The green gap between Republicans and Democrats is becoming a canyon. While the GOP has recently put forth little in the way of actual proposals to address environmental problems, the submission of a non-binding resolution by new-to-Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has now provided them a piñata for pummeling. AOC and company seem to have confirmed the trope about watermelon environmentalism—green on the outside but red on the inside. As Ross Douthat puts it, the Green New Deal “is a quite extraordinary document: a blueprint for fighting climate change that manages to confirm every conservative critique of liberal environmental activism, every Republican suspicion of what global warming alarm is really all about.”
For Fox News pundits and the voices of AM radio, the Green New Deal is a gift that keeps on giving. First, there’s the brazen ambition of it all. The resolution is built on the idea that the time is right for “a new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal era.” Indeed, the resolution declares that this is an opportunity that we can’t pass up for “it is the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.” The government’s sub-duties then include achieving “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” while also “stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth” all “through a 10-year national mobilization.” Oh, and the government will also provide higher education, jobs, and health care to all along the way. In short, the goal is to create a carbon-neutral social justice heaven-on-earth in the next decade.
By rightly pointing out that calls to change everything quickly have a rather poor record of successful implementation (see France in the 1790’s and Venezuela today), traditional Burkean conservatives could find plenty to legitimately criticize in the text of the resolution itself. The drafters of the Green New Deal, however, insisted on providing even more fodder in the form of FAQs and talking points. It is in these secondary materials that we have the now infamous reference to getting rid of “farting cows and airplanes.”
To be fair—and many piñata pounders have not been—the FAQ actually acknowledges (in its own awkward way) that some transformations might take a bit longer than 10 years to achieve, the elimination of steaks and Southwest Airlines among them. Nevertheless, the resolution clearly paints in revolutionary colors, and the roll-out materials seem to have emerged from a northeastern or northwestern dorm room filled with earnest but untested true-believers.
The Democrats insisted on more, though. (“Thank you Sir, may I have another!”) Next came embarrassing flip-flops about whether a FAQ line about government support for those “unwilling to work” was doctored by dastardly Republicans. It wasn’t. But the GOP leadership did do something even more underhanded—Mitch McConnell scheduled a vote in the Senate.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer took to the floor to call allowing a vote on a bill introduced by a fellow Democrat a “cynical stunt,” which of course it was. McConnell will not vote for the resolution. Instead, he wants to sow a whirlwind among deep-green progressives like resolution sponsor Ed Markey of Massachusetts and coal/industrial state Democrats like Joe Manchin and Dick Durbin, all the while getting several 2020 presidential candidates on the record for attack ads. McConnell sees the Democrats as having doused themselves in gasoline (sorry, alternative energy sources do not work well with this analogy) and he wants to force them to strike a match.
This all makes great political theater, but a cage-match over a non-binding resolution does little to address actual problems on the ground and in the atmosphere.
This all makes great political theater, but a cage-match over a non-binding resolution does little to address actual problems on the ground and in the atmosphere. Perhaps, the shouting over the Green New Deal will jumpstart a national conversation that has gone quiet since the days—now over a decade ago—when Al Gore was bringing home an Oscar and a Nobel Prize. The Green New Deal is essentially the last quarter of An Inconvenient Truth (complete with the same moon-shot and World War II analogies) but with several extra layers of socialist pipe-dreams on top. Most likely, the same folks who previously stopped their environmental engagement at “If Al Gore’s for it, I’m against it” will now simply substitute in “AOC” and add an exclamation point. That is unfortunate because, a bit like the national debt (that other long-term problem we no longer talk about on the right), the risks associated with global warming are real, if chronically overstated by many on the left, and the response will require a soberness that is sorely lacking across the political spectrum.
While AOC is taking environmental policy to green extremes on the left, the right has been contributing to the separation as well. The idea of “conservation” as the wise utilization of limited resources was once a staple of sounds-the-same-for-a-reason “conservatism.” Yet, regarding natural resources, there is little today that leading conservatives actively seek to conserve. Conservation has been replaced by cornucopianism, the belief that humanity’s ability to innovate will overcome any problem the material world might throw at us. You see it in not-meant-to-be-ironic book titles like The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy. The Pied Piper of modern cornucopianism was Julian Simon, a business professor for whom humanity was The Ultimate Resource. His torch is today carried by acolytes like Stephen Moore (It’s Getting Better All the Time), Bjorn Lomborg (The Skeptical Environmentalist), and Alex Epstein (The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels).
