Progressives Against Progress

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For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, American liberals distinguished themselves from conservatives by what Lionel Trilling called “a spiritual orthodoxy of belief in progress.” Liberalism placed its hopes in human perfectibility. Regarding human nature as essentially both beneficent and malleable, liberals, like their socialist cousins, argued that with the aid of science and given the proper social and economic conditions, humanity could free itself from its cramped carapace of greed and distrust and enter a realm of true freedom and happiness. Conservatives, by contrast, clung to a tragic sense of man’s inherent limitations. While acknowledging the benefits of science, they argued that it could never fundamentally reform, let alone transcend, the human condition. Most problems don’t have a solution, the conservatives maintained; rather than attempting Promethean feats, man would do best to find a balanced place in the world.

In the late 1960s, liberals appeared to have the better of the argument. Something approaching the realm of freedom seemed to have arrived. American workers, white and black, achieved hitherto unimagined levels of prosperity. In the nineteenth century, only utopian socialists had imagined that ordinary workers could achieve a degree of leisure; in the 1930s, radicals had insisted that prosperity was unattainable under American capitalism; yet these seemingly unreachable goals were achieved in the two decades after World War II.

Why, then, did American liberalism, starting in the early 1970s, undergo a historic metanoia, dismissing the idea of progress just as progress was being won? Multiple political and economic forces paved liberalism’s path away from its mid-century optimism and toward an aristocratic outlook reminiscent of the Tory Radicalism of nineteenth-century Britain; but one of the most powerful was the rise of the modern environmental movement and its recurrent hysterias.

If one were to pick a point at which liberalism’s extraordinary reversal began, it might be the celebration of the first Earth Day, in April 1970. Some 20 million Americans at 2,000 college campuses and 10,000 elementary and secondary schools took part in what was the largest nationwide demonstration ever held in the United States. The event brought together disparate conservationist, antinuclear, and back-to-the-land groups into what became the church of environmentalism, complete with warnings of hellfire and damnation. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, the founder of Earth Day, invoked “responsible scientists” to warn that “accelerating rates of air pollution could become so serious by the 1980s that many people may be forced on the worst days to wear breathing helmets to survive outdoors. It has also been predicted that in 20 years man will live in domed cities.”

Thanks in part to Earth Day’s minions, progress, as liberals had once understood the term, started to be reviled as reactionary. In its place, Nature was totemized as the basis of the authenticity that technology and affluence had bleached out of existence. It was only by rolling in the mud of primitive practices that modern man could remove the stain of sinful science and materialism. In the words of Joni Mitchell’s celebrated song “Woodstock”: “We are stardust / We are golden / And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

In his 1973 book The Death of Progress, Bernard James laid out an argument already popularized in such bestsellers as Charles Reich’s The Greening of America and William Irwin Thompson’s At the Edge of History. “Progress seems to have become a lethal idée fixe, irreversibly destroying the very planet it depends upon to survive,” wrote James. Like Reich, James criticized both the “George Babbitt” and “John Dewey” versions of “progress culture”—that is, visions of progress based on rising material attainment or on educational opportunities and upward mobility. “Progress ideology,” he insisted, “whether preached by New Deal Liberals, conservative Western industrialists or Soviet Zealots,” always led in the same direction: environmental apocalypse. Liberalism, which had once viewed men and women as capable of shaping their own destinies, now saw humanity in the grip of vast ecological forces that could be tamed only by extreme measures to reverse the damages that industrial capitalism had inflicted on Mother Earth. It had become progressive to reject progress.

Rejected as well was the science that led to progress. In 1970, the Franco-American environmentalist René Dubos described what was quickly becoming a liberal consensus: “Most would agree that science and technology are responsible for some of our worst nightmares and have made our societies so complex as to be almost unmanageable.” The same distrust of science was one reason that British author Francis Wheen can describe the 1970s as “the golden age of paranoia.” Where American consumers had once felt confidence in food and drug laws that protected them from dirt and germs, a series of food scares involving additives made many view science, not nature, as the real threat to public health. Similarly, the sensational impact of the feminist book Our Bodies, Ourselves—which depicted doctors as a danger to women’s well-being, while arguing, without qualifications, for natural childbirth—obscured the extraordinary safety gains that had made death during childbirth a rarity in developed nations.

