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George Will has penned an end-of-year pick-me-up for conservatives, counseling them that the likely prospect of Republican Presidential electoral defeat in November (given their sad slate of potential nominees) ought not to get conservatives down in the mouth. Rather, things are looking up for the party of … well, not Burke, but Paine (who, after all, was Ronald Reagan’s favorite philosopher).

The reason: there’s gas in them thar hills!! The reason that conservatives can console themselves in the prospect of President Obama’s likely re-election is the growing realization of the large quantities of shale gas is yet to be extracted by means of newly developed “fracking” technology. According to Will, this national largesse of fossil fuels has and will effectively foil the plans of “Progressives” from using government to micro-manage the lives of American citizens. Progressives, Will claims, crave the prospect of fossil fuel scarcity in order to increase the energy and expansion of the central government. He writes,

For the indefinite future, a specter is haunting progressivism, the specter of abundance. Because progressivism exists to justify a few people bossing around most people and because progressives believe that only government’s energy should flow unimpeded, they crave energy scarcities as an excuse for rationing — by them — that produces ever-more-minute government supervision of Americans’ behavior.

Imagine what a horror 2011 was for progressives as Americans began to comprehend their stunning abundance of fossil fuels — beyond their two centuries’ supply of coal…. An all-purpose rationale for rationing in its many permutations has been the progressives’ preferred apocalypse, the fear of climate change. But environmentalism as the thin end of an enormous wedge of regulation and redistribution is a spent force.

Will can barely contain his glee at news of poor sales forecasts for the all-electric car, the Volt, while jumping up and down inside at the news that sales of SUVs are up.

What Will does not really disclose is why these facts should spell a victory for “conservatism.” Yes, he does indeed claim that the waning prospect of tight energy supplies will deprive the “progressives” of their nefarious schemes to discourage American consumption. That may or may not be the case (i.e., I find it more questionable that “progressives” actually seek to discourage energy consumption, as much as I find it questionable that “conservatives” seek to discourage sexual consumption); but, granting him his claim for the moment, in what way does an energy-rich future bode well for conservative values?

If we were to chronologically chart the decline of “family values,” communal norms, educational attainment, religious standards, civility, along with the rise of a culture of consumption, rootlessness, anomie, relativism, a 24-hour culture of distraction, titillation, highly-sexualized and violent imagery, sexualized childhood and adolescent adulthood – and juxtapose such a chart tracking the rising consumption of fossil fuels in America (and the West) from the late 19th-century in a largely unbroken ascending line to today, we might have cause at least to wonder whether fossil fuels have contributed to something more worrisome even than global warming (such a thesis would infuriate the Left and Right alike, I wager). Moreover, if we were to place the latter chart alongside another chart tracing the growth of central government, we should not be surprised to discover a similar ascending rise in fossil fuel consumption and numbers of bureaucrats living in and around Washington D.C.

A “conservative” – concerned, as Will must surely be, with unintended (and even intended) consequences – would want to inquire whether there were some connection between these various phenomena. Might some of the consequences of the mobility and power that expansive consumption of fossil fuels have engendered include the exacerbation of a number of baleful social trends, many of which result from the gas-addled belief in human mastery, control, and autonomy, as well as attendant instability and societal transformation? Might the very growth and expansion of government have something to do with the national and global expansion of commerce that our fuel has fueled, the penetration of a global capital market into every town and hamlet in the world, the inescapable “interconnection” between every human on the globe (and, our attendant global vulnerability), and which in turn fostered a system that demanded an active government to foster, support, and maintain?

Will has spent a good deal of newsprint (and done a fair amount of speechifying) in recent months about the evils of “Progressivism.” What about Will’s enthusiastic cheerleading of “fracking” and 200+ years of energy at current or growing levels? By some lights, one might consider this to be “progressive.” I find it hard to consider paeans to the prospect of ceaseless energy consumption – with its attendant mobility, consumption, and waste – to be “conservative.” But, mainstream commentators like Will stopped thinking seriously, or at all, about what conservatism is long ago.

