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Watching the colossal and implosive decline of the once mighty green movement to stop global warming has been an educational experience. It’s rare to see so many smart, idealistic and dedicated people look so clueless and fail so completely. From the anti-climax of the Cluster of Copenhagen, when world leaders assembled for the single most unproductive and chaotic global gathering ever held, the movement has gone from one catastrophic failure to the next.

A year ago giddy environmentalists were on top of the world. The greenest president in American history had the largest congressional majority of any president since Lyndon Johnson; the most powerful leaders in the world were elbowing each other for places on the agenda at the Copenhagen conference on climate.

It all came to naught. The continued stalemates and failures of the UN treaty process have fallen off the front pages; as the Kyoto Protocol sinks ineffectually into oblivion, no new global treaty will take its place. The most Democratic Congress in a generation will not pass significant climate legislation before the midterms pull Congress to the right, and there will be no US law on carbon caps or anything close in President Obama’s first term, and there is less public faith in or concern about climate change today than at any time in the last fifteen years.

Has any public pressure group ever spent so much direct mail and foundation money for such pathetic results?

The standard rap on the greens is that they failed because they were too environmentalist. Their pure and naive ideals were no match for the evil, ugly forces of real world politics. Beautiful losers, they dared to dream a dream too gossamer winged, too delicate for the harsh light of day. Bambi, meet Godzilla; the butterfly was broken on the wheel.

Even in defeat, the greens can’t get it right. The greens didn’t fail because they were too loyal to their ideals; they failed because lost touch with the core impetus and values of the environmental movement. Bambi wasn’t crushed by Godzilla; Bambi turned into Godzilla, and the same kind of public skepticism and populism that once fueled environmentalism have turned against it.

The greens have forgotten where they come from. Modern environmentalism was born in the reaction against Big Science, Big Government and Experts. The Army Corps of Engineers built dams that devastated wetlands and ruined ecosystems; environmentalists used to be people who fought the Corps because they understood the limits of science, engineering, and simple big interventions in complex ecosystems.

The case environmentalists used to make was that modern science was too crude and too incomplete to take into account the myriad features that could turn a giant hydroelectric dam from a blessing into a curse. Yes, the dam would generate power — for a while. But green critics would note that the dam had side effects: silt would back up in the reservoir, soil downstream would be impoverished, parasites and malaria bearing mosquitoes would flourish in the still waters and so on and so forth. Meanwhile the destruction of wetlands and river bottoms imposed enormous costs to wildlife diversity and the productivity of river systems. Salmon runs would disappear. Often, the development associated with hydroelectric dams led to deforestation, offsetting gains in flood control.

Environmentalists were skeptics of the One Big Fix. Science could never capture all the side effects and the unintended consequences. DDT looked like a magic bullet against malaria, but it threatened to wipe out important bird species. Books like Silent Spring, the environmental classic, attacked the engineers of big interventions as hopelessly out of touch crude thinkers, who tried to reduce complex social and biological issues and processes to simple science. Intellectually and culturally, environmentalists came out of the same movement as critics of crude urban development like Jane Jacob (The Death and Life of Great American Cities). They celebrated the diverse local, small-scale adaptations that reflected the knowledge of communities as opposed to the grandiose plans of the social engineers.

Essentially, the core environmentalist argument against big projects and big development is the same argument that libertarians use against economic regulations and state planning. The ‘economic ecology’ of a healthy free market system is so complex, libertarians argue, that bureaucratic interventions, however well intentioned and however thoroughly supported by peer reviewed science of various kinds, will produce unintended consequences — and in any case the interventions and regulations are too crude and too simple to provide an adequate substitute for the marvelously complex economic order that develops from free competition. Environmentalists turned this logic against Big Science projects like dams and more generally built a case that humanity should work to have a light footprint in the world. Natural systems are so complicated, so interlinked in non-obvious ways, that any human intervention in nature has unanticipated costs. The less we intervene, the better.

Those arguments developed legs in the 1960s and 1970s. 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. The financial experts and economists told us the new financial markets were perfectly safe. Then the Obama administration’s expert economists told us the stimulus would work and that unemployment wouldn’t get above 8%. They told him and he told us the recovery was underway. “Recovery summer,” anyone?

Expert, prizewinning Democratic economists now tell us that without more Keynesian stimulus the economy is doomed. Expert, prizewinning Republican economists tell us that more Keynesian stimulus will ruin us all.

The mining experts said that deep water drilling was OK. Then the environmental experts said that the oil in the Gulf was an immeasurable disaster that would drag on for years. The clean up experts then used dispersant that, other experts now tell us, may have worse consequences than the original oil. Then experts warned us that huge plumes of underwater oil were drifting murderously through the Gulf. The last I looked the experts were now saying that a previously undiscovered microbe had been eating the oil. The only thing that the public is sure about at this point is that the experts are likely to be surprised and confounded several more times before this whole ghastly fiasco plays out.

The score so far: Complexity and unexpected consequences 1000, experts zip. Public skepticism in ‘experts’ is off the charts.

When it comes to climate change, the environmental movement has gotten itself on the wrong side of doubt. It has become the voice of the establishment, of the tenured, of the technocrats. It proposes big economic and social interventions and denies that unintended consequences and new information could vitiate the power of its recommendations. It knows what is good for us, and its knowledge is backed up by the awesome power and majesty of the peer-review process. The political, cultural, business and scientific establishments stand firmly behind global warming today — just as they once stood firmly behind Robert Moses, urban renewal, and big dams.

They tell us it’s a sin to question the consensus, the sign of bad moral character to doubt.

Bambi, look in the mirror. You will see Godzilla looking back.

The American Interest Online, 28 August 2010