On Global Warming, Conservatives Are Misled

As one who grew up with a mostly progressive orientation toward politics and society, I have come over the years to have a greater appreciation for the traditional conservative wisdom that warns against reckless experiments.

"Beware of upsetting the existing order," this wisdom cautions. "The changes you bring about may not be those you intend. You may recognize only too late the good you take for granted."

Which makes all the more puzzling the ostensibly "conservative" stand - one I hear from my traditionalist neighbors in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley - on problems such as global warming.

Here we have the earth, with its intricate system for recycling the gases of the atmosphere and for keeping stable the climate of the planet. On this stability, our lives depend.

Enter industrialized society. After two centuries we discover that we are on track for doubling the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And we find mounting evidence that this alteration is shifting the earth's climate.

We discover, in other words, that we have been conducting a huge experiment with the only planet we've got.

So are conservatives saying, "Let's not be reckless?" Or, "Let's have humility about meddling with the order we inherited?" No, the word instead is, "Let's roll the dice and hope it all works out."

Has there ever been a more reckless experiment? Where is that conservative caution? I called this inconsistency puzzling, but I have an idea where the answer to that puzzle lies.

In recent generations, those who most respect our social traditions have been in political alliance with those who want no restrictions on their pursuit of wealth. This alliance is held together by an opposition to government activism: The cultural conservatives want to impede government's social experiments, and the free marketeers want to prevent government regulation of their productive enterprises.

From the dangerous assumption that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, traditionalist conservatives made themselves vulnerable to a dangerous blind spot in their vision of the world. Their rich and powerful allies have heightened their apprehensions about how government social programs might work to undermine traditional social values, while at the same time distracting them from discerning the power of the private economy to erode those same values.

Vigilant against government, complacent about the market, the believers in cultural tradition tend not to take heed of the famous "cultural contradictions of capitalism." If welfare creates dependency, these conservatives will work to end welfare as we know it. But if corporate advertising fosters a culture of hedonism ("Buy now, pay later," "You can have it all") to fuel the fires of consumption, or if corporate giants corrode the values of community and loyalty (in the name of efficiency), these same people do not notice that the enemy of their enemy is also a threat.

The market economy is a miracle of productive efficiency, but it also is a dynamo of cultural transformation. Although there is no central social engineer imposing his design, there is perhaps no more radical experiment now under way than the unleashing of market forces.

But to all this, as I said, the cultural conservatives have been blinded by their political allies, who cloak their power over society under the lofty banner of "Liberty." "Keep government off our back!" is an effective slogan to hold the allegiances of those who do not want the government to redesign our society or tell them how to raise their kids.

Old battles engender habits of thought, such as the presumption that it is from the direction of government that unwarranted interferences in the established order will come. In addition, the idea that nature itself represents an essential and vulnerable part of that existing order - one on which our lives depend - is itself a somewhat new realization in our civilization, one that works its way even more slowly into those minds most shaped by tradition than into our cultural understanding generally.

These old habits furnish the industrial propagandists with their opening. Thus it is that those who are rearranging the biosphere for their own gain are able to persuade those who believe in respect for established order that it is a global climate treaty - not the problem it addresses - that would constitute incautious meddling.

But as the traditional conservatives are marshaled to defend industry's reckless ecological experiment, I want to awaken them to their own fundamental wisdom that counsels caution. I want to call out to them, "You may recognize only too late the good you take for granted."

* Andrew Bard Schmookler is author of "The Illusion of Choice: How the Market Economy shapes Our Destiny" (SUNY Press).

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