Crankery, in short, became respectable. In 1972, Sir John Maddox, editor of the British journal Nature, noted that though it had once been usual to see maniacs wearing sandwich boards that proclaimed the imminent end of the Earth, they had been replaced by a growing number of frenzied activists and politicized scientists making precisely the same claim. In the years since then, liberalism has seen recurring waves of such end-of-days hysteria. These waves have shared not only a common pattern but often the same cast of characters. Strangely, the promised despoliations are most likely to be presented as imminent when Republicans are in the White House. In each case, liberals have argued that the threat of catastrophe can be averted only through drastic actions in which the ordinary political mechanisms of democracy are suspended and power is turned over to a body of experts and supermen.

Back in the early 1970s, it was overpopulation that was about to destroy the Earth. In his 1968 book The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich, who has been involved in all three waves, warned that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over” on our crowded planet. He predicted mass starvation and called for compulsory sterilization to curb population growth, even comparing unplanned births with cancer: “A cancer is an uncontrolled multiplication of cells; the population explosion is an uncontrolled multiplication of people.” An advocate of abortion on demand, Ehrlich wanted to ban photos of large, happy families from newspapers and magazines, and he called for new, heavy taxes on baby carriages and the like. He proposed a federal Department of Population and Environment that would regulate both procreation and the economy. But the population bomb, fear of which peaked during Richard Nixon’s presidency, never detonated. Population in much of the world actually declined in the 1970s, and the green revolution, based on biologically modified foods, produced a sharp increase in crop productivity.

In the 1980s, the prophets of doom found another theme: the imminent danger of nuclear winter, the potential end of life on Earth resulting from a Soviet-American nuclear war. Even a limited nuclear exchange, argued politicized scientists like Ehrlich and Carl Sagan, would release enough soot and dust into the atmosphere to block the sun’s warming rays, producing drastic drops in temperature. Skeptics, such as Russell Seitz, acknowledged that even with the new, smaller warheads, a nuclear exchange would have fearsome consequences, but argued effectively that the dangers were dramatically exaggerated. The nuke scare nevertheless received major backing from the liberal press. Nuclear-winter doomsayers placed their hopes, variously, in an unverifiable nuclear-weapons “freeze,” American unilateral disarmament, or assigning control of nuclear weapons to international bodies. Back in the real world, nuclear fears eventually faded with Ronald Reagan’s Cold War successes.

The third wave, which has been building for decades, is the campaign against global warming. The global-warming argument relied on the claim, effectively promoted by former vice president Al Gore, that the rapid growth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was producing an unprecedented rise in temperatures. This rise was summarized in the now-notorious “hockey stick” graph, which supposedly showed that temperatures had been steady from roughly ad 1000 to 1900 but had sharply increased from 1900 on, thanks to industrialization. Brandishing the graph, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that the first decade of the twenty-first century would be even warmer. As it turned out, temperatures were essentially flat, and the entire global-warming argument came under increasing scrutiny. Skeptics pointed out that temperatures had repeatedly risen and fallen since ad 1000, describing, for instance, a “little ice age” between 1500 and 1850. The global-warming panic cooled further after a series of e-mails from East Anglia University’s Climatic Research Unit, showing apparent collusion among scientists to exaggerate warming data and repress contradictory information, was leaked.

As with the previous waves, politicized science played on liberal fears of progress: for Gore and his allies at the UN, only a global command-and-control economy that kept growth in check could stave off imminent catastrophe. The anti-progress mind-set was by then familiar ground for liberals. Back in the 1970s, environmentalist E. J. Mishan had proposed dramatic solutions to the growth dilemma. He suggested banning all international air travel so that only those with the time and money could get to the choice spots—thus reintroducing, in effect, the class system. Should this prove too radical, Mishan proposed banning air travel “to a wide variety of mountain, lake and coastal resorts, and to a selection of some islands from the many scattered about the globe; and within such areas also to abolish all motorised traffic.” Echoing John Stuart Mill’s mid-nineteenth-century call for a “stationary state” without economic growth, Mishan argued that “regions may be set aside for the true nature lover who is willing to make his pilgrimage by boat and willing leisurely to explore islands, valleys, bays, woodlands, on foot or on horseback.”

