Monday, June 1, 2009

Where Environmentalism Ends and Marxism Begins...

Once upon a time in its infancy, the modern environmental movement led by Greenpeace engaged in more noble pursuits than activists of today. They sought to end the practice of dumping toxic chemicals in our lakes and oceans, they strived to prevent the extinction of endangered species, slow the rapid destruction of the rainforests, and so on and so forth. These were noble, practical endeavors that made sense on a pragmatic level. But as time progressed, the ranks of the environmental movement became increasingly occupied by zealous socialists. I’m not certain where the tipping point came, but I listened to a recent interview with a former President and founding father of Greenpeace who explained that he withdrew his membership in the organization he helped to create because it had been subjugated by socialists.

I am reluctant to speculate how or why this took place, but I suspect that after the fall of the Soviet Union and the fantastical failures of the policies of Chairman Mao (which climaxed at Tiananmen Square); the dream of creating a classless utopia, heaven on earth, was dramatically diminished. The Marxists had lost their mojo, and needed to evolve in order to survive. Whether the environmental movement was targeted because of overlapping ideologies or the righteousness of protecting the planet, I can’t say for certain. What is certain is that during the 90s the message of the enviro movement began to change its tone to “global warming” then to “climate change” and now to “climate crisis”. A remarkably convenient crisis of cause and effect that is simple to explain, impossible to prove, and challenging to refute. The cause: humans burn fossil fuels. The effect: catastrophic climate Armageddon.

If you had access to the time travelling phone booth from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, it would be fascinating to retrieve Adam Smith (the Scottish grandfather of modern economics) and Karl Marx (the anti Christ) for a live televised debate. One of their most significant points of contention would be on consumption. Marx regarded it as the root of all evil, while Smith recognized it as the root of all progress. To Marx, the desire to consume and acquire material goods is a corrupting influence and the indulgence of consumptive behavior leads to competition and inevitable conflict among the populace. Smith regarded consumption as an almost divine rite that is the driving force behind production. Consumption is responsible for virtually all economic activity and therefore drives employment, growth, innovation, prosperity, and ultimately happiness.

It is unfortunate that the lines between environmentalist and Marxist have been blurred. I don’t want to paint all enviro activists with a broad brush because there are voices in the movement that I respect, such as Bjorn Lumborg; but at least those moderates are pragmatic enough to become skeptical of Al Gore when they find out that the world hasn’t “warmed” since 1998. Gore on the other hand goes “all in” and insists that the crisis is as dire as ever. When the world starts to cycle into a cooling trend and you hear activists turn up the volume on CO2 induced warming, alarm bells should start ringing in your head.

Where the theory of CO2 warming is convenient for the modern Marxist is that it allows them to attack consumption in a much more discrete manner. The desire to consume is a natural human instinct that is programmed into our DNA by virtue of a million years of evolution. Trying to convince people that they should not covet material goods which they clearly desire, or that they should not yearn for that tropical cruise that they would obviously enjoy; is a losing battle. You cannot convince people to reduce consumption at the individual level. It is something that must be forced upon them, and instituting mandatory caps on consumption would be political suicide in a democratic country. Therefore if you are a political entity seeking to inhibit consumption as a matter of public policy in a democracy, your only feasible option is to make it more expensive.

The overwhelming majority of consumption is directly facilitated by energy, be it by electricity or fossil fuels. A significant proportion of electricity is also generated by burning fossil fuels. Manufacturing consumer goods and distributing them to retail outlets is dependent on energy. Increasing the cost of fuel is passed on the consumer in the form of higher retail prices. As goods and services become more expensive people are forced to consume less. Therefore a carbon tax or a strict cap and trade help to accomplish a key tenant of Marxism.

I am all in favour of developing alternatives to fossil fuels, which as a finite resource will inevitably happen eventually. The market will be able to accomplish this transition without government intervention. As the supply of fossil fuels decreases and price increases, a substitute becomes more profitable and thus the private sector will invest more in research and development. The big question is how quickly this adjustment will become necessary. There seems to be conflicting estimates of the size of the remaining supply. Regardless of the long term sustainability of oil based propulsion and production it is clear that the political left is shifting demand to electricity without significantly increasing our capacity to produce it. Like lemmings marching towards a cliff, they are trying to steer us in a specific direction without providing us adequate means to get there.

How many nuclear power plants are being built in North America right now? When you do the math, nuclear power is the best means of producing electricity given the current level of technology. Though I suppose even uranium is a finite resource. It will be interesting to watch how the environmental Marxists adapt their platforms if and when we shift our energy consumption to an emmissionless renewable means. That will force them to shift their war on consumption to a new front. Granted this transition is unlikely to happen in my lifetime; or perhaps their proposal to replace fossil fuels with wind turbines and solar panels is a feigned offensive because they know that you can never build enough wind farms to produce as much energy as oil and coal do today. They could be sending us on a fool’s errand. Shifting demand while leaving supply stagnant will have the same price effect as reducing supply.

Before Michael Moore comes at me proclaiming that the recent market downturn is proof that capitalism doesn’t work and that Adam Smith was wrong, I say find me the chapter in The Wealth of Nations where Smith advocates the necessity of subprime mortgages! The recent downturn in the market is a result of the financial sector over-extending credit to too many people and businesses that would never be able to pay them back. The market will eventually correct itself. Banks will learn to be more prudent with their loans and credit cards. The notion that we need to regress into Marxism because banks made bad loans is absurd. Be advised that when you hear an activist railing on the evils of consumption, you are likely listening to a Marxist whether they admit it or not. Personally I believe that socialism is best in small doses. There exists a Nash Equilibrium where a modest safety net contributes to the greater good of society. But if you swing the redistribution of wealth too far to the left, that net transforms into a magnet and guides us towards economic catastrophe by means of moral hazard. That’s why I am so passionate in my opposition to the NDP. God forbid they ever get even a hand on the steering wheel…

“Communism doesn’t work because people like to own stuff”

-Frank Zappa


  1. Case in point - how many leaders of CPAWS Wildlands League and MiningWatch are (or past) members of the Canadian Communist Party? Guess.

  2. Again, let me state that not all environmentalists are Marxists. There are many who care about the planet and do not advocate socialism. Example, my father (a conservative) has volunteered hundreds of hours to Ducks Unlimited. Many of those people are right leaning hunters who are fighting to protect marsh lands. It is important to note that many of the people that PETA fights against are some of the loudest voices protecting wildlife habitat. Some food for thought.

  3. I would say, Socialism is like being on welfare and only being able to get hand-me-down books from the library while having to be on the wait list until your book arrives from another library.

    Capitalism is like being able to go out and buy the collectors edition of a book* with the money you earned from the job you made yourself qualified for.

    *with fancy casing and silk binding and so forth.