The Green Road to Serfdom

At least the socialists claimed to like people.


If there is one popular cause in the 1990s, it is the environment. Motherhood and apple pie, baseball and the flag—all may be subjects of controversy. But the environment is beyond debate. As Time magazine puts it, "our stand on the planet is that we support its survival." Could any cause be more humane, or less questionable?

"Protecting something as wide as this planet is still an abstraction for many," said California Governor Jerry Brown in 1979. "Yet I see the day in our lifetime that reverence for the natural systems—the oceans, the rain forests, the soil, the grasslands, and all other living things—will be so strong that no narrow ideology based upon politics or economics will overcome it." As we enter the '90s, Brown's prophecy seems to be coming true.

But beneath the rhetoric of survival, behind the Sierra Club calendars, beyond the movie-star appeals, lies a full-fledged ideology—an ideology every bit as powerful as Marxism and every bit as dangerous to individual freedom and human happiness. Like Marxism, it appeals to seemingly noble instincts: the longing for beauty, for harmony, for peace. It is the green road to serfdom.

If we are not to turn down its path, we must first recognize it for what it is. Just as socialism seduced many people by masquerading as an elaborate form of charity, so this green-ideology-without-a-name disguises itself as simple concern for a cleaner world. But there is a difference between the ordinary desire for clean air or pretty places to hike and the extraordinary passion to remake the world.

The green idea is dangerous precisely because it appeals so strongly to deep longings shared by many people. It evokes a world of natural beauty and human scale, in which people will fully understand the tools they use and will provide for themselves without depending on experts or specialists. It speaks of slowing life down and of viewing life whole. It taps the power of wilderness and the poetry of the pastoral. It offers a sense of place, of rootedness. It invokes "ancient wisdom" and "grassroots democracy." It promises "quality of life." It has much to say about ends, little about means. It speaks poetically about much, plainly about little.

Ideologies are messy. They tend to associate disparate ideas in unexpected ways. Rarely do their advocates agree precisely on what they are advocating. Viewed up close and personal, no two socialists or conservatives or classical liberals believe exactly the same thing.

The greens are no different. They have their internal quarrels and their ideological factions. The German Green Party alone can be split either of two ways: between the "realos" and the "fundis" or between the "Red-Greens" and the "Green-Greens." The former division captures attitudes about how much to compromise for short-term political gain; the latter, the influence of Marxism.

Similar divisions exist in the United States. Grassroots-oriented "eco-activists" maintain the vision while Washington-based "envirocrats" write and enforce the laws. Mystical "deep ecology" promoters square off against neo-Marxist "social ecology" advocates. In the middle, making up the rank and file, are people who want both stronger regulation out of Washington and more recycling at the household level, who like what deep ecology says about spirituality and saving nature for its own sake but think social ecology is right to emphasize practical politics, who admire the uncompromising stand of direct action groups like Earth First! but find spiking trees to prevent logging a bit extreme—who, in short, pick and choose among green ideas and organizations the ones that suit their own temperaments.

As quarrelsome as its adherents may be, however, every ideology has a primary value or set of values at its core—liberty, equality, order, virtue, salvation. For greens, the core value is stasis, "sustainability" in the approved jargon. The ideal is of an earth that doesn't change, that shows little or no effect of human activity. History is not an arrow, but a circle. On the evil of growth, both Murray Bookchin, the Marcusean doyen of social ecology, and Arne Naess, the intuitive apostle of deep ecology, agree. "Limits to growth" is as much a description of how things should be as it is of how they are. There is a sacred quality to the earth. Nature is best left undisturbed. The greatest sin is to make the desert bloom.

Green politics, write British greens Jonathon Porritt and David Winner, "demands a wholly new ethic in which violent, plundering humankind abandons its destructive ways, recognizes its dependence on Planet Earth and starts living on a more equal footing with the rest of nature.…Reformist environmentalism, as practised by single issue pressure groups and advocated by environmentalists in the main political parties, is nowhere near enough. The danger lies not only in the odd maverick polluting factory, industry, or technology, but in the fundamental nature of our economic systems. It is industrialism itself—a 'super-ideology' embraced by socialist countries as well as by the capitalist West—which threatens us."

