Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Going Environmental

Here’s a thought in progress. It’s rough, but perhaps it will spur dicussion or thought.

For much of the 20th Century, socialism was the opiate of the intellectuals. Nowadays, it seems that environmentalism might be taking that same role. In part, the latter is merely the latest version of the former. As. P.J. O’Rourke noted, many environmentalists are “watermelons,”–“green on the outside and red on the inside.”

But is there something deeper at work here? Why socialism and environmentalism? I suspect it might have something to do with the character of modern science. If one studies history, it seems to be the case that men are, as John Adams said, “praying beings” by nature. Where men gather, there tend to be religions. If that is the case, and if our intellectuals cannot accept that reality, they must create a religion in disguise.

What is the character of this religion? It tends to be historical. Why is that the case? Perhaps it has something to do with the scientific method. The key to modern science is the method developed by Francis Bacon and others. According to that method, scientists study the world as it appears to our senses, and from repeated observations, and repeated experiments, it discovers patterns and correlations. Those patterns and correlations, plus mathematical calculations and equations are the essence of modern science. Given that, history becomes religion. What I mean by that is that since modern science is good at describing lines of force moving over time, and since science can only describe facts, but cannot account for values, the only way science can give direction to society or politics is by turning history into a religion. (The scientific method admits defeat if it truly acknowledges that the fact/ value distinction is bunk. Many intellectuals allow that the distinction is problematic, but, being pragmatists, they go along as if that were not a real problem.)

Henry Adams makes this point in the Education

Historians undertake to arrange sequences,–called stories, or histories–assuming in silence a relation of cause and effect. These assumptions, hidden in the depths of dusty libraries, have been astounding, but commonly unconscious and childlike; so much so, that if any captious critic were to drag them to light, historians would probably reply, with one voice, that they had never supposed themselves required to know what they were talking about.

The modern historian describes lines of social development over time. By describing such lines of development and, further, by projecting them into the future, history can fill the void left in the secular soul. History can give direction to life in a seemingly scientific manner.

Environmentalism is the latest manifestation of this phenomenon. Given increasing carbon in our atmosphere (or should I say “atmos fear”?) science can draw a line describing the likely impact of that upon the planet. Describing that impact gives scientists and those who follow them, a means of suggesting what we ought to do without admitting that they have deserted the scientific method and have entered the realm of politics and religion. Moreover, as with the socialist understanding of history, it gives a coalition of natural and social scientists an excuse to take over the political system.

Discussions - 10 Comments

But science can only look back so far with observation, as far as our recorded, scientific, historic observation goes. I know, there is carbon-14 dating and the reading of ice-core samples and the like. Yet, that is really guessing from the evidence of those tests which cannot be verified. To outside observer, extrapolating the past from reading isotopes looks about as scientific as the study of a crow's entrails or reading tea leaves.

Do historians predict the future? I know political scientists do, as I see it here all the time; Obama is variously Jimmy Carter or George McGovern or somebody else, and therefore... based on history, extrapolate the results. Except he isn't and now is not then. If there is anything an historian ought to know, it is that anyone who predicted the future in the past was almost invariably wrong.

Environmentalism in relation to religion is less about faith than about faith that produces works. If we do these things (GO TO AN ENVIRONMENTALIST WEBSITE FOR AN APPROPRIATE LIST) we will reduce the probability of imminent death. If environmentalists believed in the triumph of Nature, had true faith in evolution as a triumphal progress of natural forces, they would leave well enough alone and let Nature take its course. Most don't, their faith being in a propitiation of Nature through sacrificial acts.

Maybe I am not arguing with your larger point and am being picayune or am misunderstanding.

Environmentalism that's described here has given all forms of ecology a bad name among, in particular, American conservatives. But, this is changing, I think, as evidence of our irresponsibility and excessive consumption begins to call to mind that the etymological root of "conservative" is one who "conserves." We should be mindful of a distinction that should be drawn between Left anti-human and pantheistic environmentalism and a proper conservative view toward stewardship and responsibility - the latter view which, in particular, places a stress upon our debts to previous generations and our responsibility to the unborn. Nevertheless, this recognition will be painful for many so-called conservatives, since it flies in the face of the reigning political (and economic) presumptions of the past 50+ years, ones which equate unbridled production, exploitation of resources and consumption with the opposite of communism. For those interested in challenging their own assumptions, see (for instance) by Roger Scruton:

great post by Dr. Pat ! conservatives need the practical reminder that political correctness, despite its odious excesses, often carries a more than a grain of truth, which conservatives sometimes miss. And conservativism would and should further the common good by remembering the inmportance of conservation of our nation's natual beauty and resources.

