Progressives Against Progress

Some of the most worthwhile things to read are not necessarily those which tell you something new so much as those which remind you of something you have forgotten or which express your own thoughts more clearly than you ever could. I had an experience like that when I came across a an article titled Progressives Against Progress, written back in 2010 by Fred Siegel in City Journal. Reading the article, I was reminded why I don’t pay too much attention to the modern day apocalyptic preachers who insist that global warming or some other environmental catastrophe is going to destroy the world. Part of the reason is that they have been shown to be wrong again and again, as Siegel points out.

Back in the early 1970s, it was overpopulation that was about to destroy the Earth. In his 1968 book The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich, who has been involved in all three waves, warned that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over” on our crowded planet. He predicted mass starvation and called for compulsory sterilization to curb population growth, even comparing unplanned births with cancer: “A cancer is an uncontrolled multiplication of cells; the population explosion is an uncontrolled multiplication of people.” An advocate of abortion on demand, Ehrlich wanted to ban photos of large, happy families from newspapers and magazines, and he called for new, heavy taxes on baby carriages and the like. He proposed a federal Department of Population and Environment that would regulate both procreation and the economy. But the population bomb, fear of which peaked during Richard Nixon’s presidency, never detonated. Population in much of the world actually declined in the 1970s, and the green revolution, based on biologically modified foods, produced a sharp increase in crop productivity.

In the 1980s, the prophets of doom found another theme: the imminent danger of nuclear winter, the potential end of life on Earth resulting from a Soviet-American nuclear war. Even a limited nuclear exchange, argued politicized scientists like Ehrlich and Carl Sagan, would release enough soot and dust into the atmosphere to block the sun’s warming rays, producing drastic drops in temperature. Skeptics, such as Russell Seitz, acknowledged that even with the new, smaller warheads, a nuclear exchange would have fearsome consequences, but argued effectively that the dangers were dramatically exaggerated. The nuke scare nevertheless received major backing from the liberal press. Nuclear-winter doomsayers placed their hopes, variously, in an unverifiable nuclear-weapons “freeze,” American unilateral disarmament, or assigning control of nuclear weapons to international bodies. Back in the real world, nuclear fears eventually faded with Ronald Reagan’s Cold War successes.

The third wave, which has been building for decades, is the campaign against global warming. The global-warming argument relied on the claim, effectively promoted by former vice president Al Gore, that the rapid growth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was producing an unprecedented rise in temperatures. This rise was summarized in the now-notorious “hockey stick” graph, which supposedly showed that temperatures had been steady from roughly ad 1000 to 1900 but had sharply increased from 1900 on, thanks to industrialization. Brandishing the graph, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that the first decade of the twenty-first century would be even warmer. As it turned out, temperatures were essentially flat, and the entire global-warming argument came under increasing scrutiny. Skeptics pointed out that temperatures had repeatedly risen and fallen since ad 1000, describing, for instance, a “little ice age” between 1500 and 1850. The global-warming panic cooled further after a series of e-mails from East Anglia University’s Climatic Research Unit, showing apparent collusion among scientists to exaggerate warming data and repress contradictory information, was leaked.

As with the previous waves, politicized science played on liberal fears of progress: for Gore and his allies at the UN, only a global command-and-control economy that kept growth in check could stave off imminent catastrophe. The anti-progress mind-set was by then familiar ground for liberals. Back in the 1970s, environmentalist E. J. Mishan had proposed dramatic solutions to the growth dilemma. He suggested banning all international air travel so that only those with the time and money could get to the choice spots—thus reintroducing, in effect, the class system. Should this prove too radical, Mishan proposed banning air travel “to a wide variety of mountain, lake and coastal resorts, and to a selection of some islands from the many scattered about the globe; and within such areas also to abolish all motorised traffic.” Echoing John Stuart Mill’s mid-nineteenth-century call for a “stationary state” without economic growth, Mishan argued that “regions may be set aside for the true nature lover who is willing to make his pilgrimage by boat and willing leisurely to explore islands, valleys, bays, woodlands, on foot or on horseback.”

The interesting thing is that these “progressives” seem to be against progress of any time and seek nothing so much as to turn the clock back to a simpler time when the lower orders knew their place.

As such proposals indicate, 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. For instance, John Ruskin, a leading nineteenth-century Tory Radical and a proponent of handicrafts, declaimed against “ilth,” a negative version of wealth produced by manufacturing.

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. Touring American campuses in the mid-1970s, Norman Macrae of The Economist was shocked “to hear so many supposedly left-wing young Americans who still thought they were expressing an entirely new and progressive philosophy as they mouthed the same prejudices as Trollope’s 19th century Tory squires: attacking any further expansion of industry and commerce as impossibly vulgar, because ecologically unfair to their pheasants and wild ducks.”

I have noticed that a lot of the people who call loudest for restrictions on peoples’ lifestyles and who rail against the ways in which billions of people in developing countries are lifting themselves out of poverty never quite seem to believe that they should cut back on their own excesses.

There is a lot more to the article.

 

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