The cult of cornucopianism, like any good heresy, stems from a vein of truth (humans were created to be creative), and it also responds to a very real strain of people-as-cancer misanthropy that runs through too much of the post-1960 environmental movement. Human creativity has indeed brought into being much that makes the world better. It has also brought temptations, and from Babel to Icarus, the stories of the West have warned against letting creativity morph into hubris. Such prudence was once applauded on the political and cultural right, but self-control and humility are now out-of-fashion virtues.
Now we are left with catastrophism as justification for socialism on one side and cornucopianism as justification for consumerism on the other, and there is a yawning chasm in the middle where stewardship once stood.
Now we are left with catastrophism as justification for socialism on one side and cornucopianism as justification for consumerism on the other, and there is a yawning chasm in the middle where stewardship once stood. Stewardship is based on the idea that we do not fully own anything. Rather, a steward is one who responsibly cares for that which is bound to another. Historically, the idea has been rooted in the belief that a Creator made what we see and has not yet turned over full title to anyone else. Instead, as Genesis puts it, humanity was made to “work and keep” that creation while imaging their own maker’s character.
Contemplation of one’s own mortality also leads to a similar sense that property is never truly private. As the saying goes, “You can’t take it with you,” and what you have now is merely “on loan from your grandchildren.” Despite our dependence on the past and the finiteness of our grasp, a stewardship mindset says we still have real responsibilities in the here and now. That sense of duty is fueled by gratitude to God and those who came before us, as well as a love for those we will leave behind.
While those with the political and media megaphones spout ever more extremist slogans, ideas like stewardship and the associated values of frugality, mutuality, and selflessness have not completely gone away. James Fallows, a noted writer for The Atlantic, and his wife Deborah chronicled their low-altitude single-engine plane trek across flyover country in Our Towns and emerged largely optimistic. Tim Carney, who writes for the more conservative Washington Examiner, has recently highlighted well functioning communities as diverse as Chevy Chase Village, a wealthy liberal D.C. suburb, and Oostburg, a small Dutch Calvinist town in Wisconsin. But the title of Carney’s recent book, Alienated America, suggests that such outposts are becoming increasingly rare. Charles Murray documented the social cleavage in great detail in his 2013 book Coming Apart. There is real reason to worry.
Geography and limited technologies used to force us together. Neighbors mattered because of their proximity and, thus, their practical ability to do things that others could not. But why borrow a cup of sugar today when Amazon can deliver it tomorrow. Our screens allow us to self-select into virtual worlds of the likeminded. To the extent that we are still out of sync with our cultural landscape, greater mobility (i.e. that plane on AOC’s chopping block) allows many of us to relocate to someplace where at least the local vibe feels right, even if we still never get around to really knowing the person next door.
Our displacement impacts the natural environment as well as the neighborhood. Fractured communities are less likely to share a sense that every child is one of “our kids,” as Carney quotes one Oostburger crammed into a high school gym to hear the school band concert though he had no children in school himself. Similarly, a loosely rooted community is less likely to look outside and see our river, our forest, our beach. In How to Think Seriously About the Planet, Sir Roger Scruton highlights oikophilia, or love of home, as an important if underemphasized root of effective conservation. Wendell Berry also goes to the Greek to remind us that “economics” and “ecology” both derive from “home” (oikos). One’s job, as Berry writes of himself, is to live “responsibly at home in this world.” (As an aside, may I make a plea for somehow getting Scruton and Berry together on the same stage, or porch, while we still can.)
The Green New Deal calls for changing everything from the top down. Locally-centered stewardship calls each of us to take responsibility for the daily decisions, people, and places that are hidden from the eyes of the state. The left is now talking loudly about the former, but most of the right has forgotten the latter. Once conservatives grow tired of throwing their right hooks at AOC, we can hope they will once again return home.
Just who will lead the green homecoming parade remains to be seen. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska has emerged as an articulate advocate for the importance of community life but has done little more than mumble about “innovation” when pressed on climate change. National Review’s recent cover story (“Sins of Emission”) cannot resist the sophomoric urge to make fart jokes, but, thankfully, moves beyond mere climate change science contrarianism. In the piece, Travis Kavulla pushes against utility monopolies and for increased consumer choices, including greener sources of energy. That could be a useful change, especially if paired with a mechanism like a carbon tax that accurately prices the externalities of our high power lifestyles. There certainly is a role to be played by innovative technologies and market incentives. Nevertheless, while policies like these make good second things, they are inadequate first things. Until enough people actually care about the health of the ecosystem in which they make their home, such efforts will be of limited value.
