Environmentalism as metaphysical belief
Most discussions on global warming begin and end with the science. Yet science cannot explain how global warming became a political issue. The first two scientists to quantify the greenhouse effect, the Swede Svante Arrhenius and the Briton Guy Stewart Callendar, both welcomed global warming as a good thing that would delay the return of the deadly glaciers. Neither did nature force global warming onto political agendas with record heat waves and droughts. The 1930s Dust Bowl was America’s most extreme climatic event, for example: Records for high temperatures were set in three times as many states in the 1930s as in the 1980s and 1990s combined.
What made global warming a political issue was the rise of environmentalism. While political theorists worried that the post–Cold War world would be defined by a clash of civilizations, environmentalists believed that politics should be about resolving the clash of civilization with nature. In this view, global warming is just one dimension of that clash. In his classic book Earth in the Balance (1992), Al Gore listed, in addition to the climate crisis, a waste crisis, the rainforest crisis, a thousand-fold acceleration in the species-extinction rate, and the ozone-hole crisis.
The great thing about having all these crises was that environmentalism would never lack for an agenda or for issues to rally around. In fact, by the time Gore had written Earth in the Balance, the Reagan administration had effectively solved the ozone hole with a minimum of fuss by leading the negotiations that produced the 1987 Montreal Protocol. But as with the mythical Hydra, cut one head off and more appear. The ozone hole has been replaced by ocean acidification, conveniently requiring the same decarbonization policies as global warming.
In many ways, environmentalism has been extraordinarily successful. It has entered mainstream American politics, whereas Marxism, a competing ideology, failed to break out of college campuses. To survive, Marxism had to become green. Gore, America’s most prominent environmentalist since Rachel Carson, was picked by Bill Clinton to be his running mate in part because of his environmentalist credentials. (It is hard to envisage a self-proclaimed Marxist coming within a heartbeat of the presidency, though Henry Wallace came closest, both to the ideology and to the heartbeat.)
With global warming, environmentalism hit the jackpot, garnering colossal media and political attention. The 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and the 2009 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen brought together more world leaders than any event outside U.N. meetings in New York (though in 2009 the negotiations became so fraught that the leaders weren’t photographed together). Businesses feel obliged to talk about environmental sustainability and how they’re shrinking their carbon footprints Children are taught environmentalist precepts as part of the school curriculum.
Where it counts, though, environmentalism has been an abject failure. According to Gore, saving the environment was to be “the central organizing principle for civilization.” Apart from superficial rituals such as mandatory garbage recycling, it has proved impossible to reorganize society along environmental lines. In Europe, where such efforts have gone farthest, they have become politically and economically unsustainable. In January, the International Energy Agency warned that high energy prices would plague European competitiveness for at least two decades, and the new German coalition government is trying to undo the legacy of high costs resulting from renewable energy. In the U.S., biofuel mandates provide rich grounds for rent-seeking, drive up food prices, and damage the environment, leading some environmentalists to disown them.
In 1992, Gore memorably claimed that the internal-combustion engine posed a “mortal threat” to the security of every nation. The aim, he said, should be to eliminate it in 25 years; last year, with four years left until the internal-combustion engine should have disappeared, only six-tenths of 1 percent of the 15.5 million vehicles sold in the U.S. did not have one. Worldwide, the number of vehicles on the road rose from just over 600 million in 1990 to over 1 billion 20 years later, of which fewer than half a million (five hundredths of 1 percent, less than a rounding error) are plug-in electric.
Annual emissions of carbon dioxide rose by 66 percent between 1990 and 2012, the amount emitted by developing nations more than doubling, to account for 60 percent of emissions globally. The most consistent feature of the climate-change negotiations — now in their third decade — has been the iron refusal of the bloc of developing nations consisting of the G-77 plus China to be bound by international efforts to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. If the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is to be stabilized, the math requires steeper and steeper cuts in the emissions of developed nations, even past the point where the cuts exceed the actual emissions. That would require what FDR’s Treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau proposed for post-war Germany: the pastoralization of the West (preferably without cows and sheep, as they emit methane). In other words, it’s not going to happen.
The unreality of environmentalism as a program to remake the modern industrialized economy does not, however, detract from what animates that unreality. As Gore explained, it is a spiritual crisis stemming from the emptiness at the heart of modern civilization and the absence of a larger spiritual purpose. We live, Gore believes, in a dysfunctional civilization disconnected from nature. “Believing ourselves to be separate from the earth means having no idea how we fit into the natural cycle of life,” the Biblical Gore intones. “No wonder we are lost and confused.”
The truth of this non-scientific, metaphysical idea is widely accepted by scientists. In a 2002 address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the botanist Peter Raven argued that humans had to find new ways of thinking about mankind’s place in the world and about the ways in which we relate to natural systems. At the core of environmentalism is belief in humans as a uniquely disruptive species repeatedly threatening, with potentially devastating consequences, the fragility of ecological balances. Many scientists are predisposed to interpret scientific evidence within this catastrophist framework. In the fascinating new book The Sixth Extinction, a scientist tells author Elizabeth Kolbert, “Oh, ocean acidification. That’s the big nasty one that’s coming down.” Others call it global warming’s “equally evil twin.” This is not value-free science.
The essence of the ecological philosophy propounded by environmentalists such as Gore is that nature is in crisis because humanity is sick. One of the most perceptive and trenchant critics of this mentalité is the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner. While recognizing the existence of genuine environmental problems, in his book The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse (2013) he describes environmentalism as a reflection of the West’s psychic fatigue and a pathos related to fear of the end of time. “Environmental concern is universal, but the disease of the end of the world is purely Western,” he remarks.
Bruckner criticizes discourse about the emptiness of consumerism, a favorite theme of environmentalists, for being as empty as what it denounces: “Civilization is nothing but the exponential increase of desires that expand our souls and our horizons.” Coming from the French left, the Jesuit-educated Bruckner is well equipped to sketch environmentalism’s ideological categories and to explain how the Left, by abandoning the battle for equality in favor of safeguarding the future of the planet, has abdicated its traditional mission. He argues that “the future becomes again, as it had once been in Christianity and communism, the great category of blackmail. . . . The future, erected into a tribunal, adjures us to cease destroying the conditions of life on Earth.”
As a political force, global warming is past its prime. Flatlining global atmospheric temperatures have led climate scientists to select more promising indicators of climate change, damaging their credibility in the process. Unlike the Copenhagen climate conference, where failure came as a terrible shock, next year’s Paris conference is likely to be a failure presented as success. Nonetheless, the ecological philosophy remains intact. As with any idea, the first step in tackling global warming is to understand the philosophy that underpins it. In this case, the premise of that philosophy is that human beings are the ultimate problem.
– Mr. Darwall is the author of The Age of Global Warming: A History, published last year.