I would flip Dr. Pat's argument back on its head. The challenge will be to make the issue political in the best sense of the word. Any means of being responsible stewards of the environment will, of necessity, involve trade-offs, guesses based upon imperfect knowledge, lures for petty self-interest, and coalition-building. All that will draws howls of outrage, but it is the only way of finding the best available solution.

The trouble is, in part, that science deals in extremes. Compromise cannot be managed by the scientific method. Many of the preachers of the environmental gospel are scientists precisely because they want human things to be as orderly as their science.

A more responsible science would take it as given that we are almost certainly not going to reduce our "carbon footprint" terribly much anytime soon. If that's the case, responsible scientists should start to consider way to minimize the damage, and perhaps government and private charities ought to fund such research.

It might even be the case that such a moderate approach is the best way to undercut the "Left anti-human and pantheistic environmentalism" that Dr. Pat denounces.

Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky explored this topic in RISK & BLAME (1982) from a perspective relevant to your exploration of "science" and "religion. " They detail the sense of "pollution" central to pre-modern cultures which today gets symbolically channeled, as you describe, to feared personal infection or global catastrophe. Stemming from this grew Cultural Theory.

Briefly -- individualism, heirarchy, and sectarianism form three distinct world-views. Each forms alliances to rule; at times sectarians use hierarchy to spread their values, other times sectarians resist a hierarchy by siding with individualists. It is interesting how "Science" has fostered the growth and critique of each worldview, historically and now.

Wildavksy and Richard Ellis and Michael Thompson, among others, developed some sophisticated research in this area.

The "unbridled consumption" accusation of conservatives seems a bit much. Conservative business owners I know ask why anyone thinks they have an interest in polluting their own communities. America and American business was actually turning around the pollution problems of industry in the late 1960s before the Clean Air Act of 1970. No one was comfortable with orange and purple skies nor with the grime of cities - which was why that legislation passed. An under-examined aspect of white flight to the suburbs was that the cities were so unpleasant to live in because of pollution, that people moved to our greener pastures and built there.

One of the points that conservatives used to make against communist regimes was that the lack of private ownership made everything no one's problem, and so construction was shoddy and the communist countries were gray and filthy places. Chernobyl's disaster was emblematic of the problem. In America, conservatives pointed to public housing as the example of what public ownership did to the issue of personal responsibility. When no person is responsible, then no one behaves responsibly.

Another point, there is nothing unbridled about the marketplace for conservative economists. In a gross simplification, I would suggest that the "invisible hand" is presumed to be able to keep consumption of resources in check - as those become more scarce, the price of them gets higher, balancing consumption. If America has a problem not responding to gas prices ( as referenced in another post) it is because there enough wealth in the hands of private individuals that simple shifting of economic priorities makes uncomfortable changes in gas consumption something the average car owner can postpone. However, I do note that the used car dealer down the street has nothing on his lot BUT vans, pick-up trucks, minivans and SUVs. Such scarcity of small cars in the used car market means the price of those goes up and people have to make the economic decision whether the price of the small car equates to effective use of the dollar compared to the price of gasoline, which may go down again. Also, people seem not to be trading in their large vehicles with the intention of driving the small car less, but to allow themselves to be able to drive just as much, but with less gas consumption.

I agree completely with Mr. Adams(echoing Scruton in the article I linked above) that politics - the art of the possible combined with the capacity for self-governance - is what is needful. However, this means not only must the anti-politics of the court-drunk Left be combatted, so too must the anti-politics of the market-drunk "Right" be questioned (e.g., see Steve Hayward's response to me on Peter's post about "Market Logic"). Both the Left and the Right in this nation have been significantly seduced by the temptation of a dangerous form of anti-politics, over this issue and many others. On this issue, the self-satisfaction of the Right needs as much scrutiny as the fundamentalism of the Left.

Kate. Historians don't predict the future, but theories that, using rather imperfect data, draw lines from the past to the future have been quite popular for some time. Despite the gaps in the record that you note, such theories are popular. Why is that the case? Shouldn't scientists know better?

The poor dears are only human. The desire to control the future by predicting it is as old as superstition.

But nowadays, they have to pretend it is science. The trouble is that they believe it themselves. Those who disagree are guilty of attacking reason itself.

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