Well, it’s about to happen all over again. I’ve been wondering how soon a certain marriage of convenience in contemporary cultural politics would come messily apart, and now we’ve seen one of the typical warning signs of that impending breach. Those of my readers who are concerned about environmental issues—actually concerned, that is, and not simply using the environment as a convenient opportunity for class-conscious virtue signaling—may want to brace themselves for a shock.
The sign I have in mind is a recent flurry of articles in the leftward end of the mainstream media decrying the dangers of ecofascism. Ecofascism? That’s the term used for, and also generally by, that tiny subset of our society’s fascist fringe which likes to combine environmental concerns with the racial bigotries and authoritarian political daydreams more standard on that end of modern extremism. If you’ve never heard of it before, there’s good reason for that, but a significant section of the mainstream media seems to have taken quite an interest in making sure that you hear about it now. Here’s a recent article on the subject from The New Statesman, here’s another from The Guardian, and here’s a third from the New York Review of Books; if you’ve watched the course of any of the recent campaigns of manufactured media outrage, you’ll recognize the rhetorical style and be able to guess without too much difficulty how this latest example will play out.
The first thing I’d like to point out to my readers here is that, as already noted, ecofascism is a fringe of a fringe. In terms of numbers and cultural influence, it ranks well below the Flat Earth Society or the people who believe in all sincerity that Elvis Presley is a god. It’s one of those minute and self-marginalizing sub-sub-subcultures that a certain number of people find or make in order to act out their antinomian fantasies in comfortable obscurity, and enjoy the modest joys of being the biggest paramecium in a very, very small pond. It’s fair to say, in fact, that the chance that ecofascism will become a significant political or cultural force in your lifetime, dear reader, is right up there with the chance that the United Church of Bacon will become a major world religion.
So why is this submicroscopic fringe ideology suddenly on the receiving end of so many faux-worried essays in important liberal newspapers and magazines, and in the corresponding end of social media and the public blogosphere? The reason, I’d argue, has to do with something else that’s been finally receiving its own share of media attention.
A little while ago, as some of my readers may be aware, one of the big tech companies sponsored an environmental conference on the island of Sicily. There were three hundred attendees, all of them from the oxygen-deprived summits of today’s economic and cultural elite. Getting them to and from the event required no fewer than 119 private jetliners as well as an assortment of fuel-guzzling luxury motor yachts—of course the planes and yachts also brought an army of personal assistants, domestics, and all the other other human bubble wrap that’s needed to keep those fragile pieces of merchandise we call “celebrities” safe from any untoward contact with the sharp edges of the real world. Among the many other amenities at the conference, the attendees had a fleet of Maseratis waiting night and day on the off chance that one of them might want to take a drive or go look at some scenery.
That is to say, counting up all its direct and indirect energy costs, this one conference had a carbon footprint rivaling the annual output of some Third World countries—and you guessed it, the point of the conference was to talk about the menace of anthropogenic climate change.
This sort of thing has been going on for years, ever since climate change became a fashionable celebrity cause. What sets this year’s conference apart from earlier examples of the same sorry type is that this time, the other end of the political spectrum has finally decided to start calling out absurd climate change hypocrisy for what it is. Here’s the redoubtable Rex Murphy of the National Post, for example, giving the Sicily conference and its brightly burnished celebrity attendees a good sound thrashing. You can find other examples easily enough if you step out of the airtight bubble of mainstream popular culture—and these days, the bubble is not quite as airtight as it once was and some of the criticism is starting to slip through.
At this point, in fact, one of the current heartthrobs of climate change activism, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, refuses to fly anywhere because of commercial air travel’s gargantuan carbon footprint. Sensibly enough, she travels through Europe by train, and her rich friends have lent her a sailboat to take her across the Atlantic for her upcoming North American tour. This would be bad enough if Thunberg was an ordinary citizen trying to raise awareness of anthropogenic climate change, but she’s not—she’s the darling of the Davos set, a child of privilege who’s managed to parlay the normal adolescent craving for attention into a sizable cultural presence. Every time she takes the train, she adds to the number of people who look at the attendees at the Sicily conference mentioned above and say, “So what about your carbon footprint?”
