Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, the dour scolds of the environmental movement, have delivered another broadside. We are duly informed that the green bubble has burst.
Their critique says that the economic downturn has pricked the bubble, a cultural artifact inflated by hot air from liberal romantics who pine neurotically for eco-harmony.
These caricatures of environmentalists, we are told, blew up the bubble through what the authors call "positional consumption." They flaunted their Priuses, ate heirloom tomatoes, and screwed in compact fluorescent light bulbs as both penance for their consumption and as a kind of sympathetic magic intended to end the dark age of materialism.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger proclaim thus: "It has become an article of faith among many greens that the global poor are happier with less and must be shielded from the horrors of overconsumption and economic development."
Well, OK, some greens may act and believe as they authors say, and if so, shame on them. But really ... are there that many people who are so lacking in humanity that they wish for our neighbors in Bangladesh, Bolivia, and Burkina Faso to remain afflicted by hunger and disease?
Sorry, but that doesn't pass the manure filter.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger are trying to wave the environmental movement away from utopian yearning that is oblivious to gritty political realities.
A sensible message. The road to utopia is paved with disillusion and disappointment. The authors don't help their case, however, with broad-brush generalizations that fail to do justice to the complex arrays of motivations, emotions, family upbringing, cultural contexts, religious beliefs, and whatnot that inform our decisions and actions.
The piece is given to sweeping observations that environmentally minded people are obsessed with grand symbolism reflecting the prevailing zeitgeist. Maybe, however, they have more mundane concerns that do not lend themselves to pretentious social commentary.
Is everyone who buys compact fluorescent bulbs a guilt-wracked enviro making a futile gesture to Gaia? Maybe, in addition to environmental benefits, some of the purchasers also are thinking that changing short-lived light bulbs is a pain in the butt and it's worth spending a few extra bucks to keep that chore to a minimum.
Is everyone who plants a garden a back-to-nature hippie paying homage to the soil goddess? Perhaps some of those puttering with the sugar peas are thinking more about the doctor's advice to get a little more exercise.
And how helpful is it for Nordhaus and Shellenberger to carry on spraying rhetorical cold showers about the futility of individual actions? Social change is the sum of individual actions and attitude shifts that eventually add up to something meaningful.
Yes, the process of change is messy. We muddle along, two steps forward, one step back. Progress usually requires grimy compromises among people who have different ideas about what's going on in the world and how the world should work. Most of the time, the political bakery offers only half loaves.
The pendulum swings back and forth. Sometimes the environment is the cause of the day and we get a Clean Air Act or a Wilderness Act passed into law, for example. Sometimes it's not.
Still, the underlying trend gives reason for hope. We're not setting rivers on fire anymore and coal smoke no longer turns cities dark at noon. We're a lot more energy-efficient than we used to be and we don't log national parks.
And for all their ponderous heavings about the death of environmentalism and the bursting of the green bubble, Nordhaus and Shellenberger come to a sober conclusion that we can find a way forward in spite of ourselves.
I'll give the boys a B-minus for this latest essay.
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