Green ideology is certainly shared by people who call themselves Greens, troop off to conferences in Oregon wearing Gaia T-shirts and Birkenstock sandals, and engage in debates over whether it is proper to transport food across bioregional boundaries to feed starving people. These Greens are undoubtedly green. But so, eventually, are the hundreds of thousands of people who read publications like the Utne Reader and the LA. Weekly and absorb, bit by bit, green ideas. So, in a sense, are the 80 percent of respondents who told New York Times pollsters that the environment should be protected "whatever the cost."

Despite some activists' desire for a pristine party that will advocate a bright green ideology, most greens realize that success will come in other ways. Their values will become part of the general Zeitgeist and work their way into news stories and movies and the Democratic and Republican party platforms. The radicals will keep pushing, advocating ever more "principled" ideas, shifting the background of the main debate further and further away from balancing costs and benefits to preserving nature for its own sake.

Green ideologues often disavow mainstream environmentalists—at least those willing to make their peace with markets, private property, or industry in an effort to reduce pollution or conserve natural resources. But rare is the mainstream representative who will repudiate the "purists" who inhabit the fringes.

"I think groups like Greenpeace and Earth First! make a significant contribution to the educational process," former Senator Gaylord Nelson, now with the Wilderness Society, told writer Brandon Mitchener in a laudatory article on direct action groups. Said National Audubon Society Vice President Robert SanGeorge: "Hopefully with the different strategies of the different environmental organizations, something better will happen for the world." (Research for Mitchener's article, which was published in the new environmentalist magazine E, was funded by the reputedly conservative Reader's Digest Foundation.)

David Brower, the "Archdruid" of the U.S. environmental movement, understands well the dynamics of ideological crusades—how increasingly radical factions push the "mainstream" to greater and greater extremes. "I founded Friends of the Earth to make the Sierra Club look reasonable," he told E. "Then I founded the Earth Island Institute to make Friends of the Earth look reasonable. Earth First! now makes us look reasonable. We're still waiting for someone to come along and make Earth First! look reasonable."

Already, the most influential environmentalists in Washington include Jeremy Rifkin, an unabashed advocate of extreme green ideology, and Lester Brown, an ardent fellow traveler. One need not accept the Earth First! slogan, "Back to the Pleistocene!" to abet the ideology behind it. "In one way or another," wrote the green prophet E.F. Schumacher, "everybody will have to take sides in this great conflict."

In a sense, green ideology is a cri de coeur: "Stop the world, I want to get off!" Technology is too complicated, work too demanding, communication too instantaneous, information too abundant, the pace of life too fast. Stasis looks attractive, not only for nature but also for human beings.

"The pressure and strain of living," wrote Schumacher in Small Is Beautiful, "is very much less in, say, Burma than it is in the United States, in spite of the fact that the amount of labour-saving machinery used in the former country is only a minute fraction of the amount used in the latter."

Rifkin describes the green coalition as "time rebels," who "argue that the long-term psychic and environmental damage has outstripped whatever temporary gains might have been made by the obsession with speed at all costs. They argue that the pace of production and consumption should not exceed nature's ability to recycle wastes and renew basic resources. They argue that the tempo of social and economic life should be compatible with nature's time frame."

To slow economy and society to the approved adagio, the greens have some fairly straightforward prescriptions: Restrict trade to the local area. Eliminate markets where possible. End specialization. Anchor individuals in their "bioregions," local areas defined by their environmental characteristics. Shrink the population. Make life simple again, small, self-contained.

It is a vision that can be made remarkably appealing, for it plays on our desire for self-sufficiency, our longing for community, and our nostalgia for the agrarian past. We will go back to the land, back to the rhythms of seedtime and harvest, back to making our own clothes, our own furniture, our own tools. Back to barnraisings and quilting bees. Back to a life we can understand without a string of Ph.D.s.

