America’s climate of crisis
Patrick Allitt looks at the emergence and development of the idea of environmental crisis.
Patrick Allitt, Cahoon family professor of American history at Emory University in Atlanta, is a man abroad. Not just as an Oxford-educated Englishman teaching and researching in an American university, but as a sceptical interloper in the world of American environmentalism. The result, A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism, is an illuminating history of the emergence and propagation of the idea of environmental crisis. So what led this expert in the history of religion and conservatism to turn to the study of climate-change activism? And what does he make of the apocalyptic nature of its claims? Here’s what Allitt had to say…
spiked review: As someone who has previously focused on American religious history and the history of conservatism, what drew you to the history of environmentalism in the US?
Patrick Allitt: Having been an undergraduate in England, I came to America to be a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1980s. And one of the great pleasures of living in California is its setting. I belonged to a river-rafting co-op and I went hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I just loved everything about living in the Californian outdoors, not least because the sun shines for 330 days out of every year – the contrast with England was exhilarating. So, right from the start, I was interested in the actual environment in America.
At first I was struck by the contrast between what seemed to me to be a paradise and what a lot of Americans talked about as a catastrophe. I used to chide my graduate-student friends, saying ‘it’s not all that dreadful is it – and, by comparison with Britain, just look how underpopulated it is’. At first it was just an interest because I was writing about the history of conservatism and the history of religion. Then, in 1988, I was hired by Emory university in Georgia, and the department was looking for somebody to teach environmental history. So I said to my departmental head, ‘I’ve always had an interest in this, maybe I can make a course out of it’. He was enthusiastic about this, so I started teaching a class on American environmental history in the mid-1990s. And, by about 2007, 2008, I became keen on writing about it as well. So that’s what led to me writing A Climate of Crisis, which is a kind of intellectual history of environmentalism.
review: What was your own relationship to environmentalism?
Allitt: I didn’t begin as a critic of the environmental movement. I became steadily more critical as I became more confident. That’s one of the things about living in Berkeley: you’re living in a world that’s miles to the left of centre, and there’s a little bit of an orthodoxy there. And one of the characteristics of that orthodoxy, at least in the 1980s, is that the world was in a catastrophic environmental mess. Things were rapidly getting worse, and we were standing on the brink of disaster. At first I didn’t have the intellectual confidence to say, ‘that’s not true’. But, over time, particularly with the repeated failure of predictions of disaster to eventuate in actual disaster, I started having the assurance to say ‘that’s not true’.
review: A Climate of Crisis really begins with the dropping and high-profile testing of the atomic bomb. Why do you think ‘the bomb’ was so culturally important for the eventual development of the idea of environmental crisis?
Allitt: I think it’s because, certainly in Western history, going right back to the origins of Christianity, there’s always been a fascination with the end of the world. For most of that time, the end of the world has always been something that God will make happen. But after 1945, it became possible to imagine that the world would come to an end, not through divine intervention, but through human folly, or human violence, or human greed. And ever since then we’ve lived in the shadow of nuclear war, and the possibility of a human-induced apocalypse. That certainly led some people to say, ‘yes, that might come about through nuclear weapons, but it might also might come about through environmental blundering’.
Think, for example, of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, and the use of the word ‘bomb’ in the title. He’s clearly making an analogy between the atomic bomb and human fertility, claiming that each one in its own way is potentially destructive.
review: What do you make of the paradox of environmentalism’s emergence during the 1960s and 1970s – that at a time of unprecedented improvement in Westerners’ lives (living standards rising, life-expectancy lengthening, infant-mortality falling etc), an influential section of society seemed more disillusioned than ever with industrialisation and economic growth?
Allitt: I think it’s partly because people have short memories. The more you study history, the more you realise how horrible conditions have been in the past, even in what we think of as civilised places today. And the reason that conditions have become so much better is because of industrialisation, which generates the possibility of universal wealth, and a huge decline in death rates, a huge decline in infant mortality and all the rest. Industrialisation does, of course, have dirty side effects. But, by the 1960s, Americans and Western Europeans had reached a degree of affluence and material comfort, that enabled them to look around and ask what is it that now impairs the quality of our life. And one of the answers they came up with was a dirty environment. And that’s when they start trying to improve its quality.
review: Do think environemtnalism is inseparable from a disillusionment with the broader gains of modernity?
Allitt: Not really, no. Environmentalism has an optimistic side, and a pessimistic side, and I’m on the optimistic side. I’m interested in it because I’ve got a great love and enthusiasm for the natural world. I’m also convinced that we’re able to address environmental problems because we’re wealthy. In other words, when you say to desperately poor people, let’s save the environment, they couldn’t care less, because they have a desperate need to find enough to eat and to live. Environmentalism is itself a luxury. We can afford to indulge in it because we’ve solved so many of the more basic problems. And one of the things I try to do in my teaching and in my writing is to try to convince people that it’s a highly desirable luxury, and one that we’re succeeding in bringing to ourselves.
review: What role did the counterculture, or rather countercultural values, play in the development of the idea of an environmental crisis?
