Monday, May 16, 2016

Can the Environmental Debate Be Saved?

Frederic C. Rich, Getting to Green: Saving Nature: a Bipartisan Solution

Environmental protection once enjoyed broad bipartisan support. Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt were ardent naturalists, preserving natural domains for hunting, camping, and general aesthetic pleasure. Richard Nixon and Congressional Democrats, offended by flaming rivers and chewy air, collaborated to pass sweeping environmental protection laws. Amid partisan rancor, environmentalism offered rare bipartisan goodwill. But America has passed no meaningful environmental laws since 1990. What changed?

Frederic C. Rich, Manhattan corporate attorney and sometime Green activist, calls the partisan split The Great Estrangement. He traces the history of how American conservatives, once nature-friendly and conservationist, became ardently anti-environmentalist, and the debate devolved into Left versus More-Left. He also postulates (awkwardly late) a solution to return conservatives to the discussion, opening the possibility of reversing a quarter-century stalemate. I just wish he weren’t demonstrably wrong.

Rich describes how tubthumping media spokespeople like Glenn Beck and Newt Gingrich turned movement conservatism against environmental issues. The outcome baffles him: “It is not entirely clear,” Rich writes, “why these efforts succeeded in arousing in so many conservatives an active antipathy toward Greens.” But to us dedicated news-followers, it is clear: anti-environmentalism was part of a massive slate by which hyperpartisan leaders screened out “Republicans In Name Only.”

Like Rich, I’m a discouraged former Republican. I witnessed the Great Estrangement from both sides and finally concluded that the Global Warming evidence, though incomplete, was more complete than evidence that vaccines prevent disease, or that smoking causes cancer. The evidence maybe wasn’t airtight, but it was robust enough to justify action. My right-wing former fellows answered that charge by moving the goalposts, forcing me to abandon them.

Frederic C. Rich
This makes Rich’s sudden shifts onto excoriating environmentalists feel weird. He aggressively chastises environmentalists for harboring pinkos and partisans. The counterproductive environmental rabble-rousers he cites lack Glenn Beck’s media reach, or Newt Gingrich’s political might, but Rich believes that, if such people exist at all, they’re undermining the Green cause. Without stating it outright, Rich essentially demands environmentalists punish heretics and dissidents as avidly as movement conservatives have.

Statements that organized environmentalism has become “too leftist” make little sense, coming directly after describing how movement conservatives made anti-environmentalism a shibboleth of membership. If liberals kicked conservatives out of Greenpeace, that’d be one thing. But movement conservatives don’t believe the debate exists. Republicans have thrown their lot in with Young Earthers and seven-day creationists, yielding the Nixonian middle ground altogether. That’s not leftists’ fault.

Environmentalist circles remain fraught with debate. What needs fixing, and how? What constitutes reliable yardsticks for environmental health? If right-wing answers aren’t forthcoming, it isn’t because solutions are prescriptively partisan. We can’t say only one side dominates the debate, when the other side has walked away. If the Chiefs quit a half-finished game against the Broncos, we wouldn't say the game became “too Denver,” we’d say Kansas City forfeited.

Rich crossed my line when he pilloried Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate both broadly and incorrectly. Rich misrepresents Klein’s thesis so completely, I must conclude he never read beyond the title. I’m less familiar with Rich’s other cited sources, especially conservative sources post-2004 (when I left the movement), but if he’s warped one source, he’s probably skewed others. That includes sources I’d otherwise disagree with.

If I cannot trust Rich’s history, I have difficulty stomaching his future remedies—which he starts so late, I admit my mind had already wandered. His history, riddled with factual inaccuracies, hindsight bias, and “he-said-she-said” quibbles, doesn’t lend itself to reliable predictions. This book reeks of what sociologist Duncan J. Watts calls “creeping determinism.” I wanted to like Rich’s ideas; but sadly, early chapters write checks later chapters can’t cash.

Historians sometimes describe a certain kind of specious historiography, “Whig History,” where amateurs describe history as a progress toward liberal democracy, knowledge, and goodness. I’ll postulate an opposite, “Tory History,” which describes history as a decline from some putative peak of greatness, usually just before the historian got that first workaday job. Rich situates the pinnacle of environmental bipartisanship just before his adolescence. Everything afterward is a steady downhill slide.

Because book publishing has long lead times, Rich couldn’t have known this title would appear just as Donald Trump clinched the Republican presidential nomination. However, that makes this book entirely timely. Not only in Rich’s mostly unfulfilled premises, either; it’s timely to remind Americans that appeasing a factually wrong opponent makes you factually wrong, too. We need bipartisan solutions to nonpartisan problems. But not at the cost of objective reality.

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