"In living in the world by his own will and skill, the stupidest peasant or tribesman is more competent than the most intelligent workers or technicians or intellectuals in a society of specialists," writes Wendell Berry, an agrarian admired by both greens and cultural conservatives. Berry is a fine writer; he chooses words carefully; he means what he says. We will go back to being peasants.

Greens share with communitarian conservatives like Berry a suspicion of modernity, of individualism, of rootless cosmopolitans and the cities they inhabit. But where the conservatives exalt authority and tradition, the greens reject the traditions to which they themselves are heirs. Conservatives uphold the Western, the Christian—the medieval manor, perhaps, or the yeoman farmer.

Greens look to the East, past the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, beyond the Ginza, to the Ming China that destroyed its ships lest they sail beyond the horizon. Granted, no medieval Chinese would recognize the blend of nature-worship, feminism, Zen, Taoism, Marxism, and egalitarianism that makes up green thought. But many greens would embrace the vision described by the Tao Te Ching and quoted in the 1985 book Deep Ecology:

"Let people recover
The simple life:
Reckoning by knotted cords,
Delighting in a basic meal,
Pleased with humble attire,
Happy in their homes,
Taking pleasure in their
Rustic ways.…
Folks grown gray with age
May pass away never having
Strayed beyond the village."

On the virtue of such a life—indeed, on its necessity—there is little disagreement between the mystics and the Marxists or the "principled" and the pragmatic. The only question is how to get there.

Greens often hint that energy shortages or the greenhouse effect will force the transformation they seek. Ought quickly becomes is. Should becomes will. Things will change because they must. The greens may not buy Marx's historical dialectic, but they share his determinism.

Writes Porritt, who heads Britain's branch of Friends of the Earth: "From all the knowledge we now have about environmental issues, the inevitable conclusion is that our way of life cannot be sustained without grave damage to the Earth and our own health. We've done enormous damage by sustaining our way of life thus far, and by seeking to sustain it into the next century, we willfully and criminally endanger future generations who will share our planet. Simply put, our modem society is unsustainable. Unsustainable means that we cannot go on living as we do now" (emphasis in the original).

Porritt, however, is no naif. Like many greens, he believes people's attitudes must change and speaks easily of "the spiritual dimension of the ecology movement." But he knows it is not enough. "My strong feeling is that we need to step in tune with the Earth but we also need to engage in the political processes in order to protect it," he writes. "However uncomfortable it makes people, that means political confrontation." Greens, especially those of the non-Marxist, earth-goddess-worshipping variety, are indeed rhetorically uncomfortable with political confrontation. They like consensus and preach nonviolence. They exalt decentralism (though they stop short of decentralizing all the way down to the individual). But with their radical wing crying, "No compromise in defense of Mother Earth!" the greens are as driven to political confrontation as the pro-life movement was to blocking abortion clinics.

And greens show plenty of zest for political power—at the local, state, national, and international levels. Opposing environmentally destructive central planning, they may sound downright Hayekian, but offered a chance to enforce their will by treaty or ordinance, they dump consensus like so much toxic waste. As a German Green told columnist Alston Chase, "Grass-roots democracy sounded wonderful before we were elected to Parliament. But now we are in power, centralized solutions seem far more effective."

For the most part, green political power still manifests itself in relatively mild-mannered ways: telling a farmer he can't sell his land to a developer, rezoning the site of someone's dream home as "open space," banning the sale of car air conditioners (as Vermont has), ordering some people to work nine-day, 80-hour weeks (as the Los Angeles Air Quality Management District has). We haven't yet gotten to emptying the cities, Khmer Rouge-style.

But consider the green-influenced response to the AQMD's intrusive, and most likely ineffective, plan to control air pollution in Los Angeles by—among other edicts—dictating working hours, banning deodorants, and regulating numerous industries out of business or out of town. That the plan was decreed from above and written by a handful of unelected "experts" didn't matter. That it lumped insignificant sources of pollution in with important ones didn't matter. That it failed to weigh costs against benefits or even to demonstrate that it would, in fact, significantly reduce air pollution didn't matter. All that mattered was that it was extreme and that it was comprehensive. It was "serious." Lester Brown, the much-quoted head of the Worldwatch Institute, lavishes the same sort of praise on China's draconian one-child policy. How "serious" greens get will depend primarily on how much power they can grab.

