Progressives against progress

The rise of environmentalism poisoned liberals’ historical optimism

City Journal makes the case that the environmental movement, with its implied assumptions that progress and science is suspect and back-to-nature always laudable, caused a shift in liberalism from its original optimism to endless forecasts of doom. It also led to elitism and then a subsequent loss of power by liberalism. they say. I’m not sure I agree entirely but they make some telling points.

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.

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.

A few years ago when we lived in Connecticut, Sue and I went to an organic food, grow-your-own convention. We were expecting useful ideas about home gardening but what we got from the headline speakers was arrogance due to their supposed enlightened position as arbiters of what is proper to eat, combined with contempt and scorn for actual farmers. The speaker, and I am not making this up, said we have to somehow teach all those beer-drinking NASCAR fans about organic gardening and how to grow food properly. You could almost see his nose wrinkle in disgust as he mentioned such obvious social inferiors. Obviously, rednecks would have no clue whatsoever about how to grow food and needed to be taught this by their betters, one of whom was a NYC chef. Idiots. It is precisely this attitude, sneering liberal elitism, that quite rightfully pisses off many people.

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.

Be sure to recycle your trash, use paper bags at the market, and eat organic food. Because that is the Enlightened Thing to do. But pay no mind to the corporatism behind the curtain.

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