of Mother Nature: “A sort of combination of Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce and Mrs. Portnoy in Portnoy’s Complaint, a disappointed, long suffering martyr who makes us wish, at least for her sake, that we’d never been born.”

“She weeps, She threatens. She nags…

“She’s a kvetch who makes us feel guilty for eating Big Macs, dumping paint thinner down the cellar sink, driving to work instead of riding the bus, and riding the bus instead of riding a bicycle. Then she makes us feel even guiltier for not feeling guilty enough.

“Go ahead, use that deodorant , don’t even think about me. God knows I’ll be gone soon enough. I won’t be here to see you get skin cancer when the ozone hole lets in the ultraviolet rays…”

I think all of us can see that Allen is on to something. There’s a lot of truth in his picture of the new Mother Nature.

The question is, Where did this New Mother Nature come from? And how does this picture of nature affect – even warp – the way we deal with environmental issues?

Americans have historically been a can-do people, proud of our Yankee ingenuity. We believed in solving problems. Based on our history, you’d expect to see us tackling environmental problems the way John Todd took on sewage sludge.

Todd is an environmental biologist who became concerned about the toxic sludge that comes out of sewage plants. Based on his biological research, he realized that the sludge could be cleaned up by mixing it with certain microbes. The microbes would metabolize it and produce clean water. Todd now has a pilot plant in Providence, Rhode Island, and he estimates that such a system could handle all of that city’s sludge with 120 acres of reaction tanks – a modest number.

Now, if you’re like me, you think this is great. Here is a bona fide environmental problem. An ingenious man with an environmental conscience has come along, put his ingenuity and training to work, and solved the problem. But rather than applauding Todd’s solution, many of his friends in the environmental movement have stopped speaking to him. “By discovering a solution to a man-made offense,” writes Gregg Easterbrook in The New Republic, “he takes away an argument against growth.”

Todd’s practical environmentalism has run up against what I refer to as “green” ideology. This ideology is distinct from the common desire for a cleaner world – that’s why it can lead people to condemn solutions like Todd’s. It is also different from the traditional doctrines of either the left or the right: it combines elements from each with a value system of its own.

This green ideology underlies many of the environmentalist critiques and policy recommendations that we see today. Now, I’m not suggesting that environmentalists are engaged in some sort of grand conspiracy or are governed by some lockstep system of thought. What I am suggesting is that if you want to understand a political movement, it’s a good idea to read its theories and find out who its intellectual heroes are.

Green ideology is not mysterious. Anybody can go to the library and read the books that define it.

Green ideology is not some fringe theory cooked up in California. Like many important ideas in American history, it is largely imported from Britain and Germany. It is, increasingly, one of the most powerful forces in our culture. We may even adopt parts of it without realizing their origins. To be informed citizens, we out to know something about it.

First of all, a caveat. Ideologies are messy.

They tend to associate disparate ideas in unexpected ways. What’s more, people who share the same general ideological viewpoint rarely agree about everything. No two conservatives, or liberals or libertarians or even Marxists believe exactly the same thing. And political movements are almost always driven by internal conflict (you should read some of the things the abolitionists said about each other).

The environmental movement is no different. Purist greens who distrust political compromise berate Washington-based groups that lobby for legislation. The Green-Greens, who aren’t leftist, attack the Red-Greens, who are. Grassroots activists criticize the “Gang of 10,” the large, well funded environmental groups.

And perhaps the biggest philosophical split is between “deep ecology” and other forms of environmentalism. Deep ecologists advocate a mystical view of the natural world as an end in itself, not made for humans beings. They criticize traditional conservationism, as well as leftist “social ecology,” for emphasizing the environment’s value of people.

Most environmental activists – the rank and file – combine some of each outlook to create a personal viewpoint. They can do this because, deep down, the greens aren’t as divided as they sometimes like to think.

Every ideology has a primary value or set of values at its core – liberty, equality, order, virtue, salvation. For greens, the core value is stasis, “sustainability” as they put it. The ideal is of an earth that doesn’t change, that shows little or no effects of human activity. Greens take as their model of the ideal society the notion of an ecosystem that has reached as unchanging climax state. “Limits to growth” is as much as description of how things should be as it is of how they are.

That is why there is no room in the green world for John Todd and his sewage-cleaning microbes. Todd hasn’t sought to stop growth. He has found a way to live with it.

The static view has two effects on the general environmental movement. First, it leads environmentalists to advocate policies that will make growth hard on people, as a way of discouraging further development. Cutting off new supplies of water, outlawing new technologies, and banning new construction to increase the cost of housing are common policies. And, second, the static view leads environmentalists to misunderstand how real environmental problems can be solved.