Most greens can still consider themselves nonviolent for one reason: Their victims don't fight back. So far no one has taken up arms to defend his logging equipment against Earth First! sabotage or his factory against EPA closure. But some greens, at least, see the inherent contradiction in their views.

Writes longtime activist Stephanie Mills, contemplating a battle over whether to allow a golf course to be built: "The ecofascist in me finds it hard to trust even the outcome of a democratic process, let alone a paradigm shift, because the demos is, through no fault of its own, largely ignorant of biology. I fear that our culture is so confused and our information systems so polluted with irrealities that people will vote, time and time again, to let the golf course be built."

Mills equates land ownership with slavery, herself with the abolitionists. But, unlike a human being, land cannot own itself. Freed slaves can decide what to do with their lives. They can speak for themselves in court. But some human being has to speak for the land, has to decide what will become of it. Mills and her fellow greens volunteer to be those spokespersons. In effect, they will own the land.

But without paying for it. After all, writes Mills, "there's far more land to preserve than there is government or philanthropic ability to compensate the owners. So it is a win-lose situation as long as the dominant paradigm, which maintains that land can be owned, holds sway." Suddenly, we are back to liquidating the kulaks.

Mills is a remarkably frank writer, and her book Whatever Happened to Ecology?, recently published by Sierra Club Books, provides some of the most interesting peeks at the green world to come that can be had by the general public. Mills garnered national attention in 1969, when she delivered a college commencement address entitled "The Future Is a Cruel Hoax" and declared she'd never have children. The book traces the evolution of the environmental movement and of her ideas since then. Today, she and her husband live on a farm in northern Michigan, where they pursue their bioregionalist ideal of "reinhabiting" the land by restoring some of its wildness and blocking future development. A journalist, not a theorist, Mills speaks not only for herself but for the intellectual movement of which she is a part. Her words are chilling:

"We young moderns resort to elaborate means of getting physical experience. Yogic practice, fanatical running, bicycling, competitive sports, bodybuilding. All of these recreations are voluntary and may not cultivate the endurance necessary for the kind of labor required to dismantle industrial society and restore the Earth's productivity." Are voluntary…the endurance necessary…the labor required…dismantle industrial society. The prose is pleasant, the notions it contains disturbing. Are we to conscript a slave army to restore the earth? Shall green-clad drill instructors run us through endurance-building workouts? To what is Mills alluding? She never explains.

She continues: "One summer afternoon a few days after a freak windstorm, I made a foray out to buy some toilet paper. (Every time I have to replenish the supply of this presumed necessity, I wonder what we're going to substitute for it when the trucks stop running.)" When the trucks stop running. There is a history of the future buried in those words, fodder for several science-fiction novels—but, again, no explanation of when and why the trucks will stop. Or who will stop them.

People don't want to be peasants: The cities of the Third World teem with the evidence. And certainly, the typical subscriber to the Utne Reader (a sort of green Reader's Digest with a circulation of nearly 100,000 after only five years of publication) doesn't envision a future of subsistence farming—much less the hunter-gatherer existence preferred by deep ecologists. More to the reader's taste is, no doubt, the cheery vision offered by Executive Editor Jay Walljasper.

It's 2009. Nuclear weapons have been dismantled. Green publications have huge circulations. Minneapolis has 11 newspapers and its own currency ("redeemable in trout, walleye, or wild rice"). Sidewalk cafés sell croissants and yogurt. A local ordinance decrees a 24-hour workweek. Cars are nearly nonexistent (a delegation from the "People's Independent Republic of Estonia" is in town to help design better ski trails for commuters). Citizens vote electronically. The shopping mall has become a nature preserve.

