By Benjamin Wachs
At what point does “environmentalism” become “fascism?”
Yeah, that’s a deliberately provocative question – but it’s a fair one. We know that nationalism is good in small doses but leads to McCarthyism in large ones; we know that religion can become theocracy, and capitalism oligarchy.
So OK: Environmentalism is a good thing, but at some point can too much of it become a bad one? Could it lead to a “Ecologarchy?”
We don’t like to talk about that, but the answer is yes. And the signs are already coming.
The first one came a few months back when Gavin Newsom announced that he would propose mandatory recycling and composting for all citizens: it would be enforced by your trash collectors, who would root through your garbage to make sure that you’d deposited the right trash in the right bins, and fine you if you didn’t.
If this proposal ever becomes law, it means that – in the name of environmentalism – agents of the government would be paid to sift through your trash looking for evidence to use against you.
If these are the bad ideas Gavin shares with the public, imagine the shit he thinks is too stupid to put in writing.
This second sign of the coming ecologarchy came out this week, when the Guardian devoted its entire issue to sustainability.
Now, unlike the Mayor, the Guardian has editors and professional standards, so I must emphasize that they didn’t say anything nearly so stupid as our mayor (whose idea of “sustainability” is to pay private security contractors $2,000 a week to look after a small garden). In fact, I enthusiastically agree with 90% of what the Guardian proposed.
But there were, around the edges, signs that something ugly may be coming out of all these good intentions.
It began with Amanda Witherll’s piece on green power. In the future she envisions, a “smart grid” would adjust to intermittent power reductions (like clouds blocking the sun from solar panels or a lack of wind to drive turbines) by automatically shutting off people’s air conditioners or changing their thermostats until full power generation is restored.
Once again, environmentalism goes from a voluntary effort to do good and to an enforced regime. What if I don’t want the government shutting off my air conditioning? What if I don’t want a bureaucrat at city hall deciding what temperature my house is? Or what if I actually have a good reason to want my own house climate controlled at the time? Maybe I’m tending to rare flowers, my kid is sick, or I’m having a romantic dinner? The fact that personal choice in the matter is assumed out of the equation isn’t trivial: smarter city policies is one thing, and giving government support to people who want to generate green power is one thing – but the minute the government starts making household decisions for you, we’ve got a problem.
Next came a truly terrifying line in Sarah Phelan’s piece on smart development. She quotes SPUR Executive Director Gabriel Metcalf on the importance of public transit to job location:
“Metcalf said he believes people should be able to work where they want, provided that it’s reachable by public transit.”
How nice of him!
But what happens to the rest of us? Do we lose our jobs? Or need to move? Or must we apply for a government permit in order to keep the privilege of living and working where we choose?
Was Metcalf misquoted, or are we now suggesting that government regulation of the workforce means someone in city hall decides who can and cannot live and work here on the basis of their carbon footprint?
Either way, it’s the ecologarchy at its finest.
A similar comment came in Tim Redmond’s piece on encouraging local businesses – again, something that I am all for. Redmond writes:
“The owners of businesses need to live in the community. They need to interact with their customers and neighbors, to see the local schools where their tax dollars go.”
That “need” has me worried, because it suggests the force of law. I’d have no problem with “it’s best if the owners of businesses … “ or “it’s desirable,” but they “need?” When we say “need” it suggests that we are justified in punishing those who keep us from meeting our “needs,” instead of encouraging their participation through tax breaks, investment programs, and civic support.
But by far the most disturbing piece of green fascism to come out this week didn’t come from San Francisco: it came from Slate magazine contributor Barron Young Smith, whose article on the ecological cost of long distance relationships demands the creation of a “Date Local” movement.
“Let's start thinking about "sex miles": Just how far was this person shipped to hook up with you? And how many times more efficient would it be to date someone within a 100-mile radius? If the movement spread globally, mirroring either the decentralized development of Local Food co-ops or the manifesto-and-chapter model that built up to the Slow Food movement's mega-confab this summer, its environmental benefits could multiply many times.”
I’m just going to say this flat out: No.
No. This goes too far. I will not subject who I love to an environmental purity test, or ask that of anyone else.
In fact, the very notion that who I “can” love should be determined by an environmental calculus makes me want to fly to Nova Scotia for sex.
This is not a condemnation of environmentalism, only of extremism. Despite the best efforts of some friends and colleagues, I plan to vote for Prop H – and encourage you to: the arguments for municipal power are too convincing not to at least give it a real hearing. Well planned growth is essential; taking steps to increase municipal sustainability is a good thing – and all of that can be done without demanding that people relinquish their free will to carbon impact calculator.
We can encourage people to take public transit by making it more convenient; we can support local businesses by supporting them, rather than demonizing ones that don’t pass muster; we can create public power with a smart grid that people opt in to in exchange for credits – I doubt most people will mind, most of the time. And most of this is what the environmentalists, the Guardian, and even the mayor are talking about, most of the time. Encouraging people to live sustainably, and making it easier for them, is not the same thing as demanding they relinquish their freedom.
But we’re also seeing people put environmentalism directly against liberty, and when that happens I’m going to choose liberty. A lot of us are. It’s counterproductive to demand that we make that choice.
Oh well - at least I have the consolation of knowing, should I ever be sent to a gulag for my political views, that it will be made of 100% recycled human dignity.
Photo via: newscientist.com