Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

This one will stir up a hornet’s nest . . . . 

The words “global warming” may have achieved Pavlovian status.  Like the ringing of the bell that accompanied the Alpo fed to Pavlov’s dogs, the words foster an immediate and instinctive response by adherents of our disparate political faiths.  Among liberals it fosters the an immediate desire to put a halt to the unleashing of new greenhouse gases, a Gore-ish propensity to quote the latest scientific research and deep disapproval of the American way of life.  Among conservatives it causes a condition close to the foaming at the mouth, a knee-jerk rejection of “purported” science, a denunciation of Statist paternalism and proud assertion of the rightness of our industrial project.  The two sides could not be further apart on this issue.  Yet, what strikes me is how opposite these respective reactions are to the stated political philosophies of liberalism and conservatism – so-called. 

Contemporary liberals are marked, perhaps above all, by the modern faith in science and a rejection of the claims of mere nature.  Liberalism was built on the modern scientific project inaugurated by Francis Bacon who rejected that nature was a fixed and permanent entity, but instead urged humankind – through its ingenuity and capacity to understand and decode – to exert governance, dominion, and even mastery over nature.  Liberalism ecstatically welcomed the 19th-century research of Charles Darwin for its fundamental rejection of the idea of a notion of fixed and permanent nature created with intention and design by God.  Darwin refuted the idea that nature was static, and instead – while it purportedly demoted mankind by rejecting the idea of a “Great Chain of Being” – implicitly promoted the idea of humankind as a self-fashioning creature who was capable of changing the natural world that was itself constantly subject to changing forces.  Our contemporary effort to reduce everything to Darwinian terms (even religion!) reflects the view that all human artifacts and efforts are part of the instinctive effort to exercise control over our environment.  We shape and reshape the world in our own image, and reject the antiquated notion of a fixed or “normal” conception of the natural world. 

Yet, it is our contemporary liberals who argue against the human contribution to climate change, who appear to embrace the notion that the climactic conditions of the past several centuries constitutes the normal or what should be permanent condition of the world’s climate.  Contemporary liberals seem to exhibit a reverence for nature that belies what is otherwise nearly everywhere a hostility to mere nature shorn of the human ability and imperative to govern its working (e.g., birth control, abortion, etc.).  There is even a strong element of anti-humanism in the arguments of many opponents to climate change, the sense that human ingenuity in utilizing exosomatic energy represents an abuse of the existing natural world – and not a Darwinian survival strategy.  Rather than understanding climate change within the dominant liberal framework of Darwinism – which would suggest that we are at least neutral to creaturely alteration of the world, if not welcoming of the dynamism it will unleash that may force further evolutionary developments and adaptations – instead we witness the invocation of a “normal” condition of nature that seems to be based upon a curiously fixed and unchanging view of how the world should be.  

By contrast, conservatism – particularly as inaugurated by Edmund Burke – arose as a critique of the often Pollyanish and optimistic worldview of liberalism.  It argued on behalf of caution and insisted upon an awareness of the law of unintended consequences.  Conservatism was the locus of at least once principle – “the precautionary principle” – which urged great caution in the face of claims that human actions would always and everywhere result only in good and positive outcomes.  Classical conservatism was firmly wedded to a conception of unchanging human nature – and, in turn, a created order reflected through nature – that demanded hesitation and doubt in the face of claims that the human or natural order was alterable at will.  Conservatism regarded the governing claims of science with suspicion and hesitancy, arguing against its universalizing tendencies and its efforts at dominion, and arguing on behalf of the legitimacy of longstanding  local practices of culture and tradition that modern science often sought to eviscerate.  

Yet it is our contemporary conservatives who most blithely reject the import or relevance of many findings that suggest increases in global temperature are the result of human industrial activity.  It is our conservatives who today urge the rejection of “the precautionary principle” when speaking of global warming, who insist that it is the liberals who are Chicken Littles. At times they argue that – even if the evidence is true – we will have the ingenuity to find technologies and scientific solutions for the problems that are generated by the very successes of modern science.  They are optimistic about our mental prowess and confident that any changes will not be so significant that we cannot redress them.  They retain a commitment to our dynamic and energetic society that generates innovation and change.  

In short, when it comes to the issue of “global warming,” our liberals seem to embrace a conservative stance, while our conservatives appear to evince all the earmarks of liberalism.  What gives? 

