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They Paved Paradise

I recently discovered that I am a dangerous environmentalist, worse than Joseph Mengele and bin Laden, and just no damned good.

It was because I liked back-country camping. The mountains corrupted me. I can’t see the advantage in having a trail covered with beer cans and styrofoam. Maybe there is a benefit, and I’m just slow and don’t understand. But I didn’t want to look at the stuff. I still don’t.

Nor do I want a highway through the Grand Canyon, five malls, and some gooberish theme park with grinning plastic burros. I’m just primitive. I know. I’m just like Vidkun Quisling.

Further, scuba diving is a hobby of mine. Maybe I’m selfish, but I don’t want the fish coated with industrial waste, or the mangroves, where things breed, turned into yuppie boxes by some rubicund illiterate of a real-estate developer who wants another Cadillac.

I grew up on the Potomac River, where people crabbed for a living until sewage killed the crabs. Environmentalists pushed through a treatment plant and things improved; I’m trying hard to see why this was unpatriotic. If conservatives want to swim in Washington’s sewage, they’re stranger than I thought, but it’s their business. They can put it in their swimming pools. There’s worse: I don’t want children to eat lead paint. Yes. It’s hard to admit in public, but I’m trying to be manful.

Actually, the whole debate is rife with fraud. To begin with, everyone thinks that the dispute is an ideological war between liberalism and conservatism. Why? In Russia, it was the Communists who fouled their country. About half of Russia is radioactive, and the rest is poisonous. In America, capitalism is far more economically efficient but also willing to run sweatshops, pollute the rivers, make the air noxious — and profess the highest ideals while doing it.

Ideologies are just systematic ways of misunderstanding the world. They are the province of herd-thinkers, people who have the answer before the question and who always have the same answer. The more ardently liberal or conservative, the worse.

Environmentally, both Left and Right espouse virtue, but only when it suits them. If I suggest that maybe we don’t really need to clearcut the redwoods to make decks for liberal yuppies who conservatives hate anyway, I am told that people need jobs. But isn’t that an argument for expanding the federal bureaucracy? People need jobs?

Like Communists, capitalists express concern for the working class—when it is convenient. For example, when it comes to replacing workers with automation, suddenly efficiency is more important than jobs. Principle and profit always coincide. Isn’t it remarkable?

Why do conservatives want to turn the country into an industrial desert? They don’t. By no means do all conservatives favor irresponsible exploitation, any more than all liberals want to make us into robots. The problem is that the worst of both camps are noisiest and most angry, and therefore shape policy. The rest go along because they are uncomfortable when out of step.

There is conservatism, and there is Conservativism. Practitioners of the former believe in good grammar, solid liberal education, personal responsibility, self-reliance, minimal government, a strong military seldom used, quiet patriotism, equal opportunity instead of special privilege, and advancement by individual merit. The second group lean toward the hostility that characterizes all zealots. Truculence intrudes. They want to nuke’em till they glow, favor social Darwinism or a near relative, want to kill it, pave it, and bank it, and to hell with any who can’t keep up. We use the same word for both.

Here we come to one of the (few) fundamental differences between the far Left and far Right. The Left wants to maximize governmental power so that it can impose restraints on others, usually some tyrannous conformity that everyone hates but can’t do anything about. The Right wants to minimize governmental power so as to avoid restraint on itself, typically so as profitably to abuse anything slow enough to be caught. Both want to behave badly. They just go at it differently. The Left likes group misbehavior. The Right prefers to freelance.

A highly explanatory element of angry anti-environmentalism is sheer aesthetic insensitivity. There are people who simply cannot tell that the Grand Canyon is a lovely thing that should not be made into a landfill. They may say that it’s beautiful (“Huh? Oh yeah. Real nice.”) because they know this to be the expected response. But they have no more genuine appreciation than a deaf man does for music. They honestly don’t understand why anyone is upset. If you went to their homes, you would not find one decent picture on the wall that they chose themselves. Neither Left nor Right has a monopoly on loutishness.

Finally, there is embittered combativeness. The politically excited often do not greatly care about the things they say they care about. They just want to fight. During the Cold War conservatives didn’t just hate Communists, who wore baggy pants and couldn’t organize a sock hop. They hated liberals. Similarly liberals do not like blacks, whom they regard as shiftless. If they did care about blacks, they would favor real education reform. They hate conservatives and find blacks a useful mallet.

Often politics isn’t about anything. It’s just politics. The joy of bitterness outweighs concern for content. In the 1930s, Hitler discovered that it was much easier to convert a communalist to Nazism than a contented burgher. Catholics have found that atheists make easier and more enthusiastic converts that do agnostics. Zealots want enemies, allies, and simple answers. They don’t care which enemies, allies, etc.

Thus many conservatives on examination turn out to have little interest in the environment. They hate environmentalists, and hating environmentalists is easy. Often they are preening, snotty, incurable adolescents best dealt with by strangling.

In environmental politics as elsewhere, Left and Right need each other. Conservatives create much of the support for environmentalism by their hard-eyed rapacity. Environmentalists create much of the hostility to their cause by their unreasoning extremism. Neither sees, or wants to see, a middle ground.

And so the far Left favors any fool measure, provided that it is environmental; and the far Right opposes any environmental proposal, because it is environmental. This intellectual predestination is so numbingly predictable as to make sunrise seem a fluke. For example, it is perfectly possible to drill for oil without trashing the surroundings, build a pipeline that has no ill effects, and tear it all down when the field is exhausted. But both sides will fight to the death to avoid any such common-sensical solution.

Sometimes Conservatives seem as amoral as liberals seem immoral. The Left wants to degrade education, reward incompetence, and eliminate personal freedom. The Right would have us live in a mall-ridden, strip-mined wasteland. How, oh how, can I express my gratitude? 


Fred Reed’s writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Harper’s, and National Review, among other places. 

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