February 23, 2009


All the Leaves are Brown (Steven F. Hayward, Winter 2008, Claremont Review of Books)

"On what principle is it," wondered Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1830, "that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?" Environmentalism didn't exist in its current form in Macaulay's time, or he would easily have discerned its essential pessimism bordering at times on a loathing of humanity. A trip down the environment and earth sciences aisle of any larger bookstore is usually a tour of titles that cover the narrow range from dismay to despair.

On the surface this is not exceptional. Titles predicting decline, decay, and disaster are just as numerous in the real estate, economics, and social science shelves, though, ironically, not so much in the religion book racks, where one would expect to find apocalypticism well represented. This is an important distinction: unlike the eschatology of all major religions, the eco-apocalypse is utterly without hope of redemption for man or nature. The greens turn purple at the suggestion that most environmental conditions in rich nations are actually improving, and they bemoan the lack of "progress" toward the transformation of the human soul that is thought necessary for the planet's salvation. Yet some cracks are starting to appear in their dreary and repetitive story line. Although extreme green ideology won't go away any time soon—the political and legal institutions of the environmental movement are too well established—there are signs that the public and a few next-generation environmentalists are ready to say goodbye to all that. There are even some liberal authors with environmentalist sympathies who are turning against the environmental establishment. But it is necessary to claw our way through the deepening slough of green despondency to see this potential turning point.

More than 30 years ago political scientist Anthony Downs wrote in the Public Interest of a five-step "issue-attention cycle" through which public enthusiasm for an issue gradually diminishes as we come to recognize the high cost of drastic action, and that the nature of the problem was exaggerated or misconceived. The environment, he wrote, would have a longer cycle than most issues because of its diffuse nature, but it appears that the public is finally arriving at the late stages of Downs's cycle. Opinion surveys show that the public isn't jumping on the global warming bandwagon despite a multi-million dollar marketing campaign and full-scale media hysteria. More broadly there are signs that "green fatigue" is setting in. Magazine publishers recently reported that their special Earth Day "green" issues generated the lowest newsstand sales of all issues published in 2008. "Suddenly Being Green Is Not Cool Any More," read a London Times headline in August.

This has been building for a long time. Three years ago New York Times green-leaning columnist Nicholas Kristof lamented that the environmental movement was losing credibility because of its doomsaying monomania, with the result that "environmental alarms have been screeching for so long that, like car alarms, they are now just an irritating background noise." Environmental leaders did not take well to his wandering from the reservation. In response to the popular indifference to green alarms, conventional environmentalists have ratcheted up their level of vitriol against humanity and democratic institutions. One of the most popular books of 2007 among environmentalists was The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which projects a "thought experiment" about what would occur if human beings were suddenly removed entirely from the planet. Answer: nature would reassert herself, and ultimately remove nearly all traces of human civilization within several millennia—a mere blink of an eye in the planetary timescale. Environmentalists cheered Weisman's vivid depiction of the resilience of nature, but what thrilled them was the scenario of a humanless earth. Weisman made sure to stroke his audience's self-loathing with plenty of boilerplate about resource exhaustion and overpopulation. The book rocketed up the best-seller list, the latest in a familiar genre stretching back at least to Fairfield Osborn's Our Plundered Planet in 1948, arguably the first neo-Malthusian doomsday tract of modern environmentalism. Time magazine named The World Without Us the number one non-fiction book of 2007.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 23, 2009 3:17 PM
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