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National Scolds

In October of 2004 Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus published a critique of the environmental movement, which they claimed was too focused on technical and policy arguments over regulations and not focused enough on presenting a positive vision that inspired people to its cause. It had become the dour uncle, focused on limits and sacrifice, presenting a grim future with a message of “just say no” to progress. wrote about their article and about the ensuing debate within the environmental community over the future of environmentalism. I thought the self-critique was insightful and overdue, but I thought they overlooked one aspect of modern environmentalism that contributes to its decline within the broad American population. I sent this letter to address that aspect, but it was not published.

A couple of months later Nicholas Kristof also used their paper as the starting point for his own critique of the environmental movement in The New York Times, so I sent the same letter to him as well.

15 January 2005

The critique of the modern environmental movement — that it fails to project a positive vision for America’s future (and the world’s) for people to embrace — is only half right. More to the point is that environmentalists have become not just national doomsayers but national scolds.

The problem with environmentalism (the political movement, not the science) is that its public face seems to be dominated by its ascetic fringe. For example, in environmental movement dogma it is not enough to point out (quite correctly) the environmental costs of our addiction to SUVs; it is also necessary to discount as beneath contempt any mention of the benefits an SUV offers (eg. cargo space, flexible seating, high sightlines, robustness in collisions, and — yes — a visceral and pleasurable feeling of power you get when you are behind the wheel) and to assert as a moral tenet that those benefits are utterly irrelevant, that “no one needs an SUV”. On item after item in the environmentalists’ agenda, it seems that they dismiss out of hand the costs of their plans, not because they have carefully analyzed the tradeoffs required but because, in their moral world-view, there is simply no justification ever for expending resources on mere desire, on mere comfort, on mere convenience, on mere pleasure, on mere — humanity.

Most people are not ascetes and are understandably and legitimately discomfited with a moral creed that makes what we “need” the limit of what we are to be permitted. People don’t want to be told they are immoral for wanting more than basic survival. People don’t want to be scolded for having human desires.

What the environmental movement needs, more than anything, is to listen to the concerns people — and even “conservatives” — have about what they are being asked to give up in the name of environmentalism. If you want people to give up SUVs, offer an alternative that provides similar benefits at lower environmental cost — don’t merely admonish them to cram into that compact hybrid (or the even more compact electric car) because it is their moral duty.

In short, come down from your mountain and design an environmentalism for the real world: an environmentalism that respects human desires not just human needs; an environmentalism based on practical effect rather than on moral imperative; an environmentalism that treats people like responsible adults who can make tradeoffs when they are offered, rather than like impulsive children who must be coerced into compliance with paternalistic whims.

© Copyright 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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