As such proposals indicate, American liberalism has remarkably come to resemble nineteenth-century British Tory Radicalism, an aristocratic sensibility that combined strong support for centralized monarchical power with a paternalistic concern for the poor. Its enemies were the middle classes and the aesthetic ugliness it associated with an industrial economy powered by bourgeois energies. For instance, John Ruskin, a leading nineteenth-century Tory Radical and a proponent of handicrafts, declaimed against “ilth,” a negative version of wealth produced by manufacturing.

Like the Tory Radicals, today’s liberal gentry see the untamed middle classes as the true enemy. “Environmentalism offered the extraordinary opportunity to combine the qualities of virtue and selfishness,” wrote William Tucker in a groundbreaking 1977 Harper’s article on the opposition to construction of the Storm King power plant along New York’s Hudson River. Tucker described the extraordinary sight of a fleet of yachts—including one piloted by the old Stalinist singer Pete Seeger—sailing up and down the Hudson in protest. What Tucker tellingly described as the environmentalists’ “aristocratic” vision called for a stratified, terraced society in which the knowing ones would order society for the rest of us. Touring American campuses in the mid-1970s, Norman Macrae of The Economist was shocked “to hear so many supposedly left-wing young Americans who still thought they were expressing an entirely new and progressive philosophy as they mouthed the same prejudices as Trollope’s 19th century Tory squires: attacking any further expansion of industry and commerce as impossibly vulgar, because ecologically unfair to their pheasants and wild ducks.”

Neither the failure of the environmental apocalypse to arrive nor the steady improvement in environmental conditions over the last 40 years has dampened the ardor of those eager to make hair shirts for others to wear. The call for political coercion as a path back to Ruskin’s and Mishan’s small-is-beautiful world is still with us. Radical environmentalists’ Tory disdain for democracy and for the habits of their inferiors remains undiminished. True to its late-1960s origins, political environmentalism in America gravitates toward both bureaucrats and hippies: toward a global, big-brother government that will keep the middle classes in line and toward a back-to-the-earth, peasantlike localism, imposed on others but presenting no threat to the elites’ comfortable lives. How ironic that these gentry liberals—progressives against progress—turn out to resemble nothing so much as nineteenth-century conservatives.

This essay originally appeared in City Journal.

Fred Siegel is a contributing editor of City Journal, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and a scholar in residence at St. Francis College in Brooklyn.

Photo: CarbonNYC



















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This is my first time visit

This is my first time visit here. From the tons of comments on your articles,I guess I am not only one having all the enjoyment right here!
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i love reading this article

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Full Trac Record Article

siegel in the jotkinizer

I actually like the specificity of the history of the article and like Siegel's writing in general, but this feels like it has gone through the sieve of this site's main bias, which seems to be: let's get the democrats because we are the only true democrats. all of the words are there: europe, elite, too green, too urban,blah blah. i kept looking for the other hot words: "childless," "socialist scientists," "globalists" etc. Real progressives are not against progress; they are against exploitative and ruinous progress, and finding the messy road that leads us out of it, not the mythical roads inhabited by conservatives and their handmaidens in the pseudo-truman-democrat movement.

Exploitave and ruinous progress is in the eye of the beholder

The issue is that exploitative and ruinous progress is in the eye of the beholder. What may be to you such progress, may to me be valuable progress. An example, given that Hoover damn likely killed many now endangered species when Lake Mead was filled, as well as leading to environmental degradation in LA (smog). would one endorse building it if the issue were raised today. Likewise the transcontinental railroad that lead to the slaughter of the bison and the demise of a lot of native americans, or the Erie Canal... And the progressives often want things that contradict each other. For example renewable energy but oppose transmission lines because they are ugly in their opinion.

Let me see if I learned

Let me see if I learned anything from this article:
Environmentalists "reject progress" and call for a "'stationary state' without economic growth"; they "[attack] any further expansion of industry and commerce", and believe "science...is a threat to public health". They would even "regulate ... procreation" and want "new, heavy taxes on baby carriages". They believe that "only by rolling in the mud of primitive practices that modern man could remove the stain of sinful science and materialism." These radical environmentalists are "aristocratic" elistists, a "liberal gentry" that "see the untamed middle classes as the true enemy". They would impose "a global, big-brother government that will keep the middle classes in line"... did I miss anything?