Wendell Berry entitled his Jefferson Lecture—a speech at the Kennedy Center that was perhaps his most direct address to the nation’s ruling elite—“It All Turns on Affection.” Indeed, it will take the power of love if we are to ever turn away from a future filled with the many complications of a changing climate. But a theoretical love without an object is really no love at all. The Green New Deal wants to change everything by decree, but no edict from D.C. can itself change the heart of a people. Paradoxically, we are most likely to save the earth as a whole only when we lavish affection on the smaller slices of creation in our own backyards. Sparking such love will require leadership from every sector of society, not just politics.
We’ve been TEN YEARS FROM OUR LAST CHANCE TO SAVE THE PLANET for 30 years now.
“Stewardship is based on the idea that we do not fully own anything. Rather, a steward is one who responsibly cares for that which is bound to another.”
The stewardship analogy doesn’t really hold here. A steward can use nothing he is entrusted with for his own benefit; he is to use it for the master’s benefit only. If we are stewards of the Creation, we may use it for ourselves only to facilitate our stewardship. Anything which destroys or damages the Creation (making it less “good” in God’s eyes) would make us poor stewards. By that standard, pulling oil out of the ground and burning it to drive our industries, thus releasing smoke and toxic gasses is clearly damaging to the Creation. So, as good stewards, must we abandon everything post-industrial revolution?
Surely dumping millions of tons of plastic clamshell packaging into landfills annually is ridiculous, and yet why is it any more ridiculous than releasing billions of metric tonnes of particulates from 200 years of fossil fuel burning? Ironically, it is the wealth generated by that fossil fuel burning which has raised our standard of living enough that we have the time to care about acid rain, smog, polluted air and poisoned water. Was the fossil fuel orgy that drove the industrial revolution bad stewardship, or effective use of resources provided by God to be discovered just in time to save the whales?
I don’t have an answer for how to draw the line between taking advantage of God’s bounty vs. wasting and defiling Creation, but I’m wary of using a stewardship metaphor to find it. It reminds me of a comic I saw years ago: a caveman and his wife are standing in front of a small camp fire in the middle of a forest, and he says “Honey, I know it;s convenient, don’t get too hooked on this ‘fire’ thing. After all, what will we do when we run out of trees?”2
Interesting piece from a couple years ago on the “stewardship” idea, pro and con. The discussion in the comments is worth reading as well.
A year or three ago Hawaii experienced a deluge of rain. In one of the articles, a professor from UH, Chip Fletcher, was quoted saying “just recognize that we’re moving to a new climate, and our communities are built and scaled for a climate that no longer exists.” I wrote it down.
Written elsewhere, taking the thought a bit further, our economy is built and scaled for a climate that no longer exists. If that’s in any way accurate, some drastic changes ought to be made, or will be forced upon us.
Brian, I’ve been reading the science for a few decades and if anything, I’d say it’s been too conservative, chronically underestimating feedback loops. I don’t intend to start an argument, but giving context – despite that, I gave up on advocacy some years ago. Know too many concerned people who live in a remarkably profligate way. I was thinking, still thinking, well, if this is what the people who care are doing, it’s more or less over. I do hope the science is incorrect, but don’t think it is.
Mr. Murdock, the words “catastrophism” and “cornucopianism” are apt constructions to ponder in light of the perverse state we find that other construct known as “environmentalism” to be in. Once “Conservative” and then “Liberal”, the idea of properly stewarding one’s oikos has been branded to perdition in this brand-happy age. Now, the so-called conservative majority yearns for the issue as a nice punching bag full of fart jokes and evil pinko schoolgirl socialism. Jeers galore for the prevailing resentoholic. Their opponents in the so-called Liberal Majority, despite freshman efforts shun it like the plague because they have seen the issue to be a dead skunk around the neck, never worth the effort in either polls or at the voting booth. Mr. Gore might have thought he was going up on that lift following the average global temperature graph in his film but in reality he was heading down on the political elevator fast, sub-basement in the rearview mirror. Meanwhile, we utterly fail to, at long last, simply acknowledge the fact that we are doing a miserable job of loving our world beyond its most rudimentary role as commodity. We treat the land as though we had no faith at all. The capitalist cannot manage to fathom how to husband the resource. Fat slob men must really be bad husbands. Unfortunately, wifey-poo seems to think she needs to be more manly and the kids …well….whatever.
