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Witness Earth Day
Is it really anything more than a modern-day St. Vitus ritual?


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Jonah Goldberg

Editor’s Note: For more from me and the rest of NRO on Elian, go here and here where we have extensive coverage. I originally intended to write this column on Friday, but the Easter Holiday and the events of the weekend prevented that. So, in the spirit of Earth Day I did not want my bile to go to waste.

The one, sole, silver lining of the atrocities of this weekend is that they saved us from round-the-clock coverage of Earth Day I’m sorry, but the only way they could get me to watch Leonardo DiCaprio lecture me about the environment is if at the end of his talk he set fire to himself to show he was serious. Other than that, I could care less.

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But as a conservative in good standing (I paid my dues through 2001, and I just got my Whittaker Chambers and Ralph de Toledano alarm clock as a premium gift. Alas, it’s really just a Batman-and-Robin clock with their pictures taped on. Still, every morning I wake up to the rousing clarion of “Holy twilight struggle Whittaker! Commies!” followed closely by “To the HUAC, Ralph!”), I feel like I am supposed to play whack-a-mole with the environmentalists. So, in the spirit of solidarity with the cause, let’s just bat these points out of here really quick.

First, the environment is getting better. The air is cleaner, the water too. Species extinctions are declining and we haven’t lost any really cute animals in a very long time. There are more trees in the US than there were in the 1920s. Vital resources are all getting cheaper. Food is abundant — despite the fact that people like Paul Ehrlich predicted that most surviving Americans would be eating human-foot stew by now.

Capitalism is the fastest route to a clean environment. Remember: Rich people pass child-labor laws, Clean Air Acts, Clean Water Acts, Endangered Species Acts — because they can afford to. It is a fact that a person faced with the choice of not killing a rhino versus feeding his family will almost always choose feeding his family. Liberals believe that laws can trump necessity. This is very rarely the case. That’s why America passed anti-child labor laws only after we got prosperous enough to be able to afford to send our kids to school rather than work.

But look, I really don’t want to write this column again, especially today. If you want the latest skinny on this sort of thing you should read the piece by my friend — and former boss — Ronald Bailey, at NR Online. Ronald Bailey knows more about environmental issues than Hillary Clinton knows about commodity futures. If you still want more eco-411 you should read his brilliant cover article in the current issue of Reason — where he is the science correspondent (Worry not. You have no cause to fear that cold steel laboratory of libertarian hyper-rationalism. Once you are done over there you can come right back here to the warm comfort of the cozy den of conservative wisdom).

The real problem with writing about environmentalism from the right is that the Right — conservatives and libertarians alike — is generally interested in facts. Is global warming taking place? (yes). How much? (not much). Is that a bad thing? (maybe, maybe not). Is there cause to panic? (no) Is there a good reason why I’m using these pretentious call-and-response parentheses? (not really). But the left is not particularly concerned about the facts. Sure, it finds them useful sometimes, but it also finds them to be inconvenient too.

Environmentalism for many — mostly young — people is a medium for emotional or quasi-religious expression. Which is very funny when you think about it, because in American popular culture the most earnest, fact-filled people are young, socially aware eco-activists. In every sitcom I can think of, the smart, knowledgeable, and mature child is the one who can quote statistics about recycling and the like. Ironically, recycling is largely a pointless enterprise as far as public policy goes. The reality is that most — though not all — of the daily chores of the environmentally aware are really so much genuflection and ritual. It makes people feel good to be green, because, as the song goes, it’s not easy being green. But it ain’t that hard either. Witness Earth Day. Is it really anything more than a modern-day St. Vitus ritual?

During the 17th century in Germany, it was widely believed that if you danced in front of a statue of St. Vitus on his feast day, you would be healthy for the rest of the year (it wasn’t until later that St. Vitus’ Dance became synonymous with hysteria). Similarly today, people do their Earth Day thing once a year and they feel good about themselves. The event on C-Span was far more appropriate to MTV. It seemed most of the day the “rally” was really a concert. Still, they can feel like they did their part. They can feel better than other people who don’t “care” about the environment. The cause is so much more about religious impulses that children are encouraged to rat out their parents for not recycling. This harkens back to St. Jerome’s 4th century incitement to the children to join the monasteries: “If your father blocks the door, knock him down.” So entwined are “caring,” self-esteem, and eco-religion these days, that to offer facts at odds with the received wisdom is almost considered a hate crime, like denying the Holocaust.

Indeed, Al Gore makes essentially that case in his book Earth in the Balance, in which he compares global-warming skeptics to people who stood idly by during Kristallnacht. As a Senator for Global Warming Affairs, Gore’s treatment of dissenting scientists, according to numerous biographers and objective commentators, had far more in common with an inquisition than a scientific inquiry. Anyone who offered facts that did not jibe with Gore’s agenda were treated as if they were morally incomplete. This with-us-or-against-us view of facts is exhausting, because it is not open to reasonable discourse. Of course it has always been thus. That is why Emerson once observed, “there is a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism, joined with a certain superiority of fact.”



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