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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
16.2 (Spring 2016)
The Polis vs. Progress
Examining the “Right-Wing Green” Critique of Current-Day America
While the notion of a “right-wing green” movement may seem oxymoronic to consumers of mainstream media, nothing could be more reasonable than that conservatism should conserve life’s building blocks.
Based on a draft of a presentation for the 2013 Conference of the Polish Association for American Studies (PAAS) on the theme, “Eating America: Crisis, Sustenance, Sustainability” (Wroclaw, Poland: University of Wroclaw, Department of English Studie), October 23-25, 2013). The paper was accepted for publication in The Polish Journal for American Studies, vol. 8 (2014), but additional work on the paper, necessary for publication there, was not completed because of unforeseen personal circumstances. An earlier version of this essay has appeared at Quarterly Review (UK: April 22, 2015).
Green or ecological/environmentalist ideas, which are sometimes instantiated by capital-G Green parties, are usually identified today with the Left. For example, there has been a Green-Red alliance in Austria. In Canada, the Green Party won its first seat in the federal Parliament in the May 2011 election. The leader of the Canadian Greens, Elizabeth May, has been generally supportive of the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party (Canada’s social democrats), and opposed to the Conservative Party. In the highly important 2000 U.S. Presidential election, Ralph Nader ran as a third-party candidate under the banner of the Green Party. Some have argued that, in drawing away some support from Al Gore, Ralph Nader coincidentally assisted George W. Bush in eking out a narrow win.
Despite its strong association with left-wing parties, Green philosophy has also appealed to tendencies that could be denominated as “right-wing”.
Some academic and popular political discourse in America has been very critical of these “right-wing Greens”. It is often considered that they are hijacking or appropriating Green ideas to promote a “far right” agenda. Among their most vociferous critics is the so-called watchdog body, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has branded most of these tendencies as “hate groups”. However, the labeling policies of the SPLC have themselves begun to be considered as excessively tendentious, especially in more recent years. Perhaps people should make up their own minds about the right-wing Greens, by examining the evidence.
The main publication of the right-wing Greens is probably The Social Contract journal, based in Petoskey, Michigan. In their self-understandings as voiced in the journal, these figures want to be seen as eschewing extremism. For example, they express their support for large elements of the early twentieth century capital-P Progressive movements in America. In their very pointed opposition to mass, dissimilar immigration, they frequently mention its deleterious effects on poorer Americans, especially African-Americans.
On the basis of the ideas of “pessimistic scientists” – who have sometimes been termed “the right wing of the Enlightenment” – the right-wing Greens have worked out, over the last five decades, what could be seen as a fairly consistent and thoroughgoing critique of current-day America. Unlike most persons on the self-described right, this critique is delivered with minimal reference to organized religion.
The leading American politician associated with the right-wing Greens is probably Richard D. Lamm, formerly the Democratic governor of Colorado.
The right-wing Greens are deeply critical of various aspects of current-day American society. They are critical of both corporate consumerism and of redistributive welfare policies. Both the commodity-consumption mode of life and the so-called managerial welfare-state are perceived as very anti-ecological. The right-wing Greens ask pointed questions about the bureaucracy, such as the ratio between the costs of administration and the amount of money delivered to the actual needy person – and about how much real wealth massive government bureaucracies have ever produced.
The right-wing Greens point out that the ecological idealism which was possibly the best part of the 1960s movements has failed to find much practical instantiation today. America has become more commercialized and paved-over in the interval, and big corporations are more powerful than ever.
Although not usually religious, they criticize materialism when exercised at the expense of a holistic approach to the human being living in nature. They argue that, despite the attempts of some boosters of the welfare-state to distinguish between the “bad” materialism of corporate consumerism and the presumably “good” materialism of redistributive welfare-policies, the differences between what could in both cases be seen as materialistic outlooks are minimal. Welfare-state proponents often claim to eschew a concern with economic values in favor of “social” issues, but in many cases, their programs and policies amount to little else than getting themselves and their various client-groups “a bigger share of the pie”. It is argued that a genuine sacrifice in the welfare-state administrators’ and propagandists’ consumption-lifestyle, on behalf of something like the ecological future of the planet, is comparatively rare. One of the most obvious inducements to conservation of such resources as electricity is to charge market prices for them, yet this is usually considered as leading to impermissible inequity.
The right-wing Greens see some pitfalls among common environmentalist arguments, as possibly leading toward a power-grab by so-called big government in the creation of vast adjudicating agencies. Some of them suggest that strictly emphasizing property rights could be a salutary corrective for environmental abuses. One of their most frequent arguments is about “the tragedy of the commons” – the title of a famous 1968 article by biologist Garrett Hardin. It is argued that land or other resources held as “commons” tend to be mercilessly exploited, which leads to increasing environmental degradation. For example, why should anyone limit their water-consumption if they are receiving water for free (or almost free) and know that even if they limit themselves, irresponsible others will use as much as they wish?