Walljasper is clearly having fun—after all, he puts Aretha Franklin's face on the $10 bill—and he doesn't consider any of the tough questions. Like how all those magazines and newspapers exist without printing plants or paper mills. How the Estonians got to town without airplanes or the fuel to run them. (Jeremy Rifkin specifically names the Boeing 747 as the kind of product that can't be produced in the small-is-beautiful factories of the coming "entropic age.") How the chips to run the electronic voting got etched without chemicals. Where the chips were made. How a 24-hour workweek produced the sustained concentration needed to write software or the level of affluence that allows for restaurant croissants.

And, above all, Walljasper doesn't explain why after millennia of behaving otherwise, humans simply gave up wanting stuff. If the Walljasper of 2009 still overloads on reading material, why should we assume that people whose fancy runs toward fast food and polyester (or fast cars and silk) would be struck with a sudden attack of bioregionally approved tastes? How exactly did that shopping mall disappear?

"The root of the solution has to be so radical that it can scarcely be spoken of," says movie director and British green John Boorman (Hope and Glory, The Emerald Forest). "We all have to be prepared to change the way we live and function and relate to the planet. In short, we need a transformation of the human spirit. If the human heart can be changed, then everything can be changed."

We have heard this somewhere before. People are forever seeking to change the human heart. They usually begin with persuasion, and persuasion sometimes works. We did, some of us, stop killing each other in the name of God.

But the greens want people to give up the idea that life can be better. They say "better" need not refer to material abundance, that we should just be content with less.

Stasis, they say, can satisfy our "vital needs." They may indeed convince some people to pursue a life of voluntary simplicity, and that is fine and good and just the kind of thing a free society ought to allow. Stephanie Mills is welcome to her farm.

But I do not want to give up 747s (Rifkin), or cars (Kirkpatrick Sale), or glasses (Joan McIntyre), or private washing machines (Bookchin), or tailored clothing (Schumacher), or long workweeks spent at a computer I could never build. I do not want to return to the world in which Chaucer's clerk dreamed of owning 20 books. (Neither, I daresay, would these prolifically writing greens).

The "debased human protoplasm" that Mills holds in contempt for their delight in "clothes, food, sporting goods, electronics, building supplies, pets, baked goods, deli food, toys, tools, hardware, geegaws, jim-jams, and knick-knacks" will not go down nonviolently. Many ordinary human beings would like a cleaner world. They are prepared to make sacrifices—tradeoffs is a better word—to get one. But ordinary human beings will not adopt the Buddha's life without desire, much as E.F. Schumacher might have ordained it. And many ordinary human beings will not give up the right to own land without a fight, complete with guns.

Green ideology springs from the rift C.P. Snow described as "the two cultures," the split between scientific and literary intellectuals. We have yet to come to terms with that split—itself a product of understandable, and largely necessary, specialization. It has produced an ideological crisis.

Ideologies are, by definition, created in the world of ideas, by intellectuals. They are created with words. When science and technology became too complex for those who wield words to easily understand, some of the writers rebelled. Rather than bone up on science or accept tools they didn't comprehend, they demanded that the world get simpler. They got their science from popularizers and built an antiscience worldview on it.

From the life sciences, they learned that chemicals cause cancers—without understanding that our methods of measuring both chemical concentrations and minute dangers have grown ever more sensitive. From popularizers who said that physics no longer differs from Eastern mysticism, they learned that reality is radically subjective, reinforcing the intuitive approach of deep ecology. From ecologists who posited that the earth acts as a single system to maintain conditions conducive to life, they learned that the earth is alive. Mistaking metaphor for reality, they took James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis and turned earth into a goddess. From the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Rifkin justifies an entire system of political economy based on the ideal of never expending energy. From quantum physics, Fritjof Capra derives justification for a new world order.

Writing in The Tao of Physics, he declares: "I believe that the world-view implied by modem physics is inconsistent with our present society, which does not reflect the harmonious interrelatedness we observe in nature. To achieve such a state of dynamic balance, a radically different social and economic structure will be needed: a cultural revolution in the true sense of the word." How we get from quarks and quanta to a new social order is best left to a less popular Capra work, Green Politics, about the rise of the German Green Party.

