April 27, 2009
Green Bubble Culture
a guest post by Breakthrough Senior Fellow, Bill Chaloupka
It's the era of the bubble -- a richly narrative metaphor that always promises of the burst. Bubbles are child's play, so they inject a welcome incongruity into grim topics like economic or environmental collapse. A grownup sees the bubble, knows it can't last, and decides whether or not to play with it for a while. To live in a bubble era -- once one sees the bubble for what it is -- is to embrace impermanence, opportunity, and change. Such an era rewards adroitness and self-aware reaction more than certitude and commitment. Nobody would seriously propose a bubble metaphysics. This is what makes Nordhaus and Shellenberger's application of bubble logic to environmental politics so intriguing. After all, the culture greens built was the antithesis of bubble.
There are plenty of bubbles in nature, of course. But the Nature environmentalists defined was singular and coherent. It was something to defend. After its post-Earth Day founding, greens pondered several potential focuses. Some emphasized the quality of human lives. Others acted as the wing of the left that tracked capitalism's pillaging of nature. Even earlier movement predecessors had promoted human transcendence or utopian communities. But "defending Nature" quickly emerged as the focus. It's probably not coincidence that Nature has a storied place in Euro-American thought, ever since the Enlightenment based its argument on a discernible Human Nature, interpreted by Science.
Built on Nature herself, underwritten by Science, green culture pursued that most timeless of public inclinations: moralizing. The movement was founded on a powerful cultural assemblage -- guilty over human disruption of the environment and thus committed to the worship and defense of Nature. This green culture preached -- preached -- limits and sacrifice. The movement touched most everything with moral teachings about how their fellow citizens should live. Food, travel, clothing, energy, illness, death, plants, animals, air, water, land, recreation, spirituality, and more: all were integral to green culture from the start.
Put that way, one sees the burst coming. For starters, the green scope and resolve meant every systemic economic downturn could break a green bubble in the rowdy political arena. Powerful adversaries learned to deploy resentment against greens regularly, even when times were good, pollution thick, and climate warming. This resistance was not insignificant for the "conservative revolution," as a glance at the rural west (with its disproportionate share of electoral votes and U.S. Senate seats) confirms.
Greens understandably greet conservatism's recent troubles as vindication. And perhaps they are right. We now know that Reagan conservatism was a bubble, too (albeit one with a 28 year float at the loftiest levels of global politics) and that an unsettled political landscape remains in its wake. Still, the phrase "green bubble" reminds us that recent successes, including candidate Obama's stump references to energy, might not be the final word in what greens sincerely believed was a page finally turned, and not a bubble at all.
Environmentalists built a culture that successfully gathered and motivated an enormous cadre of green activists and citizens. Organizations sustained themselves for decades. In many college towns, bohemian enclaves, and well-heeled suburbs, greens rule. But movement building is hardly ever the same as mass political transformation. The civil rights movement assembled a remarkable core in the 50s, but needed a cultural turn to reach broader success. Much the same happened (at various times and levels of triumph) with labor, feminists, gays and lesbians, and even conservatives. The groups that prospered found ways to surpass their founders' culture. Often, the turn was from a moralist culture toward politics.
So, what would a green turn look like? Like Madoff investors, these new greens would know that past success is no predictor of future results. Ten percent every year? Get serious bubble boy. The new greens would examine the Reagan bubble's remnants with apprehension. They might recognize Robert Redford's dazed line at the end of The Candidate ("What do we do now?") as among the smartest lines in the history of political cinema, not merely an acknowledgment of his campaign's accidents and manipulations. Alert winners worry. How will the Republicans recompose themselves? What can they do out of power that they couldn't do before? Do they know how terribly they've been wounded? Should we tell them?
The new greens would think seriously about coalition. Most bubbles don't last long enough to form a workable majority that could fully adopt green cultural commitments, so we're back to coalition logic. Who are greens willing to work with? Is that list long enough, or are more needed? How much core doctrine should greens be willing to shelve?
This dilemma is probably not best addressed by the superficial exercises in "framing" or "public relations" favored by most green organizations. What's really at stake is more fundamental. It's the difficulty of squaring the movement's moralizing foundations with its political future.