Sunday, July 27, 2008

Thoughts On An Environmental Political Philosophy

It is just possible that I should have studied political science or political philosophy in college, and I've often remarked that it's perhaps telling that a solid majority of my friends were political science majors. Although I don't often read popular political books, I picked up Andrew Sullivan's "The Conservative Soul" at the Portland Central Library a few days ago, and found it a compelling, valuable read. Conservative philosophy is relatively new to me. I was raised as a New England liberal, and despite my personal emphasis on reason, pragmatism, and environmentalism, East Coast style liberalism is where my political thinking begins. Just to be clear, I'm not denigrating those labels or the content of their thought, when it comes to politics they are my foundation.

Andrew Sullivan is perhaps the finest blogger of our time, using his blog The Daily Dish to hold a conversation about politics, literature, and the role of faith in one's life from his perspective as a British, conservative, Catholic, married, gay, and HIV positive man living in Washington, D.C. Listing adjectives is a poor way of describing a person, but with Sullivan it's the quickest way to express that by "conservative" I mean someone who is a conservative by temperament and political foundation rather than by ideology or religion, as is so often the case in our current political climate. Being a Dish reader is like having an ongoing conversation with an erudite, always interesting, sometimes infuriating companion whose friendship you treasure for the gift of those conversations.

I disagree with Sullivan on many, many issues, but at the same time his essay "Goodbye To All That: Why Obama Matters" was the first real evaluation I read of the person who has, as is fairly obvious, since then garnered my enthusiastic support. So I read Andrew's book, which is largely a response to the dominance of religious fundamentalism within American conservatism rather than an attempt to convince readers of the virtues of conservatism as such. However, there was a passage near the end that really spoke to me, and I think is a fair summary of Sullivan's conservatism:
"Politics, for a conservative, is a necessary activity, but it should never be an uplifting one. Americans in particular often balk at this. They like bold leadership, visionary rhetoric, and great challenges. But the success of America is that its constitution does not require these things in politics for the country to work or be successful. A president or senator or governor may be appreciated for his skills in the bully pulpit, but his real job is merely to enforce existing laws, fix emerging problems, and leave the sermonizing to the real pulpits and the creativity to the country's real leaders. The real leaders of a free society are not its politicians. They are its artists and laborers, scientists and teachers, bloggers and social workers, sportsmen and movie directors, day traders and research students, architects and farmers, waiters and comedians. The great strength of a free society is not its political leadership or its government, but its people and their daily encounters with one another and reality."
Like all statements that summarize a position, it's a problematic one. As an environmentalist and scientist, the one that immediately springs to mind is that our imperfect understanding of the world often creates challenges that do require bold leadership and vision (yep, another climate change reference). My primary criticism of Sullivan's conservatism is that it fails to account for the non-negotiable, objectively unsustainable organization of our society. But, despite my critiques, there's a lot there with which I substantially agree. I don't think it's a good idea to intentionally design a society using the tools of government programs. We're people, we're going to fuck it up. Or rather, I don't believe there is an ideal society, only changing values and responses to different challenges that always have unintended consequences, good or bad. So, in general, I support policies that provide the maximum amount of opportunity and flexibility, with a minimum of explicit direction. 

I was originally thinking about this with regards to the concept of net neutrality, which essentially provides just that for the Internet, however it does so by, somewhat paradoxically, restricting the behavior of Internet service providers to give preference to some kinds of data traffic over others. Net neutrality is a good example of where I part company with conservatives and libertarians. I think that an objective appraisal of most situations will reveal some solid regulations that make the system more functional, more flexible and, here's that same complication again, more sustainable. What are those regulations? Well, that's where the argument comes in, and I think where Sullivan's idea of a sober, process-based politics overlaps with my own preferences, although I suspect we would have wildly different opinions on the best outcomes.

That said, I'm starting to understand why environmentalism wound up being a left-wing issue rather than one shared by all political orientations. Environmental conservation doesn't lend itself well to a political philosophy that desires to place as few strictures on human behavior as possible, when current patterns of human consumption degrade natural environments and (this is important) the total amount of human consumption is constantly increasing. Unfortunately, the conservative and libertarian response to that has mostly been to deny that there is a problem at all, which in my view has led to a glaring foolishness regarding the response to environmental issues from those communities. However, to spread the blame around more equitably, left-wing environmentalism is so often ideological, choosing a particular vision of a human relationships to nature and promoting that as the Platonic ideal that government policy should promote, failing to even acknowledge the possibility of disagreement. I should note that I make these criticisms as a left-ish environmentalist, so they are to a certain extent self-criticisms. 

So what's the bottom line? Allow me to dramatically change the subject for a moment, a la a Henry Rollins routine. Today I biked out to the Oak Bottom Wildlife Refuge in Southeast Portland and walked around in the woods. It was restorative, especially when I took what looked to be a semi-intentional "trail" through a marshy area, full of tall grasses and the occasional fallen tree. Movement caught my eye, and all of a sudden I realized that jumping from blade of grass to blade of grass were tiny frogs of several different colors, so small and light that the thin fronds could support their weight. I photographed them for a little while, and turning around saw that fluffy, white catkins from the cottonwood trees (I think) were blowing on the breeze, looking for all the world like cotton snow. It was a sublime "encounter with reality" to use Sullivan's words. 

I would like to find more political consensus between left and right that recognizes the value of the natural world. I tentatively think that a good start might be for environmentalists to focus more on policy positions that are goal-oriented rather than attempting to directly control economic processes. For example, let's talk biofuels. Yes, the whole ethanol thing is a wonderful notion that may one day be technologically feasible, but right now it's an ecological and humanitarian disaster. It's a very real example of how environmental concern can be wedded to a sort of ecotopian vision that, while wonderful, doesn't necessarily conform to the objective challenges we face. It's also an excellent example of the conservative critique that we don't know all the outcomes of our policies. While there's great potential for biofuels to be part of our energy solution, it's dependent on the development of technology that doesn't currently exist. By contrast, in my view the most effective solution would be a national low carbon fuel standard that says:
"Okay, transportation fuel has to have a lower net greenhouse gas emission. We're not going to provide subsidies to particular technologies, because who knows which one is objectively going to provide the most environmental benefit. We thought it was going to be ethanol, but that turned out to be a terrible idea. We're not going to direct the market, you just have to reach a progressively stricter standard. Peace out."
In my view, that kind of regulatory attitude toward environmental issues would have the advantage of being based on the best available science (we keep studying the issue and revising our benchmarks) while not attempting to direct what we don't know, namely which environmental technologies will do the best job of reaching objective standards. I'm musing without doing a good job of really diving into the evidence of whether market based environmental mechanisms really will turn the tide on these issues, but it's been fruitful musing. 

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