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Are Fossil Fuels Responsible For Moral And Social Decay?

All of the Republican presidential hopefuls who are so strenuously trying to out-do each other in defending family values may be overlooking one of the chief causes of moral and social decay: increased fossil fuel use. This is the surprising suggestion recently made by a couple of conservative intellectuals, Georgetown University political philosopher Patrick Deneen and American Conservative editor Rod Dreher.

Their speculation about the pernicious social effects of increased fossil fuel use was provoked by a recent article by conservative columnist George Will. In that column, Will argued, “A specter is haunting progressivism, the specter of abundance.” Will asserts that progressives “crave energy scarcities as an excuse for rationing—by them—that produces ever-more-minute government supervision of Americans’ behavior.” Unfortunately, progressive schemes for using energy rationing to gain further control over American lives are being undermined by the abundance of natural gas that has been unleashed by fracking. In addition, Will celebrates the fact that by shunning G.M.’s all-electric Volt automobile Americans are ignoring progressive hectoring to consume less.

Will’s analysis—whether one accepts it or not—called forth dark musings on the malignant effects of fossil fuels and associated economic growth from Deneen and Dreher. Writing at the Front Porch Republic blog, Deneen asks, “Might some of the consequences of the mobility and power that expansive consumption of fossil fuels have engendered include the exacerbation of a number of baleful social trends, many of which result from the gas-addled belief in human mastery, control, and autonomy, as well as attendant instability and societal transformation?

Dreher praised Deneen’s insights and chimed in, asserting that “conservatism doesn’t equal consumptionism.” Dreher added, “It has apparently never occurred to Will to consider whether or not the centering of American economic life around oil consumption might have brought with it problems that ought to concern conservatives and the things they value, or ought to value.”

What are some of the baleful social trends that track the rise of fossil fuels? Deneen observes that “the decline of ‘family values,’ communal norms, educational attainment, religious standards, civility, along with the rise of a culture of consumption, rootlessness, anomie, relativism, a 24-hour culture of distraction, titillation, highly-sexualized and violent imagery, sexualized childhood and adolescent adulthood” have all followed in the wake of ever more abundant energy from coal, oil, and natural gas.

Oddly, Deneen and Dreher refrain from following the logic of their argument to its obvious conclusion: Reverse the social ills and immorality they decry by forcing Americans to consume less electricity and gasoline. After all, if we had less electric lighting, we’d go to bed early thus reducing the amount of time available for committing mischief. If our televisions went dark, communities could be strengthened by nightly gatherings around campfires where we could join together to sing folk songs. If our gasoline tanks ran dry, we’d all enjoy the communal experience of riding commuter trains to work and walking to the general store to buy groceries and sundries. In short, the moral paradise of pre-20th century America would be restored.

It is certainly true that fossil fuel use and wealth have increased together. For example, the Energy Information Administration reports that in 1949 Americans used 29 quadrillion Btus (a quadrillion British thermal units is equal to about 45 million tons of coal, or 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or 170 million barrels of crude oil) of energy produced by burning fossil fuels. In 2010, fossil fuel use had nearly tripled to 81 quadrillion Btus. Since then the U.S. economy has grown more than 7-fold in real dollars from $1.8 trillion to $13.2 trillion and annual per capita GDP had more than tripled from $12,000 to $44,000. However, energy use and wealth creation do not march in a Btu-to-dollar lockstep since improvements in energy efficiency means that people today use less energy to produce a given unit of gross domestic product.

Deneen’s chief problem with wealth is that it provides people with greater physical and economic mobility, thus enabling what he identifies as “rootlessness.” The converse, rootedness—physical and economic immobility—is the natural consequence of poverty. Poor people lacking access to modern energy supplies have little time or bodily energy to devote to activities other than making a hardscrabble living. They have to get along with their families and neighbors since they cannot get away from them. Questioning traditions, especially those that undergird the authority and privileges of patriarchs and priests, will only cause the would-be freethinker grief.

To the evident dismay of Deneen and Dreher, it is certainly the case that physical mobility has increased. In 1949, the U.S. already had 300 vehicles per thousand residents and there are nearly 850 per 1,000 now. Only 17 million Americans traveled on commercial airlines in 1949. This rose to 630 million in 2010. Such mobility enlarges the freedom of Americans to live, work, and recreate where and with whom they like.

Deneen decries the erosion of “family values” and communal norms. The police didn’t keep good national statistics on family violence back in the middle of the 20th century, but more recent trends are positive. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that rate of intimate partner violence fell bymore than 50 percent [PDF] between 1993 and 2008. Recent evidence also finds that physical abuse and sexual abuse of children declined by more than 50 percent [PDF] between the early 1990s and 2007.

Speaking of communal norms, attempting to harm another person must surely be considered one of the more significant violations of those norms. Again, accurate national data only goes back so far, but the news is good. In 1973, there were an estimated 48 violent victimizations per 1,000 U.S. residents 12 years old and older. This rose to 50 per 1,000 in 1993 and has since steeply fallen to 14 per 1,000 (a decline of 70 percent).

And some communal norms are just evil. For example, one particularly noxious communal norm was the state-mandated and enforced racial segregation that prevailed in much of the United States. In 1949, nearly 30 states made it a crime for blacks and whites to marry. I am no great fan of public education, but with regard to educational attainment in 1949 barely 35 percent of Americans had graduated from high school by the age of 25. Today almost 90 percent have. In addition, only 5 percent had graduated from college, today nearly 30 percent have. With regard to civility, I suspect that it is true that one hears more Anglo-Saxon expletives in public than one did 50 years ago, but again the falling violent crime rate indicates a substantial increase in the type of civility that really counts.

What about increasing anomie? Given our plummeting crime statistics, presumably Deneen doesn’t mean literal lawlessness, but is referring to a sense of “personal unrest, alienation, and anxiety that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals.” If wealth fosters anomie, wealthier people should be unhappy, right? However, recent research by University of Pennsylvania researchers finds that money does indeed tend to buy happiness, or at least greater life-satisfaction. Parsing data from 140 countries, the researchers report that “richer individuals in a given country are more satisfied with their lives than are poorer individuals” and that “those countries experiencing more rapid economic growth also tend to experience more rapid growth in life satisfaction.”