Indeed, the frequent absolving of individual responsibility today is seen as not conducive to serious conservation efforts.
They also argue, citing a long line of earlier American conservation efforts – represented by figures as illustrious as President Theodore Roosevelt – that arguments for conservation should be focused on the preservation of a national ecological heritage, not necessarily on an abstract “planet”. Indeed, it might be markedly more difficult to make arguments for sacrifices in one’s own consumption if one’s national resources will invariably be drawn upon by ever-increasing immigration and ever-increasing populations abroad. For example, the Kyoto Accord would probably have had almost unanimous support in Western countries in its first year if it had extended, for example, to China and India or, indeed, to the entire world.
The right-wing Greens are strongly critical of high immigration policies. They stress the totally unprecedented largeness of the immigration numbers today. The proposed so-called comprehensive immigration reform that failed to be passed by the U.S. Congress (and which President Obama has now largely carried out by Executive Order) they call a massive amnesty coupled with an immigration “surge”, which they do not hesitate to label as “nation-breaking” in its consequences. They estimate that it will rather quickly bring at least 30 million people into America as citizens (the illegal immigrants and their direct offspring). They also argue that the introduction of mass immigration after the 1960s has made the titanic effort of integrating American blacks all the more difficult. They also spend a lot of time analyzing the possible consequences of massive population increases on what remains of the American wilderness.
The Sierra Club, one of the leading ecological organizations in America, was not excessively hostile to arguments about restricting immigration in earlier decades. But as a result of a maneuver in the mid-1990s, where they were essentially offered a huge donation (over 100 million dollars) on the expectation that they would stop talking about the immigration issue, they have dropped the subject entirely from their agenda. David Gelbaum, the donor, was quoted as saying: “I did tell Carl Pope in 1994 or 1995 that if they ever came out anti-immigration, they would never get a dollar from me.” (Kenneth R. Weiss, “The Man Behind the Land,” Los Angeles Times: October 27, 2004). Carl Pope was an executive of the Sierra Club at that time. Also, various “alternative” or “reform” candidates in the Sierra Club executive elections who said they would be willing to consider immigration matters have not fared well in recent years.
Unlike much of the U.S. right, right-wing Greens do not hesitate in supporting the continuation of family planning policies in Third World countries, and have not been opposed to the legalization of abortion and contraception in U.S. society. Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) is still sometimes cited by them as evocative of fears of out-of-control population growth, especially in regard to the situation in some Third World countries. They certainly take notice of the disparate population growth rates between most of the Western world (with rapidly aging populations) and most of the Third World (where most of population is very young). Insofar as most Western societies are unwilling to maintain important distinctions between citizens and non-citizens, and unwilling to properly secure their borders, the danger may become that virtually the whole world will eventually be characterized by overpopulated urbanized areas with stressed infrastructure and dwindling nature.
What the right-wing Greens have most in common with most Green thought is their well-considered critique of the current-day belief in a “perpetual growth” economy. They argue that “perpetual growth” is in fact a belief – and one that cannot be sustained over the long term. They frequently point toward what would be the apocalyptic effect on the environment of extending the typical U.S. lifestyle across the planet. Extrapolating the possible ecological consequences of a compounding GDP increase (which is largely coterminous with ever-increasing consumption and resource-use patterns) over a period of a few hundred years is frightening. The maintenance of what are (by any historical measure) the comparatively very high living standards of a Western welfare-state can probably only occur with the intensifying despoliation of the natural environment, or with net negative population growth.
The right-wing Greens often discuss various resource shortages (food, water, etc.) and, in particular, the so-called peak oil theory. Among the more mainstream works concerned with resource collapse is James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (2006).
The right-wing Greens certainly uphold the notion that persons should live (as far as possible) frugal, economically modest, and abstemious lives. They believe that, even as ever-greater wealth is generated today, American society loses many of its earlier good habits that would allow it to utilize and carefully conserve that wealth toward ensuring a long-term, sustainable existence. They see great waste at most levels of American society, extending from the grotesque lifestyles of many entertainment and sports celebrities to the very comfortable lives of the managerial corporate and administrative elites, and even to the careless resource-use habits of some welfare-recipients.
They argue that, in practice, older, lower-middle-class and working-class people live the most abstemious, self-sacrificing, “conservationist” types of existence. It is argued that the so-called “bourgeois bohemians” or “bobo’s” (this term coined by prominent commentator David Brooks), who claim to be “progressive” and environmentally-sensitive, usually have far more conspicuous consumption habits. The right-wing Greens are willing to call out those self-described environmentalist activists who actually live lives of great luxury, and in fact consume far more than those in the lower-middle and working-classes, who are today expected to make the environmental sacrifices.
