How Scientism Enervated Environmentalism
Bill Chaloupka, professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, has an insightful essay in Jon Isham and Sissel Waage's new book, Ignition. In it he argues that environmentalists must understand the ways in which their moralizing about capital-N Nature contributed to the anti-environmentalist backlash in the west.
The packaging for 1970s green moralism, however, was not out of the pages of Emerson or Thoreau. Instead, it followed the pattern of another old New England religious tradition, the jeremiad. Loud, insistent, unwavering demands--often informed by an apocalyptic sense of doom about nature's capacity to adapt to human intervention--durably set the tone for green moralism. Thus the political terrain of environmentalism became caught between future and past, soldiering on with the moral and cultural composition of a cantankerous, hundred-year-old Protestant Bible-thumper, utterly convinced of its vision of the future, but still hampered with the self-image of an outsider who would never quite be welcome in King George's court. Add to the package the greens' scientific evidence that the actions of humans were bringing the end nearer. The perfect political storm was settling in.
Chaloupka is no anti-environmentalist. He has fought for years for wilderness protection, green space, and urban sustainability. We met him for the first time at Jon Isham's Middlebury conference in January 2005, which is also where we first met Bill McKibben.
Against the naive view that environmentalists are passive victims of a corporate-funded, right-wing organizing, Bill wants to restore some agency -- and responsibility -- to environmentalists. We have to consider that every move we make creates a counter-move by our opponents. Environmentalists sometimes imagine themselves as doing little more than delivering the Truth of Nature through Science -- witness the widespread and mistaken believe that "An Inconvenient Truth" had some gigantic effect on public opinion when all the research shows the contrary.
Bill finds a nice metaphor to yank environmentalism out of Plato's cave:
I've been telling my students for years that politics is more like wrestling than solo clarinet. Here's what I mean. As much as we tend to praise brilliant political leaders like Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan--with the kind of praise we might otherwise reserve for a wonderful soloist--they both led political enterprises that engaged in an activity more closely resembling wrestling than solo clarinet. One wrestler moves, the other responds. Repeat as necessary. In the political ecosystem, responses are continual. No important move evades response. It is sometimes said of political operatives that they think like chess players, plotting several moves in advance. What is meant by that metaphor is that political folk are always anticipating their adversaries' responses at the same time that they look for openings and opportunities to launch initiatives of their own.... Environmentalists were not willing to enter a wrestling match; they played their clarinet solos and expected other Americans to be as intoxicated as they were by the tune.
What Bill's doing is hoisting environmentalists on their own petard. After years of urging others to think ecologically while seeing politics as a one way affair -- speaking the Truth of Nature through Science -- Bill points out that real world politics is messy and increasingly democratic -- so much so that the green demand that we simply obey Nature (a demand that presumes that Nature speaks with but one voice) falls on deaf ears.
While other movements (at least in significant part) were founded on the insistence that institutions grant them respect and an opportunity to participate, greens persisted in issuing grim predictions and insisting that authority be ceded to them, implying not merely that they should have a voice in the conversation, but that the conversation should end, the sooner the better.
This authoritarian scientism resulted in a kind of dismissal of real world concerns, like jobs, economic growth, and development. He adds that environmentalists ignored the conservative movement's harnessing of cultural resentment, in the west in particular, until it was too late.
Resentment against "the 60s," antiwar radicals, feminists, and others was already starting to mobilize in the 1960s, as personified by George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, Kevin Phillips's "culture war" strategy for Nixon's 1968 campaign, and a legion of hard hats, cowboys, and other "real Americans." Surprisingly, it took until the late 1970s for the reaction to focus on environmentalism... Rachel Carson's breakthrough had been turned inside out.
Soon enough, greens were one of the prime targets for one of the most powerful recurrences of an age-old American political ritual, namely, a rowdy, populist politics of resentment. Reagan won the presidency after a campaign in which he uttered a steady stream of uninformed and condescending dismissals of environmentalism (and welfare, and affirmative action, and so on). The groundwork was laid for what would later become the wise use movement, made up of those bitterly opposed to environmental regulation as a signal of government's more general badgering of "real Americans."Before the 1980s ended, Rush Limbaugh would be carrying on about greens. Soon thereafter, the right would decide that global warming was a fiction.
Lest we think those bad old days of anti-environmentalism are over, consider that every effort to pass global warming legislation in Congress will be attacked for raising energy prices or taxes or both -- and those attacks will have a powerful impact and cannot be countered with ever-more reports about how bad global warming is going to be for our children and grandchildren. People have far more immediate today that must be addressed.
Creating a new politics means letting go of the jeremiads, which alienate more than they educate, and abandoning enviro-scientism, which is intended as truth-telling but is experienced, more often than not, as a dismissal of the very real concerns people have about their jobs, their bills, and their futures.
There are signs that environmentalists are starting to take all of this very seriously. Yesterday, Carl Pope of the Sierra Club posted a long review of our book on Grist. We'll be responding in more depth later, but we were heartened by his recognition of the problems Chaloupka and we identified.
Environmentalism flowered between 1965 and 1975; it took on the era's emerging politics -- with all the problems Nordhaus and Shellenberger identify. In that decade, national environmental organizations chose to change things quickly but shallowly, rather than more slowly and in depth. We retreated from the challenge of creating a new and positive economy, confining ourselves to advocating incremental improvements in the old economy. Deep down, we probably knew that the way we were achieving our critically important successes would require revisiting -- but we had no idea how hard that would turn out to be.