George Will, Inequality, and the Green Bubble

June 4, 2009 | Michael Shellenberger,

Update 06/05: Last night, Joe Romm of Climate Progress launched another ad-hominem attack on Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger, and Breakthrough Institute, asserting we have "the exact same worldview" as George Will and are opposed to "any major government effort to take collective action to reduce global warming emissions." This follows an attack last week claiming our agenda and analysis of Waxman-Markey is "anti-environmental" and "anti-climate-action."

A growing number of independent media watchdogs and journalists are now criticizing Joseph Romm's behavior, including the Columbia Journalism Review, the Center for Environmental Journalism, and Keith Kloor at Collide-a-Scape Blog. An article in Columbia Journalism Review states, "[Breakthrough Institute's analyses] are perspectives worth considering, despite Romm's pompous dictate that journalists should ignore them," calling Romm's attacks an "unwarranted attempt to shut Nordhaus and Shellenberger out of the debate."

An article in the Center for Environmental Journalism states, "Romm is constitutionally incapable of sticking to ideas and showing respect and civility... Romm takes most disagreement with his ideas personally. He then lashes out using language that describes nothing other than his own approach." And independent journalist Keith Kloor writes, "By now, it should be clear to sensible greens that Romm can't help himself. He seems possessed by a fanatical hatred for Shellenberger and Nordhaus... Romm lumps Will and S&N together in a series of false associations that wholly distorts the latter's critique on contemporary environmentalism and their policy prescriptions for global warming."

A couple weeks have passed since The New Republic ran our piece on "The Green Bubble," and today George Will has a column out, "Green With Guilt," which quotes from it. Will made waves recently arguing against the scientific consensus for human-caused global warming. While we obviously disagree with Will's views on climate change, his reading of our piece, alongside the reaction from many greens, provides a useful primer for the ways that ideology shapes perception.

Will summarizes our argument as follows:

Gestures -- bringing reusable grocery bags to the store, purchasing a $4 heirloom tomato, inflating tires, weatherizing windows -- "gained fresh urgency" and "were suddenly infused with grand significance." Green consumption became "positional consumption" that identified the consumer as a member of a moral and intellectual elite.

And concludes:

Now, say Nordhaus and Shellenberger, "the green bubble" has burst, pricked by Americans' intensified reluctance to pursue greenness at a cost to economic growth. The dark side of utopianism is "escapism and a disengagement from reality that marks all bubbles, green or financial." Re-engagement with reality is among the recession's benefits.

Will doesn't put the pieces together, however, and skips over a central element of our argument, which links the first concept above to the second. We argue that the green bubble was in large part fueled by rising income inequality over the last several decades.
We wrote:

Inequality skyrocketed during the 1990s, resulting both in new affluence for the wealthiest 20 percent and in heightened social anxiety. In these conditions, upper-middle-class liberals started questioning and resenting hyper-materialism, even while enjoying the status and comfort it offered.

Little surprise, then, that they would start buying a whole new class of products to demonstrate their ecological concern.

Liberals caught up in the green cultural moment confused the behaviors they made to relieve their guilt and feel high-status (e.g, buy Priuses) with the things that would actually be required to deal with global warming (e.g., technology innovation to transform the energy economy). The result was green anti-modernism within liberalism itself:

The convenient and ancient view among elites that the poor are actually spiritually rich, and the exaggeration of insignificant gestures like recycling and buying new light bulbs, are both motivated by the cognitive dissonance created by simultaneously believing that not all seven billion humans on earth can "live like we live" and, consciously or unconsciously, knowing that we are unwilling to give up our high standard of living. This is the split "between what you think and what you do" to which Pollan refers, and it should, perhaps, come as no surprise that so many educated liberals, living at the upper end of a social hierarchy that was becoming ever more stratified, should find the remedies that Pollan and Beavan offer so compelling.

It was this argument that proved the most controversial among both liberal and conservative greens. Liberal green bloggers accused us of being evil right-wingers dressed in green drag. More thoughtfully, the conservative blogger Rod Dreher, author of Crunchy Cons, wondered whether we were simply defending the status quo.

[T]he authors seem to be saying that any attempt to renounce modernity is impossible, and should be resisted, because modernity has brought us so many good things. They would say this, because they're liberals, but in that sense they're liberals in the same way that most Americans, even Republicans, are liberals. Is it really the case, though, that because we cannot return to the pre-industrial past, that there's nothing we can or should do aside from treating our anxieties about modernity therapeutically?

But Dreher (and others) mistook our argument for George Will's. According to Will and most other conservatives, we should seek to minimize government intervention in the marketplace. Whatever differences there are between them, George Will and most other conservatives, including Francis Fukuyama, who we critique at the end of Break Through, fear that any serious action on global warming or social inequality, whether greater regulation or greater government investment, threatens the modern capitalist project. In this way, we noted, the Market is for conservatives what Nature is for environmentalists: sacred, fragile, and prone to collapse if there is too much human interference with it.

These are theological worldviews, not pragmatic ones. Government is constantly intervening in the economy; the recent financial crisis emerged from too little government intervention, not too much. And humans are always interfering with Nature, from fire to agriculture to biotechnology. The question is not whether but how to shape and create new markets and new natures.

Our own view, as our writings make clear, is that we will only reduce greenhouse gas emissions once we have clean energy or decarbonization technologies that are cost-competitive with fossil fuels -- and achieving that will require a large ($30-50 billion annually) commitment to public investment. Many greens dismiss this as "techno-optimism." But it is a project we embrace with the full awareness that these new technologies will bring new problems, as they always do, and that they will not heal any divide, real or imagined, between ourselves and with Nature.