Secular Right | Reality & Reason



Environmentalism: Merely a fashion statement?

Any pundit, such as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, who continues to advocate an elevated gas tax as a solution to foreign oil dependency or global warming is fundamentally unserious.  When Hillary Clinton called for releases from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve during the 2008 election, it became blindingly obvious—yet again–that no politician is willing to deliberately raise gas prices on the American consumer, however valid such a policy might be.  Obama’s decision at the end of June to release 60 billion barrels of crude oil from  the Reserve further confirms that Democrats are just as determined as Republicans to cushion Americans from pump price shock. 

This political reality suggests that environmentalism is also a fundamentally unserious movement.  Environmentalists (and I consider myself one) pretend to embrace the virtues of self-abnegation, but do so only up to the borders of their consumption comfort zone.  If truly “caring for the environment” required anyone to give up his core lifestyle, the response would be: “Sorry, no can do.”  The lifestyle changes that people are willing to embrace—recycling; driving a cool Prius; possibly, in a few cases, taking one’s own bags to the farmer’s market—are things that we are already willing to do.  If saving the planet required us to turn off our computers and wireless devices, or running the electricity just 8 hours a day, no one would do it.   The backlash against the upcoming fluorescent bulb rule among undoubtedly leftie designers and other members of the cultural elite  illustrates the exact location of the sacrifice line that people will not cross: the one that asks them to give up what they value.  (“I have a light-enough carbon footprint in the other aspects of the design, so I can allow myself a lighting splurge,” explains a Washington restaurateur in justifying his use of traditional bulbs–a completely ungrounded assertion: how does he know his “carbon footprint” and what it allows for?)  The breathtaking hypocrisy of an Al Gore and the entire Hollywood elite, voracious consumers of every energy-hogging transportation, communication, and labor-saving device evolved by human ingenuity, or the wealthy’s resistance to unsightly “renewable energy” infrastructure in such prized backyards as Nantucket Island,  are simply larger-than-life examples of the gap between rhetoric and conduct which we all suffer from.  The difference between the carbon footprint of Ford Expedition-driving, NASCAR-attending, Rush Limbaugh-cheering, enviro-hating Red-Blooded Americans and the staffers of the Natural Resources Defense Council is only at the margins, at best.   NRDC and Sierra Club staffers are just as reliant on an entire web of energy production and delivery for their 21st century lifestyles, their homes have been just as carved out from pristine nature, as any of the yahoos they despise.  Putting a solar panel on your roof or occupying a “green” building can’t begin to restore the massive alterations of nature that our civilized life, with its asphalt roads, power lines, and dams, has already exacted and continues to exact.

The alternative Democratic technique for showing sensitivity to the environment when it come to global warming—imposing higher fuel efficiency standards on the car industry—is a coward’s strategy.  Obama’s proposed new CAFE  standards are a highly inefficient way to lower gas consumption; the most efficient way would in fact be a gas tax.  But since that would require asking Americans to sacrifice up front, it is far more politically palatable to pretend that the real villains are corporations who are somehow forcing Americans to buy cars that they don’t want, as the NRDC’s Roland Hwang preposterously argued on Warren Olney’s To the Point today, and to make the costs of lowering gas use presently invisible to the consumer and voter. 

As a California nature buff, I  am horrified by (what I would deem) unnecessary electricity and water use: leaving appliances, including computers, on when you are not using them; running your air conditioning when you are not home, or, frankly, even when you are; and the worst: letting precious water run unused in showers and taps.   And yet if someone told me that I had to give up swimming in order to be conservationist when it comes to water or energy–that swimming is an unnecessary frill–I would rebel.  We conserve only what we are prepared to do.  Does that make the instinct useless?  Perhaps.  And yet it feels like a salutary virtue.



  • Brett Stevens · July 8, 2011 at 1:24 am

    To my mind, the point of conservationism is that we limit our land use.

    That way, the damage we can do is limited, and absorbed by a larger natural area.

    Even if we cut out all the swimming pools, hair dryers and SUVs, the rising human population will obliterate any gains.

    20 x 5 = 10 x 10

    If you halve the resources used and double the population, you have the same result.