Allitt: It’s clearly an important moment, because the hippy movement and the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 1970s were based on the idea that there is something discreditable about devoting yourself to the pursuit of wealth – that it’s somehow ignoble, a bit shabby, disgraceful. I think it’s clear to me that the people who were attracted to those movements were those who didn’t have to worry about money. They were mainly middle- and upper middle-class people who lived lives of real abundance in the 1940s and 1950s, when they were growing up, and they didn’t foresee the possibility of ever being reduced to starvation or near starvation. And because they didn’t know a lot about the history of the world in earlier ages, they didn’t take seriously just what an incredible struggle it has been simply to keep ourselves fed. I think they underestimated how difficult it is to make food grow out of the ground, especially when you don’t have artificial fertilisers and machines. So the counterculture is wonderfully bracing, and enjoyable, but it’s also disastrously naive.
review: What about the new left? What was its relationship to environmentalism?
Allitt: Interestingly, in the 1960s, the new left was very sceptical towards environmentalism. They felt that there were more pressing problems in America – terrible race relations and the Vietnam War, for instance. They felt that all this ‘all breathing the same air’ stuff was a waste of time. One new left writer called environmentalism a ‘genteel rest home for exhausted liberals’. So the new left was initially contemptuous towards environmentalism. But then, in the 1970s, there’s a realignment, with the new left becoming very pro-environmentalist, and the new right becoming strongly anti-environmentalist. And I think the reason for this is that the obvious villains for environmentalists are big corporations, who are the polluters, so it’s easy to say ‘we condemn capitalism’, and then say ‘we condemn the bi-products of capitalism’. That’s very different from earlier generations of Marxists who took the view that industrialisation was good, but the distribution of its benefits was very bad.
review: It does seem to be quite a shift. Proto-environmentalist views tended, historically, to be associated with the right, that is, with those seeking to preserve the status quo against the forces they saw overturning their ways of life. What do you make of this shift?
Allitt: The decline of class politics plays a role here. It became harder and harder in the late 20th and early 21st century to talk about something called the American working class. Nobody here says that they’re working class. In Britain and most of Europe, it’s still just about a living tradition, although an endangered one. But in America, already by 1950, trade unions were in decline and very, very few people thought of themselves as working men. And also very few people thought of themselves as the upper class. Even people like Bill Gates will say ‘I’m middle class’. So the language of class is just not used in America, and so the left was looking for ways to relocate itself. They tried it with racial minorities, and with women and with young people. And then they tried it with the endangered environment. The environment is a tempting object for the left-leaning. It allows them to say, ‘look at the way capitalism is endangering nature, and therefore endangering everyone whose lives depend on it’.
review: There are other key players who help drive forward environmentalism and the idea of environmental crisis during the 1970s. We see the emergence of federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency; campaign groups like the Sierra Club or Friends of the Earth; and a whole army of university and non-profit workers committed to environmental science as a new area of study. Do you think that this institutional network has so much invested in the idea of environmental crisis that it becomes difficult for its constituents to accept the counternarrative – that things are actually getting better?
Allitt: The Enviromental Protection agency itself is a very middle-of-the-road federal bureaucracy. I know various people there, and they’re very proud of the progress the US has made in areas like air and water quality. They’ve got statistics, which I find completely convincing, about the way in which we have made enormous progress and live in a far cleaner world than we did 30 or 40 years ago. And even with coal-burning stations, the CO2 emissions are far lower than they used to be. So there is an institutional recognition there that we’ve made progress. And we should also recognise that the EPA has a valuable job to do, because it needs to keep an eye on people who would like to pollute if they could get away with it.
But organisations like the environmental lobbies – and the Sierra Club is a good example – tend to have a more professionally gloomy outlook. They’re a little bit afraid that, if we broadcast the good news, people will think that that makes membership less necessary. So their newsletters are always drenched in gloom and premonitions of disaster. And institutionally that’s how they’ve almost got to present themselves in order to remain relevant.
review: Moving on a little, when did the idea of ‘global warming’ turn into the vaguer notion of ‘climate change’?
Allitt: It’s partly because the process of global warming is a very non-linear process. In the late 1980s, there was a succession of hot summers, each one hotter than the previous one, culminating in the summer of 1988, which is really the year in which global warming started to become a major political question. But then in the early 1990s, after the eruption of Mount Pinatubu in 1991, which put an enormous amount of debris into the atmosphere, there were three or four consecutive years of cooling. Similarly, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there was a prediction that hurricanes were going to become more and more common, but then suddenly there was a five or six year lull in which they become far less common. So, in other words, it’s an extremely complicated picture and what the climate graphs won’t give is satisfying upward lines. The fall-back position is to say that climate change is going on. And of course that’s a much weaker claim than global warming, because any one who’s studied the history of the planet will know that there’s never been a time when climate change is not going on.
