Thursday, May 5, 2011

Is sanity returning to the Environmental movement?

I expect that many of you are skeptical, but hear this out.  Via I Want A New Left, we find George Monbiot - possibly the UK's highest profile environmentalist - saying that the Environmental Movement is collapsing because it isn't grappling with reality:
You think you're discussing technologies, and you quickly discover that you're discussing belief systems. The battle among environmentalists over how or whether our future energy is supplied is a cipher for something much bigger: who we are, who we want to be, how we want society to evolve. Beside these concerns, technical matters – parts per million, costs per megawatt hour, cancers per sievert – carry little weight. We choose our technology – or absence of technology – according to a set of deep beliefs: beliefs that in some cases remain unexamined.

The case against abandoning nuclear power, for example, is a simple one: it will be replaced either by fossil fuels or by renewables that would otherwise have replaced fossil fuels. In either circumstance, greenhouse gases, other forms of destruction and human deaths and injuries all rise.
That's the opening; the rest of the article goes step by step through the flinching from an honest assessment of consequences that the green movement has been doing.  It's quite something to see, since this comes from Monbiot himself, and not from some evil neo-con Rethuglian Denier troll like your humble host.*

Monbiot is pretty brutal with his assessment, closing out that the movement is stuck in a hopeless pit of FAIL:
All of us in the environment movement, in other words – whether we propose accommodation, radical downsizing or collapse – are lost. None of us yet has a convincing account of how humanity can get out of this mess. None of our chosen solutions break the atomising, planet-wrecking project. I hope that by laying out the problem I can encourage us to address it more logically, to abandon magical thinking and to recognise the contradictions we confront. But even that could be a tall order.
It is indeed.  But it's a danged good start for some folks that have been in desperate need of some self-criticism for a good long time.  I Want A New Left examines this as the critical factor in getting the Left unwedged, but one that needs to be applied much more broadly than just environmentalism:
More generally, leftism’s general goals these days are very confused. Leftism wants to promote the ideals of feminism and gay liberation as absolutes, and at the same time it promotes cultural relativism. This has led to the strange and confused situation we have today, in which the left wants to empower Muslim immigrants, but ignores the fact that some are extremely sexist, homophobic, and anti-secular.
More magical thinking on display.  It springs from really quite astonishing blinders:
All of this confusion, it seems to me, has been caused by the expansion of goals that occurred during the Sixties, prior to which the left’s main goal was simply to help the workers. But even within that less-confused framework, we can raise some critical questions: What if America or something similar is the best that can be done for the poor? What if any attempt to make things significantly better for the poor will actually make things much, much worse? What if the constant criticisms of America’s “imperialist” foreign policies will not make the world any better but will actually, by weakening the world's de facto policeman, enable the rise of much more vicious imperialists, or if not that, then the revival of the slave trade?

Leftists who say they question everything seldom do; there are plenty of questions they don’t want to ask.
Nobody accused John Kenneth Galbraith of this sort of sloppy thinking.  But over the course of the last 50 years, intellectual rigor has faded from the Left, as they became entrenched in the Academy and the Media.  Suppression of opposing views became the preferred tactic; once the reins of power were in their hands, it was just plain easier to use that power to squelch uncomfortable debate.  The President of Harvard wonders if gender-based differences were hard-coded into humanity, leading to men having some advantage in fields like Mathematics and Sciences?  Fire him.

A half century of quick, easy, and tactical victories like that have led to a Left that doesn't question their own premises, or who become purged if they do (see the sorry example of Christopher Hitchens and The Nation).  As a result, conservative intellectuals have much better arguments these days.  You see quite a number of those conservative intellectuals who grew up as radical leftists.  You don't ever see the opposite any more.

This intellectual laziness makes for a comfortable time in the Faculty Lounge, but has disastrous consequences.  Today we see an Administration largely populated by Academics, not business people.  Their performance has been what you'd expect - long on talk and short on results. 

We need an intellectually vigorous left, one that is grounded in reality instead of magical thinking.  One that is more subtle and nuanced than the current set of people who seem to think that if they like a particular proposal, that proposal can't have any negative consequences.  One who takes a cold, hard look at their own assumptions, and doesn't flinch from what they see.


JD said...

Borepatch, is this a nice way of telling me I am not getting the Unicorn Obama promissed me to ride to work???

Rev. Paul said...

JD - nope. Nor the skittles and rainbow.

RobertSlaughter said...

I believe George Monbiot makes a fundamental error in his otherwise wonderfully insightful essay.

He assumes that the Environmental Movement actually gives a damn about the environment. In fact, the core of said movement is only interested in seeing the success of the European Progressive totalitarian regimes, and seeks to remove the one obstacle to that goal -- The US of A.