  • Vince · July 8, 2011 at 1:32 am

    I would like to point out that while the backlash against the upcoming fluorescent bulb rule may in part be comprised of “leftie designers and other members of the cultural elite,” the far right appears to a far bigger part. Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill that allows the continued manufacture and sale of incandescent light bulbs in Texas. And even q quick search show how many self-described members of the (or a) Tea Party condemns the rule as more government interference.

    Nonetheless, in general I couldn’t agree with you more.

  • Matt Foss · July 8, 2011 at 2:33 am

    Well said – the Democratic Party seems to regard the environment as little more than a buzzword to chant at election time.

    I think that humanity needs to accept that it is inherently an invasive species in most environments on this planet. We’re going to wreak environmental havoc just by being here, and we are all individually responsible for mitigating that havoc.

    I do take issue with the idea of using a gas tax alone as an incentive – that puts an undue burden on blue-collar workers whose livelihood depends on vehicle use (and whose labor supports the lifestyles of the “liberal” cultural elite).

  • John · July 8, 2011 at 2:42 am

    “If truly “caring for the environment” required anyone to give up his core lifestyle, the response would be: ‘Sorry, no can do.'”

    This is why I am fundamentally not afraid of the environmental movement. When push comes to shove, people want their jobs, cars, and lifestyle too much to give them up. And people living in poor countries are not going to be willing to stay poor for the environmentalists.

    Socialism, suitcase nukes, ethnic balkanisation, these are what keep me up at night. I’m not afraid of Al Gore.

  • Pat Shuff · July 8, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion Versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America

    Nelson compellingly argues that religion is a powerful force in economic and social life, . . . even if that fact is seldom recognized by most academics and policy makers. The dominant religious influences are secularized versions of Catholicism and Protestantism, not because the leading scholars are piously trying to advance their faith by other means, but because their intellectual horizons have been shaped by world-views that have framed their consciousness. He convinces me that unless these presuppositions are acknowledged, examined, broadened, and revised, the economic and ecological crises that the world now faces will not be understood or met at their deeper levels. –Max L. Stackhouse, Princeton Theological Seminary

    Repent. Forgive me Father/Mother Gaia for I have sinned. Vast expenditures and costs imposed for dubious environmental ends or benefits but psychologically/emotionally satisfying as penance.
    Comparative analysis of theological thinking through the centuries with key environmental figures that shaped the movement. Switch a couple words…God, nature…the song remains the same. Makes the case that the inherited theological framework comprises the entire intellectual horizon beyond which lies only unthinkables. Left implicit to be inferred is the mockery made of separation of church and state when legislative policy is secular religious doctrine,
    fatwahs issued by mullahs.

  • Pat Shuff · July 8, 2011 at 4:43 pm

  • Winston · July 8, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    Well, what do YOU suggest should be done? My own approach would be to create tax incentives for technological advances – much higher gas mileage cars, for example. But I have been waiting, in vain so far, for suggestions from conservatives who accept that global warming is real.

  • Polichinello · July 8, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    In the long run, we don’t really need to do anything. The changes proposed would result in negligible improvement to the climate, and even if we could implement them in this country, the Chinese and the Indians have both made it clear they’re going ahead full steam, so any improvements we make will be lost in the carbon flood from Asia.

    What we can rely on is that the globe’s population will hit a plateau about mid-century, and this combined with increasing efficiency will mitigate global warming.

    That said, energy economy has benefits beyond the less tangible benefit of climate change. Cleaner air is one example.

    In pursuit of that, I think we should look at some sort of carbon tax with compensating cuts in the income tax code. There’s some number crunching that would need to be done to ensure an appropriate level of progressivity, but that seems like the way to go that would satisfy global warming concerns and conservative anxiety about overtaxation and regulation.

  • Mercer · July 8, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    In the first paragraph Heather says raising the gas tax is “unserious”. In the third paragraph she says raising Cafe standards are inefficient. Does she want any action to reduce oil consumption?

    You don’t have to be convinced of global warning to think US oil consumption should be reduced. Worldwide oil exports are not keeping up with the rise in demand from China and India. We can try to lower consumption now or wait for the next spike in prices to shock the economy.

  • James · July 15, 2011 at 12:41 am

    If you accept that the theory of Peak Oil is fundamentally correct as I do then there is no need for a gasoline tax. Skyrocketing oil prices will result in more efficient vehicles faster than you can say Jack Robinson.



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