Weeping For The Planet: The famous "Crying Indian" advertisement, produced by Keeping America Beautiful, struck a deep chord with Americans when it first screened on "Earth Day" - 22 April 1971. It was a time when both the Left and the Right respected ecological science and were ready to take action to protect the environment. How times have changed. In 2014, right-wing politicians are unwilling to tolerate "any measures which are socialism masquerading as environmentalism".
MANY NEW ZEALANDERS are puzzled by the sudden descent of right-wing political parties into anti-environmentalism. Forty years ago, in the first flush of global ecological awareness, political parties of every ideological stripe were ready to put aside their differences for the sake of the environment. There was a strong bi-partisan agreement that, regardless of whether they were Left or Right, every human-being had a personal vested interest in improving the health of the planet.
It was a Republican President, Richard Nixon, who signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which, for the first time, required federal agencies to file environmental impact statements for federally funded programmes.
Nixon who oversaw, in 1970, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and signed into law the Clean Air Extension Act, imposing strict controls on airborne pollutants known to be hazardous to human health.
Nixon who, in 1972 offered whales, dolphins, sea otters, polar bears and seals the protection of the US Government by signing the Marine Mammals Protection Act.
Nixon who, likewise, presided over the passage of the 1973 Endangered Species Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act 1974.
Though a deeply conservative (and deeply flawed) politician, Nixon was a shrewd enough politician to grasp the electoral heft of the burgeoning environmental movement.
By the 1980s, however, political parties of the Right around the world were rapidly distancing themselves from the “environmentally friendly” legislative reforms of the 1970s. Ronald Reagan was no Richard Nixon.
The Right’s growing antipathy to environmentalism was fuelled by the world-wide ideological resurgence of laissez-faire capitalism. The so-called “New Right” was hostile to just about every kind of regulatory regime, but it was environmental regulation that earned its special ire. This was because the much admired dynamism of “the free market” was hugely dependent on the capitalists’ ability to “externalise” (i.e. not have to account for or pay for) the environmental and social consequences of their behaviour.
If capitalists were required to fully account for and pay for their detrimental impact upon the natural and human environments, then their profitability would be seriously (and in many cases irreversibly) reduced.
In the 1970s, political leaders like Nixon still felt obliged to respond to the voters’ pleas to save the planet. By the 1980s, however, the priorities of the Right had changed. The mission of conservative parties everywhere was now to convince voters that capitalism’s ultimate contradiction: the extraction of infinite profits from a finite planet; wasn’t really a contradiction at all, and that industrial capitalism’s most fearsome externality, anthropogenic global warming, was nothing more than “green propaganda”.
This was not an easy sell. Historically speaking, the rise of capitalism and the rise of science had coincided, spurring one another on to new discoveries, new applications. Persuading people to reject the science of global warming could only be achieved at the cost of abandoning the rationalist project itself.
But it was rationalism and science which had, ever since the eighteenth century, imbued capitalism with its progressive economic, social and political force. To reduce scientific knowledge to the status of exculpatory evidence bought and paid for; and scientists to little more than the servants of big business; would strip capitalism of its intellectual potency. It would mean abandoning what Professor Niall Fergusson calls its “killer apps” – the critical advantages that had enabled capitalism to see off all its ideological rivals.
These potentially fatal dangers notwithstanding, by the second decade of the twenty-first century it was possible for right-wing political leaders to win public office in spite of (or even because of) their refusal to accept the findings of environmental science.
Across the Tasman, for example, the Cabinet of the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has proclaimed, with a straight face, that it is not prepared to tolerate “any measures which are socialism masquerading as environmentalism”.
Who Speaks For The Trees? Ancient Huon Pine, Mt Read, Tasmania. These trees are among the oldest on the planet (3,000-10,000 years old).
Included among these allegedly “socialist” measures, is the World Heritage Status of both the Tasmanian wilderness and the Great Barrier Reef. In any stand-off between ecological science and Australia’s extractive industrialists it’s not difficult to predict who will win the Abbott Government’s support.
We shouldn’t feel too smug and superior, however, when it comes to our Australian cousins. Not when the difference between their right-wing politicians and ours is, as always, more a matter of subtlety than substance.
Environmental destruction masquerading as economic growth.
This essay was originally published by The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 22 August 2014.