We do better to look to more unlikely sources, such as the British conservatism of Roger Scruton, and his forthcoming book Green Philosophy, discussed here by Rod Dreher. Perhaps there is a connection between consuming less, being more in place, and hence being responsible for one’s places and people, and – in turn – less growth in government, more self-reliance and self-governance. Perhaps the prospect of more gas will fuel not a resurgence in conservative values, but their further erosion. Perhaps it’s not the “progressives” who should worry us most; rather, it’s so-called “conservatives” like Will, who seem to be the biggest cheerleaders for fueling a future in which conservatism has almost everything to do with SUV sales and the right to increase childhood diabetes, and exceedingly little to do with conserving things worth saving.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Anymouse January 3, 2012 at 12:02 am

Well put. It is absurdity to think that increased capacity to consume powers conservatism. And I am afraid that although the Republicans will win in November, Conservatives will lose with either candidate in the long run. They have been losing for some time now.

avatar John Gorentz January 3, 2012 at 12:44 am

I am and remain a big fan of George Will, but I think you called this one right.

avatar Benjamin Nagle January 3, 2012 at 1:57 am

Movement conservatives lack a positive vision to confront waste, greed, and mass consumption. It is unfortunate. I understand why they fear centralized state planners with an environmentalist agenda. Who wants to give up ground to bureaucrats that appear to seek international or federal solutions to all our problems. However, rather than just pretending bad stewardship is not a problem, why not articulate a decentralized approach to conservation?

avatar Russell Arben Fox January 3, 2012 at 8:28 am

George Will could have–at one time, long ago–noticed the same trends which Patrick notes, and made from them an intelligent argument about the need for carefully constructed government policies (of which, I freely admit, we have relatively few!) to provide some balance and limits upon the community- and environment-destroying power of a consumption-mad marketplace. But unfortunately for the American pundit-reading public, Will hasn’t articulated that kind of Tory vision in years. It’s a real loss, methinks.

avatar John Médaille January 3, 2012 at 8:40 am

Russell, I think you’re spot on. I used to think will was the smartest man in newsprint, and would delight in his essays. But for years now, he’s been a corporate shill, a sort of tony Rush Limbaugh.

avatar John Haas January 3, 2012 at 10:53 am

Nicely put!

Anyone who truly understands conservatism’s positive program (the conserving of that which is good) understands that there are many more threats to that good than merely those that originate in government. But there’s not a lot of business people rushing to set up think tanks that will focus on those threats.

avatar Richard January 3, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Respectful disagreement here.

Full disclosure, I’ve worked in the oil and gas industry for 30+ years. I would like to suggest that there is an important, principled and ‘prudential’ distinction between support for ‘energy consumption’ and support for ‘energy supply’. We have a huge and complex economy that is the outcome of millions of personal and business choices, the vast majority of which involve consumption of energy. Many in the environmental community have made it abundantly clear that they oppose providing Americans access to energy, whether it is oil and gas offshore, or in Alaska, or natural gas in the Intermountain West, or from shale gas deposits, or wind power where it can be seen, or rights- of-way to deliver energy from point of production to point of consumption. This isn’t about saving the planet. It is about rationing to achieve control over private choice. It’s ‘watermelon’ environmentalism, achieving statist objectives through the superficially benign appeal of so-called environmental principles. And, in a culture where increasing numbers of people are no longer called or influenced by their faith traditions, environmentalism is the neo-pagan substitute for the divinity.

Does principled and energetic support for adequate energy for an economy that requires it mean that one supports wasteful consumption? As someone who has been a bicycle commuter and a public transit rider whenever possible throughout his career, who now nordic walks 3 miles home-to-office, and who purchased a clean diesel turbo VW Jetta downsizing from a Volvo (for heaven’s sake), I answer emphatically ‘no’. But I’m unwilling to impose my choices on people who live in more rural environments (including many who live the Front Porch Republic way of life that some of the rest of us only idealize) where a truck is commonly the preferred vehicle. And I’m unwilling to subsidize the affected posturings of the rentier class who believe that a Tesla is the technological wave of America’s future.