Pseudoscience has always appealed to half-educated intellectuals—Marxism lured many a disciple with its talk of "scientific materialism." The greens claim to have equally scientific proof that industrial civilization is "unsustainable," that we must give it up or die. Some of their ideas do indeed draw on the work of serious scientists. But green ideologues would be genuinely unhappy if the greenhouse effect turned out to be insignificant, even less happy if technological advances refuted their apocalyptic claims. Their greatest nightmare is the discovery of cheap, safe, clean energy. It would be "like giving a machine gun to an idiot child," population-control advocate Paul Ehrlich said when the excitement over cold fusion suggested that prospect. "It's the worst thing that could happen to our planet," Rifkin told the Los Angeles Times.

Greens wrap themselves in science but many dislike the spirit of inquiry that drives the scientific process. They want the world to be simple and simply understood—or so subjective it cannot be understood. Deep ecologist Arne Naess says, "People can then oppose nuclear power without having to read thick books and without knowing the myriad facts that are used in newspapers and periodicals." Schumacher pooh-poohed science as mere "know-how," inferior to humanistic pursuits. His answer to Snow, who wanted educated people to know both Shakespeare and science, was to declare: "What do I miss, as a human being, if I have never heard of the Second Law of Thermodynamics? The answer is: Nothing."

Some greens may be comfortable with scientific inquiry (at least if it doesn't disturb nature) and prefer facts to mystical insight, but all oppose both the technological optimism that often drives science and the economy that sustains it. They speak much of ecology and note, correctly, that we have learned that the natural world is made up of complicated connections we can only begin to understand. But they demand that the human world, in which similar connections create markets and cities and communications networks, be smashed into its component parts.

Schumacher attacked markets because they "take the sacredness out of life, because there can be nothing sacred in something that has a price." He refused to recognize that prices express the value real human beings put on things, that they allow us to "be in touch with more than a very limited number of persons at any one time"—something he said can't be done.

He criticized modern transportation and communications for making people "footloose," for letting them easily move to suit themselves and especially for letting them create crowded cities. He preferred the world when people were "relatively immobile," when "the movement of populations, except in periods of disaster, was confined to persons who had a very special reason to move, such as the Irish saints or the scholars of the University of Paris." When, in short, only the intellectual elite could change its geographical station in life.

In 1959, Snow, a socialist, saw where the two cultures would lead. And he passionately defended the industrialism the greens aim to dismantle: "Industrialisation is the only hope of the poor. I use the word 'hope' in the crude and prosaic sense. I have not much use for the moral sensibility of anyone who is too refined to use it so. It is all very well for us, sitting pretty, to think that material standards of living don't matter all that much. It is all very well for one, as a personal choice, to reject industrialisation—do a modem Walden, if you like, and if you go without much food, see most of your children die in infancy, despise the comforts of literacy, accept twenty years off your own life, then I respect you for the strength of your aesthetic revulsion.

But I don't respect you in the slightest if, even passively, you try to impose the same choice on others who are not free to choose. In fact, we know what their choice would be. For, with singular unanimity, in any country where they have had the chance, the poor have walked off the land into the factories as fast as the factories could take them."

At its extreme, green ideology expresses itself in utter contempt for humanity. Reviewing Bill McKibben's The End of Nature in the Los Angeles Times, National Park Service research biologist David M. Graber concluded with this stunning passage: "Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, are not as important as a wild and healthy planet. I know social scientists who remind me that people are part of nature, but it isn't true. Somewhere along the line—at about a billion years ago, maybe half that—we quit the contract and became a cancer. We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth. It is cosmically unlikely that the developed world will choose to end its orgy of fossil-energy consumption, and the Third World its suicidal consumption of landscape. Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along."

It is hard to take such notions seriously without sounding like a bit of a kook yourself. But there they are—calmly expressed in the pages of a major, mainstream, Establishment newspaper by an employee of the federal government. When it is acceptable to say such things in polite intellectual company, when feel-good environmentalists tolerate the totalitarians in their midst, when sophisticates greet the likes of Graber with indulgent nods and smiles rather than arguments and outrage, we are one step farther down another bloody road to someone's imagined Eden. All the greens need is an opportunity and a Lenin.

Virginia I. Postrel is editor of REASON.