Which isn't to say there aren't environmentally-minded folks that could benefit from this self-reflection he tasks them with. But those who lead the organized movement have no such noble goals.

Ben Donahower said...

Most strains of the environmental movement don't have views that couldn't be explored at the same time. There are, however, different visions for what the future might look like.

A lot of people in the environmental movement look at Bill Gates, and he does have a certain way of deriding alternative energy that grates on people, but he is pursuing a technology, terrapower, that would resolve the problem of spent fuel rods and essentially power the world with cheap energy that produces no carbon emissions. Good for him!

Likewise, it's quite possible that we don't find a magic bullet like terrapower that will supply the energy we need in a cost that a growing world could afford. Thus, there are environmentalists think that we must pare down and conserve much more energy than we currently do.

There are a thousand other solutions that I could name as well, but the point is that I can reduce, reuse, and recycle at the same time I can advocate for some technological solution for the environmental issues we are facing.

It's hard because we are all so passionate but if we can put our own emotions to the side about a particular course for our society and instead know that we can pursue our solutions to our worldview with zeal while allowing others with different solutions to do the same, something will stick and we'll preserve our world for generations to come.

Borepatch said...

Ben, there's nothing wrong with anything that you say. I would suggest that Monbiot and I Want A New Left give us two criteria that all environmentalists should embrace - hopefully, these are not controversial:

1. Whatever the solution is, it has to scale. It doesn't help to find something that will provide 1% of the world's power needs. We need solutions that will provide 10% (or 20%, or 30%) or the exercise is pretty much a waste of time.

2. The solution cannot be more expensive than solutions we have today, because the poor would get screwed. A fabulous technology that keeps half the world's people in poverty is also a waste of time.

An honest assessment using these as guides will allow us to triage nice-to-have but ultimately nonviable solutions.

nptDilbert said...

For the past serveral weeks I've been investigating installing Solar Electric Roof panels. On the surface, you run the numbers and the ROI is a little less than 5 years, after which NStar pays me every month instead of the normal Bill.

.........However, It only works because the State has mandated that the utilities need to buy a percentage of the power they resesell from Solar sources ( Like me) at a much higher than market rate. Without tha ability to do that, my ROI drops to ........well - never.

Then there's the scaleing issue. Pretty staight forward, everybody has a roof and a connection to the grid.... a no brainer, of course it scales.

Well...... except that I can't put up enough panels to produce more KWH than I acually use. My bill only goes to minus because I can sell the power I produce for 4X what I can buy it for form the grid.

That and the fact if eveybody had solar panels on thier roofs the grid would have much more power than it needs during the day time and none at night. Which would result in starting and stopping all the fossile fired plants makeing them even more poluting.

........and I'll neeed to cut down some of my trees. It seems they shade the roof too much.

Unknown said...


Love the analysis...the two criteria judicious and humane as policy which impacts everyone should be. Maybe it's because I don't feel well--or the cynicism that is now part of me-an unwelcome part--but it seems to me that whichever side of this or any other issue--virtually all who can, cheat--find a way to get away with something...#1 Ask for more than can be realistically achieved--at least initially--and for #2 Come up with another criteria. There is nothing wrong with this one; and everything right with it, IMHO. It would be recognized as appropriate and just, however--back to the nature of man---the gap between intent and actual behavior, the gap between what one professes to believe and how one's behavior does not reflect professed beliefs,(not a judgement, an observation)

I know it is not universal---but it does seem to be more prevalent among the uber-wealthy. Those who aspire to such--seem not to realize that aspirations based on greed can cloud one's vision; if not blind one altogether.

If this criteria is used it will, I believe, be another reason the poor become despised and seen as a burden-- Once one perceives them as a burden to bear instead of a brother to feed, clothe, shelter and comfort when sick-- it becomes possible to not do as your faith requires and it is the sinful thought which precedes the deed. Once done, it is easier to do again.

I like the way you state the obvious folly of giving an identified enemy a piece of the dream...NOT good. I do not believe that there will come a time where everyone on the planet will hold hands and sing Kumbaya--it is plain stupid to assume such a thing is possible. Not every one on the planet is a 'friend I haven't met yet.'

While this group is not the only group who justify their conduct with their faith---there is nothing wrong with this; if it doesn't have the chance of subjugating or killing me or my descendants! If their religion allows or compels them to subjugate and kill their family members, well that is contrary to the intentions of the founding fathers-The Constitution protects our individual rights, including religion, mine requires using discernment, which is NOT judgement---we don't need to start importing people who further erode the principles of Liberty and Justice for All; particularly misogynistic ones--I have enough who are born here to contend with.

Thank you for a fine read.