With the exception of African-Americans, the group perhaps most energized by the Barack Obama presidency has been the environmentalists. Yet if most Americans can celebrate along with their black fellow citizens the tremendous achievement of Obama’s accession, the rise of green power may have consequences less widely appreciated.
The new power of the green lobby — including a growing number of investment and venture capital firms — introduces something new to national politics, although already familiar in places such as California and Oregon. Even if you welcome the departure of the Bush team, with its slavish fealty to Big Oil and the Saudis, the new power waged by environmental ideologues could impede the president’s primary goal of restarting our battered economy.
This danger grows out of the environmental agenda widening beyond such things as conservation and preserving public health into a far more obtrusive program that could affect every aspect of economic life. As Teddy Roosevelt, our first great environmentalist president, once remarked, “Every reform movement has a lunatic fringe.”
Today, the “green” fringe sometimes seems to have become the mainstream, as well. While conservationists such as Roosevelt battled to preserve wilderness and clean up the environment, they also cared deeply about boosting productivity as well as living standards for the middle and working classes.
In contrast, the modern environmental movement often seems to take on a different cast, adopting a largely misanthropic view of humans as a “cancer” that needs to be contained. Our “addiction” to economic growth, noted Friends of the Earth founder David Brower, “will destroy us.” Other activists regard population growth as an unalloyed evil, gobbling up resources and increasing planet-heating greenhouse gases.
For such people, the crusade against global warming trumps such things as saving the nation’s industrial heartland, which is largely fueled by coal, oil and natural gas, even if it means the inevitable transfer of additional goods making it to far dirtier places such as India and China. Of course, the current concern over global warming could still prove to be as exaggerated as vintage 1970s predictions of impending global starvation or imminent resource depletion.
Certainly experience suggests we should not be afraid to question policies advocated by the true believers — particularly amid what threatens to be the worst economic downturn in generations. Actions taken now in the name of climate change could have powerful long-term economic implications.
We don’t have to imagine this in the abstract; just look at the economies of two of the greenest states — Oregon and California — whose land use, energy and other environmental policies have helped contribute to higher housing and business costs as well as an exodus of entrepreneurs.
Bill Watkins, head of the forecasting project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, notes that these two environmentally oriented states now have among the nation’s highest unemployment rates, pushing toward 10 percent — ahead of only the Rust Belt disaster areas farther east. In some places, such as central Oregon, it could hit close to 15 percent next year.
Many green activists, along with “smart growth” advocates and new urbanists, laud Oregon’s long-standing strict land use controls as a national role model. Recently imposed land use legislation in California, concocted largely to meet the state’s restrictions on greenhouse gas, has been greeted by them with almost universal hosannas.
Of course, there is nothing wrong at all with trying to curb excessive sprawl or energy use. Promoting a dense urban lifestyle is also commendable, but it is an option that appeals to no more than 10 percent to 20 percent of the population. This is even truer of middle-class people with children, few of whom can hope to live the urban lifestyles of the Kennedys, Gores and other elites — much less also afford one or two country homes to boot.
Tough land use policies are not only hard on middle-class aspirations, but they appear to have played a role in inflating the extreme bubble that affected the California and Oregon real estate markets. Limiting options for where people and business can locate, notes UCSB’s Watkins, tends to drive up the prices of desirable real estate beyond what it would otherwise cost.
Perhaps worst of all, it is not at all certain that a forced march back to the cities would necessarily produce a better, more energy-efficient country. Sprawling and multipolar, with jobs scattered largely on the periphery, most American cities do not lend themselves easily to traditional mass transit; in many cases, this proves no more energy efficient than driving a low-mileage car, using flexible jitney services or, especially, working at home. Big cities also have a potential for generating a “heat island” effect that can result in higher temperatures.
Energy policy represents another field where hewing too close to the green party line could prove problematic. Obama already has endorsed California’s approach as exemplary. And indeed, some things — like imposing tougher mileage standards, stronger conservation measures and more research into cleaner forms of energy — could indeed bring about both short-term and long-term economic benefits.
However, there are also downsides to adopting a California-style single-minded focus on renewable fuels such as solar and wind. Right now, these sources account for far less than 1 percent of our nation’s energy production. Even if doubled or tripled in the next few years, they seem unlikely to reduce our future dependence on foreign oil or boost our overall energy supplies in the short, or even medium, term.
Looking at the experience of these two states, bold claims about vast numbers of green jobs created by legislative fiat seem more about offloading costs to consumers, business and taxpayers than anything else, particularly at today’s current low energy prices. In contrast, new environmentally friendly investments in natural gas, hydro, biomass and nuclear are more likely to find private financing and may work sooner both to reduce dependence on foreign fuels and to keep energy prices down.
The Obama administration certainly should listen to the arguments of environmentalists. But given the clear priority among voters to deal first with the economy, the president should implement only those green policies that make sense at this time of crisis. A sharp break from the Bush approach is certainly welcome, but not in ways that promise more pain to ordinary Americans and our faltering economy.
This article originally appeared at Politico.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History and is finishing a book on the American future.