It is possible to endorse balanced use of the resource abundance we have in North America without patronizing monster truck rallies or drinking the ProPublica kool aid about the mythical harms of hydraulic fracturing. Please try. It would be nice to have an alternative to supply this rich and diverse country with the energy we need without having to default to the act of sending someone else’s children to patrol Middle Eastern deserts so that Islamic extremists can erase the last vestiges of Christianity from the Levant.

Richard

avatar Russell Arben Fox January 3, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Richard,

Many in the environmental community have made it abundantly clear that they oppose providing Americans access to energy, whether it is oil and gas offshore, or in Alaska, or natural gas in the Intermountain West, or from shale gas deposits, or wind power where it can be seen, or rights- of-way to deliver energy from point of production to point of consumption. This isn’t about saving the planet. It is about rationing to achieve control over private choice.

Similarly, “many” in the oil and gas industry have denied environmentally costly (sometimes even deadly) externalities, worked to undermine more sustainable forms of energy extraction, lobbied against democratic attempts to collectively structure through incentives diverse forms of life which would be less dependent upon energy consumption, etc. It isn’t about providing for the needs of economically free and expanding people. It is about the concentrating into fewer hands the ability to determine what sort of private choices are available to communities and individuals who wish to govern themselves in the first place.

You probably will, rightly, take issue with this characterization of the oil and gas industry. Fair enough. But you engage in a similarly overwrought mischaracterization when you speak of those of us critical of Will’s thoughtless embrace of the promise of energy abundance as a pancea in terms of “the affected posturings of the rentier class”. Some of us, after all, actually think about and work towards the kind of compromises that would make it more possible for people to live more simply and sustainably, whether in expensive cities or in small rural towns. Patrick is right to call out Will’s unthinking depiction of the promised explosion of cheap fossil fuel reserves as a means of vouchsafing for more nefarious-Progressive-escaping “liberty,” because what that liberty really is, is a way to set aside the hard work of, you know, government: collectively setting limits and laws and making compromises for the sake of the future and all that stuff. No doubt most of the good people you’ve known in the industry over the decades have been exactly such responsible citizens; consider that the same can probably be said for all us environmentally worried communitarians and localists out here.

avatar Nick January 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm

Seems like you’re just critiquing Will for being one type of conservative rather than another while imposing a semi-literal definition of “conservative” that Will isn’t conforming to. It’d be like me critiquing a “progressive” for being against shale extraction because they’re against “progress” by doing so.

Of course Russell agrees. He’s found himself sharing less and less over the years with Will so it must be Will who’s changed. Will’s emphasis on fiscal conservatism, constitutionality, and individual liberty isn’t the parts of conservatism Russell shares — the moral authoritarian part — so Will must be a “gas bag”.

I found the column had little to do with consumption (explicit or implicit) and was instead about the prospect of energy abundance giving the left one less tool with which to shape policy. The real issue here is how both parties shape facts or circumstance to form a tool by which they can enforce their ideology, which you don’t really even consider.

avatar Anymouse January 3, 2012 at 6:51 pm

“But I’m unwilling to impose my choices on people who live in more rural environments (including many who live the Front Porch Republic way of life that some of the rest of us only idealize) where a truck is commonly the preferred vehicle.”
I am not going to be in the business of imposing my choices. However, I think it is arguably extravagant to assume that mechanized equipment is necessary for rural life.

avatar Richard January 3, 2012 at 7:27 pm

[cross-posted from Rod Dreher's site]

Russell Arben Fox wrote:

“Similarly, “many” in the oil and gas industry have denied environmentally costly (sometimes even deadly) externalities, worked to undermine more sustainable forms of energy extraction, lobbied against democratic attempts to collectively structure through incentives diverse forms of life which would be less dependent upon energy consumption, etc. . . It is about the concentrating into fewer hands the ability to determine what sort of private choices are available to communities and individuals who wish to govern themselves in the first place.”

