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◌  Not war and war: politics and environmentalism

8 January 2009


Why do we care so personally about national politics? Instead we might have holiday fights about, say, the boardrooms of the DJIA components. A corporate C-SPAN would cover routine business and most consumers would own and vote shares. But no, it’s politics – politics where it’s a mark of sophistication to be obstinate, politics where it’s apparently our duty to be angry. I think it’s because politicians have told us about the culture war.

What do we do in wartime? In myth, we go kill people. At least we young males, war’s target demographic, are supposed to. But measured by what most people are doing most of the time, war is not about acute violence, it’s about chronic fear and desperation. Wartime populations entrench psychologically as much as armies ever dug. War reaches into the brain and squeezes some gland whose juice tells us to protect our genes and memes, unify against outsiders, stay practical, and sacrifice unhesitatingly. This is the bundle of instincts that gets tribes through famine and pestilence. It’s conservatism.

When progressive politicians say how crazy conservatives are, for example, they are practicing conservatism. They’re using the heaviest thing they know to outweigh the obvious pointlessness of an individual ballot: the fear that people unlike you and me, scary people, bigots panicked by demagogues, are going to ruin things if we don’t vote.

I can’t denounce this. I believe some of it. I’m just saying it’s propaganda (or advertising, whichever sounds less sinister) and so it’s attaching its product, political engagement on a certain side, to something we already want. I think most of us in the developed world want to struggle. We faintly remember savannah times. We miss the fraternity and simplicity of things we know are wrong, like hunting enemies. We find it, made relatively harmless, in games like football and World of Warcraft.

When we find it in politics, something is wrong. Politics is not a game, but it can seem like it; what happens on the Senate floor looks less violent than killing a warlock in AV even when it’s the murder of a hundred thousand foreign civilians. We forget that politics is about the lives of real people; that the principles we use in it should be about real people. Distracted from this by warlike self-righteousness, we err in the large and the small. In national politics it has us think too much in terms of our party winning and losing, permitting things like the functional treason of gerrymandering. In state and local politics it makes us useless; we have a taste for wrangles about big abstractions and are bored by what they ought to abstract, school boards, sewer bonds, and homeless shelters, where our voices are big without yelling.

So I say our politics are ill-served by this metaphor of culture war. It’s only so compelling by finding our susceptibility to moral panic and allied fervors, and even when it helps good politicians and causes, it’s a disease on democracy. It confuses us about what we can do, what we should do, and how we should do it. By embiggening the import of national abstractions, it pulls us away from good opportunities to work on simple, tangible, everyday things.


In another place, working on simple, tangible, everyday things is the way to death. It’s called environmentalism, which exemplifies a lot of its problems. The environment connotes externality when we want to talk about integral things like eating and breathing. If we could, we ought to call it internalism or longtermism.

Environmentalism has been built by liberal instead of conservative efforts. Liberalism is the spirit of boom times; the luxuries of safety: generosity, expression, tolerance, and so on. It’s work toward a culture of abundance. It was the natural sponsor of preservationism, which seems to be how we’re stuck thinking about environmentalism.

Why is saving pandas supposed to be a highlight of environmentalism? Pandas are cute. Permafrost is not cute. If all wild pandas die, that’s a pity. If much wild permafrost melts, whole ecosystems are obliterated and hundreds of millions of people starve. Pandas have 45× permafrost’s Google score.

Environmentalism had better do what the idea of the US getting entangled abroad did around 1940. What has been a romantic ethical concern ought to become a pressing defense of humanity. Let us turn environmentalism over to our faculties of war – not violence, but survival through sacrifice, discipline and solidarity. Conservatism.

What makes conservatism wrong in some places makes it right in others. To dismiss it, right-wingers sometimes say that climate alarm is the modern version of medieval apocalypticism. I don’t see how calling it medieval dismisses it any more than it would dismiss, say, conservatism in general. For these kinds of fearful behaviors to have survived, they presumably did more good than bad for our ancestors. If apocalypticism is fear, urgency, and hope, look at our CO2 concentrations and be apocalyptic.

I want posters. Fish populations depend on you!, Have you done your part for thermohaline circulation?, Loose emissions caps sink Bangladesh. People are nostalgic for Keep calm and carry on; let’s make it new again.

I remember hearing The Moral Equivalent of War quoted in The Idea of North. I assumed that in context James was saying that we ought to convert our warlike instincts to benign ends, and that coming to terms with nature was the obvious choice. Now that I read it, I see James was thinking not in neutral but in negative terms about nature: it was squarely his adversary. But if you read his against nature as for nature, you get something very strong (besides racist and sexist) a century later.


We encourage each other to feel responsible for our cultural ecology at the largest scale – Roe v. Wade, science v. faith, welfare v. laissez-faire. We should make as big a fuss tending the culture right in front of us – raising children, jury duty, block parties.

We encourage each other to feel responsible for the ecology right in front of us – litter, gas milage, sorting the recycling. We should work as hard on ecology at the largest scale – mass-sequestering CO2, figuring out what to do about the 2 billion people who want cars for the first time, replanting the Amazon.

Politics should be less warlike. Environmentalism should be more.