Environmentalism is strangely detached from the public's economic goals.
The awful oil spill in the Gulf--as well as the recent coal mine disaster in West Virginia--has added spring to the step of America's hugely influential environmental lobby. After years of hand-wringing over global warming (aka climate change), the greens now have an issue that will play to legitimate public concerns for weeks and months ahead.
This is as it should be. Strong support for environmental regulation--starting particularly under our original "green president," Richard Nixon--has been based on the protection of public health and safety, as well as the preservation of America's wild spaces. In this respect, environmentalists enjoy widespread support from the public and even more so from the emerging millennial generation.
Conservatives who fail to address this concern will pay a price, even more so in the future. The Bush administration's apparent clubbiness with conventional energy interests has undermined the GOP's once-proud legacy on environmental causes. The oil spill could prove a great campaign issue for Democrats assigning blame for the disaster on lax Republican regulators and their oil company chums.
But there's also a danger for Democrats who tilt uncritically toward "green" policies. Instead of following the environmentalists' party line, they should adopt a balanced approach adding both economic and social needs to their concept of "sustainability."
Sadly, many in the administration seem anxious to extend environmental regulation into virtually every aspect of life. Legitimate concerns over pollution and open space preservation, for example, have now been conflated with a renewed drive to strangle suburbia in favor of forced densification.
The administration's "livability" agenda, as suggested by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, for example, proposes policies that favor dense urban development over the dispersed living preferred by most Americans. This, notes analyst Ken Orski, represents an unprecedented federal intrusion over traditional local zoning and local decisions.
This centralizing tendency supports a wide array of interests, notably big city mayors and urban land speculators, and also is eagerly promoted by many architects, the media and planning professors. Not surprisingly, less intrusive ways to reduce energy use, such as telecommuting or the dispersion of worksites closer to people's homes, have elicited very little administration support.
Herein lies the Achilles heel of environmentalism--its profound disconnect from public preferences and aspirations. By embracing such a radical social engineering agenda, the greens may end up undermining their own long-term effectiveness.
The first sign of this pushback, notes analyst Walter Russell Mead, can be seen in growing skepticism about climate change policies both here and in Europe. At a time of severe economic challenges, greens and their political allies need to consider how specific environmental costs threaten an already beleaguered middle and working class.
Voters, for example, may support strong penalties and stricter controls of energy giants such as
This conflict will be on display in the coming struggle over the "cap and trade" proposals in the Senate. Strongest opposition comes from those states and regions most adversely impacted by strict limits on carbon, clustered in the south and Midwest.
Mitch Daniels, governor of coal-dependent Indiana, even has denounced such proposals as Washington "imperialism." But Daniels' opposition also is shared by many Democrats from fossil-fuel-rich states such as North Dakota, West Virginia and Louisiana. Cap and trade even manages to offend many on the left, who see it as yet another opportunity for Wall Street to profit from complex federal regulation.
On the state level, more draconian mandates on shifting to renewable fuels, such as those in place in California, could also cause future power shortages, as the state auditor warned recently. Such concerns are routinely brushed aside by environmentalist and their prodigious PR machines who prattle on about our coming economic salvation through the creation of "green jobs."
In reality, given their dependence on massive subsidies from both taxpayers and rate-payer, it's unlikely that renewables, as opposed to relatively clean alternatives such as plentiful natural gas, will produce a net positive impact on the economy for years or even decades. Certainly highly aggressive subsidies for wind and solar have not proved any kind of elixir in countries like Spain, where such policies have been long in place but now are being scaled back due to their drain on both the economy and the public budget.
To some extent, the hype over "green jobs" sometimes appears as something of a PR smokescreen. Prominent greens have long been opposed to the very idea of economic growth and wealth creation, particularly in advanced industrial countries. For decades John Holdren, President Obama's science advisor, has favored what he calls "de-development" of Western countries in order to preserve natural resources and reduce pollution.
This approach appears to be gaining support even as the pain of economic dislocation has devastated the advanced countries of the West. Boston University sociologist Juliet Schor, writing in the influential left-leaning The Nation, even attacks "progressive economists"- such as those calling for a second New Deal- for focusing on "climate destabilizing growth" as a way to create new jobs and raise middle class incomes.
In the Huffington Post one-time investment banker Ann Lee, now an economics professor at NYU, has called for "a new economic ideology" that focuses on "human dignity, creative and degrees of freedom" instead of following traditional measurements of material well-being. This "new" economy, she argues, would provide greater returns to favored groups like artists and, of course, teachers, who she considers severely underpaid.
This kind of low-carbon academic "esteem" economy appeals to people who already enjoy considerable material wealth and can count on the support of the state. It is not so promising on the West's aspirational middle and working classes, particularly those employed in the private sector, whose individual strivings would now be compensated by a deadly combination of high taxes and slow growth.
Until the issues of growth are tackled honestly, the green movement will continue to depend on tragic events such as the Gulf oil spill to maintain its public support. But in the long run, environmentalism will not remain politically "sustainable" if it fails to balance a green future with the economic aspirations of current and future generations.
This article originally appeared in Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in Febuary, 2010.
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