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The Green Movement's People Problem


By Joel KotkinDecember 21 2009

Appearing in: 
Forbes.com

The once unstoppable green machine lost its mojo at the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. After all its laboring and cajoling, the movement at the end resembled not a powerful juggernaut but a forlorn lover wondering why his date never showed up.

One problem is that the people of earth and their representatives don't much fancy the notion of a centrally dictated, slow-growth world. They proved unwilling to abandon either national interest or material aspirations for promises of a greener world.

The other problem is that divisions are now developing within the green camp. There are members, like Michael Shellenger and Ted Nordhaus, who recognize the serious fall out from the "Climategate" scandal, while others, including large parts of the media claque, dismiss any such possibility. There are the corporatists aligned with big business--who will live with any agreement that allows them to exact monopoly profits--and the zealots--like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Bill McKibben--who see Copenhagen as an affront to themselves and to our endangered planet.

But the main, fundamental problem facing the movement after Copenhagen--which none of the green factions have yet addressed--is its people problem. The movement needs to break with the deep-seated misanthropy that dominates green politics and has brought it to this woeful state. Its leaders have defined our species as everything from a "cancer" to the "AIDs of the earth." They wail in horror at the thought that by the year 2050 there will likely be another 2 or 3 billion of these inconvenient bipeds. Leading green figures such as Britain's Jonathan Porritt, Richard Attenborough and Lester Brown even consider baby-making a grievous carbon crime--especially, notes Australian activist Robert Short, in those "highly consumptive, greenhouse-producing nations."

Yet a slower population growth--while beneficial for poor, developing countries--can lead to a dismal, geriatric future in already low-birthrate nations like Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, South Korea and Russia. And although birth rates are dropping in most developing countries, particularly those experiencing rapid economic growth, it will likely be decades before population stops increasing in most of the developing world.

Besides, people in developing countries have much more important things to worry about--such as earning a living and getting ahead. Fighting climate change ranks low on the list of Third World priorities. The sprawling slums of Mumbai need more energy, not less; they want better roads, not fewer. More economic development would produce the money to help clean the now foul water and air, but also provide access to better education, one of the best ways to assure more manageable birth rates.

Instead of looking to make developing countries even more dependent on Western largesse, greens should focus on ways to help improve the day-to-day lives of their people. Rather than prattle on about the coming apocalypse, they could work to replace treeless, dense slums with shaded low-lying clean houses that are easier to heat or cool. Those interested in nature might purchase land and rebuild natural areas. The children of cities like Mumbai should have the opportunity to experience wildlife other than crows, pigeons and rats.

The environmental movement also might as well forget fighting the aspirations of the burgeoning middle class in India, or other developing countries. No developing world politician, whether from democratic India or Brazil or authoritarian China will embrace an agenda that stifles such aspirations.

Post-Copenhagen greens need to reassess their relations with people in the developed countries as well. The popular call to transfer hundreds of billions of dollars from the so-called "rich" countries to combat the potential effects of climate change will not be very popular with the vast majority of the middle or working classes in these places.

Much of the problem revolves around the loaded term "rich." To be sure, many top climate-change scolds--Richard Branson, Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Bloomberg and, of course, his royal highness, Prince Charles--qualify easily. After all, no sweat off their well-massaged backs. The rock stars of the green millennium can buy their environmental indulgences so they can gorge good conscience on their carbon-rich world of private jets and lush estates.

For them, going green means minimal sacrifice.

Instead, the "rich" who will suffer the most will be the middle and working class of the developed countries. For them, carbon "sacrifice" may mean more than giving up needless luxuries like gas-guzzlers or monster plasma televisions. A green regime of enforced slow growth and ever greater regulation over carbon could threaten whole industries while environmental-planning policies will make purchasing a decent suburban house even more difficult.

Such calls for sacrifice seem particularly ill-timed when 4 in 10 U.S. residents fear they could lose their jobs, with many rightly worried about holding onto their homes. With unemployment at 10%, few may be willing to wait around until the promised "green jobs" miraculously appear to save both them and the planet.

But there's an obvious way out of this dilemma: Start shifting away from fear-mongering and look to ways to achieve green goals without catastrophic economic losses. One clear way to start this process is through land-use policy. Right now many activists and their allies in the climate-industrial complex--which includes urban land interests--want to force suburban home dwellers into dense urban areas. They also want to coerce people to give up their individual mobility for trains, even if this means longer commutes and less convenience.

Proposing a radical re-engineering of society does not constitute a winning political program. Environmentalists would do better to embrace a vision of "greenurbia," allowing for dispersed living but in a environmentally responsible way. This could be done with practical steps--increased telecommuting, more tree-planting and flexible work arrangements--that would enhance not only the environment but also day-to-day life for hundreds of millions of people.

Similarly, environmentalists should redouble their efforts to provide more access to open space for millions of people through expanded purchases of land throughout the country. America's highly productive agricultural sector has jettisoned millions of acres of land from cultivation, providing an excellent opportunity for purchases for public use. In some areas, abandoned industrial or mining properties could be rehabilitated as natural areas.

Such changes, however, require a re-evaluation of the values that now drive the green movement. Whether in California or Calcutta, it boils down to the existential question: Do humans matter?

Frederick Law Olmsted explained his plan for New York's Central as an attempt "to supply to the hundreds of thousands of tired workers ... a specimen of God's handiwork." This represents the kind of sensibility that could transform the green movement from an obstacle to people's aspiration to a force for greater human happiness.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.

Joel on Reason.tv

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"Greenurbia is the suburbs of the future. The suburbs of the 1950s were bedroom communities for people who commuted into the city. Today, there’s much more employment in the suburbs, and the big change is the number of people working full-time or part-time at home. Having people commute from one computer screen to another doesn’t make sense."

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Kotkin has a striking ability to envision how global forces will shape daily family life, and his conclusions can be thought-provoking as well as counterintuitive. It's amazing there isn't more public discussion about the enormous changes ahead, and reassuring to have this talented thinker on the case. — Jennifer Ludden, NPR national desk correspondent

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