There is a word in American politics that represents all our local, regional, and global concerns about the condition of the land, water, and sky; all plant and animal life; and our own lives insofar as they are affected (and they’re always affected) by the foregoing. If one word must be so overworked in the service of such vast, essential affairs, it would be nice to have a reverent, all-encompassing one, like Tao or YHWH. Instead we’ve been stuck with environmentalism—a gloomy, marginal term, with a breeze of irrelevance whistling through the bureaucratic archways of its ns and ms.
The place of the physical world in our political rhetoric has become slightly more prominent of late, a change led by Democrats and motivated by the most visible early effects of global warming. Like Alex Gourevitch, I have qualms about this rhetorical shift. Not because I believe environmentalism threatens to become a totalizing existential framework, used by elites to consolidate their power. Rather, the rhetoric of environmentalism is being rapidly subsumed by, and used to ratify, the totalizing existential framework that already exists: that of the global growth economy.
In Alex Gourevitch’s essay, as in America generally these days, “environmentalism” refers to something very specific: a stated desire to avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming. This formulation is notable for the issues it omits: the depletion of vital resources; the pollution of rivers, groundwater, and cropland; the decimation of unique ecosystems and natural beauty; and the fact that fewer than half the earth’s species are predicted to survive the century.
It’s also notable for the premises it doesn’t have to embrace: either that nature and nonhuman life have inherent value (the so-called “deep” ecological argument); or that it is prudent to preserve that nature and life for our perpetual use (the “shallow” argument). Most of the characteristic ground of environmentalism washes away; as long as you voice concern about global warming (even in the absence of any real intention to do anything), you are now green, and can, conveniently, be praised or derided as such.
Here is the heart of Thomas Friedman’s green manifesto: “The only thing as powerful as Mother Nature is Father Greed.” Not much of a moral framework, really, and surely not anything new. Friedman puts on a bright green suit to sing a song about economic expansion. He wants America to “compete in a flatter world” and “thrive in a warmer” one, never acknowledging that flatness is hastening warmness and that warmness may soon deliver us to an awful, compromised roundness. He’s not keen on collective sacrifice, either: “I am not proposing that we radically alter our lifestyles.” (A point he goes on to clarify, with intriguing syntax: “We are who we are—including a car culture.”) For Friedman, green is a groovy new brand, a value-add for the American economy: “Green is not about cutting back. It’s about creating a new cornucopia of abundance for the next generation by inventing a whole new industry.” The line is drawn: We will not shift our patterns of life to fit the demands of even the mildest environmentalism; the definition of environmentalism must shift to fit those patterns of life.
And yet even Friedman can see the cant that pervades the Democratic Party: “Today’s presidential hopefuls are largely full of hot air on the climate-energy issue. Not one of them is proposing anything hard, like a carbon or gasoline tax.” The candidates know that global warming is happening. (This marks a slight improvement over the last election.) They also understand that a growing fraction of Americans, including especially those that vote Democratic, also know that global warming is happening, and are worried about it. Therefore “energy efficiency” has been elevated to the status of a campaign topic—it requires a bulleted list on the campaign website and a plan, however vague. Each of the candidates declares that we must avoid the worst effects of global warming, while avoiding mention of what those effects might be; they declare that we must cut emissions by 80 percent by 2050, while avoiding mention of the profound changes that this would entail (or that many experts believe it an insufficient goal). They plan to tinker with market mechanisms (e.g., bump up fuel efficiency standards by inconsequential increments), and then “let markets work” (i.e., do nothing). They intend to create “new, high-paying jobs” (Edwards)—in fact, “hundreds of thousands” of them (Obama)—thereby turning this pesky global warming into a “win-win” (Clinton).
I think this could be characterized as the opposite of a politics of fear. It is a politics of assuagement—of false security and business as usual. It gives a dollar to a struggling wind farmer. It temporizes. It paints gigantic risks as minimal so as to release us from the responsibility of facing them. Political candidates used to do nothing about global warming, not even talk; now they are talking, so the rest of us can rest. American business is on the verge of going green—it will always be on the verge.
