DPF posts excerpts from an essay asking:
Did environmentalism poison liberals’ historical optimism?
In the late 1960s, liberals appeared to have the better of the argument. Something approaching the realm of freedom seemed to have arrived. American workers, white and black, achieved hitherto unimagined levels of prosperity. In the nineteenth century, only utopian socialists had imagined that ordinary workers could achieve a degree of leisure; in the 1930s, radicals had insisted that prosperity was unattainable under American capitalism; yet these seemingly unreachable goals were achieved in the two decades after World War II.
Why, then, did American liberalism, starting in the early 1970s, undergo a historic metanoia, dismissing the idea of progress just as progress was being won? Multiple political and economic forces paved liberalism’s path away from its mid-century optimism and toward an aristocratic outlook reminiscent of the Tory Radicalism of nineteenth-century Britain; but one of the most powerful was the rise of the modern environmental movement and its recurrent hysterias.
I haven’t bothered reading the whole essay – based on the excerpt it seems like a waste of my time – but there are two points to be made on the general topic.
The first is that the response of social liberals (this is what Americans mean when they use the word liberal) to environmental problems is to try and find ways of addressing them, mostly through government policy and international treaties. The response of classical liberals is to pretend that the problems don’t exist – that they’re part of some global conspiracy – or that even if they do exist the correct response is to do nothing and hope that they’ll fix themselves, somehow. I think it’s obvious which of these approaches is the more responsible and intellectually robust.
The second point is that one of the tragedies of the global warming debate is that for many years the media portrayal of it was about how all our cities would be hundreds of feet underwater by the year 2005. The blame is partly that of our alarmist, scientifically illiterate media but also with members of the far left who argued that global warming and the threat of oceans flooding our malls was a reason to abandon capitalism and possibly even industrialism, so we could all live in some pre-technological communist utopia. If the consequences of global warming had been framed more moderately at the start of the debate – that it would lead to an increase in droughts, flooding, heatwaves and extreme weather events – I think the current debate around the issue would be a lot more enlightened.