The Corner

Energy & Environment


A farm worker repairs irrigation pipes during spring planting in the Central Valley in Davis, Calif., May 1, 2017. (Hyungwon Kang/Reuters)

For a summary of the vagueness, silliness, and posturing being used to market the so-called Green New Deal — an advertising campaign without a product — consider this from Jedediah Britton-Purdy, author of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, in today’s New York Times. Britton-Purdy’s argument is that because our environmental problems result from features of our civilization, then it only makes sense that solving these environmental problems requires transforming the nature of that civilization itself. He is remarkably flip about this:

For every human being, there are over 1,000 tons of built environment: roads, office buildings, power plants, cars and trains and long-haul trucks. It is a technological exoskeleton for the species. Everything most of us do, we do through it: calling our parents, getting to work, moving for a job, taking the family on vacation, finding food for the evening or staying warm in a polar vortex. Just being human in this artificial world implies a definite carbon footprint — and for that matter, a trail of footprints in water use, soil compaction, habitat degradation and pesticide use. You cannot change the climate impact of Americans without changing the built American landscape.

So the proposals to retrofit buildings, retool transportation and build a clean-energy system are simply ways of tackling the problem where it starts. They are public-works projects because large capital projects — especially ones that, like highways, involve widespread public benefit — have always required public money. They are jobs programs, unless robots do the work, so the jobs might as well be good.

Might as well!

Mr. Britton-Purdy writes of “the Green New Deal’s proposal to work with family farmers,” family farmers being a favorite item of contradistinction to be set against the wicked factory farms or industrial farms. In reality, no such distinction exists in American agriculture, where many family-owned farmers are gigantic operations: Some of the largest farm operations in the country are family farms. If Mr. Britton-Purdy means to indicate small farms, then he might as well say as much plainly, and then consider the fact that the relatively small number of very large farms produce the vast majority of the food. (The 4 percent of farms with sales exceeding $1 million annually produce about two-thirds of the food crops, according to the Wall Street Journal.) But the issue of family farms has nothing to do with producing food and fiber; the main interest of progressives is in the moral character of the farm’s organizational structure. The implicit moral judgment is the only reason to insist on family farms.

Likewise, Mr. Britton-Purdy writes, very curiously, that “the soil is basically conscripted as a food factory.” Conscripted is a very interesting word to choose here. To be conscripted is to be pressed into service against one’s will; to write that soil may be conscripted is to imply that soil has a will, choices, agency, and personality. It is to make a moral person out of soil. The current delusional crusade among environmentalists to confer “rights” upon animals and inanimate objects speaks to that line of thinking.

Conservatives looking at the so-called Green New Deal have noted, sometimes caustically, its mushiness and vagueness. Progressives have countered that these features are desirable. Which, from one point of view, they are — from the point of view that this is not a technical question about how best to produce food or energy but that this is a moral question about the character of our mode of living. (The dispute is in reality an aesthetic one, for the most part, not a moral one, but that’s another argument.) To argue as Mr. Britton-Purdy that environmental, social, and economic questions form a totality that must be responded to with a totalist philosophy is as near to a textbook definition of totalitarianism as one could hope to find, which is, of course, what all of this is really about.

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