Greenism: Strategy, Roots, Consequences
Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. This essay is adapted from a speech given at the annual meeting of the Property Rights Foundation on October 20, 2012.
A critical attitude toward Greenism has lately emerged, largely confined to specific issues, like global warming, although some excellent books by Steve Milloy and Paul Driessen have gone beyond particular issues to more general accounts of where Greenism is taking us. I am grateful to these critics, but no one, so far as I know, has named Greenism's most effective strategy, nor has anyone revealed its roots. Critics have been bemused by the trees and missed the forest. It is my purpose to show you the forest.
From the beginning, human beings have been environmentalists. They had to be or the species would not have survived because, like all animals, we must eat to live, and since consumption is never immaculate, we excrete waste. It is not healthy to wallow in one's own filth, so those humans who kept their surroundings relatively clean survived and thrived. They voided their excrement in the back of the cave, the same place where they threw the mastodon bones, and in time, when they lived in settlements, they dumped their refuse in communal dumps beyond the village, the so-called kitchen middens beloved of archaeologists, and later their waste went into canyons and rivers and holes in the ground, and eventually we used incinerators and sanitary landfills.
This is the rule of environmental change; as our economy develops and we create more wealth, we become dissatisfied with the old solutions and we change them; the solution at one stage of development becomes a problem at the next stage. We solved our waste problem at one time by discharging it in rivers - out of sight, out of mind - but when we gained more wealth and our sensibilities were refined, and we saw more uses for clean rivers, we created sewage treatment plants.
There are two observations to be drawn from this account. First, everything depends on wealth. Because we live in an economy of scarcity so cannot pluck the trees for bread, we must match our expenditure to our resources. We must first create wealth before we can spend it on the environment. Conversely, without ample resources, the environment suffers. Remember that. The second observation is that human beings are at the center of the process; we stop fouling the river, not because of the river in itself but for our own sakes. We have more uses for the river, and a clean river pleases us. Our focus is on our own comfort and safety and economic development and pleasure, and it is from this point of view that everything is judged.
This is true of all forms of environmental amenities, not just waste disposal. Think of conservation. The national parks and forests, State parks, and Migratory Bird Act were part of a drive to preserve the natural world for ourselves, for our use as well as pleasure.
Until the 1960s environment was no more than the neutral name for our surroundings - it had no other significance. Then it was radically changed by the emerging forces of Greenism and it became a concept charged with ominous significance; a sacred, mystical entity, sometimes vaguely universal as in "saving the planet," sometimes quite specific and material, as a snail darter or a spotted owl. Now human needs were no longer at the center, because we were now seen as enemies of nature; if we were present it was as villains, destroyers of the environment dragged on stage to be accused in a show trial, as in the ever more rigorous mandates of the Environmental Protection Agency. We are all guilty of using fossil fuel to run our vehicles and generate electricity, so we shall be punished by shutting down coal-fired stations and by being denied inexpensive fuel.
We must understand this redefinition that has made our environment into a moral bludgeon. Only selfish, heedless people would despoil such a sacred entity, and it is by shaming us, by making us feel guilty about the environment, that we are cowed into submission. We must grasp this master strategy, the redefinition of environment over the last fifty years, because until we do Greens will always have us on the defensive. I cannot stress this enough.
Now I shall tell how this magic word was used twenty years ago to destroy the forest industry in the Pacific Northwest, a story that's probably generally familiar to my readers, so I shall confine myself to my own small role in the affair and what I learned from it.
Because this deals with a supposedly endangered species, the spotted owl, I must say a few words about species extinction. You have probably read that every day, in our needless destructive way, we are exterminating species at a great rate, that every time an acre is cleared in the Amazon jungle untold number of species are destroyed, some of which might eventually have yielded a cure for cancer. The truth is that we know nothing about species extinction. Absolutely nothing. We don't know how many species are on the earth today, nor how many were here yesterday, or last year, or fifty years ago, or 500 years ago, and we know of only a few, fewer than 100, cases of extinction in the historical record, like the dodo bird and the passenger pigeon. While we understand what happened to the dodo bird - it was edible, like a large turkey, it was flightless, and it lived on an island - there is still argument about the pigeon's demise, the last one of which died in a zoo eighty-nine years ago. Some observers think that in the endless churning of evolution species are being created and destroyed all the time. The current theory about the spotted owl, by the way, is that it was losing out in competition with the barred owl.
So the purported extermination of the spotted owl, something specific, identifiable and countable, a denizen and representative of the sacred environment, was being used to kill the lumber industry, and somehow I got involved, by mail, with a group on the Olympic peninsula - loggers, sawyers, businessmen - who had formed in opposition to the Greens, and I began to write for their newsletter. The owl business was still before the court, the situation was still up in the air, and most people seemed to think common sense would prevail. The group staged rallies and held benefits and raised money and advanced arguments in the newsletter, and before long I saw that they didn't know what they were up against, they were fooling themselves, and their cause was doomed. I was a veteran of some bruising forestry struggles in Nova Scotia in the 1980s, so I was not completely ignorant, but I was ignorant enough, as you shall see.
What was mistaken about the argument of the anti-Greens was that it cried about jobs; think of the jobs that would be lost if the forest industry were shut down! Jobs, jobs, jobs. The same stupid argument has been used about the oil pipeline from Canada. Greens, of course, couldn't care less; after all, they thought of the industry as a collection of debased exploiters of the sacred environment. Some soothing pap was spread around about Green jobs in tourism, but like President Obama's Green jobs, they never amounted to anything.
