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New and Dangerous Messages on the Environment

By Rob Schofield

Raleigh’s right-wing think tanks have been busy of late, churning out an even steadier than usual stream of alarmist reports, events and commentaries about the evils of dastardly environmentalist plots like global warming and any proposals that attempt to address it. Once one gets past the “through the looking glass” quality of the various documents, they make for an interesting window into the hearts and minds of the market fundamentalist crowd.  

There’s something about intentional action to protect the environment that just sticks in the craws of certain folks on the far right. One can almost feel their blood pressure rising as they hurl barbs at proposals like Senate Bill 3 [1] – the legislation that would enact a so called “renewable portfolio standard” for the state’s electric utilities. (It’s important here to note that this is not the case for all “conservatives.” Some of the nation’s greatest environmentalists and conservationists are and have been conservative. There’s also a growing movement [2] of religious conservatives who feel called to act as stewards of the planet and its resources).

Here are some “highlights” from a recent Locke Foundation Spotlight [3] report:

“A new round of tax increases on the citizens of North Carolina is being proposed to save the planet from global warming, but in fact they will have absolutely no effect on temperatures. The real purpose of these taxes is to punish North Carolina citizens for using what some members of the General Assembly, Division of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) bureaucrats, and environmental ideologues think is too much of the wrong kind of energy.”

“Additional hidden costs are derived from the fact that people would reduce their use of electricity. What needs to be understood is that the only way to do this would be to forgo activities or basic human comforts. People use electricity for heat in the winter and cooling in the summer, for cooking, for bathing, and for lighting their homes in the evening. To the extent that people would be forced to cut back on electricity use because of higher taxes, they would to some extent be forced to cut back on these basic human comforts.”

And this one from another Locke Report [4]:

“A REPS (renewable energy portfolio standard) would be a direct infringement on personal freedom. It would amount to the government forcing its values and choices on the public.”

And these from the J.W. Pope Civitas Institute [5]:

<“Only about 10,000 people in North Carolina have chosen to buy renewable energy – chosen because a well-publicized NC GreenPower program has given citizens plenty of opportunities to buy power derived from sources like solar, wind and hog waste….

As a referendum on renewable energy, such low participation is a relatively clear indication that North Carolinians are not interested.”

“…SB 3 has no measurable environmental benefit, won’t combat terrorism, destroys prosperity, creates “zombie” special interests, and flies in the face of what consumers actually want….”

And this one:

“Do you realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face?”

Oh wait, never mind — that one’s from Dr. Strangelove [6].

Reality Check on a Flawed Philosophy

As has been argued in this space [7], it’s true that Senate Bill 3 is flawed. It does include unnecessary giveaways to powerful utility companies and manufacturers and won’t provide an immediate solution to global climate change. There are also legitimate questions about whether burning biomass like animal waste rather than fossil fuels would be at all helpful to the environment.

But the market fundamentalist diatribes against Senate Bill 3 clearly betray a much more deep-seated and visceral opposition to environmental protection that goes beyond a mere difference over the specifics of any bill. In the market fundamentalist view of the world, the “invisible hand” of the market is something close to divine. Any effort to restrict it or to use public institutions to directly and intentionally promote the common good – especially at the expense of an individual’s ability to act completely unfettered in the “marketplace” – is an assault on “freedom.”

In the market fundamentalist worldview, all problems can be solved through the “genius of the market.” Hence the notion that only those energy sources that compete in that most sacred of spaces – the world of dollars and cents – are at all worthy. If consumers haven’t shown they “want” green energy via their holiest of behaviors (i.e., their purchasing patterns) well then to hell with it. It’s obviously not “competitive” and not worth anyone’s time.

Similarly, to limit electricity consumption in the name of conservation is to deny the “freedom” of individuals to pursue the only activity that really provides any meaning in the market fundamentalist view of modern life: the pursuit of material goods and “human comfort.”  If humans want a product or a service, it’s a “winner” in the marketplace. To the extent society acts to assure that as many people as possible obtain it – be it gas guzzlers or indoor, artificial skiing in the summer, it’s promoting “freedom.”    

While philosophers and theologians might have a productive time dissecting such crude and soulless philosophy, there is a more obvious, practical and immediately relevant critique: It doesn’t make any sense.

Sure, the market economy is a wonderful and comparatively efficient means of producing wealth. It’s a fabulous tool a lot of the time, but a lot of the time it’s not. The market is a flawed human institution – which is exactly why Americans (and many others) have fashioned other flawed human institutions (but at least democratic and public) to curb its failures and excesses.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the fight to preserve our natural environment. The market doesn’t “care” if the Albemarle or Pamlico Sounds [8] die or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge [9] is inundated with sludge (or if millions in Africa die from AIDS [10] for that matter) – especially the modern, Wall Street driven, immediate profits uber alles, market. All it “knows” is profits and wealth and consumption. Indeed, most of the problems with the proposed renewable energy legislation are all the result of the greed for wealth and profits that afflicts our large utility companies and manufacturers.

Sure, market forces can sometimes be usefully employed in cleaning things up or in creating incentives for more socially responsible behavior, but that won’t do anyone any good once a species has become extinct or a habitat has become irretrievably ruined – especially if the “habitat” in question is the thin sliver of air and water called the biosphere; the place in which all life we know of exists.

So, pardon us if some of us err on the side of caution by fighting for intentional, public fixes to the environmental crises that afflict our planet and threaten our species. The market fundamentalists may have a point about Senate Bill 3 and others like it. Such proposals may not do enough by themselves to reverse global warming. They may be only hesitant and inadequate first steps. They may require significant shared sacrifice – maybe even of some wealth and “comfort.” They may even be too late to save all that we would hope to save. But we need to try and we need to get to work. When the stakes are this high, a visible hand beats an invisible one every time.