That, in turn, is fatal to climate change activism as currently constituted. For years now, since that brief period when I was a very minor star in the peak oil movement, I’ve noted a curious dynamic in the climate change-centered end of environmentalism. Almost always, the people I met at peak oil events who were concerned about peak oil and the fate of industrial society more generally, rather than climate change or such other mediacentric causes as the plight of large cute animals, were ready and willing to make extensive changes in their own lives, in addition to whatever political activism they might engage in. Almost always, the people I met who were exclusively concerned with anthropogenic climate change were not.
I can be even more precise. With vanishingly few exceptions, the people I met who were solely concerned with anthropogenic climate change insisted loudly that what needed to happen was that someone else, somewhere else, had to stop using so much carbon. The one contribution they were willing to make to that great change consisted of feeling really, really bad about it all. I wish I was joking. I attended several events on the culturally avant-garde end of the environmental scene, which provided a drum circle that attendees could use to facilitate their grieving for Gaia. No, I didn’t participate, but every time I walked past, there were people in the circle in the sort of office-casual clothing that costs as much as a good three-piece suit, wailing and sobbing about the state of the planet. Come Sunday afternoon, in turn, each of them piled into the big gleaming SUV they’d driven to the event all by themselves, and drove back to lifestyles that were only made possible by absurdly extravagant overconsumption of fossil fuels.
To some extent this is common or garden variety hypocrisy, heavily larded with the odd conviction—on loan from the less honest end of liberal Christianity—that if you feel really bad about your sins, God will ignore the fact that you keep on committing them. Still, there’s more to it than that. Some of what else is going on came to the surface a few years ago in Washington State when a group of environmental activists launched an initiative that would have slapped a fee on carbon. As such things go, it was a well-designed initiative, and one of the best things about it was that it was revenue-neutral: that is, the money taken in by the carbon fee flowed right back out through direct payments to citizens, so that rising energy prices due to the carbon fee wouldn’t clobber the economy or hurt the poor.
That, in turn, made it unacceptable to the Democratic Party in Washington State, and they refused to back the initiative, dooming it to defeat. Shortly thereafter they floated their own carbon fee initiative, which was anything but revenue neutral. Rather, it was set up to funnel all the money from the carbon fee into a slush fund managed by a board the public wouldn’t get to elect, which would hand out the funds to support an assortment of social justice causes that were also helpfully sheltered from public oversight. Unsurprisingly, the second initiative also lost heavily—few Washington State voters were willing to trust their breathtakingly corrupt political establishment with yet another massive source of graft at public expense.
Saikat Chakrabarti, the former chief of staff for freshperson Congresscritter Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, made waves in certain parts of the media a little while back by admitting in public what everyone else had already noticed in private: the fact that Ocasio-Cortez’s much-ballyhooed “Green New Deal” wasn’t actually about the environment at all. He was quite correct, of course, just as the second Washington carbon tax initiative wasn’t about climate change. Both used the rhetoric of environmentalism in an attempt to force a transfer of wealth and power—and despite big sloppy scoops of the usual rhetoric, the transfer was never intended to go from the rich to the poor. (We’ll talk in a future post where it was meant to go and what it was meant to do there.)
It’s at this point that I find myself overwhelmed by memories from my misspent youth, because we’ve been here before. Most of my readers have heard of The Limits to Growth, the seminal 1972 study sponsored by the Club of Rome which showed that the pursuit of limitless growth on a finite planet leads inevitably to prolonged gradual declines in population and economic output. (Yes, that’s what it showed. It’s astonishing how many people can’t see past apocalyptic fantasies and read what Meadows et al. actually wrote.) I wonder, though, how many of my readers know that the Club of Rome also sponsored a series of studies that followed up on The Limits to Growth and proposed a solution to the problem: Mankind at the Turning Point (1975), Reshaping the International Order (1976), and Goals for Mankind (1977) were the first three.
