I have been occupied with atheism and federal vision stuff, and have not been able to work through Rod Dreher’s book Crunchy Cons as quickly as I would have liked. Ah, well.
His next chapter is on the environment, and I think that it is the chapter that most clearly reveals what I consider to be the weaknesses of the book. But as I disagree with some of his positions here, it is important to note that even here Dreher’s balance and good sense show through. I don’t think I would call Dreher a conservative on this issue, but I would call him a reasonable environmentalist — one you could work with without setting off some kind of a partisan war. He believes what he does, but not as a “take-no-prisoners” ideologue. He thinks there are reasonable people on both sides, and he thinks there are whackos on both sides. And that’s true enough, but the difficulty is sometimes in sorting out which are which. But Dreher shows his balance when he acknowledges that environmentalist monomania and hubris are one of the reasons why people don’t take them seriously (p. 166).
He describes his transition from his earlier conservationism to his current environmentalism.
“Those men — my father and his friends — considered themselves conservationists; as far as they were concerned, ‘environmentalists’ were citified liberal pantywaists, uppity sentimentalists who didn’t understand a thing about the woods and the creatures who lived there. TO be perfectly honest, for many years I shared their opinion . . .” (p. 154).
“How often had I sneered at environmentalists to hide the fact that I didn’t really understand what they were talking about, and, more to the point, didn’t want to?” (p. 155).
One of the things that factored into his shift was his encounter with Matthew Scully, author of the book Dominion (p. 156). Dreher begins by discussing factory farming, and the way many animals are frequently treated on their way toward your fast food bun. And here, every true conservative is sympathetic. The righteous man has regard for the life of his beast (Prov. 12:10). But we go back to an earlier point I made in our discussion of this book — the difference between sins and crimes. In a moment we are going to discuss the kind of “solution” to sin that often results in the crimes getting worse, and Dreher at least sees the possibility of this. Discussing the Clean Air Act 1970, he says:
“To do that, though, the government established a top-down, centralized law-enforcement mechanism that when it came to dealing with smaller sources of pollution was like swatting a fly with a sledgehammer” (p. 163).
But at other times, beyond acknowledging the government solution might be as bad as or worse than the disease, he doesn’t propose a way of making practical decisions based on this knowledge. And this means the default solution for “the big problems” that Dreher assumes is that of coercion and force. “It is far better to rely on market forces to shepherd society toward beneficial ends than to depend on the government” (p. 177). Amen three times. But the enviro-push is always, consistently, inexorably to statist solutions to all problems, whether real like smog or bogus like global warming. And Dreher shows no practical inclination to resist this move at all. More on this in a moment.
Dreher wants to be in the tradition of Wendell Berry and J.R.R. Tolkien.
“Perhaps the best-known fictional explication of the traditionalist conservative perspective on the right relation of man to the natural world can be found in The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic novel was taken to the patchouli-scented bosom of many a sixties counterculturalist, largely for its environmentalist worldview. But Tolkien was a deeply conservative Roman Catholic and a Tory to the marrow. In Tolkien’s fictional world, the artisan elves and the agrarian hobbits showed the right way to live in harmony with nature, making use of its bounty while respecting it. In contrast, the wizard Saruman and his wicked master of Mordor represent the all-consuming drive to exploit nature, and eventually destroy it” (p. 161).
And quoting Berry at the head of the chapter, Dreher adds his support.
“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do” Wendell Berry (p. 152).
And this is great, if we are talking about what we prefer in our private lives. Berry works his farm, and Tolkien refused to own a car. But we then come to the crux of the matter, which has to do with how we make our laws. Laws, for those just joining us, are those entities, which violated, result in civil penalties being applied to the offender.
“The most important political development toward the greening of the GOP is a revolution in the thinking of evangelical Christian leaders, whose movement is the backbone of the Republican Party, especially in the South. Over the last two years, key evangelical pastors and lay leaders have embraced environmental stewardship (‘creation care’ as some of them call it) as a biblically sound value, and indeed a divine command. According to one poll, 52 percents of evangelicals now support strict environmental regulation” (p. 169, emphasis mine).
Got that? Strict environmental regulation. This means, at the end of the day, men with guns making other people do things. What kind of things? By what standard? No society can exist without coercion, of course, and so the difference between liberty and tyranny has to do with how much you are forced to do, and the nature of what you are forced to do. Are you forced to refrain from borrowing your neighbor’s car in the middle of the night? Or are you forced to shut down your light industry tea-cozy manufacturing plant because a neighbor thinks that three parts per million of zinc in the air or water, take your pick, increases his chances of getting cancer. It actually decreases his chances of getting cancer, but we couldn’t really get away with sending him a bill. But I digress.