Dare I submit that global warming is not really about global warming – not really?  Global warming, it seems to me, is a proxy battle in a larger war, a bit like Vietnam was a proxy war in the greater conflagration of the Cold War.  As such, we find ourselves aligned with peculiar allies and defending uncomfortable positions. Indeed, the comparison to Vietnam is not inapt, since Global Warming is now where many of the political and culture wars have now come to rest.  It is an issue around which a now-traditional set of ideological divisions have now come to roost – ones that curiously lead our conservatives to hold a deeply unconservative position and our liberals to act illiberally.  

Of course, the immediate and most palpable issue is that of free market economics:  contemporary “conservatives” hold a adhere to a deeply anti-conservative faith in an unregulated market that is a remnant of the Cold War, while liberals dream of a world State in which we achieve Rawlsian redistributive justice that can be measured based on our respective carbon footprints.  Inasmuch as the fight over global warming can be reducible to a debate over the relative merits of the free market, the incoherence of these two positions is a direct inheritance of the Cold War. 

Still, even these respective positions on the economy itself reflect a deeper divide over a more fundamental question.  What seems to be is at deeper issue is the battle over the existence of human nature.  For those on the Left, Global Warming represents the best contemporary avenue toward the age-old ambition to overcome that recalcitrant part of human nature that seems to belie the belief that we can change ourselves without limit – self-interest.  If a new form of global consciousness is possible, then its best prospect for realization appears to be through the inculcation of an immediate sense of the interconnectedness of all things.  Echoing the 19th-century hope among some utopians for the creation of a new “cosmic consciousness” (the most popular book of the late-19th century – Looking Backwards, by Edward Bellamy – was premised upon the achievement of such a form of consciousness in the year 2000), the primacy of the issue of “global warming” among today’s liberals is a continuing echo of that ambition to overcome the recalcitrant existence of the human ego.   Weirdly, the Left adopts a “conservative” stance toward the achievement of anti-conservative transformation of the human creature. 

Meanwhile, for those on the Right, the effort to transform human consciousness on this issue represents a step the age-old liberal faith in the plasticity of human nature.  Their insistence that humans continue to act in accordance with the economic imperatives based in human self-interest reflects their Pavlovian understanding that underlying the utopianism of liberal efforts to foster a new consciousness is a kissing cousin of socialism and Marxism.  

Ironically, this proxy battle is taking place in spite of, and not because of, the actual issue of global warming.  It is our conservatives who should rightly be warning of a potential catastrophe for humanity out of a plenitude of caution and prudence.  Our conservatives should be urging restraint of our industrial activities out of ample concern for “the precautionary principle.”  It is our liberals who should be less wed to a conception of a “normal” or permanent natural condition, unaltered by biological activity.  They should celebrate the dynamism of our society and its success in liberating us from the constraints of culture and tradition.  

Doubtless this incoherence is with us to stay for a time – perhaps a very long time.  But we should recognize it for what it is: above all, that both camps are not really debating over global warming. Were liberals truly devoted to a reduction of greenhouse gases, they would have to sacrifice one of the fundamental pillars of liberalism:  the pursuit of human liberation from nature.  Liberalism’s admirable concern about global warming is informed by a high degree of incoherence, in the first instance partaking of a deeply anti-humanistic belief that, at base, draws on classical liberalism’s division between nature and culture.  Further, and more incoherently, the current liberal faith relies unrealistically on a kind of technological optimism that holds we can run our current civilization, continue worldwide economic growth and “development,” all the while cutting back substantially on the exosomatic energy sources that have made much of modernity possible.  Their concerns are real enough, but nevertheless they otherwise occupy a realm of unreality. 

Meanwhile, our conservatives are trapped even more deeply in a state of incoherence.  Their devotion to an unregulated free market is one of the deepest sources of anti-conservatism in our time.  Their blithe acceptance of the “creative destruction” of the market is the single greatest contribution to the evisceration of traditional “family values.”  Their implicit hostility to nature attacks the deepest source of conservatism’s meaning – the imperative to conserve.  It is my hope that a new generation of conservatives – highlighting the root word “conserve” – will change the dynamics of this debate.  By urging a concern for the natural order; by insisting upon governance of our appetites; by inculcating prudence and respect for the natural order; by pointing out the incoherence of both contemporary positions, perhaps we will indeed find a better way to exist in a natural order that we did not ourselves create, upon which we rely for life and livelihood, and of which we are finally and permanently a part.  Whether and what will happen as the planet warms is unknown to me.  To be blithely optimistic that we’ll figure out how to deal with it – that science and the market will find a way – seems to me to be the very antithesis of a properly conservative response.  Politics inevitably makes strange bedfellows, but one must always be wary of how you’ll feel about your bedmate the morning after.

(Cross-posted at What I Saw In America

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles