There is a fundamental contradiction in the philosophy of President Obama that he is going to have to resolve before the electorate hangs him out to dry in the coming presidential campaign.
As the first African-American President, Barack Obama has come to embody the hopes of other groups that felt excluded from American society -- Hispanics, women, gays and lesbians, the handicapped and so on. There is an openly articulated strategy among his supporters that these out-groups can be forged into some grand coalition -- along with young people, pensioners and government employees -- to outvote the only group that does not seem to respond to the President's ministrations -- white men employed in the private sector.
But there is a problem with this strategy. In climbing through the ranks of academia and the liberal political world, the President has found himself welcomed at every level by people who saw in him the qualities of leadership that could represent their case. But in making this ascent through academia, he has imbibed the reigning ideology of this world -- environmentalism. Although the President may not recognize it, environmentalism works in direct opposition to the groups he purports to sponsor -- the poor, the disenfranchised, the unemployed, and so forth.
When stripped of its homilies about the beauties of the nature and virtues of a "sustainable" economy, environmentalism is basically an ideology for the protection of privilege. It works in favor of those who feel satisfied with current levels of consumption and against those who are trying to achieve greater levels of prosperity. As Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus expressed it in their landmark essay, "The Death of Environmentalism":
Environmentalists… aim to short-circuit democratic values by establishing Nature… as the ultimate authority that human societies must obey. And they insist that humanity's future is a zero-sum proposition -- that there is only so much prosperity, material comfort and modernity to go around. If too many people desire such things, we will all be ruined. We, of course, meaning those of us who have already achieved prosperity, material comfort and modernity.
Environmentalists make a living going around stirring up local opposition to all manner of development -- drilling for oil, harvesting forests, building power plants. The premise is always that this is the "wrong place" for such development and that whatever needs to be done is better taken care of somewhere else. What never gets noticed is that environmentalists are also doing the same thing in the next valley and the one after that and the sum of all this is that nothing gets done. They urge people to "think globally, act locally," but what this means in practice is professing some grand support for a "sustainable" economy built on "renewable" technologies while opposing the same things at the local level.
The Sierra Club, for instance, constantly opposes all manner of conventional electrical generation on the premise that it is supports "renewable" forms of energy. Hydroelectricity is considered a form of "renewable energy," but this means building dams and the Sierra Club is opposed to all forms of dams. For years it has been carrying on a quixotic campaign to tear down the Hetch-Hetchy Dam in the Yosemite Valley, built in 1921, that provides San Francisco with one-third of its electricity and most of its drinking water. "Oh, but we don't mean big dams," they respond. "We're in favor of small dams." Yet when Free Flow Power, a Boston company, announced plans to try to build a 3 megawatt dam near Bellingham, Washington in January 2011, the Sierra Club announced its opposition the next day.
The Sierra Club and other environmental groups all profess to be in favor of wind and solar energy as "clean, green and sustainable." But these energy sources are extremely dilute and involve covering huge amounts of landscape. On the east coast the best place to put them is on mountaintops, which always generates opposition. In California, however, there is always the possibility of the desert. Yet when the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power proposed in 2005 to build the Green Path North, a transmission line designed to bring wind and solar power from the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles, the project was opposed by the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, the California Desert Coalition, The Redlands Conservancy, Friends of Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, Stop Green Path North and every municipal government in its path. After six years of fighting opponents, the LADWP finally gave up on the project last year.
The truth is, when it comes right down to it, environmentalists don't want much of anything. They are happy with the way things are. In fact they wouldn't mind going back a bit to a time when there weren't so many cars, so many power plants and -- let's face it -- so many people around all clamoring for a piece of the pie. This philosophy may work for those comfortably ensconced in a mountain hideaway but it hardly speaks to the vast majority seeking some improvement in their lot.
President Obama has not yet grasped this contradiction. He thinks he wants economic prosperity but he wants to please his friends in the environmental movement as well. As a result, he finds himself in ridiculously contorted positions such as traveling to Oklahoma to celebrate the construction of a pipeline that he is preventing from being built or responding to criticisms about high gas prices by asking Congress to revoke the oil industry's modest tax breaks, which can only drive prices even higher, or bragging about the production of American oil when he has achieved the lowest rates of production in recent history from federal lands.
This problem is not going to go away. There is no limit to what the President's environmental supporters will demand in terms of thwarting prosperity. The talk this week is that even if we have discovered much greater oil and gas resources than previously recognized, we should not develop them for fear of falling into the trap of "resource poverty" that supposedly afflicts states like Nigeria and Indonesia. Someone should tell this to the Canadians who are buying second homes by the drove in Arizona or the Russians who the New York Times tells us are snapping up million-dollar apartments in Manhattan, all because Canada and Russia have decided to develop their own resources.
Everyone is an environmentalist when it comes to answering a pollster or buying a Sierra Club calendar. But when the economy is visibly wounded by efforts to make oil a "fuel of the past" and replace it with immature and flawed technologies -- or nothing at all -- the electorate is eventually going to rebel. If the President doesn't figure this out soon -- and it doesn't seem likely he will -- he is likely to face a huge backlash in November.