Gas Bag

By Patrick J. Deneen for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

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.

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