In all such controversies the people who matter are not the contenders but the audience, and while the jobs argument might have meant something to them once, by then they had been taught to believe in the sacred environment and any supposed threat was regarded as a catastrophe. If you are told that your house is on fire, why should you care about jobs? So the Greens triumphed and that was the end of the forest industry and soon it will be the end of the forest, too. What I wanted the group to do was to argue that logging could go on without endangering the owls, a position for which there was abundant evidence. That supposed that the owls were the issue, a nave idea. The Greens wanted to end forestry, and the owl was merely a pretext: if we had gotten around that they would have come up with something else.
My argument was good so far as it went, but it didn't go far enough. We had to go beyond the issue of the owls to confront the whole Green concept of the environment that was only a cover story, a strategy to gain their real goal; they didn't give a damn about the owls nor about the forest. They wanted to stop any activity that would use our natural resources to increase our prosperity and improve our lives. Learn this truth; Greenism is by intent impoverishing. A year ago I listened to two of my relatives (I'm sorry to say) exulting over the campaign to close the nuclear generating plant in Vermont, because then the cost of electricity would go up by 30 percent. Wouldn't that be terrific! Then everyone would be forced to go Green. This callousness, this selfishness is a hallmark of Greenism. Nor is it confined to these shores. Robert, Paarlberg's book, Starved for Science, shows how Greens are preventing the spread of modern farming techniques to Africa. And they are doing the same thing in India. Paul Driessen's Eco-imperialism is the definitive study.
But come back to that strange idea; to stop any activity that would use our natural resources to increase our prosperity and improve our lives. Why would anyone want to do that?
Now we get down to the roots of Greenism. In this space I cannot go back to its beginning in the late 18th century, but I can go back 100 years to the time just before the First World War when the idea I'm getting at - utopianism - first appeared as a potentially mainstream idea in America. My readers probably know that various utopian communities were established here in the 19th century, but they were eccentrics of no consequence in normal American life. The utopianism I am speaking of began in Europe and there it would finally culminate in Bolshevism and Nazism, Communism, and Nationalism, but here it took the form of generalized radicalism, antibourgeois, vaguely socialistic, what we should call utopian greed, ready to attach itself to almost any cause. Its first proponents were Greenwich Villagers, Bohemians (to use an antique trope), and in the 1920s it spread to the artistic avant garde. By the 1930s Communism was the vehicle of utopian greed, and the Popular Front policy of 1935 attracted a number of ordinary Americans, not Bohemian. Stifled by the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, Communism as a utopian vehicle was killed by the Cold War, and there was a time, the decade of the 1950s, the Eisenhower years, where utopian greed was quiescent. With the emergence of the New Left in 1960, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring two years later, and then Earth Day, utopian greed sprang to life. Without utopian zeal behind it, Greenism would never have become so powerful.
Green ideologues believe in the goodness of nature: human beings and their civilization are a curse, and the only way to mitigate the curse is to live so-called "simple" lives in a de-developed, re-wilded country. Human enclaves will be just that, islands in a continent of wilderness, Green utopia. Obviously it's crazy, full of contradictions, but on the way terrible damage will be done to our lives, to our country. No Communist ever lived in a classless society, no Nazi ever experienced the 1000 year Reich, but remember what havoc they wreaked along the way to their unattainable utopias! I am not saying we will soon see Green concentration camps, but remember that James Hansen called for war crimes trials for global warming skeptics. What I am saying is that it is utopian greed that fuels the Greenism zeal to prevent development and diminish our resources. And that is how Greenism is the enemy of real environmental improvement; by reducing our wealth it ensures environmental degradation.
There's another consequence of utopianism, one that I think is a great weakness. Utopians always begin with general benevolence: everyone shall be uplifted, everyone shall share the benefits of the new order. Once the bandwagon gets rolling, however, it turns out that the circle of beneficiaries gets smaller and smaller. I need not recapitulate the history of Bolshevism or Naziism or even what happened in some of those 19th century utopian communities; the rulers quickly exhibit contempt for the masses.
Americans are not comfortable without the concept of class; we like to think we are all middleclass, but in fact there are strong class feelings beneath the surface. As upper middleclass utopians, Greens feel scorn for unGreens, Unutopian Americans, regarding them as helots, beasts browsing in the Walmart sties, Yahoos in Consumerland, and they hardly disguise their contempt. That's another reason Greenism measures are so punitive - the urge to coerce the recalcitrant herd, so obvious in this administration, comes from their scorn for their fellow Americans, and because we hate such condescension, this is a great Green weakness.
A couple of months ago I had a revealing conversation with a neighbor, a prominent Greenism ideologue just returned from a long trip surveying all the state lands and parks from Georgia to Canada with the idea of planning their merger into an unbroken wilderness along the eastern seaboard. He's now writing a book about it, sponsored by the Wildlands Project. We live on a country gravel road three miles long with a dozen homes and farms on it, a rural working class neighborhood, and I was praising the young people. They all have a job after school, two jobs in summer, saving money for college, and our sparsely populated road has produced three high school valedictorians in the last ten years. But my Green neighbor was having none of it. Those kids take to the woods on snowmobiles, they drive ATVs on hiking trials, and he knew they were unGreen as he could tell by listening to them for just a few minutes. People thus revealed themselves quite plainly, he said. Taken aback, I said that such knowledge in any but the most superficial sense was absurd, but he insisted that once he discerned what he thought was an unGreen attitude he knew all there was to know. He was looking at people in an instrumental way, as pawns, as means to his end.
From a humanist point of view he was abominably wrong. And that must be our point of view. We have been on the defensive, ceding the moral high ground to Greenism, but now we must take back that ground by showing that Greenism is environment's worst enemy, driven by a horribly destructive zeal, but even as we fight against this monstrous idea, we must remember that we are fighting for something. Not just for the freedom and prosperity of ourselves and our fellow Americans, but for people overseas, too. Keep that always in mind, let it burn as a flame before us and we shall defeat this profoundly anti-human cause. *