My friend Bryan and I have been engaged in a discussion for several weeks now about the politics of environmentalism and the prospect of climate change. We are both of a rather ascetic bent, at heart—the sense that the only way forward for the human community is a simpler existence made of nonviolence, plant-eating, and freelance writing.
For some odd reason, though, in recent conversations, I keep fighting him on this stuff. Unable to articulate it right, I keep talking about Bjørn Lomborg, the Danish economist who has made a longtime stink about how global warming isn’t the biggest world-historical fish to fry. (Bill McKibben answers him in the NYRB.) He’s also sort of in the category of a climate change denier, the ultimate heresy in my circles. Why do I keep bringing a crazy like that up? I don’t want to deny climate change, which the experts seem to agree on. I do want to ask questions about it. But every time I try, I get stuck with my words and end up happily agreeing with Bryan. As I still do.
Well, I think I’ve found the right words, or at least a start on the way to them. They come in an essay in n+1 no. 6 by “political thinker” Alex Gourevitch. The words are these:
Environmentalism is a left-wing politics of fear because it rests on the deeply fearful idea that only an overweening threat to our physical and collective health can inspire us to “transcendence.” … In the Bush years we have seen that security is an unstable foundation for institutions—the separation of powers, constitutionalism, federalism, civil society—that liberals have recently sought to rehabilitate. It is a principle that can only constrain and limit politics, not renew our political imagination.
That’s a powerful statement, that last part. But the next sentence isn’t so bad either:
No social change is possible without a great deal of uncertainty, and even the production of insecurity.
After that, the n+1 guys have some rich but less striking replies. They even did a live debate on this all at the NYPL. Overall they agree with Gourevitch that environmentalism represents a will to power. It is not the antidote to the Bush doctrine, it is the replacement. If the War on Terror can justify the total perversion of the Constitution and the whole tradition of human rights since the Enlightenment, what means will the environmentalists’ ends justify? But they insist that this is simply a better end, more worthy of the necessary means.
So take it back to what Bryan and I agree on: nonviolence, where the ends cannot justify the means. Can it be enough to say that this is a warning? That in the process doing environmentalism, we will not destroy politics and impose policy in desperation? Or is this cause so just that, this time, our enemies really deserve to be vanquished?
What I like about Lomborg is not whether he is right or wrong so much as, in the words of Gourevitch, his “political imagination.” He offers an alternative, one that doesn’t melt in the face of fear but suggests a pragmatic, possibly sensible answer to it. If he’s wrong, okay. But if he were right, would we be too rapt up in fear by the Toyota Prius marketing department to notice?
The environmental movement needs discipline with its conviction. We cannot let ourselves become driven by the thrill of seeming correct to the point of blinding ourselves with violence. Forget all the proposals about what China should do or how we clever green urbanites can get our dumb suburban relatives to take public transportation. If there is to be restraint, we should begin by taking it upon ourselves to the point of sacrifice. Take radical steps at our own risk, not that of others. The fear all this has stirred up should be transformed into hope—not desire, as Benjamin Kunkel suggests in n+1. Desire is another will to power, hope a will to discover.
That’s all for now. Will keep thinking. Am hungry for help.