Thursday, July 10, 2008

Boutique Enrivonmentalism

Earlier today I purchased lunch at the campus restaurant. I got two salad containers, one for vegetables and one for fruit. In the course of putting the fruit in the smaller container, I spilled some of it. Being a civic-minded sort of person, I immediately went in search of napkins to clean it up, which would necessitate a trash can into which to throw the napkins. Finding them, particularly the trash can, was astonishingly difficult. In the end, having retrieved the napkins and cleaned the mess up, I had to actually exit the restaurant and walk down the hall of the building in which it is located to find a trash can, and then to search among the three possibilities for the one that is not for plastic and not for newspapers.

I do not know why it was so difficult to accomplish such a simple task, but I strongly suspect it has something to do with "sustainability." Our campus, like many, has a sustainability initiative, and a sustainability committee full of earnest people with sustainability on the brain working to make our campus, well, sustainable. Whether "sustainability" is even a meaningful empirical concept, and if so what exactly it means, are subjects for another day. But I was motivated to think about the increasing plague on civilization presented by what we might call the boutique environmentalist.

There are actually many different problems that fall under the rubric of "environmentalism." The solutions to some of them do not bother me much. It is obvious that we must have laws against polluting the air and the water, because to not have them would be to grant the right to damage the help of other people. While doctrinaire libertarians might object, I don't have much of a problem with the national-park system, or the public funding of the construction of bike paths in urban areas. So there are aspects of environmentalism that are perfectly reasonable in a free society.

But nowadays there is a certain sort of environmentalist who simply is at war with civilization itself, often from a perch on high of fairly substantial wealth (or, equally exclusively, of a personal, idiosyncratic lack of use for the things that modernity makes possible). He insists that oil drilling be kept out of ANWR even though he will never go there and even though for the rest of us, including but not limited to the people who would make a lot of money drilling for it in Alaska, the oil would be useful. He lazily conflates his own arbitrary views about how property should be used with obvious moral truths, and therefore has no problem demanding that the government enforce those views, no matter the consequences to other people. He believes that humanity (particularly its CO2 emissions) is generally a plague on otherwise unspoiled creation, even though he may himself regularly indulge in the fruits of civilization. (Indeed, he may even be Al Gore himself.) He is ignorant about the anger his shrill cries on behalf of "sustainability" and "carbon footprints" generate in developing countries, where people desperately want the opportunities that people in the West have long taken for granted, opportunities for which carbon emissions, and modern technology generally, are indispensable. Most of all, he wants to actively manage other people's lives -- to use environmental regulations to limit their ability to drive, to use electricity, into otherwise navigate their way through the modern world. He wants to do this even though most of the cost will be borne by other people.

Somewhere between Theodore Roosevelt's and Rachel Carson, environmentalism in the US and Europe went badly off track, and stopped being about heroic people protecting their families from poison, or preserving natural beauty for future generations. The trick in the next twenty years or so will be to keep the hands of the boutique environmentalists off the throat of civilization.

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Blogger Rick Lavigor said...

What you say here sounds very reasonable to me. I would like to quote some of your comments on my own blog,

3:20 PM  

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