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The environmental movement in retreat

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By George F. Will
Sunday, September 5, 2010

The collapsing crusade for legislation to combat climate change raises a question: Has ever a political movement made so little of so many advantages? Its implosion has continued since "the Cluster of Copenhagen, when world leaders assembled for the single most unproductive and chaotic global gathering ever held." So says Walter Russell Mead, who has an explanation: Bambi became Godzilla.

That is, a small band of skeptics became the dogmatic establishment. In his Via Meadia blog, Mead, a professor of politics at Bard College and Yale, notes that "the greenest president in American history had the largest congressional majority of any president since Lyndon Johnson," but the environmentalists' legislation foundered because they got "on the wrong side of doubt."

Environmentalists, Mead argues, have forgotten their origins, which were in skeptical "reaction against Big Science, Big Government and Experts." Environmentalists once were intellectual cousins of economic libertarians who heed the arguments of Friedrich Hayek and other students of spontaneous order -- in society or nature. Such libertarians caution against trying to impose big, simple plans on complex systems. They warn that governmental interventions in such systems inevitably have large unintended, because unforeseeable, consequences.

In the middle of the 20th century, Americans, impressed by the government's mobilization of society for victory in World War II, were, Mead says, "intoxicated with social and environmental engineering of all kinds." They had, for example, serene confidence that "urban renewal" would produce "model cities." Back then, environmentalism was skepticism.

It was akin to the dissent of Jane Jacobs, author of the 1961 book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." She argued that ambitious social engineers such as New York's Robert Moses were, by their ten-thumbed interventions in complex organisms such as cities, disrupting social ecosystems. The apotheosis of technocratic experts such as McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara gave us "nation-building" in conjunction with a war of attrition -- the crucial metric supposedly was body counts -- in a Southeast Asian peasant society. Over time, Mead says, "experts lost their mystique":

"An increasingly skeptical public started to notice that 'experts' weren't angels descending immaculately from heaven bearing infallible revelations from God. They were fallible human beings with mortgages to pay and funds to raise. They disagreed with one another and they colluded with their friends and supporters like everyone else."

And expertise was annoyingly changeable. Experts said margarine was the healthy alternative to butter -- until they said its trans fats made it harmful.

Environmentalism began as Bambi doing battle with Godzillas, such as the Army Corps of Engineers. Then, says Mead, environmentalism became Godzilla, an advocate of "a big and simple fix for all that ails us: a global carbon cap. One big problem, one big fix." Mead continues:

"Never mind that the leading green political strategy (to stop global warming by a treaty that gains unanimous consent among 190-plus countries and is then ratified by 67 votes in a Senate that rejected Kyoto 95 to 0) is and always has been so cluelessly unrealistic as to be clinically insane. The experts decree and we rubes are not to think but to honor and obey."

The essence of progressivism, of which environmentalism has become an appendage, is the faith that all will be well once we have concentrated enough power in Washington and have concentrated enough Washington power in the executive branch and have concentrated enough "experts" in that branch. Hence the Environmental Protection Agency proposes to do what the elected representatives of the rubes refuse to do in limiting greenhouse gases. Mead says of today's environmental movement:

"It proposes big economic and social interventions and denies that unintended consequences and new information could vitiate the power of its recommendations. It knows what is good for us, and its knowledge is backed up by the awesome power and majesty of the peer review process. The political, cultural, business and scientific establishments stand firmly behind global warming today -- just as they once stood firmly behind Robert Moses, urban renewal and big dams. They tell us it's a sin to question the consensus, the sign of bad moral character to doubt. Bambi, look in the mirror. You will see Godzilla looking back."

Mead, who says that he is a skeptic about climate policy rather than climate science, says that the environmental movement has "become the voice of the establishment, of the tenured, of the technocrats." This is the wrong thing to be in "Recovery Summer" while the nation wonders about the whereabouts of the robust recovery the experts forecast.

georgewill@washpost.com


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