If you haven’t heard of these followup studies, dear reader, there’s good reason for that. They argued unconvincingly that everything would be just fine if only the nations of the world handed over control of the global economy to an unelected cadre of experts, under whom the institutions of democratic governance would be turned into powerless debating societies while the decisions that mattered would be made by corporate-bureaucratic committees conveniently sheltered from public oversight. (If this seems familiar to those of my readers who endure EU rule just now, there’s a reason for that: the state of affairs just described has been the wet dream of Europe’s privileged classes and their tame intellectuals for quite a few decades now.) That’s the usually unmentioned reason why The Limits to Growth fielded the savage resistance it did: a good many people in 1972 recognized it as a stalking horse for a political agenda.
That doesn’t mean the predictions in The Limits to Growth were inaccurate. That’s the bitter irony of our situation. The “standard run” model in that book remains that era’s most accurate prediction of the post-1972 future—far more accurate, certainly, than the gizmocentric fantasies of rapid progress and the equally delusional predictions of imminent apocalypse that were considered far more realistic at the time. We’re seeing the curves bend right about where the World-3 model said they would bend, and the long age of decline the model predicted is looming up ahead. It’s as though your house was on fire and someone pounded on your door, insisting that you had to sign a contract giving him your property so he could fight the fire. You shouldn’t sign the contract, and the reasons he brandishes to try to talk you into signing it are bogus, but that doesn’t change the fact that your house really is on fire.
In the same way, the mere fact that certain people are trying to use climate change as a stalking horse for unrelated political agendas doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to dump trillions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, or that doing so won’t cause epic disruptions to an already unstable global climate. Mind you, anthropogenic climate change isn’t the end of the world, not by a long shot; the Earth has been through sudden temperature shifts many times before in its long history, some of them due to large-scale releases of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—that’s one of the things really massive volcanic episodes can do, for example.
Attempts to dress up climate change in the borrowed finery of the Book of Revelations—sinners in the hands of an angry Gaia!—have more to do with our culture’s apocalyptic obsessions, and with the desires of ambitious people to scare others into signing on to their agenda, than with the realities of anthropogenic climate change. That said, we can expect a good solid helping of coastal flooding, weather-related disasters, crop failures, and other entertainments, which will take an increasingly severe economic toll as the years go on, and help drive the declines in population and economic output mentioned a few paragraphs back. Yes, this is one of the things The Limits to Growth was talking about when it predicted the long slow arc of decline ahead of us.
The problem faced by the people who have been pushing climate change activism is that their political enemies have found a very effective way to counter them: they can point out that the people who babble by the hour about the apocalyptic future we face due to anthropogenic climate change don’t take their own claims seriously enough to walk their talk. Thus the attendees at the environmental conference on Sicily mentioned earlier can no longer count on having their planet and eating it too—or, more to the point, they can’t count on doing so while still convincing anyone that they ought to be taken seriously. This is hard on certain delicate egos, and it also makes it hard to keep pursuing the agenda mentioned above while continuing to lead absurdly extravagant lifestyles propped up by stunning levels of energy and resource waste.
There’s a simple solution to that difficulty, though: the celebrities, their pet intellectuals, and the interests behind them can drop environmentalism like a hot rock.
That’s what happened, after all, in the early 1980s. Environmentalism up until that point had a huge cultural presence, supported by government-funded advertising campaigns—some of my readers, certainly, are old enough to recall Woodsy Owl and his iconic slogan, “Give a hoot, don’t pollute!”—and also supported by a galaxy of celebrities who mouthed pious sentiments about nature. Then, bam! Ronald Reagan was in, Woodsy Owl was out, John-Boy Walton and John Denver gave way to Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko and “material girl” Madonna, and the Sierra Club and the Friends of the Earth had corporate executives on their boards of directors, and did everything they could think of to deep-six the effective organizing tactics that got the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and a galaxy of other environmental reforms enacted into law.
