The Politics of Fear and Environmentalism

Alex Gourevitch, in a letter to N+1 Magazine Issue 6, writes about how the left’s obsession with environmentalism might be exhibiting the very politics of fear they detest with Bush’s War on Terror. Excerpt (not online):

Environmentalism is a left-wing politics of fear because it rests on the deeply fearful idea that only an overwhelming threat to our physical and collective health can inspire us to “transcendence.” Threats to the very conditions of life, rather than social controversies over power and distribution, come to motivate political engagement — an engagement that presumes setting to one side inequality and unfreedom as the central categories of political contestation. As Slavoj Zizek says, “Popular imagination is persecuted by the visions of the forthcoming ‘breakdown of nature.’…It seems easier to imagine the ‘end of the world’ than a far more modest change in the mode of production.”

Strikes me as relevant to all types of leadership: Leaders galvanize the troops by exaggerating the consequences of inaction, or overstating the importance of the cause to begin with.

When Elizabeth Kolbert, staff writer at the New Yorker, spoke at Claremont on climate change, she rather absurdly said, “I don’t need to convince you that global warming is the most pressing moral cause for your generation.” Look, I believe in most environmental issues, and think we need to deal with global warming in a proactive manner, but enough with the shrieking and doomsday overreach. Three billion people live on less than two dollars a day; 790 million people are chronically undernourished; 1.1 billion people lack daily access to clean water; etc etc. I don’t know about you, but poverty strikes me as a much more pressing moral issue than global warming.

7 Responses to The Politics of Fear and Environmentalism

  1. You seem to assume there’s no connection between poverty and global warming.

    If Africa and south Asia get drier, it follows that those places will get poorer and more people will suffer famine or starve.

    If average ocean temperatures increase enough, the Gulf stream could change course, and Europe might actually get colder, which could certainly affect the GNP’s of members of the EU.

    Sure, some areas of the planet may realize increased agricultural yields, but do you really want to throw the dice on participating in increased human misery?

    Higher poverty rates for some countries are one of the likely consequences of global warming, so saying that poverty is a much more pressing moral issue than global warming is a false comparison.

  2. gregory says:

    Obligatory left statement: Not everyone on the left is an environmental doomsayer. Just as much as everyone on the right is not a bible bashing preacher.

    I think the whole environmental debate should be reframed around sustainability. We have finite resources X, and 5 billion people consuming them. A lot of the time when we use resources we combine them or use them in a way that makes them unusable after use, produces a bunch of waste, or may interrupt other ecological systems and equilibriums. Eventually if you dont have a process or system to reclaim this used materia, we will run out untainted material to use.

    I think that the history of modern society is soo short that we have no comprehension of managing a fixed resource over an extended period(thousand… million years?). Given that there are fixed resources being consumed at a set rate, and that either whole or part of that becomes unusable or contaminated after usage – how long is it before we start having to deal with a serious shortage of resources in general? Or have to deal with expensive and energy intensive processes to reclaim resources?

    For example, we put something a little shy of an everest(well, a big mountain anyway) worth of CO2 in the air each year, that’s not something you can easily put back into the ground. We dont necessarily need to stop creating CO2, we just need to create and manage a cycle so it doesn’t get out of control.

  3. Chris Yeh says:

    Seth Godin had a great post recently about how you can market based on fear, hope, or love.

    link to sethgodin.typepad.com

    I’ll let Seth speak for himself:

    “The easiest way to build a brand is to sell fear. The best way, though, may be to deliver on hope while aiming for love…”

    Selling based on fear is divisive and self-limiting. Better to sell based on our aspiration for a better world.

  4. gregory says:

    the earth is a full time adjustment machine, it will continue

    humans may need to adjust some behaviors

    i agree that poverty, and maybe education, are far more important adjusters of human behavior

    and would also bet that undernourishment is a bigger number than you posted

    wish someone would find the gene responsible for fundamentalism, that would be a most valuable discovery

    enjoy

  5. RM Merrill says:

    To deny that there is climate change is folly. Much like what the entire human race is up to it’s neck in now. Politics is so grossly over-rated it makes me sick. It seems that everyone has a stupid opinion that is so un-realistic that people just love to gloat in the non-consequenses that all the words in the world can create. Words are just that. To act is the answer. And to act all the opinions of politicians need to be ignored. Who the hell said we need government to save ANYTHING. Governments lead us around by the nose ring and never get anywhere except back to the point at which it started after totally fuckin’ up every damned thing it attaches itself to. Our responsibility is to throw off government and act on our own to fix the upheaval that we have put our souls through. The human spirit is the strongest force known to man but we allow the so-called “powerful” to destroy our capacity to do anything on our own. Change begins inside. External interference corrupts.
    Teach your children well. They will then grow into real humans, not this put on contraption we call progress.

  6. Andy says:

    I would perhaps agree that climate change is overrated as a moral issue, if you view morality as a personal choice (since personal choice is overly discussed in the context of carbon emissions), but only if you concede that it is an underrated political issue. This country needs a carbon tax.

    The US has 5% of the world’s population, yet we emit 25% of the world’s greenhouse gases. Mitt Romney says that the United States cannot afford to deal with global warming, because it is the world’s issue, not ours. I would say that at least until our percentage is similar to the rest of the world’s, this is more of our issue than we are willing to admit.

  7. John Galt says:

    I’m with you Ben–creating an environment of fear to boost support for your cause should never be used.

    I have many friends and contacts involved in the Global Warming cause. Personally, I’m not convinced of human caused global warming. I do, of course, recognize the warming of temperatures the globe (as natural cycle occurrences), and am still a strong advocate of sustainable energy (for economic and health reasons). So my goals are aligned with my friends, I just disagree with the fear and, as you say, doomsday approach that’s attached to it.

    There are far more important issues for our generation! You mentioned poverty, clean water etc. And how about the attack on civil liberties, a economy on the verge of collapse, and a foreign policy that’s pissing of the entire world? We currently face some of the greatest challenges in American history. Next to these, global warming, which may or may be something we affect, seems like more of a distraction than a rallying cause.

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