Now I am perfectly willing to coerce the citizenry on issues like murder, rape, assault, theft, and so on. I am not willing to shut down a man’s backyard summer barbeque because a vegan neighbor doesn’t like the exquisite smell of barbequed beef. So, all law is coercion, and all law invokes a standard. And if you are going to restrict someone’s liberty, the standard needs to be as solid as a slab of marble, five feet thick.
But what do we currently have? What do we have instead?
“Despite the presence of ideologically driven junk science, the evidence for global warming caused by human activities is so overwhelming that conservative columnist John Leo likens right-wing deniers to tobacco company executives who claim there’s no solid link between smoking and lung cancer” (p. 165).
This is the kind of thinking that just gives me the willies. Something passes into received wisdom, and if you even begin to raise questions about it, then you are the equivalent of a flat earther or tobacco exec. And then a second tenuous proposal is perched on top of the first (although now unquestioned) axiom. And only idiots raise questions. But facts is facts, and if you lined up one hundred, one-pack-a-day Camel smokers, fifteen of them would at some point get lung cancer. Eighty-five wouldn’t. There is significant statistical correlation, yes, and a very fine reason to quit smoking, I hasten to add, but it is not the same kind of causation that we see when someone puts the eight ball in the corner pocket. And then people get whipped up over second hand smoke, and so they ban smoking in all restaurants in New York City, and so on. This is why it is curious to find Tolkien invoked. What would Samwise have done had he come back to a pub in New York City instead of to the Shire? What would he have done to the No Smoking signs? You tell me. Like Sam, I would rather breathe free than freely.
Now back to global warming. I confess that I believe the evidence for global warming to be transparently a statist flim-flam operation. I greet dire warnings on the evening news with a horse laugh. The “time’s-a-wasting!” public service notices are a world-class hoot. I don’t buy any of it. None. But . . .
“Even if the evidence were inconclusive, given the catastrophic results of a global temperature rise — including fiercer hurricanes, flooding of coastal cities, the loss of vast inhabited and cultivated regions to desertification or frost — would compel the prudent conservative (which used to be a redundant phrase) to act as if the worst was likely” (p. 165).
Now I am all about prudence, and Dreher is right that prudent conservatism is a redundancy. But how on earth is it prudent to hand over to the government the kind of power it would take to combat something like global warming, even assuming it to be a threat? If it turns out to be just another enviro-false alarm, would the government hand all that power back to the citizens? Yeah, right. And how is it prudent for us to assume that we know the ins and outs of the results of global warming? Why are all the results of global warming pitched to us as unmitigated disasters? Why are we not regaled with stories about the coming greening of the Sahara?
So, we don’t know that something is happening, and, if it is, we don’t know what is causing it. And even if we knew what was causing it, we don’t know what the practical results of it will be. And yet, despite our oceans of ignorance, we must sign the papers now. We must act now. We must hand over our freedoms now to responsible folks like Al Gore. Not going to do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.
I do not see how it is prudent of me to notice some particular ache or pain, assume the worst, and as a result take three pills at random from every bottle in the medicine chest. Just in case.
“Global warming is the most serious crisis overtaking mankind as the result of our refusal to live within our means” (p. 165).
The one entity in the Western world that has proven (over and over again) to be genuinely incapable of living within its means would be the government. Private individuals have to live within their means. Companies have to. Corporations have to. If they do not, then they go out of business, routinely. The government lives way beyond its means, like a sailor on shore leave after three months at sea, and it assumes as axiomatic that the only appropriate response to their wastrel ways that we might consider is to triple their means, so that they might live beyond those. If global warming is the divine chastizement upon us for living beyond our means, why would we think that repentance would involve turning unlimited authority and resources to the worst offender on the planet, to wit, the United States Gummint?
“Two-thirds of the world’s natural resources have already been used up by humans, the report said, and the pressure we are putting on the natural world — the rain forests, the wetlands, the fisheries — is so unrelenting and harmful ‘that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted'” (p. 165).
This is the kind of rhetoric that makes my brain go straight to the screen saver. I am reminded of the standard enviro-scare that used to tell us how much of the Amazon rain forest was being consumed every day, which, if true, would have resulted in no rain forest whatever about thirty years ago. Look at that first statistic again. Two-thirds of the world’s natural resources have already been used up? But in order to make a statement like that with a straight face, the authors of the report would have to know what the world’s resources are in the first place, wouldn’t they? But they cannot know this, in large part because the resources are so vast. Here is a simple question, with hidden depths. Is salt water a resource?
In conclusion, the basis thing we have to remember — going back to Tolkien — is that Sauron and Saruman were not robber barons, or multinational corporations, or grasping capitalists. They were the government.