Environmentalism, The Politics Of Fear, And The Search For Meaning

[Peter Suderman]

Jim Manzi is the (guest) resident expert on the economics of climate change here, and he's written at length on the issue for both National Review and The American Scene. I find his conclusions extremely compelling, especially when he writes about the fundamental uncertainties in long-range predictions of either environmental or economic outcomes, and I'll leave the economic details to him. But while the economics of the issue are fascinating, in a policy wonk sort of way, there's another side of the issuea political and rhetorical side, in which environmentalism in general and global warming in particular become a totalizing ideology that stifles both individual liberties and democratic politics.  In the newest edition of n+1 (highly recommended!), Alex Gourevitch puts it marvelously in his essay, "The Politics of Fear," in which he compares the presentation of the war on global warming to the war on terror:

Yet in conditions when conventional political ideologies fail to inspire, there is a temptation to resort to the politics of fear as a way of restoring the power and authority of elites. The hope is that the quest for security, rather than anything higher, can become a unifying political principle in its own right.

…While Democrats have become increasingly uncomfortable with the anti-democratic consequences of the hard power of the war on terror, they seem more comfortable with a “soft power” politics of fear: environmentalism.

… The claim that universal risks – especially environmental ones – transcend conflicts of national, religious and class interest, is now part of mainstream political sociology. The paradigmatic “supra-national and non-class-specific global hazards” that the popular German sociologist, Ulrich Beck, identified as defining features of our time in his book Risk Society are the unintended environmental effects of industrializationlike pollution.

… Environmentalism is a left-wing politics of fear because it rests on the deeply fearful idea that only an overweening threat to our physical and collective health can inspire us to “transcendence.” Threats to the very conditions of life, rather than social controversies over power and distribution, come to motivate political engagement – an engagement that presumes setting to one side inequality and unfreedom as the central categories of political contestation.

The issue also included several responses to Gourevitch's piece (not online), but I found these almost entirely unconvincing. Ben Kunkel argues that drastic societal change is inevitable and thus "the sole alternative is to organize the world on a more local, modest, and… egalitarian basis." Chad Horbach essentially ignores Gourevitch's argument by insisting that since the current Democratic presidential candidates are talking about the issue using pro-growth, "business as usual" rhetoric, the politics of fear must not play a substantial role in the larger discussion of the issue. And Mark Greif says that while Gourevitch's worries might be legitimate, maybe that's no so bad if it leads to the success of progressive goals.

It seems to me that the shared essence of these responses actually proves Gourevitch's point.

All of them more or less resort to arguing that Gourevitch may or may not be right, but it doesn't matter because (cue thunderclap) global warming is coming to get us! As Gourevitch suggests, environmentalism, when it relies on strong appeals to fear, becomes a form of antipolitics, one intended to supersede both the collective and individual choices that are part of modern politics.  In this conception, environmental fear politics become a threat to both democratic populists and libertarian individualists. Gourevitch, I think, was extremely smart to frame the issue as a corollary to the war on terror.

That said, I wonder if there is not something inevitable about collective quests for revolution and transformation. In our secular, post-modern age, in which most people living in the first world have their basic needs met, there is an innate urge to find meaning in grand causes. Part of the reason we seek totalizing ideology is that, after finding food and shelter and some measure of economic stability, people naturally begin to seek out meaning.  There is an inherent dissatisfaction at work, a restless lack of contentment that refuses to be pinned down but manifests itself as a desire for spectacular transformation. Like the 40 year old in the suburbs who drifts slowly into a funk, human societies, at a certain point, are bound to begin wondering, "Well, we got here. What now?"

The rise of environmental politics, then, is an outgrowth of the externalities of the industrial age, yes, but it's also a society-wide existential crisis.  In civilizations past, the question "What are we living for?" would rarely have occurred; most people were too engaged in the simple, brutal business of trying to keep on living. Meaningand uncertainty about itare luxury goods; it is only our extreme wealth (by historical standards) that allows us to have these discussions anyway.