Russell, yes. There is empirical evidence to support what you say. One of the great difficulties in the subject area of environmental and social stewardship is that too many on the Right – and, for that matter, too many in the industry I work for – have found it too easy to default to the notion that responsible environmental values are immediately and necessarily in conflict with economic development. I’d love to discuss this over a beverage-of-choice with you, because, taking the shale gas development phenomenon for example, the real issue that is causing concern in the areas where shale gas is being developed is the SCALE of development. ‘Hydraulic fracturing’ is a name people give to something they don’t understand – and that the industry early on chose not to explain or to discuss in a fully open fashion. The facts are what they are. HF per se is not a threat to groundwater sources. But hasty, imprudent, and hurried development do and have placed surface water uses at risk. And if that’s only in ‘localized’ settings, it matters hugely if one lives in the locality in question.

What we need, and do not yet have, is a systematic way in which local concerns over the impacts from gas development during its peak years – in terms of traffic, noise, housing impacts, informed dialogue with communities – can be managed, mitigated and, most importantly, negotiated with those who live in the path of development. It’s beginning to happen, but it needs to happen faster, if the value of the shale gas resource is to be seen and experienced as the benefit many believe that it is. The National Petroleum Council’s 2011 report on the subject is, believe it or not, a quite balanced assessment of this fact.

So, yes, there is room for improvement on the part of my industry. There are conservation organizations who are willing to work the question with constructively-minded people in industry. But there is the phenomenon – notably in New York state of (and I will use the term again for emphasis) of ‘rentier’ gentry landowners, whose intent is to control the land around their property. They have access to the lawyers and the celebrities and the hard-line green NGOs to serve their agendas. They are unconcerned with how their ambitions deny other landowners the right to enjoy the value of their property interests, or of the interests of the business sectors of their communities in offering futures for their children other than mixing lattes for the wealthy. This is a real conflict underway wherever the rentiers establish their fiefdoms. It’s what makes Jackson WY different from Casper WY, or Telluride different from Grand Junction, or Cooperstown different from Binghamton.

There is plenty of ground on which ‘environmentally worried communitarians and localists ‘ can work out compromises for responsible development with corporate interests of similar good will. In many areas of Pennsylvania, North Dakota and other states, it’s happening. And yes, it took several epiphanies for many in my industry to ‘get it’. It’s being called the ‘social license to operate’, and it is a concept that should be a core value for any business in any line of work.

Respectfully,
Richard

avatar JA January 4, 2012 at 2:03 am

Several Problems in Richard’s Posts:

1) He assumes that there is such a thing as “private choice” as if the public/private distinction is an ontological reality and not a reified social construction. In reality, the one affects the other.

2) As Patrick Deneen and James Matthew Wilson also constantly remind us, this view is also based on a false anthropology where persons are construed as self-ruling autonomous individuals and society is considered an aggregation of such individuals. There is no room for traditional institutions of family, community, church, etc. in such a vision, except as an intermediary between individuals and the now defied state/market.

3) He talks as if corporations “get it.” Corporations have one legal mandate: to generate profits. All other goals are secondary.

4) He assumes that communitarians can work with corporations. This one is rich. Corporations are adept at nothing better than centralizing economic control and denying communities the opportunity for self-rule.

5) His narrativization of this issue pits the conventional partisan left-liberal view against his conventional partisan right-liberal one. Notice that he completely fails to address Deneen’s criticism, which was an exposition of a third view, a communitarian one. Forgive me for the Foucauldian rhetoric, but this does a sort of violence to Deneen’s article by reframing the entire issue and marginalizing his argument. If this isn’t a productive power discourse deployed in service to the reigning ideologies, I don’t know what is. Now, this isn’t to suggest any nefariousness on Richard’s part — perhaps he has been thinking about this issue in terms of this left-right dialectic for so long that he is incapable of transcending it — but the point still stands: he is side-stepping Deneen’s criticism.

avatar Mark January 5, 2012 at 11:50 am

From Webster’s:

Conserve: “to keep in a safe or sound state ; especially : to avoid wasteful or destructive use of ”

Consume: “to do away with completely : destroy ; to spend wastefully : squander b : use up ; to eat or drink especially in great quantity b : to enjoy avidly : devour

Funny how words gets bastardized for political benefit, isn’t it? This is how life forms like Frankie Luntz open offshore bank accounts.