Consider how we regulate air pollution. Americans spend some $30 billion a year just to comply with the 1977 Clean Air Act – with very little to show for it. Current policy dictates specific technologies – for example, smokestack scrubber for coal-burning power plants. The plants can’t just use cleaner coal.

And cars have to have catalytic converters. If someone comes up with a cheaper or more efficient way to the same result, the government says, “Sorry. We’ve picked our one true technology. You can’t sell yours.”

Now, for decades economists have suggested that we take a different approach to regulating pollution. Set an overall allowable level, they say, then let companies decide how to achieve it. Let them buy and sell permits that regulate the amount of pollution they can emit; If you wanted to build a new plant, you’d have to buy some permits from somebody else who was closing their plant or reducing their pollution. Companies would have to pay a price for the pollution they put out. And plant managers would have an economic incentive to adopt – or even develop from scratch – pollution – saving technologies.

Most environmentalists, however, hate, loath, and despise this whole idea. They call it a “license to pollute.” Emissions trading treats pollution as a cost, a side effect to be controlled, rather than an outright evil, a sin. It allows growth. And it lets individual choice, not politics, determine exactly which technologies will be adopted to control pollution. It takes a dynamic view, rather than a static one. Over time, it assumes people will come up with better ways to deal with pollution. And, it assumes we ought to encourage those innovations.

People rarely adopt a new technology because it makes life worse. But nowadays we tend to pay more attention to the dangers of pollution from new technologies. We take old technologies’ disadvantages for granted. So, for example, we forget that the automobile actually made city life cleaner.

By creating a market for petroleum-derived gasoline, the car also encourage the production of heating oil and natural gas – much cleaner fuels than the coal people used to use to heat homes and businesses. And, thanks to the automobiles, cities no longer have to dispose of tons of horse manure every day.

Extrapolating from his own time, a British writer in 1885 described the future of London: “It is a vast stagnant swamp, which no man dare enter, since death would be his inevitable fate. There exhales from this oozy mass so fatal a vapor that no animal can endure it. The black water bears a greenish-brown scum, which forever bubbles up from the putrid mud of the bottom.” Clearly, modern environmentalists have no monopoly on dire predictions of disaster. From this particular fate we were saved by the automobile.

A dynamic view sees the pluses of change as well as the minuses. And it appreciates how new, unforeseen technologies or social changes can allay current problems.

By contrast, the environmental movement has been built on crisis. Around the turn of the century, Americans were terrified of the growing lumber shortage. A 1908 New York Times headline read: “Hickory Disappearing, Supply of Wood Nears End – Most Wasted and There’s No Substitute.” Actually, as prices rose, the railroads – the major consumers of wood – did find substitutes. And more efficient ways of using wood.

Meanwhile, however, Gifford Pinchot used the specter of a “timber shortage” to get the U.S. Forest Service started. There was, of course, no such shortage, unless you take the static view. And a growing number of both economists and environmental activists now see Pinchot’s legacy of central planning and federally managed forest lands as an economic and environmental disaster.

Contrary to the doomsayers, both past and present, people have a knack for innovating their way out of “crises” – if they have both the permission and the incentive to do so. So we find that people developed petroleum as whale oil became scarce, that farmers turned to drip irrigation as water prices rose, and that drivers bought fuel-efficient cars when gas prices went up.

To a large degree, however, green ideology is not about facts. It is about values, and the environmental movement is about enforcing those values through political action. “Green politics,” write British greens Jonathan Porritt and David Winner, “demands a wholly new ethic in which violent, plundering humankind abandons its destructive ways, recognized its dependence on Planet Earth and starts living on a more equal footing with the rest of nature…the danger lies not only in the odd maverick polluting factory, industry, or technology, but in the fundamental nature of our economic systems. It is industrialism itself – a ‘super-ideology’ embraced by socialist countries as well as by the capitalist West – which threatens us.”

If we look around, we can see the effort to remake “violent, plundering humankind” in a number of current initiatives. Take recycling, on one level, it seems like common sense. Why waste resources? That’s certainly true with aluminum, which takes huge amounts of electricity to make in the first place and very little energy to recycle. But then there’s glass. Both making glass in the first place and melting it down for recycling take about the same amount of energy. The only other thing new glass takes is sand – and we have plenty of that. Unless you’re worried about an imminent sand crises, there’s little reason to recycle glass. It doesn’t even take up much room in landfills.