The right-wing Greens have also sharply criticized various globalization tendencies, such as so-called Free Trade, outsourcing, and the bringing of cheap labor into America, especially through illegal immigration. They argue that policies of so-called cheap labor serve mostly the interests of “the plutocracy” (or what today have been called “the one percent”). They point out that supporters of the recent “amnesty and immigration surge” legislation have included some of the wealthiest persons and companies in America, who are part of various pro-immigration lobbying efforts that have spent close to 1.5 billion dollars (US) since 2007.
The right-wing Greens lament the disappearance of millions of American industrial jobs, many of which have now apparently been shifted to places like China. They argue that the maintenance of “hard industries” is still important for the future of any great nation.
On July 1, 2013 (Canada Day), the right-wing Green criticism of immigration was offered unexpected support by David Suzuki, a prominent Canadian environmentalist usually identified with the Left. During an interview with a Quebec reporter, he openly stated that “Canada is full”, and that the country – in those southern areas which were easily habitable – was near to exhausting its carrying capacity. He also made the argument that Canada, by drawing the more enterprising people from Third World countries, was doing a disservice to possible progress in those countries.
In 1988, The New York Times had commissioned an op-ed piece from Edward Abbey, the famous environmentalist and radical writer, on immigration issues. However, after the editors saw it, they refused to publish it, nor did they even give him his kill-fee (the fee paid to commissioned authors if their article remains unpublished). “Immigration and Liberal Taboos” (1988) is a quite pointed argument for immigration restriction, on the grounds of environmental preservation as well as national interest.
In the October 1998 issue of Harper’s, there had appeared a remarkable ecological /environmentalist article, “Planet of Weeds.” by David Quammen – “Earth will soon support only survivor species – dandelions, roaches, lizards, thistles, crows, rats. Not to mention 10 billion humans. A grim look into the future by David Quammen.”
One of the favorite books of the right-wing Greens is the French author Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints (1973), a dystopia which portrays Western civilization overrun by mass Third World immigration. Some of the dystopian science fiction cinema products which are suggestive of right-wing Green concerns include Silent Running (1972), Soylent Green (1973), The Road Warrior (1981), Blade Runner (1982), District 9 (2009), Dredd (2012), and Elysium (2013). One should also mention the unusual environmentalist film, Koyaanisqatsi (1982: a Hopi term for “life out of balance”).
The right-wing Greens frequently cite Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) as an inspiration. They also certainly appreciate the ecological dimensions of J. R. R. Tolkien’s writing.
The right-wing Greens point out that traditionalist philosophy shares with ecology a profound disgust with the late modern world, a critique of current-day capitalism, and an embrace of healthy and thrifty living – rejecting the current-day, ad-driven, consumption culture of brand fetishism and profligate waste. The commonalities and convergences of traditionalism and ecology have been pointed out by, among others, British political theorist John Gray (formerly at Oxford, now at LSE) in his insightful essay, “An agenda for Green conservatism” (in Beyond the New Right: Markets, Government and the Common Environment ). John Gray has also published, among other works, a sharp indictment of globalization – False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998) – which a reviewer has characterized as written “with all the dash and recklessness of a Polish cavalryman”. In 2012, Roger Scruton, often considered one of the leading conservative thinkers of the contemporary era, released his book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism (2012), which was a revised edition of his earlier work, Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet (2011).
The right-wing Greens are somewhat linked to the American Agrarian thinkers today, typified by Wendell Berry (who is also an acclaimed fiction writer), Bill Kauffman, and the website frontporchrepublic. Rod Dreher coined the term “crunchy cons” to describe a subset of pro-ecological traditionalists. The grand old figure of American conservatism, Russell Kirk, certainly had so-called “bohemian Tory” tendencies, and criticized the automobile, for example, as “the mechanical Jacobin”.
The right-wing Greens argue that Western welfare-societies are the very opposite of premodern “stable-state” (or “steady-state”) societies. They suggest that, had the resources offered by the consumptionist welfare-state over the last fifty years been carefully husbanded or shepherded, they could have possibly lasted for centuries – relative to previously available material standards of living for most of human history and humankind. They suggest that the Western-derived, socially-liberal, multicultural, consumptionist welfare-state might well be only a very brief episode in human history before some kind of massive dissolution into chaos – or, possibly, some sort of new re-integration – takes place.
The right-wing Green outlook argues for a re-examination of many central ideas of current-day America, in hope of a more stable-state society. It believes it offers a possible way out from the current-day mega-crises and mega-dilemmas.
Mark Wegierski, a frequent contributor to these pages for years, is a Canadian freelance journalist based in Toronto. His publishing interests range from political theory and practice to science fiction and popular culture. Most recently, the culture of Poland, his ancestral homeland, has provided the focus of his articles.