And, no, I’m not a believer that the environment comes first, last, and always – only that the environment is a singular entity and we simply cannot buy another one if we screw up the one we now have. Prudence, people, prudence. Have your planet and a nice vehicle, too. The two are not mutually exclusive. So put down the Papa Rush Ditto Attacks. Ease back on the Levin Screaming Screeds. Neither applies.

Of course, George Will’s wife, Mari Maseng, is a hack for Texas Guv. Rick Perry’s off again, on again presidential campaign. Guv. Perry’s views on the acquisition of oil from foreign sources have become something approaching legend in this campaign.

Said Guv. Perry a week or so back: “Every barrel of oil that comes out of those sands in Canada is a barrel of oil we don’t have to buy from a foreign source.”

Canada is not a “foreign source,” as per Guv. Perry. Funny, but I don’t recall our northern neighbor’s annexation as the 51s or 58th state…

avatar Nick January 5, 2012 at 1:21 pm

A brilliant dismantling of the pro-fracking forces from the position of true conservatism. Thank you. I am from a small town in upstate New York that sits on top of the Marcellus Shale. The fracking debate us thrown it into upheaval and has divided the community more than any issue in memory. The way these gas companies are buying the state government to mandate gas drilling against the wishes of local town boards represents the most un-conservative assault on the liberties of ordinary citizens to control their fate at a grass-roots level.

avatar pb January 5, 2012 at 5:39 pm

“I think it is arguably extravagant to assume that mechanized equipment is necessary for rural life.”

it is for industrial agriculture, alas…

avatar Siarlys Jenkins January 10, 2012 at 8:29 pm

The last time George Will got anything right was when he posed a question about the wisdom of government trying to “restore” the housing market: “Do you think that for a newlywed couple, looking for their first home, the current market is a PROBLEM?” He was right on target with that one. Otherwise, not so much.

It is possible to overdo any regulatory scheme, and the agencies responsible for environmental laws have committed their share of over-reaching. Each incident is then taken up by sophisticated law firms representing powerful corporate interests (wolves in sheep’s clothing every one of them) to cry that ALL regulation should be dispensed with, leaving We The People at the mercy of said wolves.

Development of solar, wind, and other “green” technology will in the long run produce a more DEcentralized economy, LESS dependent on large “natural monopolies” that cry out for government regulation. There will still be a place for a power grid and large-scale generation; many of us will do best to sell our solar power to the grid by day, at high rates, and buy it back at night, at low rates, when our electric cars need to be recharged while we sleep. But should the grid break down, we will not be utterly without options.

Further, abundance of natural gas will allow us to cheaply power electric vehicles, cutting out expensive imported oil, which can then be reserved for chemical uses instead of wastefully burning the stuff.

Finally, if Will’s vision were entirely accurate, he would be offering us American Putinism: the masses will accept any dictatorship that can offer us cheap fuel and temporary prosperity??? As I’ve said in a related context, “Commissars Without Communism,” to turn the slogan of the Kronstadt revolt on its head.

avatar Dwight Lindley January 11, 2012 at 10:35 am

JA gets it quite right: reintroducing the typical left-right binary is a way of not answering Deneen’s critique.

avatar D.W. Sabin January 11, 2012 at 1:39 pm

The downside of fracking is that passing the Highball glass under the kitchen faucet for a drop or two when one’s well-water is running a high octane, fracking -induced mix already, one runs the hazard of blowing the damned faucet off the sink and spoiling what would have been a perfectly good cocktail.

This is not to say that all fracking will always allow one to light a flame with one’s tap water but the idea that there is more than one occurrence of this leads me to the conclusion that somebody, on a lark might like to get to the bottom of it.

Not that I’m suggesting that the government should be skeptical, that would be unpatriotic. Then again, skepticism is in the eye of the beholden.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins January 12, 2012 at 9:13 pm

How dare the government interfere with the operation of the free market? If people don’t want their faucets spurting flames, they won’t buy the gas, and the frackers will go out of business!!!

(Sarcasm, in case that isn’t obvious).

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