The great fallacy here is to think that everything used to be stable, and now suddenly it’s changed. The reality is that there’s always been change, and there continues to be change. And now for the first time an element of that might be human-induced.
review: A Climate of Crisis is also a history of dire predictions – Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb being an obvious case in point. Why do you think that, despite the record of failure, the doom-mongering has continued unabated?
Allitt: There’s two things. First, that’s the nature of democratic politics. You have to make a lot of fuss in order to advance an issue. And it’s certainly true of media culture. If you described a minor, incremental change with possible century-long consequences, that sounds so dull and irksome, that only people with an enormous degree of professional concern will pay any attention.
So there’s an extremely strong temptation to exaggerate, because exaggeration is what gets you noticed. In the early 21st century, there were a lot of people saying we’ve only got three years, we’ve only got five years, and so on. When you make a remark like that in 2001, you can be fairly confident that not many are going to remember it by 2006. And so, as long as it caused a splash at the time the prediction was made, that’s fine. Luckily, there are people with long memories, and there are people who study the history of these things, including me, who say, look at the way in which these predictions keep proving themselves to be false. So these predictions clearly tell you far more about the time the predictions were made, and the institutional setting in which they were made, than they do about the catastrophe that was being predicted.
review: Given the purpose of these claims is to change the way people live, is there not something morally dubious about such claims-making?
Allitt: Now, I’m obviously sceptical about these claims. But I’ve hardly ever come across anybody who was doing it in bad faith. In other words, what’s so striking about the predictions of catastrophe is that the people who make them do seem to believe them. They really do think that the world is coming to an end. And they love the world, and they want to prevent that from happening. So I think they’re wrong, and I think they’re silly, and historically negligent – they haven’t studied the history of predictions of catastrophe – but I don’t think they’re hypocrites who are crossing their fingers behind their backs, knowing that what they’re saying is nonsense. That’s one of the things that is so fascinating about the history of ideas: there are hundreds of examples of people who are absolutely certain that what they were saying is true but, nevertheless, they were wrong.
Then there’s the politics of the claims-making. It’s possible to look at it as highly mendacious, because such claims can prevent the escape from poverty. Think of the recent history of India or China. Obviously in both cases, they’re major polluters. But they have both been very successful in escaping from mass poverty, and one of the ways they did so was by burning fossil fuels. So it seems to me to be entirely justifiable that they should have done so, because they are now getting closer to eliminating incredibly high death rates, and very, very short life expectancies and so on. It’s true that they’re polluters, but you get a lot back from doing the polluting.
As I’ve said, I’m a very strong believer in the way that economic growth enables people to live, and that’s the foundation of it all. So I have never suspected an ulterior motive on the part of environmentalist politicians, but I have sometimes deplored the remedies they have suggested.
One of the things that’s going on in America at the moment is that Trump has ostentatiously detached himself from the Paris accords, but ironically that might not matter because, at the same time, renewable energy sources are proving to be more affordable and more productive than ever before. And corporations are going to read the bottom line and draw the obvious conclusion: it makes sense to pursue their development, whether or not renewables are part of a policy agenda. So I think that this is good news. We can in fact produce lower carbon emissions without having to sacrifice economic growth, simply by the operation of market forces.
review: Yet it sometimes seems that even if there is a way to sustain and raise living standards, and grow economies, without significantly damaging the environment, then environmentalists would still object. They don’t want a technical or even a market fix – because theirs is a moral charge levelled against the way Westerners live their lives…
Allitt: Yes, I think that is certainly true for some people. If you think that life in contemporary capitalist society is itself disgusting, then you’re going to be very strongly attracted to claims that say we should live differently. Luckily, they’re aren’t many like that. The students taking my course on environmental history are fantastic and very, very intelligent, but of course they’ve grown up on a diet of utopianism and catastrophism. I often say to them, ‘wouldn’t it be great to get rid of all of this industrial stuff?’, and they respond that it really would be. Then I say to them, ‘I didn’t mean that. You see how great it is to be free of industrialisation after you’ve had a 12-day powercut. It is unbelievably difficult to live without electricity.’ And then of course they realise that they are just daydreaming. Scratch the surface, and you’ll find that nearly everybody appreciates the benefits of modern, hi-tech industrialised society.
review: Do you feel we need to go beyond the contemporary stand-off between environmentalists and sceptics?
Allitt: I hope we can. One of the things I was trying to say in A Climate of Crisis is that there are environmental problems and they’re real problems, but they’re not apocalyptic ones. They’re ones we can manage. I would position myself within the environmental movement, but the way in which the book is being reviewed implies that there’s a very sharp polarisation, and I’m taken to be a climate-change ‘denier’, which I think is false. So I hope we get beyond the current polarisation, because I think it’s unprofitable.
Patrick Allitt is Cahoon family professor of American history at Emory University. He is the author of several books including most recently, A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism, published by Penguin Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
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