Energy & Environment

An ‘Ecosocialist’ Heard From

A protestor dressed as a polar bear walks down the street near the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 18, 2016. (Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters)
I can think of no right-leaning parodist who could do better.

Eric Holthaus is a writer for Grist and a self-described “ecosocialist.” That is a useful term.

Writing on Twitter, Holthaus declares: “If you are wondering what you can do about climate change: The world’s top scientists just gave rigorous backing to systematically dismantle capitalism as a key require to maintaining civilization and a habitable planet. I mean, if you are looking for something to do.”

That is a nearly perfect specimen of left-wing political writing in 2018: Note the familiar passive-aggressive construction (“If you are wondering . . . I mean, if you are looking for something to do”), the ceremonial invocation of “the world’s top scientists,” the dump-truck approach to meaningless but important-sounding modifiers (“rigorous backing,” “systematically dismantle,” “key requirement”), the assumption that scholarly expertise in one field (climate science) is seamlessly transferable to other fields (macroeconomics), the hectoring hall-monitor tone — I can think of no right-leaning parodist who could do better.

Holthaus adds: “There’s a finding that says it ‘requires an evolution of global and national financial systems’ including ‘a potential redirection of 5% to 10% of the annual capital revenues,’ i.e., the profit margin of basically every company.” Not an “argument” or a “claim,” but a “finding.” One of the things that should trip the bullsh** detector of any reasonably conscientious journalist is any claim that a rigorous scientific process produced results with neat numeric outcomes in familiar, easy-to-work-with figures such as 5 percent to 10 percent, figures that are more typically associated with rhetoric than with science, and with shorthand rather than rigor. Rigor and precision generally are avoided in this kind of construction, because they produce such obviously risible results: Imagine if he had written that saving the planet requires the redirection of precisely 3.22994 percent of annual corporate revenues worldwide for the next 664 months. The claim takes the same form, but it sounds silly (which it obviously is) unless you back it up into the more defensible position of plastic generality.

One of my least favorite genres of political commentary is “Hitler Was a Vegetarian, Too,” which works this way: “Here is a dope, or a Very Bad Person, who holds views similar to the views of the people I wish to criticize, and the easiest thing for me to do in this instance is to pretend that this particular dope (or this individual episode of dopiness, if the subject is not a categorical dope) not only is typical of the views I wish to dispute but in fact is the best and truest representation of those views, defining the contours of the debate in a way that is dispositive,” i.e., “You know who else liked broccoli? Hitler!” I do not intend to do that here. There are many environmentalists, including those with panicky and authoritarian views on climate change, who are not ecosocialists, or socialists of any sort, and who are more careful thinkers and writers than Holthaus shows himself to be in the (from Twitter, after all) example here.

But there are ecosocialists, and resurgent socialists of many varieties, and conservatives are not wrong to suspect that in many cases environmental initiatives are simply covers for (or ex post facto justifications of) an ancient and tediously familiar anti-capitalism, anti-liberalism agenda. Socialism is a preexisting condition, and it may be diagnosed in the modern environmental movement, in many feminist initiatives, in much of what advertises itself as the campaign for “social justice,” etc.

(Friends, save your emails about watermelons; yes, I have heard that one before.)

American progressives in particular are a transparent bunch: Whatever the problem, the answer involves giving more money and power to people who are aligned politically and socially with American progressives. Schools terrible? Pay teachers more. Schools doing great? Pay teachers more. No change at all in school performance? Pay teachers more. That’s the kind of thing that is sufficient for people who do not understand that three-card monte is a con, not a card game. Socialists are very much like other fanatics, political or religious. For the socialist, everything goes back to capitalism, as everything goes back to sin for the Calvinist — both see total depravity everywhere they look.

“Scientific” socialism is one of totalitarianism’s greatest hits. But there are spurs to environmental reform other than socialism. Those whose understanding of the world is informed principally by entertainment would be surprised to learn how much genuine environmental concern there is among the many scientists and engineers employed by oil companies and by how much intelligent work has been done by them on behalf of the very difficult project of mitigating the environmental consequences of energy production and other industrial processes. That sort of thing doesn’t interest the common environmentalist, who isn’t an environmentalist at all but a mere practitioner of the ancient art of moral posturing, who is convinced beyond any need of reason that oil companies and their executives are evil. For them, it’s a simple question of good guys (Us!) and bad guys (Them! Capitalism! Corporations!), white hats and black hats—simple and obvious.

Williamson’s First Law: “Everything is simple when you don’t know a f***ing thing about it.”

We conservatives should pay some attention to the ecosocialists, who will sometimes do us the courtesy of telling us what they are thinking. That honesty is not universal among those who put themselves forward as disinterested advocates of science and supra-political friends of the Earth.


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