Special Report

Environmentalism and the Leisure Class

In playing Keystone cop, President Obama protects his environmental flank for no good reason.

By 1.20.12

Send to Kindle

This week President Obama handed down what may prove to be one of the most fateful decisions of his entire administration when he rejected the plan to build the Keystone XL Pipeline carrying oil from the tar sands of Canada to the refineries of Houston. The decision did not win him one new vote but was crucial in protecting his environmental flank. The movie stars and Sierra Club contributors were getting restless and had drawn the line in the sand.

In turning down Keystone, however, the President has uncovered an ugly little secret that has always lurked beneath the surface of environmentalism. Its basic appeal is to the affluent. Despite all the professions of being "liberal" and "against big business," environmentalism's main appeal is that it promises to slow the progress of industrial progress. People who are already comfortable with the present state of affairs -- who are established in the environment, so to speak -- are happy to go along with this. It is not that they have any greater insight into the mysteries and workings of nature. They are happier with the way things are. In fact, environmentalism works to their advantage. The main danger to the affluent is not that they will be denied from improving their estate but that too many other people will achieve what they already have. As the Forest Service used to say, the person who built his mountain cabin last year is an environmentalist. The person who wants to build one this year is a developer.

Environmentalism has spent three decades trying to hide this simple truth. How can environmentalists be motivated by self-interest when they are anti-business? Doesn't that align them with the working classes? Well, not quite. You can be anti-business as a union member trying to claim higher wages but you can also be anti-business as a member of the aristocracy who believes "trade" and "commercialism" are crass and not attuned to the higher things in life. Environmentalism is born from the latter, not the former. It has spent decades trying to pretend it has common cause with the working people. With the defeat of the Keystone Pipeline, this is no longer possible. Too many blue-collar and middle-class jobs have been sacrificed on the altar of carbon emissions and global warming.

In 1977, I wrote a cover story for Harper's called "Environmentalism and the Leisure Class," my first story for a national magazine. Environmentalism was very young at the time -- born supposedly on Earth Day in 1970 -- but had already achieved a seat in the upper echelons of the Carter Administration. These freshly appointed bureaucrats began canceling dams, preaching the sins of fossil fuels, and raising obstacles to nuclear power. In its place they promised distant, over-the-horizon technologies of wind and solar energy. I remember one iconic photograph of Andrew Young, Carter's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, holding a pyramid over his head on Earth Day in the fashionable superstition that pyramids had mysterious powers to concentrate the sun's rays.

My story in Harper's was built around the devastating 1977 New York City blackout (the subject of the book The Bronx is Burning) and the almost forgotten fact that Con Edison had been trying for 15 years to construct an upstate power plant designed to prevent blackouts. The Storm King Mountain facility was a pumped storage plant 40 miles up the Hudson that stored power overnight by pumping water uphill and then releasing it the next day to generate hydroelectricity. The idea was to avoid building more coal plants in New York City. As an added attraction, the utility never failed to mention, the floodgates could be opened in an instant to provide power in the event of an emergency, while ordinary generators took the better part of an hour to get up to speed.

Pumped storage was considered an engineering marvel of the time and many were built. There are now about 30 around the country. In the Hudson Highlands, however, Con Ed had unwittingly disturbed a nest of New York aristocrats who had escaped from the city in the 19th century. As Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (who now lives in the area) would write 30 years later without a trace of irony:

The committee [the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference] quickly found support among the well-heeled residents of the Hudson Highlands. Many of its founding members were the children and grandchildren of the Osborns, Stillmans, and Harrimans, the robber barons who had laid out great estates amid the Highlands' spectacular scenery and whose descendants had fought fiercely since the turn of the century to preserve the views for themselves and the public. [John Cronin and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., The Riverkeepers,Scribner, 1997.]

Well-connected both in New York society and the editorial pages of the New York Times, Scenic Hudson began an opposition campaign that eventually engulfed the entire city. The battle to "Save Storm King" was the nation's first great environmental crusade, becoming a legal landmark when the Federal District Court allowed Scenic Hudson to intervene on environmental grounds for the first time in history. The case is still cited. Several Scenic Hudson members went on to found the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Throughout the campaign Scenic Hudson insisted they were not opposed to electricity but only this particular way of generating it. There were plenty of alternatives -- fuel cells, mine-mouth coal generation, gas turbines and even nuclear power, which they supported briefly before turning against it. What became obvious, however, was that at bottom they were opposed to everything. Industrial progress itself was the enemy. This was a useless undertaking that only tore at the fabric of nature in order to produce "common kilowatts." The attitude was fairly new at that time in America.

What finally focused my attention on the aristocratic roots of environmentalism, however, was a chapter in Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class. Although the book is justly famous for coining "conspicuous consumption" and "conspicuous waste," there is a lesser-known chapter entitled "Industrial Exemption" that perfectly describes the environmental zeitgeist. Veblen posed the question, why is it that people who are the greatest beneficiaries of industrial society are often the most passionate in condemning it? He provided a simple answer. People in the leisure class have become so accustomed affluence as the natural state of things that they no longer feel compelled to embrace any further industrial progress:

The leisure class is in great measure sheltered from the stress of those economic exigencies which prevail in any modern, highly organized industrial community.… [A]s a consequence of this privileged position we should expect to find it one of the least responsive of the classes of society to the demands which the situation makes for a further growth of institutions and a readjustment to an altered industrial situation. The leisure class is the conservative class.

My article generated 150 letters, including a response from a member of the Federal Power Commission who said that construction of new power plants wasn't necessary. I was often criticized, however, for claiming only affluent people are concerned about the environment. The one response I ever got from the press was in the middle of Three Mile Island when National Public Radio called to ask, "What do you say about all those farmers worried about radiation? They're not aristocrats, are they?"

But that was not the point. It is not that the average person is not concerned about the environment. Everyone weighs the balance of economic gain against a respect for nature. It is only the truly affluent, however, who can be concerned about the environment to the exclusion of everything else. Most people see the benefits of pipelines and power plants and admit they have to be built somewhere. Only in the highest echelons do we hear people say, "We don't need to build any pipelines. We've already got enough energy. We can all sit around awaiting the day we live off wind and sunshine."

Environmentalists have spent decades trying to disguise these aristocratic roots, even from themselves. They work desperately to form alliances with labor unions and cast themselves as purveyors of "green jobs." But the Keystone Pipeline has brought all this into focus. As Joel Kotkin writes in Forbes, Keystone is the dividing line of the "two Americas," the knowledge-based elites of the East and West Coasts in their media, non-profit and academic homelands (where Obama learned his environmentalism) and the blue-collar workers of the Great In- Between laboring in agriculture, mining, manufacturing, power production and the exigencies of material life.

It's going to be very difficult to erase that line during the election.

 

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
William Tucker is news editor for RealClearEnergy.org.