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Environmentalism and the Leisure Class

The American Spectator posted a great essay yesterday by William Tucker, which explains that in turning down the application for the Keystone XL pipeline this week, for the second time, President Obama 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.”

Tucker explains further that “(E)nvironmentalism has spent thtree decades trying to hide this simple truth . . .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.”

How did Tucker determine the connection of environmentalism and the leisure class? He explains it this way, and includes a Thorstein Veblen quote:

“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.”

Before the enviros run off yelling that your conservative scribe doesn't care a twit about the environment, Tucker makes this important 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."

A great analysis, Mr. Tucker!

UPDATE (1/21/12): John Hinderaker blogs at Power Line takes note of an "open rift that has now developed between the laborers' union and the environmental movement, writes:

"It is hard to understand how any union can explain to its members why it supports Obama’s job-destroying energy policies, but it is has been a long time since many union leaders have taken their members’ interests seriously."


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