But of course, glass – like other forms of packaging – is convenient. Getting people to recycle it is a way of reminding them of the evils of materialism and the folly of convenience. As Jeremy Rifkin’s little booklet The Greenhouse Crisis: 101 Ways to Save the Earth advises shoppers, “Remember, if its disposable and convenient, it probably contributes to the greenhouse effect.” On a scientific level, this is ridiculous. But as a value statement it conveys a great deal. Convenient, disposable products are the creations of an affluent, innovative, industrial society that responds to consumer demands. In a statis, green world, we would forego incandescent lighting for fluorescent bulbs and clothes dryers for clotheslines. We would give up out-of-season fruits and vegetables, disposable diapers (of course), free-flowing shower heads and other self-indulgent pleasures.

If green ideology is guilt transformed into politics, we might wonder why people adopt it. Partly. E.F. Schumacker put it this way in Small Is Beautiful, a central work of green theory, “The pressure and strain of living,” he wrote, “is very much less in, say Burma than it is in the United States, in spite of the fact that the amount of labor-saving machinery used in the former country is only a minute fraction of the amount used in the latter.”

Jeremy Rifkin describes the green coalition as “time rebels,” who “argue that the pace of production and consumption should not exceed nature’s ability to recycle wastes and renew ability to recycle wastes and renew basic resources. They argue that the tempo of social and economic life should be compatible with nature’s time frame.” Rifkin, therefore, can’t stand computers. They go too fast.

To slow economy and society to the approved adagio, the greens have some fairly straightforward prescriptions: Restrict trade to the local area. Eliminate markets where possible. End specialization. Anchor individuals in their “bioregions,” local areas defined by their environmental characteristics. Shrink the population. Make life simple again, small, self-contained.

It is a vision that can be made remarkably appealing, for it plays on our desire for self-sufficiency, our longing for community, and our nostalgia for the agrarian past. We will go back to the land, back to the rhythms of seedtime and harvest, back to making our own clothes, our own furniture, our own tools. Back to barn raisings and quilting bees. Back to a life we can understand without a string of Ph.D.s.

“In living in the world by his own will and skill, the stupidest peasant or tribesman is more competent that the most intelligent workers or technicians or intellectuals in a society of specialists,” writes Wendell Berry, an agrarian admired by both greens and cultural conservatives. Berry is a fine writer; he chooses words carefully; he means what he says. We will go back to being peasants.

These are, of course, harsh words. And we aren’t likely to wake up as subsistence farmers tomorrow. But an economy, like an ecology, is made up of intricate connections. Constantly tinkering with it – cutting off this new technology here, banning that products there – will have unintended consequences. And sometimes, one suspects, the consequences aren’t all that unintended.

Take electricity. Environmentalists, of course, rule out nuclear power, regardless of the evidence of safety. But then they say coal-powered plants can cause acid rain and pollution, so they’re out, too. Oil fired plants release greenhouse gases (and cost a bundle too). Hydroelectric plants are no longer good because they disrupt the flow of rivers.

Solar photovoltaic cells have always been the great hope of the future. But making them requires lots of nasty chemicals, so we can expect solar cells to be banned around the time they become profitable. Pretty soon, you’ve eliminated every conceivable source of electricity. Then your only option is to dismantle your industry and live with less: the environmentalist warning of impending shortages becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And, make no mistake about it, many environmentalists have a truly radical agenda. “It is a spiritual act to try to shut down DuPont,” says Randall Hayes, director of the Rainforest Action Network. From the appealing ads his group runs to solicit donations to save the rainforests, you’d never guess he had that goal in mind.

And consider the remarkably frank book, Whatever Happened to Ecology? by long-time environmental activist Stephanie Mills, recently published by Sierra Club Books, Mills garnered national attention in 1969, when she delivered a college commencement address entitled “The Future Is a Cruel Hoax” and declared she’d never have children. The book traces the evolution of the environmental movement and her ideas since then. Today, she and her husband live on a farm in northern Michigan, where they pursue their bioregionalist ideal of “reinhabitating” the land by restoring some of its wildness and blocking future development. A journalist, not a theorist, Mills speaks not only for herself but for the intellectual movement of which she is a part. Her words are chilling:

“We young moderns resort to elaborate means of getting physical experience. Yoga practice, fanatical running, bicycling, competitive sports, body building. All of these are voluntary and may not cultivate the endurance necessary for the kind of labor required to dismantle industrial society and restore the Earth’s productivity.” Are voluntary…the endurance necessary…the labor required…dismantle industrial society. The prose is pleasant, the notions it contains disturbing.

