From Malthus to Trump? Our Changing Environmental Politics
As the left chooses between blue and green, the right embraces both coal country and a new emphasis on conservation.
There’s an old clip of Gore Vidal from (when else?) 1968 in which our most literate of trolls gazes cooly at his interviewer and proceeds to recommend all manner of horrible things. He begins with concerns about overpopulation, warning that the human race is having too many children and that a global famine is only a few years away. From there, it’s on to compulsory birth control, sterilization, the state limiting the number of children families can have—the whole Malthusian wish list done in elegant drawl.
I like Vidal, as it happens, but this rambling is proof of two things. First, despite how loony our politics might seem today, the Overton window used to be a whole lot wider. And second, even as the litter was being picked up, even as the fires on the Cuyahoga River were being doused, there was a quarter of the left in general, and the environmental movement in particular, that viewed humanity as a cancer on the planet. Vidal was only parroting Paul Ehrlich, whose book The Population Bomb, released that same year, advocated strict limits on human reproduction. And Ehrlich was only echoing a broader Malthusian sentiment that had first taken hold in America back in the 1950s.
If you want to know why conservatives became so vehemently opposed to the environmentalist movement, this is it right here. They came to see it as not pro-ecology but anti-human. Today, the so-called Malthusian Moment has passed. You can still read the occasional swivel-eyed essay demanding that we not have kids to save the planet, but such arguments are relatively rare and tend to get swatted down even by progressives. Accordingly, the right is now taking a fresh look at its own approach to the environment. A new generation of conservatives is rising that might support fracking and resist climate change eschatology, but that also seeks to preserve our national parks and endangered species from the excesses of industry. Conservation has become a new watchword on the right. Malthus might still be out but TR is back in.
All of which raises a question: what will the politics of the planet look like in the years to come?
Part of the answer, I think, depends on how hard Joe Biden is willing to push his climate agenda. And judging from the first month of his presidency, he’s willing to push pretty hard. One of Biden’s first moves upon taking office was to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline, which was supposed to carry oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Texas Gulf Coast. It’s estimated that this will kill 11,000 seasonal jobs, which is why even the head of the AFL-CIO union, one of Biden’s biggest backers, was uneasy about it.
Biden also plans to sign on with the Paris climate accord, which requires nations to cut their emissions. He has temporarily suspended all oil and gas drilling on federal lands (such extraction accounts for about a quarter of our crude oil output). He has committed the EPA to reinstating dozens of environmental regulations that were rolled back under Donald Trump. He has pledged to make America carbon neutral by 2050.
What of the jobs that such a green blitz will inevitably kill? The answer for Biden is the same as ever: replace them with new, safe, well-paid, unionized, presumably gender-fluid “green” jobs. Whether or not the good people in coal and oil country want to have their livelihoods socially engineered in this way is another story entirely. And that matters. Like many journalists, I did the whole ridiculous white-working class safari routine back in 2016, embarking into the wilds of western Pennsylvania and West Virginia to figure out what this whole MAGA thing was really about. What I found were people anxious not about secularism or libertarianism but about the future of their jobs. They blamed the federal environmental bureaucracy for crushing the coal sector and worried that the fracking industry, in which many of them now worked, would be next. One guy told me his vote for Trump could be summed up in three letters: EPA.
Now Biden is promising more of the same. That this could backfire, that those affected have the right to vote and could even help drive a political realignment, never seems to have occurred to anyone on the left. Such economic disruption isn’t on the scale of what was advocated by those mid-century Malthusians, but it has done real damage and is a major and often neglected factor behind the Trump phenomenon. It also poses challenges for the environmental politics of the future. Can the left balance its blues with its greens? Or will it continue to forfeit Allegheny hardhats in favor of climate activists with “Save the Planet” bumper stickers on their Gulfstream jets? Can the new and ostensibly pro-worker right hold onto these voters? Even post-Trump? And how will conservatives balance the demands of employment, stability, and anti-Biden partisanship with their growing interest in conservation?
These are all questions in need of answers. In the meantime, we can at least be thankful for this much: No one is suggesting putting sterilants in the water.