Meanwhile the experts continue to raise the alarm. Here is James Lovelock, originator of Gaia theory (which argues persuasively that the earth’s living and nonliving parts interact as a single, self-regulating system): “Civilization is in grave danger. . . . Before this century is over, billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the arctic region where the climate remains tolerable.” Lovelock may be wrong, but he is far from alone among climate scientists. As CO₂ levels continue to rise (385 parts per million at present), estimates of the levels needed to avert global catastrophe continue to go down. James Hansen, NASA’s top climate scientist, writes, “Very little additional forcing is needed to cause dramatic effects. . . . The dangerous level of CO₂ is at most 450 ppm, and it is probably less.” Despite such warnings, the US Department of Energy predicts a 33 percent rise in our fossil-fuel consumption by 2030.
We are confused and overconfident; we believe that our prosperity springs from our technological ingenuity, and that ingenuity, being omnipotent, needs only to be called upon in the moment of dire need. (Until then it refines the iPod.) In truth our prosperity springs from the ground, in the form of oil. It’s hard to describe the awesomeness of oil. We constantly underestimate its awesomeness, even as we fight wars to secure it. Petroleum has special properties: it provides us eons’ worth of solar power, compressed into an easily extractable, portable liquid form. Our ingenuity has harnessed these properties. It cannot replicate them. It’s true that the oil economy is propped up by massive tax breaks, investment in infrastructure, et cetera, and that these nonmarket benefits should be removed immediately. But other sources of energy will require even more massive propping-up. We will never live like we did in the oil days.
America and the fossil-fuel economy grew up together; our triumphant history is the triumphant history of these fuels. We entrusted to them (slowly at first, and with increasing enthusiasm) the work of growing our food, moving our bodies, and building our homes, tools, and furniture—they freed us for thought and entertainment, and created our ideas of freedom. These ideas of freedom, in turn, have created our existential framework, within which one fear dwarfs all others: the fear of economic slowdown (less growth), backed by deeper fears of stagnation (no growth) and, unthinkably, contraction (anti-growth). America does have a deeply ingrained, morally coercive politics based on a fear that must never be realized, and this is it. To fail to grow—to fail to grow ever faster—has become synonymous with utter collapse, both of our economy and our ideals.
I would like to predict that, as the consequences of our destructive practices become ever harder to ignore, a real ecological politics will emerge. Such a politics would take as its first principle the fact that human life depends on the Earth, and its debates would proceed from, instead of denying, this principle. (Despite the assurances of technofantasists, we’re much closer to turning earth into Mars than vice versa.) This politics would be both reasonable and profoundly radical. It would not in itself ensure social justice—the long-held dream of equal privileges and security for all people—but it could permit the survival of these dreams, and even lay the groundwork for their realization.
I fear, though, that time will only render such a politics less possible. The problem with emergencies is that they sometimes exist. We are immersed in one now, and it is precisely our existential framework that prevents us from noticing. We have long been the country of rapid expansion and unlimited, oil-girded growth. Now we must become a different kind of country—a country that holds our corporations accountable for the full ecological consequences of their actions, especially by taxing carbon emissions at a high rate; channels all our formidable scientific ingenuity toward mitigating global warming and preserving what remains of the nonhuman world; and forges an international agreement that will keep CO₂ levels below 450 ppm. We must drive much less, fly much less, shop much less; buy locally grown food; decline beef and bottled water. We cannot simply await and adjust to government edicts, which will always be corporately influenced and insufficient; we must change our practices today, while demanding strong laws and a localized, oil-free infrastructure.
Most of all, we must reject the coercive rhetoric of constant growth, and stop thinking of our way of life (which is so anomalous in the history of the world, and even in the world today) as immutable. This is not a moral challenge, but a practical and philosophical one. Can we think of ourselves sufficiently differently to save ourselves?