It has been fifty years since the Penn Landscape Architect Ian McHarg published the classic “Design with Nature” and in it, he described man’s actions on this land of ours , as you say, as a “cancer”. He was not wholly wrong then nor is his characterization wholly wrong now. The grandly and bibulously regaling Ian was always one to delight in poking his Scottish finger in anyone’s eye but this starkly inflammatory claim has proven itself to be not quite so inflammatory fifty years later. To be clear, Homo sapiens the species is not categorically proven to be intrinsically a cancer but the actions of the species in this modern industrial age, individually and collectively, would appear to represent , at the very least, a kind of ethos of disease. A particularly virulent one in fact, the type that ultimately kills the host. Not good to have around in the waning hours of any party where waking up in the morning is desired. It is the short term thinking of the modern Corporate Board, the same Board granted the rights of an individual in speech, particularly when said speech comes in the form of money even though the fundamental design of a corporation is to limit individual liability and speech without liability can only be considered noise at best. It should come as no surprise then that the currency of speech and meaning are debased now, courtesy of the sages of the Supreme Court and the dark arts of American Politics.
McHarg, before the GIS computer power we enjoy today called for a kind of “overlay planning” where one might identify the natural and man-made resources present and then plan for development in a manner that might be in harmony with the landscape across a broad spectrum. He had seen the so called free-market forces that traditionally dictate land development for the brutal, consumptive, wasteful and short-sighted force they were. He thought we could do better than to rely upon a “hidden hand” that too frequently came with a boxing glove. Computer technology has made this possibility even more of a powerful reality that is gaining ground but still, as a nation and a culture we cannot yet manage to meet the ethos of the little birdy who seems to know not to crap in its own nest.
Consequently, the Popular Landscape of our Popular Culture is an unmitigated mess by in large. It is what J.H. Kunstler has referred to as one of the largest misallocation of resources in history and it is now exported around the globe. If this is somebody’s idea of the Pursuit of Happiness , we might be well served exploring what our happiness really is. Hence the interest in “Catastrophism” vs.” Cornucopianism”. Dissecting the word catastrophism we can look at “trophic” and understand this relates to feeding and nutrition or “strophic” , described as a verse repeating itself in chorus form. Interesting to ponder in relation to the current debate. Cornucopianism of course refers to that mythical font of unending largesse, the something for nothing card carried by everyone who puts their faith in the rumored verities of Las Vegas. Both words carry the tint of extremism in a world gone mad on extremes.
A recent best selling book written by an Israeli whose name escapes me at the moment is entitled “Sapiens” and it is a brief history of the species that is thought provoking and elucidating if sometimes irritating in final conclusions. One of the book’s central assertions is that by all rights, we are an organism whose physiology should consign us to the minor leagues of the food chain but that the cognitive leap we made has resulted in the development of an ability to create “artificial realities” and expand this into “inter-subjective constructed reality” to an extent that transcends our physiology and makes us a powerful force indeed. These “constructed realities” may have tenuous connection to physical reality but they work anyhow because we invest ourselves so thoroughly in them with frequently positive results. He disputes any idea that this might mean we live in lies or fantasy and life is a fraud or a farce as my own nihilist tendencies might jump to because many very real advancements have come of this startling ability. Like Gotham, we named ourselves twice sapiens. Would that this might actually come to be true.
However, our imprint, our Popular Landscape just like much of our Popular Culture carries with it no small measure of farce and fraud and it is a dangerous thing that this is so. It is not good for us biologically, nor spiritually nor communally. It aint even good business.
The either-or farce that this debate has taken on might be entertaining but it has no connection to a right and proper reality, biological or constructed. We need to ask ourselves what kind of a country and landscape we want to have and whether it meets the good business benchmark of sustainable success. Anything else is crapping the nest. At the very least, it ignores the good old fashioned miracle of American know-how of the kind that actually makes money rather than simply printing it. A thought provoking essay Mr. Murdock, grubbed me out of my burrow.
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