Getting Greens Wrong

Review: “A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism” by Patrick Allitt

Environmentalists protesting / AP
April 12, 2014

Patrick Allitt has written a book no one will like. Neither environmentalists nor those he calls counterenvironmentalists. He’ll be tempted to flatter himself with the tattered response of those criticized from both sides: "I must be doing something right." He’ll be wrong.

The purpose of the book, in Allitt’s words, is "to explain the history of American environmental controversies since World War II and to encourage an optimistic attitude toward the environmental future." But it reads more like an environmental "he said, she said." On issue after issue, Allitt presents one side, then the other, making for a seesaw of a read.

Allitt misses the central role of ideology in these controversies. He treats the sales pitch of an environmental organization as if it were its main object. But "safety" issues are the gloss green groups apply to mask deeper agendas.

Take, for example, Allitt’s treatment of Amory Lovins, to whom he devotes a respectful section. Allitt describes Lovins as "a brilliant and hardheaded polymath" who is "fully aware, as we all should be, that successful handling of energy and the environment depends more on weighing many issues together than by clinging to single causes and solutions. Among these issues are cost, cleanliness, conservation, public trust, and democratic responsiveness."

These anodyne comments are amazing if one knows something about Amory Lovins, who rose to prominence as an opponent of large-energy power sources, including coal and nuclear, even complex solar. These "hard path" technologies, Lovins argued, meant dependence on "alien, remote, and perhaps humiliatingly uncontrollable technology run by a faraway, bureaucratized, technical elite who have probably never heard of you." How many people actually feel humiliated when they flip on a light-switch because they don’t have a personal relationship with their power station?

Lovins’ ideas only make sense in the framework of his ideology. He is a utopian who seeks to transform society through transforming its energy system. Like much of the environmentalist intelligentsia, he believes small is beautiful, which is why he says: "It would be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap abundant energy because of what we might do with it."

A small but glaring example of Allitt’s failure to look beneath the surface of his subjects is his reference to "citizen groups like Mobilization for Survival." Mobilization for Survival was founded by a Communist Party member and a former Trotskyite. Its avowed goal is "to energize the growing opposition to the military." That meant the U.S. military. Mobilization for Survival counted among the national organizations belonging to it the U.S. Communist Party. It claimed to be against all forms of "nuclear pollution," a convenient position from which to argue for abandonment of the MX missile. To call Mobilization for Survival a "citizen’s group" is like calling a mountain lion a "kitty."

In his chapter "Deep and Radical Ecology," Allitt continues with his superficial analysis, separating out those groups and individuals he views as the most extreme environmentalists from the mainstream. As Allitt correctly says, "Central to the deep ecology outlook was the idea … that industrialization was dysfunctional and unnatural." But many mainstreamers in Allitt’s lexicon also share that view.

One of Allitt’s "deep ecologists," Earth First! activist Christopher Manes, says in his book Green Rage that he wants humans to go back 15,000 years to hunter-gatherer society. One of Allitt’s "mainstreamers," David Brower, first head of the Sierra Club and founder of Friends of the Earth, wants humans to go back to a time around the "the start of the Industrial Revolution" when "man began applying energy in vast amounts to tools with which he began tearing the environment apart." Whether 15,000 years, or 250 years, both want to undo the Industrial Revolution that created broad-based prosperity. When Allitt says "on the great policy questions of the era the deep ecologists were almost totally irrelevant," he could not be further off the mark.

Allitt comes down against nuclear power, saying "it could not ultimately work because it aroused too many fears." But this ignores nearly 20 years of success before environmentalists declared nuclear power unsafe and drummed too many fears into the public mind. Allitt’s main argument is that nuclear is "undemocratic" because "power stations had to be surrounded by barriers of security and secrecy." It’s an odd position to hold. After the recent sniper attack on a central California electrical substation, there is talk of securing America’s power grid. Will doing so make power-lines "undemocratic," too?

Allitt’s chief attempt at analysis is constructing categories of "anti-environmentalists" and "counter-environmentalists." Anti-environmentalists don’t care for the environment, as opposed to the more reasonable counter-environmentalists, who do. Allitt describes President Ronald Reagan as an anti-environmentalist because he "saw no benefit to the environmental achievements of the foregoing decade." To call Reagan anti-environmentalist is a stretch. Here was a man who loved his ranch and the outdoors, and to whom is attributed the line: "There’s nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse." Reagan recognized that the environmentalist agenda was against capitalism and growth, and he opposed the movement’s inroads through the government agencies on which that movement exerted so much pressure and control.

Allitt would have done better sticking to the well-established categories of conservationists and preservationists. Conservationists wanted careful use of resources and were opposed to the rival preservationists of the wilderness movement, whose goal was to exclude all human activity from public land. Environmentalists have taken up the preservationist mantle, seeking to render off-limits to humans as much land as possible. But Allitt wrongly uses the terms conservationists and environmentalists interchangeably.

To the author’s credit, he comes down on the correct side in the global warming debate, and points out, though does not underscore, the pattern of apocalyptic belief in the environmentalist movement, where end-of-the-world prophecies repeatedly turn out to be wrong.

Allitt also should be congratulated on being well versed on his topic. A Climate of Crisis is full of information. The trouble is the book is a kind of environmental data dump. Much like the NSA collecting everyone’s phone calls, Allitt has gathered everything on environmentalism into a single book. Unfortunately, also like the NSA, he has difficulty spotting the guilty parties.

David Isaac is an editor at Newsmax.