Among the more prominent contentions in contemporary politics are the issues of energy and environment. It is easy to see why energy is such a central issue – energy, and access to it, is the foundation of any economy, and therefore neatly reflects the contrasting economic arguments posed by the various camps.
The environment is less cut-and-dried as a political issue; extremist rhetoric notwithstanding, there is no political or economic philosophy that espouses, for instance, air pollution, water contamination, or indiscriminate pillaging of forests. Conservatism, despite attempts by opponents to do so, cannot easily be branded with the anti-environment iron with any degree of honesty or credibility. Indeed, the words conservation and conservative share a common linguistic root, to conserve; and it is conservatism, after all, that seeks from time to time to apply a Burkean brake on the more immoderate and impatient appetites of society for the sake of preserving “the permanent things” which serve to keep society grounded. Or, as William F. Buckley put it, “to stand astride history yelling ‘STOP’!” Certainly, this applies as much to a reasonable preservation of the natural heritage as to the cultural and economic. So how, and why, did environmentalism become the left-wing casus belli that it is today?
First, it is useful to recognize that modern environmentalism, like other manifestations of leftism, is utopian in nature. As the socialists conceive of a radically egalitarian society free of distinctions – be it distinctions of class, wealth, ability, achievement, or thought – the environmentalists picture a bucolic world unmarked by contamination, where all ecosystems thrive in perfect balance with one another, perpetually sustainable. To adherents, this balance is thrown off by what is increasingly regarded as the stain of human involvement. To the environmental extremist, mankind (almost exclusively meaning western civilization and its products) is a parasitic influence on a planet which would be much better off if freed from human manipulations and intrusions. The same evils of western civilization that are identified by the socialist – capitalism, Christian worldview, colonialism – are to the environmentalist responsible for applying the most offensive blemishes on the ecological canvas.
To this end, environmentalism shares with the political left the single most defining element of its ideology – a disdain for the private ownership of property. Environmentalism borrows from the leftist dialectic the notion that capitalism, individual (rather than collective) ownership of property, and the supremacy of profit motive, all result in environmental damage for the sake of economic gain. The theory holds that in pursuit of profit, an individual or (even worse) corporation will willingly inflict egregious harm to the environment if it will result in maximizing that profit. Therefore, it stands to reason that if private ownership of property results in environmental degradation, then there must be limits placed on private ownership. Further, that collective ownership of property is necessary to meet the general needs of environmental health, and to protect the wider ecosystem from individual exploitation. (And no, I did not plagiarize any of that from the last State of The Union Speech).
This is a very myopic view, one that betrays a level of economic nescience and grossly misunderstands the role of profit motive, but one that is nevertheless readily accepted among the narrowly focused environmental community. It is based on the fallacy that “profit motive” is itself narrowly focused, with a singular objective exclusive of any non-immediate concerns. In reality, part of the role of the profit motive in the economy is to force a wider view; in the course of maximizing profit, a business, board of directors, or individual must necessarily take into account a variety of considerations and factors, or else risk eventual failure. If, for example, a particular business were in fact to choose an action that contaminated or wantonly damaged natural resources for short-term gain, the consequences of that decision – loss of use of that resource, direct health or aesthetic damages, public opposition and loss of customers – would weigh heavily against its being made, due to the negative impact on longer-term success. In other words, private ownership of property, and the profit motive, actually enhances the protection of environmental resources. This might explain in part the difference in environmental quality seen during the Cold War between the western nations and East-bloc countries, where environmental degradation routinely reached catastrophic levels.
The modern environmentalists can also trace their origins to the anti-nuclear “peace” movement that emerged in the 1960’s and remained active throughout the Cold War. This movement was unabashedly anti-western, and at least partially sympathetic to the communist Soviet Union, calling for unilateral western disarmament, the dismantling of NATO, and a general weakening of western military posture. Out of this sprang the European Green Parties, Greenpeace, and other organizations which paired anti-westernism with environmental concerns, particularly focused on anything nuclear. The mating was a natural one – both movements shared the view that the west was responsible for a catalogue of evils in the world, and the obvious environmental negatives of nuclear war provided the anti-nuclear groups another rhetorical point to use, where the peace movement offered the environmentalists organizational capacity. At the end of the Cold War, when the peace movement suddenly found itself without a raison d’etre the international left looked about for a new home – and the environmentalist movement provided a natural segue.
Another characteristic that radical environmentalism shares with liberalism are the ideas of leveling and relativism – not just among people, but among all of nature. The modern fanatical environmentalist carries relativism to its natural conclusion; not only is a particular nation, value set, system, culture, or civilization to be considered in any way inherently superior or more advantageous to another – the charge leveled by the liberals unilaterally at western Judeo-Christian culture in general, and the United States in particular – but neither ought any species (ours) be determined to be in any way superior to any other. This is the provenance of the moral bankruptcy of the “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy” philosophy prevalent among the more extreme elements of the movement. It is the extension of radical equality to snail darters, mosquitoes, and lichen.
Even among the more mainstream environmentalists, however, there exists a shared overall sense that one of the ravages of western civilization is wanton degradation of the environment, complicit with its other perceived wrongs such as repression of women, workers, and minorities, and its imposition of Christian-based moral standards. This grants the environmental movement automatic solidarity with other bulwarks of the left, such as feminism, unionism, radical civil libertarianism, anti-colonialism, the remnants of the “peace” movement, and of course, the recent “Occupy Wall Street” fad.
On a practical policy level, environmental leftism most commonly crashes the scene in opposition to energy production. The mining and oil and gas industries are the most common bogeymen to attack, and present fantastic targets for the green-left coalition – largely private, profit-driven industries, they are both polluting and an integral part of the military-industrial complex, so goes the narrative. Of course, this context and history also help explain the environmentalist opposition to nuclear energy – a clean, sustainable, environmentally benign source of power that has the potential to deliver energy inexpensively to millions. From a straight conservation approach this is wonderful, but of course any viable source of energy that can do that will also promote growth – and growth is an outdated and dangerous western concept that will only result in further exploitation and is therefore antithetical to the movement.
Like the modern economic liberal, the modern radical environmentalist believes that existing, traditional western orders, values, and institutions must be removed, weakened, or substantively reformed in order for progress to occur and the utopian ideal to be achieved. It is paradoxical that the same people who believe that humans cannot exercise control over their natural surroundings without doing irreparable damage, also believe that a council of humans can efficiently control the economic interactions between millions of other people – but of course, the movement is full of contradictions, starting with the notion that in order to conserve one heritage, others first have to be destroyed.