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.