IIn every sphere—economic, political, and religious—conservatives fall over themselves to cede the environment as an issue to their ideological opponents. So I was pleased that the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (ARC) conference chose to talk about the environment, even if the contributions made me feel a little like my seven-year-old daughter at her last Harvest Festival.
Harvest Festival organizers had programmed an obscure but beautiful hymn called “Apples and Pears, Wheat and Grapes.” We all sang along with atonal enthusiasm, following the words on the overhead projector, until the third verse appeared on the screen and I almost burst out laughing:
In the depths of the ocean floor,
Fuel and power are reserved.
Brought to us through dangerous work,
Thank God for gas and oil.
Not a lot Laudato Si. Our daughter, little eco-warrior that she is, was furious. “Don’t they know that climate change is harming the planet?” she later became angry.
Well, quite a lot. Back at the ARC Conference, Jonathan Pageau gave a fabulous talk in which he highlighted the unusual preponderance of faith among delegates and participants, while the list of environmental speakers was uniform in their dissent from the scientific consensus on climate change. A rousing chorus of “thank you, God, for gas and oil” could have followed, as could show tunes, horn flourishes and Christian rap.
I confess that I did not participate in the ARC Conference, but I devoured the entire environmental production. Most of it starts with the explanation I offered to my daughter, excusing the offensive anthem on the basis that fossil fuels are responsible for a huge improvement in quality of life. While I believe these improvements are unevenly distributed and come at a huge environmental cost (and I think that particular verse from “Apples and Pears, Wheat and Grapes” should be quietly shuffled into the hymnal), fossil fuels have been very welcome. at ARC.
Which is a little disappointing. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) considers it “extremely likely” that more than half of the increase in global temperatures recorded between 1951 and 2010 was caused by humans. They say more emissions will result in more warming. We in the UK have just experienced the hottest June and wettest October in recorded history. According to the Global Carbon Project, global carbon dioxide emissions reached a new record in 2022. These statements represent an overwhelming scientific consensus, agreed upon by 90% to 97% of scientists, depending on which study you read. Climate change is real, man-made and a threat. Biodiversity is in precipitous decline. Nature is in disarray and creation groans under our poor supervision.
A consensus may be wrong, but in the face of such a vast body of evidence, a homogeneous panel of speakers telling us that everything is actually fine seems superficial – an impression that is not helped by speakers who dismiss the need to eat less meat in the based on the fact that filet mignon is tasty and that we can always do more industrial livestock farming. The conference heard that global free markets, abhorring restrictions, will solve any environmental problems that turn out to be real.
The only dissenting voice was that of my Blue Labor mentor, Lord Glasman, who lamented: “Nature is not a commodity valued by the price system.” Why couldn’t this tradition have been given a greater voice? The CriticSebastian Milbank himself wrote about the great convergence of populist economic radicalism that occurred at the conference, a convergence presented by speakers drawn from the conservative socialist, democratic capitalist, and libertarian traditions. This is sophisticated. This is new and interesting.
Would it have been so difficult to pull off the same trick for the environment? Speakers formed a mini consensus of their own, downplaying the threat of climate change in the context of other concerns they considered more pressing. Everyone presented the compelling proposition that energy equals abundance and we need more of it. Those who approached nature suggested that talk of mass extinction was fallacious, despite Columbia University’s Earth Institute finding that species are being exterminated at a rate 100 to 1,000 times higher than what should occur naturally. All presentations supported the power of economic liberalism to lift the world out of poverty, with the inevitability of technological progress to iron out the wrinkles along the way.
Fine. Perhaps. I’ll take this philanthropic futurism over Malthusian destroyers any day, and that was the dichotomy on display. The futurists took the stage, the destroyers continued to appear as images on slides, like green miniatures of Emmanuel Goldsteins. Environmentalism was presented as a mental illness, vegetarianism as an eating disorder.
There is nothing to be gained by denouncing green causes as psychosis
The arguments were questionable, but the policy made no sense at all. ARC is trying to synergize trends coming from communitarian and post-liberal thought — trends that have often honored nature as sacred — and there is nothing to be gained by tying the movement to an aesthetic that denounces green causes as psychosis. As we navigate our rich lives of unprecedented abundance, many of us feel the desolation of the planet in our bones. That’s why Britain loves David Attenborough and that’s why we’ll be put off by any conference that feels a bit like shouting “drill, drill, drill” at a Sarah Palin rally.
It all seems like a backlash against guilt-ridden activists destroying masterpieces and clinging to the M25. This dichotomy is certainly false. I’m all for optimism; I’m all for focusing on alleviating poverty around the world and promoting abundance at home. Next, let’s apply that optimism to the reality that we are destroying the planet and find some solutions. Consider what Sohrab Ahmari is doing in the US, resurrecting the vigorous governmental ideals of Teddy Roosevelt and Eisenhower. The green revolution, with its renewable and recyclable energies and its changes in land use, is the economic opportunity of the 21st century. It is necessary to surgically eliminate the Malthusians and colonize them by a coalition of optimists, to forge a future that rejuvenates nature, cleans the air, creates jobs and protects our future. Send someone to ARC who isn’t afraid to say the words “Green New Deal.”
Maybe I’m wrong. The post-liberal movement doesn’t need to go far to find its own decrescedores, its own Jeremiahs. Interesting convergences can only occur when different lines of thought are advanced; nothing converges if all lines are already traveling in the same direction. Couldn’t the conference have heard as much about the utopians as the destroyers? Jonathan Pageau was there; Couldn’t he have brought Paul Kingsnorth with him? Someone to rage against faith in humanity’s ability to bend the earth to his will. Someone who reacts furiously to the idea that the answer to sustainable food is increased intensification of livestock farming.
ARC is the latest iteration of an idea trying to be born. Like a conservative maverick, he appears at NatCon and the like – and then quietly withdraws, realizing that his time has not yet come. The idea is the spirit of Blue Labor and Red Toryism that has been waiting its moment for a decade or more, expanding its church, now incarnated in new adherents and emboldened by new political aspirations.
The idea has real application in environmentalism. Stewardship, preservation of the good and the beautiful, responsibility to future generations, all should make a welcoming home for the conservationist—much like Pageau’s observation that the idea is attractive to people of faith. In fact, for many, the idea progresses from faith. It lends itself to the re-enchantment of nature, recovering the environment of the objectivists and returning it to the romantics.
The fact that mainstream conservationists are currently more comfortable in the progressives’ camp should not be a reason to close the door in their faces. Welcome to the technofuturists. Welcome to New Green Dealers. Welcome those who see the end near. This is the conference I want to see and for convergence to begin.