She continues; “One summer afternoon a few days after a freak windstorm, I made a foray out to buy some toilet paper. (Every time I have to replenish the supply of this presumed necessity, I wonder what we’re going to substitute for it when the trucks stop running).” When the trucks stop running. There is a history of the future buried in those words, fodder for several science fiction novels – but no explanation of when and why the trucks will stop. Or who will stop them.

People don’t want to be peasants. The cities of the Third World teem with the evidence. And certainly, the typical subscriber to the Utne Reader (a sort of green Reader’s Digest with a circulation of 200,000 after only six years of publication) doesn’t envision a future of subsistence farming – much less the hunger-gatherer existence preferred by deep ecologists. More to the reader’s taste is, no doubt, the cheery vision offered by Executive Editor Jay Walljasper.

It’s 2009. Nuclear weapons have been dismantled. Green publications have huge circulations. Minneapolis has 11 newspapers and its own currency (“redeemable in trout, walleye, or wild rice”). Sidewalk cafes sell croissants and yogurt. A local ordinance decrees a 24-hour work week. Cars are nearly nonexistent (a delegation from the “People’s Independent Republic of Estonia” is in town to help design better ski trails for commuters). Citizens vote electronically. The shopping mall has become a nature preserve.

Walljasper is clearly having fun – after all, he puts Aretha Franklin’s face on the $10 bill – and he doesn’t consider any of the tough questions. Like how all those magazines and newspapers exist without printing plants or paper mills. How the Estonians got to town without airplanes or the fuel to run them. (Jeremy Rifkin specifically names the Boeing 747 as the kind of product that can’t be produced in the small-is-beautiful factories of the coming “entropic age”). How the chips to run the electronic voting got etched without chemicals. Where the chips were made. How a 24-hour work week produced the sustained concentration needed to write software or the level of affluence that allows for restaurant croissants.

And, above all, Walljasper doesn’t explain why after millennia of behaving otherwise, humans simply gave up wanting stuff. If the Walljasper of 2009 still overloads on reading material, why should we assume that people whose fancy runs toward fast food and polyester (or fast cars and silk) would be struck with a sudden attack of bioregionally approved tastes? How exactly did that shopping mall disappear?

“The root of the solution has to be so radical that it can scarcely be spoken of,” says movie director and British green John Boorman. “We all have to be prepared to change the way we live and function and relate to the planet. In short, we need a transformation of the human spirit. If the human heart can be changed, then everything can be changed.”

We have heard this somewhere before – in, for example, the promise of a “New Soviet Man.” People are forever seeking to change the human heart, often with tragic results.

The greens want people to give up the idea that life can be better. They say “better” need not refer to material abundance, that we should just be content with less. Stasis, they say, can satisfy our “vital needs.” They may indeed convince some people to pursue a life of voluntary simplicity, and that is fine and good and just the thing a free society ought to allow. Stephanie Mills is welcome to her organic farm.

But most of us do not want to give up 747’s or cars, or eyeglasses, or private washing machines, or tailored clothing, or even disposable diapers. The “debased human protoplasm” that Stephanie Mills holds in contempt for their delight in “clothes, food, sporting goods, electronics, building supplies, pets, baked goods, deli food, toys, tools, hardware, geegaws, jim-jams, and knick-knacks” will not happily relinquish the benefits of modern civilization. Many ordinary human beings would like a cleaner world. They are prepared to make sacrifices – tradeoffs is a better word – to get one. But ordinary human beings will not adopt the Buddha’s life without desire, much as E.F. Schumacker might have ordained it.

At its extreme, green ideology expresses itself in utter contempt for humanity. Reviewing Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature in the Los Angeles Times, National Park Service research biologist David M. Graber concluded with this stunning passage:

“Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, are not as important as a wild and healthy planet. I know social scientists who remind me that people are part of nature, but it isn’t true. Somewhere along the line – at about a billion years ago, maybe half that – we quit the contract and became a cancer. We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the earth. It is cosmically unlikely that the developed world will choose to end its orgy of fossil-energy consumption, and the Third World its suicidal consumption of landscape. Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.”

It is hard to take such notions seriously without sounding like a bit of a kook yourself. But there they are – calmly expressed in the pages of a major, mainstream, establishment newspaper by an employee of the federal government. When it is acceptable to say such things in polite intellectual company, when feeling good environmentalists tolerate the totalitarians in their midst, when sophisticates greet the likes of Graber with indulgent nods and smiles rather than arguments and outrage, we are one step farther down another bloody road to someone’s imagined Eden.

Reprinted, with permission, from Reason Magazine. Copyright 2003 by Reason Foundation, 3415 S. Sepulveda Blvd, Suite 400, Los Angeles, CA 90034.
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