Very rich article from TNR that critiques various aspect of the mass environmentalist movement, and its infiltration and subsequent influence on upper middle class Americans.
Point one: environmentalism is as much of a reaction against social discordance as it is about environmental disasters.
Much like the most recent episode, each of these past bursts of environmentalism waxed and waned with the rise and fall of the economy. But, perhaps more significantly, the green bubbles inflated during highly polarized periods in American society and politics, often fueled by disastrously violent episodes in foreign policy.
At the same time that liberal professionals were feeling estranged politically, they were also feeling alienated personally and socially. For perhaps the first time in history, according to New York University sociologist Dalton Conley’s new book, Elsewhere, U.S.A., American elites were working longer hours than the poor. They were making more money, but the price they paid was longer commutes, the commodification of everything (from private schools to bottled water), and less time for themselves, their families, and their friends. 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.
In a naive pursuit to engage in responsible consumption, the environmentally conscious nevertheless fall for the same manipulative marketing gimmicks.
Little surprise, then, that they would start buying a whole new class of products to demonstrate their ecological concern. Green consumption became what sociologists call “positional consumption”–consumption that distinguishes one as elite–and few things were more ecopositional than the Toyota Prius, whose advantage over other hybrid cars was its distinctive look. A 2007 survey that appeared in The New York Times found that more Prius owners (57 percent) said they bought the car because it “makes a statement about me” than because of its better gas mileage (36 percent), lower emissions (25 percent), or new technology (7 percent). Prius owners, the Times concluded, “want everyone to know they are driving a hybrid.” The status effects were so powerful that, by early 2009, Honda’s new Insight Hybrid had been reshaped to look like the triangular Prius.
Point two: the green elites inevitably reject the modernity project, without acknowledging that modernity in what they are in fact trying to protect.
Despite the rhetoric about “one planet,” not all humans have the same interests when it comes to addressing global warming. Greens often note that the changing global climate will have the greatest impact on the world’s poor; they neglect to mention that the poor also have the most to gain from development fueled by cheap fossil fuels like coal. For the poor, the climate is already dangerous. They are already subject to the droughts, floods, hurricanes, and diseases that future warming will intensify. It is their poverty, not rising carbon-dioxide levels, that make them more vulnerable than the rest of us.
By contrast, it is the richest humans–those of us who have achieved comfort, prosperity, and economic security for ourselves and for our children–who have the most to lose from the kind of apocalyptic global-warming scenarios that have so often been invoked in recent years. The existential threat so many of us fear is that we might all end up in a kind of global Somalia characterized by failed states, resource scarcity, and chaos. It is more than a little ironic that at the heart of the anti-modern green discourse resides the fear of losing our modernity.
Point three: romanticizing about poverty is just plain stupid.
Nonetheless, it has become an article of faith among many greens that the global poor are happier with less and must be shielded from the horrors of overconsumption and economic development–never mind the realities of infant mortality, treatable disease, short life expectancies, and grinding agrarian poverty. 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 lightbulbs, 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.