August 28, 2010

IN AMERICA, YOU CAN'T AFFORD TO BE IDENTIFIED AS THE INTELLECTUAL IN TOWN:

The Greening of Godzilla (Walter Russell Mead, 8/28/10, American Interest)

The previous generations had been in love with big projects: Woodie Guthrie even wrote a famous folksong about the Grand Coulee Dam, hailing the power of grand engineering projects to tame the ‘wild and wasted’ Columbia River, and celebrating the mines and the factories that the dam’s power made possible. Mid-twentieth-century America was intoxicated with social and environmental engineering of all kinds. As the costs of those projects became more clear, and as a generation that had never known, say, what life had been like in rural Alabama before the Tennessee Valley Authority, focused on the drawbacks rather than the advantages of big engineering projects, the public fell out of love with Big Science and Big Engineering. The technocratic imagination that people like McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, Robert Moses and Walt Rostow brought to American life in a range of disciplines and endeavors lost its hold on the public mind.

Experts lost their mystique. The guys in the white coats were no longer deemed all-knowing and all-wise. A better educated and more skeptical public opinion was no longer prepared to defer to technocrats, experts and government bureaucrats who said they knew best. The experts said nuclear power was safe; environmentalists doubted it. The experts said genetically modified food was safe; environmentalists thought that was hooey. The experts said bovine growth hormone and pesticides posed no dangers; environmentalists thought that was stark raving bonkers and built the organic food industry in opposition.

An increasingly skeptical public started to notice that ‘experts’ weren’t angels descending immaculately from heaven bearing infallible revelations from God. They were fallible human beings with mortgages to pay and funds to raise. They disagreed with one another and they colluded with their friends and supporters like everyone else. They often produced research that agreed with the views of those who funded their work (tobacco companies, builders of nuclear power plants, NGOs and foundations).

More, on issues the public follows closely, the scientific consensus keeps changing. Margarine was introduced as the healthy alternative to butter; now experts tell us that the transfats in many types of margarine are the worst things you can eat. Should you eat no fat or the right fat? All carbs, no carbs or good carbs? How much vitamin E should you take? How much sun should you get? How much fish oil should you swallow? How should you divide your time between aerobic and non-aerobic exercise? On these and many other subjects, expert opinion keeps changing. Perhaps the current consensus will last; quite possibly, it won’t — but the experts can’t tell you what will happen.

The rise of the environmental movement reflected the increasing independence of thought and judgment of a public that was becoming less and less impressed with credentials and degrees. The public wanted to take power back from experts and appointed government agencies and put up new obstacles in the way of technocratic engineers with big projects in mind.

But when it comes to global warming, the shoe is on the other foot. Now it is suddenly the environmentalists — who’ve often spent lifetimes raging against experts and scientists who debunk organic food and insist that GMOs and nuclear power plants are safe — who are the pious advocates of science and experts. Suddenly, it’s a sin to question the wisdom of the Scientific Consensus. Scientists are, after all, experts; their work is peer-reviewed and we uneducated rubes must sit back and shut up when the experts tell us what’s right.

More, environmentalists have found a big and simple fix for all that ails us: a global carbon cap. One big problem, one big fix. It is not just wrong to doubt that a fix is needed, it is wrong to doubt that the Chosen Fix will work. Never mind that the leading green political strategy (to stop global warming by a treaty that gains unanimous consent among 190 plus countries and is then ratified by 67 votes in a Senate that rejected Kyoto 95-0) is and always has been so cluelessly unrealistic as to be clinically insane. The experts decree; we rubes are not to think but to honor and obey.

The environmental movement has turned into the Army Corps of Engineers, even as public skepticism of experts has reached new heights.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 28, 2010 2:09 PM
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