Thursday, December 15, 2005

Environmentalism is a Way to Slow Down Change

George Will has a new column on the debate over drilling for oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. In it, he makes the important point that environmentalism, as an -ism, is not really about the environment, its about us, people. (For the record, I'd rather we didn't drill in ANWR; but not for the usual reasons.)

Will defines the point of environmentalism as collectivism -- the equality side of the old liberty vs. equality trade off. Will isn't the first to say/imply that "environmentalism is socialism" (and not all those who say that mean it negatively). Close, I'd say, but not on the money. Now, I've seen it happen in family and friends: vaguely enthusiastic about left wing, anti-American movements in the Reagan years, disillusioned by the failure of the revolution to materialize (El Salvador and Guatemala), or be really revolutionary (South Africa) and never really part of the hard left anyway, and then taking up environmentalism in the Clinton years as a way of "keeping hope alive" in a way that isn't too bitterly alienated from society. So, yes, environmentalism does win a large part of its support from depressed socialists. (Here's another interesting example.)

But I don't think equality is really the issue. Instead I think it is the pace of change. The real appeal of environmentalism is that it slows change. Like almost any system of regulation, it prevents land being used for one purpose from being turned to another, which is a major brake on any alterations in our environment. In Bloomington, this is a big issue; the Democrats and the Republicans are divided principally on the idea of growth (meaning the transformation of farmland into subdivisions): one party's anti, and the other's for; one party's linked to the university, the other's in the tank for the realtors. (Can you guess which one's which? I knew you could!)

And why is the pace of change an issue? Why do some people like change and others dislike it? Setting aside the obvious material interests (which in local politics is probably a very stupid thing to do) I think it's a matter of risk-aversion. Risk-averse people don't like change. Gamblers love it. Women are (on average) risk averse, men are (on average) gamblers.

Let's go back to ANWR: why am I opposed to drilling there? (This sounds like a digression, but I'll come back to the topic.) Because its our oil, and any sensible person knows you ought to burn all of their oil, before you start off on your own. To put it another way, ANWR is one big collossal strategic reserve of petroleum -- it would be foolish to burn it all now, we might need it later. So I support the environmental position there, simply because its an irrational taboo that prevents us from spending now what we might need later. In this way it reminds me of the old temple states of the ancient Near East (you know, Athens, Israel, etc.; they were all temple states). Whenever you get a big windfall, you sock a lot of it away in the temple in the form of gold plates, gold shields, gold votives statues, etc., etc. (see 2 Samuel 8:7; 1 Kings 10:17). Why? Well, because in the politics of the day, it was impossible to save money in the treasury. Once you got money, the impulse was to distribute it among the citizens as an annuity. Themistocles had a hard time stopping the Athenians from doing that with profits from the silver mines at Laurium, and getting them to build a fleet instead -- which came in handy during the Persian wars. So if you imagine a community with little self-control the only way you're going to be able to save money for a rainy day is to put a supernatural bar on its spending. And that's what happened: when Judah was really in a jam, she took all the gold in the temple and used it to buy her way out of trouble (1 Kings 14:16, 2 Kings 16:8). Today, with natural resources, environmentalism plays the same role: an spiritual taboo that supplies the defect of our lack of self-control, and forces us to set aside resources for a rainy day.

So if enviromentalism is a religion and environmentalism is socialism, is religion socialism? I think the three have a link in one sense: all three generally inculcate a sense of caution, a sense of "don't touch!", "don't change!", "leave well enough alone!" "learn to live with limits!" And all three are more popular among women, and less popular among the gambler type. Now we all know that all socialism and religion can be found in less "risk-averse" "feminine" forms: violent, revolutionary socialism, for example, or Covenanter-style Presbyterianism or "earthy" Lutheranism. But overall, I think the link holds.

And that is why environmentalism will never go away -- and never win. I am not at all sure that humans are wired to be eager for change -- and I am not at all sure that we should regret that we are not. Perhaps its because I am myself about in the middle of the risk-averse continuum, I see both sides. For example, any one who reads this blog a lot knows I am big on preserving the past: whether it's ruins, traditions, or ancient taboos (like on sexual immorality or blasphemy) -- that's the risk-averse/environmentalist side. But communities that always avoid risk eventually go under in this ruthlessly competitive world, and if you read this blog often you also know that I hate to see my country lose at anything. That's the gambler side. Like yin and yang, like the trembling fear of God and the exultant assurance of salvation, the two will always be in conflict, and always a part of the true Way.