Thursday, June 04, 2009

A Disengagement From Reality

What America needs, according to conservatives, is a culture of personal responsibility. What it doesn't need, according to conservatives, is to feel bad about the environmental effects of personal choices.

That doesn't make any sense at all, until you consider their need to make everything they say sound like an Eternal Verity, even if it's just some opportunistic gibberish they cobbled together on the spot. It's not the content of their pronouncements that's important; it's the form and the tone, and the implication that Western Civilization itself is speaking.

Which brings us to George Will, who loves personal responsibility unless it infringes on the carelessness and recklessness and greed that made America great.

Basically, Will agrees with those lovable one-trick ponies Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger that environmentalism is stupid and corrupt; this is a position they defend by ignoring any fact that doesn't support their view of environmentalism as some sort of hopelessly bourgeois cargo cult, while holding up equally bourgeois notions of "prosperity" as a beacon of hope for the developing world.

In "The Green Bubble: Why Environmentalism Keeps Imploding" [the New Republic, May 20], Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger...say that a few years ago, being green "moved beyond politics." Gestures -- bringing reusable grocery bags to the store, purchasing a $4 heirloom tomato, inflating tires, weatherizing windows -- "gained fresh urgency" and "were suddenly infused with grand significance."
That "grand significance" is personal responsibility, which I believe you'll find somewhere in William Bennett's Book of Virtures. In the case of tires and windows, there are also economic considerations, which I thought trumped just about everything.

Shopping decisions aren't "beyond politics" any more than voting is. Will knows this, normally, because he belongs to a subculture that sees (scientifically uninformed) consumer choice as a rubberstamp for political dogma; if Hummers are selling well, it means that The People Have Spoken and want Hummers, which means that environmentalism has been repudiated, which means that Freedom is on the march. But if people reject Hummers and start buying hybrids, it means that they're irrational faddists who don't understand that consumers are essentially powerless; they're simply trying to make themselves feel better by buying stuff (unlike, say, the principled patriots who stockpile guns).
A 2007 survey found that 57 percent of Prius purchasers said they bought their car because "it makes a statement about me." Honda, alert to the bull market in status effects, reshaped its 2009 Insight hybrid to look like a Prius.
Sounds like market forces in action, to me. People like Will tend not to question purchases that confer status and prestige unless they're "green" (or the buyer is black, but we'll put that aside for now). A $25,000 Rolex is fine, as is a Maserati or a $1,500 pair of cowboy boots that you'll wear only at board meetings. But when Prius buyers pursue social status...well, that's a different matter entirely. If you thought that private vice inevitably leads to public virtue, think again; there are still a few isolate cases where consumerist self-gratification is a social evil, and this is one of them.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger note the telling "insignificance," as environmental measures, of planting gardens or using fluorescent bulbs. Their significance is therapeutic, but not for the planet. They make people feel better.
The first point I need to make in response is that Nordhaus and Shellenberger are preening douchebags. (It doesn't advance my argument, I know, but it does make me feel better.) More important, the greater urgency and higher concern they claim to feel about environmental issues seems to me to be belied by the fact that they don't quite believe in the processes that actually cause environmental harm. If switching to fluorescent lightbulbs doesn't matter, neither does pouring your waste motor oil down the drain. If planting a garden doesn't matter, neither does spraying your lawn with pesticides. For people who are constantly prattling about the glories of the market, Nordhaus and Shellenberger and Will seem to be a little unclear on the aggregate effects of individual choice.

Except when it's politically useful, natch.
Now, say Nordhaus and Shellenberger, "the green bubble" has burst, pricked by Americans' intensified reluctance to pursue greenness at a cost to economic growth. The dark side of utopianism is "escapism and a disengagement from reality that marks all bubbles, green or financial." Reengagement with reality is among the recession's benefits.
OK, let's recap. People used to be "pursue greenness" because they foolishly believed that individual decisions could affect the environment. But now, the recession has made them realize that green choices hinder economic growth, or that the lack of economic growth hinders green choices, or something. Thus, they're leaving escapism and utopianism behind, in order to reengage with the reality of limitless growth without consequences and personal responsibility without guilt. And we know all of this because of the close attention we've paid to consumer buying patterns and opinions, which are meaningless except inasmuch as they confirm what George Will already believes.

I look forward to future installments of Will's column, in which he'll rail against the Green Bubble as though it had never actually burst.


ellroon said...

Where on earth is that shot of the guy in the boat taken? Ocean? Lake? Looks like it could be out in the one of the gyres of the Pacific that is now loaded with plastics...

Phila said...

Looks like it could be out in the one of the gyres of the Pacific that is now loaded with plastics...

I believe that's where it's from...that was the image I was searching for, but I couldn't find a credit for the photo....

Anonymous said...

Two words:

Nuclear Power

Bam, all your problems solved.

Why not? Oh thats right environmentalists don't believe in physics, so they can't trust how safe it is.

Phila said...

Bam, all your problems solved.

Great! If only everything in life were that simple.