This is a silly, stupid article. It attacks a straw man image of environmentalism. It relies on out of out-of-context quotes from 40 years ago and a few fringe viewpoints to equate concern for the environment with quackery. It ignores both the past successes of the environmental movement (e.g., the Clean Air Act, CERCLA, etc.) and the serious concerns that environmentalists have today. It even sinks to name-calling (liberals are "Stalinists" and "hippies").

I think this article's worst failing is hypocrisy. It decries "politicized science", but then uses politicized arguments against the science of global warming. (The two sceptic arguments about global warming presented here--i.e. "the hockey stick is broken" and "the Climategate emails showed a conspiracy"--are very concisely addressed and debunked here, among other places: http://www.skepticalscience.com/broken-hockey-stick.htm and http://www.skepticalscience.com/Climategate-CRU-emails-hacked.htm) It suggests that liberals are anti-science "doomsayers", then goes on to attack both scientists (Carl Sagan) and well-established scientific theories (global warming). If that's not politicized science, I don't know what is.

But are conservatives really any different?

It would be unfair to write such a piece, pointing out the failures of recent modern American liberalism without pointing out the gross failings of the modern American conservative movement. If anything, today's conservative movement might better be classified as a regressive movement instead. That and the overwhelming failure of the conservative movement to attract younger people and minorities whereas the bulk of those who claim to be conservative are older and white. The ideological disparity between conservatives and liberals seems to grow more and more extreme with each passing year. Its like watching a circus more than politics.

Basically what we have right now is a huge disconnect between both sides. That is neither helpful or constructive.

The Age of Environmentalism

I addressed this transformation in a series of three essayss I wrote in Feb 2009, (one still to come) but with a somewhat complementary emphasis on cultural manifestations through song, film, etc and contrasting the post sixties with Isaiah Berlin's perceptions from the fifties.

Go to: http://www.rmastudies.org.nz/issues/65-the-age-of-environmentalism/307-e...

This essay, The Age of Environmentalism – the American Story, explores the origins of Environmentalism in the United States during the 1960s and its rapid development during the 1970s, and implies that this form of Environmentalism, which focuses on the natural and physical world, and makes the case for World Government, is the form which is most commonly expressed through the United Nations and current governments and has hence determined so much of the political debate of the current “Age”.

Essentially I argue that the sixties was not the beginning of the modern age but the end of the “Age of Optimism” and that after a period of gestation in the sixties the early seventies introduced “the Age of Pessimism.”

The massive shift in the history of political thought which emerged from the 1960s was the overturning of The Enlightenment tradition which had focused on how best to realize the perfectibility of the human condition, and how best to use the resources of the world around us to support economic growth and development and human welfare and wellbeing.

The new ideology of environmentalism turned this on its head. Instead of nature being a threat to humanity, humanity was now perceived as a threat to nature, and that consequently our actions must be curtailed to maintain the integrity of nature and in particular the integrity of its ecosystems.

The debate had shifted from an econocentric focus to an ecocentric focus.
Isaiah Berlin never saw this coming in his writings of the 1950s embodied in PIRA, but we have seen that the many threads of this ecocentric philosophy or ideology were well established by the end of the 1960s, and were dominating both intellectual and popular culture by the end of the 1970s.

Also an early warning of global warming appeared in 1971 when Kellerman wrote:
"But while CO2 is not toxic, its ever increasing concentration and long residence in the atmosphere are expected eventually to affect the heat balance and with it the climate on Earth."

Unsurprisingly, in the closing pages of his essay Kellerman strongly advocates global action and global government through the agency of the United Nations.

United Nations Secretary-General, U Thant, had already urged the creation of a “global authority … to police and enforce its decisions” and asked:

"Do the sovereign nations of the world have the courage and the vision to set up and support such an agency now, and thus, in the interest of future generations of life on earth, depart radically from the hitherto sacred paths of national sovereignty?"

Kellerman concludes his essay by claiming:
"It is at this point that the ecological crisis becomes a social and a moral one. We shall not solve one without the other."

Kellerman was one of the first to set such an all-encompassing agenda for the ideology of environmentalism.

Owen McShane, Kaiwaka, New Zealand.
Director, Centre for Resource Management Studies.
http://www.rmastudies.org.nz/