There were plenty of other factors that fed into the process by which the environmental movement was efficiently gelded in the early 1980s, but I’ve come to think that one of the significant forces behind that collapse was a decision by interests who had been boosting environmentalism to remove the inputs of grant money, political influence, and celebrity support that had been crucial in giving the movement the momentum it previously had. One of the reasons I think this is that I saw exactly the same thing happen to the peak oil movement after 2010, when the funding sources that had propped up ASPO (the Association for the Study of Peak Oil) and an assortment of other peak oil advocacy groups suddenly pulled the plug, and an entire social ecology of websites, membership organizations, and annual meetings came crashing to the ground.
I think we’re about to see the same thing happen to climate change activism, and one of the symptoms of the approaching swerve is the sudden flurry of mass media publicity being given right now to the tiny fringe phenomenon of ecofascism. Over the months ahead, I expect to see many more stories along the same lines all over the leftward end of the media and its associated blogosphere, insisting in increasingly shrill terms that anyone who pays too much attention to the environment—and in particular, anyone who expects celebrity climate change activists to modify their lifestyles to match their loudly proclaimed ideals—is probably an ecofascist. In fact, I would be very surprised if we don’t see a series of earnest articles in the media claiming that believing in ecological limits is racist; such claims are already being made in the blogosphere, and their adoption by the mainstream left is, I suspect, merely a matter of time.
If this sudden swerve follows the same trajectory as previous examples, we’ll also see funding for climate change activism dry up suddenly, and groups that have been receiving such funding will be told to change their focus from climate change to some broader and much more harmless subject. (Habitués of the peak oil scene will remember what happened when Energy Bulletin suddenly changed its name to Resilience and its focus from peak oil to a grab bag of bland environmental pieties; this is the sort of thing I have in mind.) Celebrities will find some other cause that will allow them to play at doing good while still living their absurdly extravagant carbon-intensive lifestyles. As for Greta Thunberg, she’d better enjoy wallowing in elite attention while she can; not too long from now, unless she’s canny enough to stop talking about climate change and follow the celebrities to whatever their next cause du jour happens to be, the rich and influential people who are fawning all over her right now will be saying “Greta who?”
The bitter irony in all of this is that anthropogenic climate change is a reality. It’s not the end of the world, not by a long shot, but it bids fair to cause a vast amount of human suffering and economic impoverishment in the decades ahead. What’s more, the celebrity activists who currently make so much noise about anthropogenic climate change could actually do something about it, if only they were willing to lead by example, cut their own carbon footprints sharply, and show the world what those of us who’ve taken that step already know: that you can have a perfectly pleasant, decent, and comfortable life on a small fraction of the energy and resource inputs that the comfortable classes of the industrial world think they have to have.
That’s the opportunity that will go whistling down the wind in the years ahead, as climate change activism and environmentalism generally stop being fashionable, and a lot of people who’ve committed their time and effort to those causes find themselves in the same unenviable condition as the appropriate-technology movement after 1980, or the peak oil movement after 2010. And if, dear reader, you insist that none of this can possibly happen and I’m as wrong as wrong can be—or perhaps even that I must be one of those sinister ecofascists you never heard of before the media started prattling about them—why, then, I encourage you to save this essay and look at it again in five or ten years, and we’ll see who was right.
This week’s essay is on a contentious subject, and I’ve noticed rather more than once that these days, not everyone who reads essays on contentious subjects takes the time to understand them—or has the honesty to avoid twisting the author’s words around for the sake of cheap shots of various kinds. If you finish this essay, in other words, convinced that I don’t think anthropogenic global warning is a serious threat, please go back and reread the essay until you find the places where I explicitly discuss this point—and if you try to post something insisting that I don’t think anthropogenic global warming is a serious threat, please be aware that your comment will go straight to the trash and (if you’re dishonest enough) you may just get yourself banned. Thank you, and we now return you to your regularly scheduled blog post.