Let's Pretend

The "pageant" masquerading as environmental debate


There is something weirdly appropriate about beginning the Unabomber trial a few weeks after the Kyoto summit to craft a global-warming treaty.

The shack-dwelling, potato-grubbing hermit Theodore Kaczynski seems to have nothing in common, of course, with the jet-setting power brokers who descended on one of the world's most beautiful cities to debate (or agitate for) treaty provisions. Lifestyle aside, the Unabomber "manifesto," whose publication led to Kaczynski's arrest, hardly even mentions global warming. And while pundits took Kyoto with chin-pulling seriousness, there is near-universal agreement that it is irrational, and possibly immoral, to treat Kaczynski's ideas as anything other than the deranged rantings of a lunatic.

But we can in fact learn a lot about the state of the environmental debate by taking both Kyoto and Kaczynski seriously. And the most important thing we learn is that much of the time that debate is deeply dishonest and quite detached from logic and reality. It is less a debate than–as Robert DeNiro's character in Wag the Dog might put it–a pageant, something staged for the masses and assumed by its participants to be unreal. Except that this pageant has real-world consequences.

Consider Kaczynski. Over his objections, his lawyers tried to mount a "diminished capacity" defense, arguing that he was too mentally ill to form the legally required intent for murder. Having failed to exclude mountains of evidence, notably Kaczynski's written musings on bombings past and planned, they had no other defense. Many experts opined that the "he's too crazy to be culpable" approach just might work, even after Kaczynski blocked psychiatric witnesses.

Family members and other lay witnesses should be enough, said Leslie Abramson, the lawyer famous for defending the Menendez brothers. "The point they want to make is that it's obvious he's crazy," Abramson told the Associated Press. "You don't need an expert to say that….You have to show the jury he's extremely weird. Look at his lifestyle….He lived a hard and unnatural life."

This sentiment has been echoed again and again: Kaczynski's lifestyle alone proves he's too nuts to be responsible for murders and maimings. As Reuters correspondent Michael Miller put it: "Legal analysts say the defense's strongest argument that their client is mad may be the 12-by-10 foot…plywood shack without electricity or running water and with only a small wood stove to stave off the bitter cold of the Rocky Mountain winters…. Experts expect the defense to argue that only a madman would voluntarily endure those conditions, cycling five miles (8 km) through snowdrifts to get provisions from the nearest town and roasting squirrels and porcupines for supper."

This argument is very, very interesting. It says that someone who writes lucidly, who cared for himself for two decades with virtually no outside aid, and who articulates the planning of his crimes and the reasons behind them cannot possibly be sane simply because he lives the way popular, respected, best-selling environmental theorists say we should all live.

Unlike the president of the United States and a wide range of statist pundits, I do not believe that peaceful people are implicated in the violent deeds of strangers who happen to share some of their political views. (See "Fighting Words," July 1995.) E.F. Schumacher never blew anyone up to enforce the message that small is beautiful. Jeremy Rifkin files lawsuits; he does not murder scientists. Kirkpatrick Sale, the Unabomber's leading rationalizer, stops at apologizing for other people's violence; he doesn't do the deeds himself. Even as a soldier in Vietnam, Al Gore wielded only a pen and notebook.

Political theory is not violence. But neither is it supposed to be escapist fantasy. When theorists like Schumacher, Rifkin, and Sale write books celebrating a world without trade, specialization, or industry, they presumably intend for their ideas to be taken seriously. In Earth in the Balance, Gore says his message is urgent, that "we must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization….Minor shifts in policy, marginal adjustments in ongoing programs, moderate improvements in laws and regulations, rhetoric offered in lieu of genuine change–these are all forms of appeasement, designed to satisfy the public's desire to believe that sacrifice, struggle, and a wrenching transformation of society will not be necessary." This imperative statement certainly sounds serious.

When Gore writes that "we have been so seduced by industrial civilization's promise to make our lives comfortable that we allow the synthetic routines of modern life to soothe us in an inauthentic world of our own making," the clear implication is that there is something wrong. When he continues, "Life can be easy, we assure ourselves. We need not suffer the heat or the cold; we need not sow or reap or hunt and gather," the intended irony is obvious. We are, Gore suggests, deeply deluded. This drive to overcome the pains inflicted by nature is a sign of "a laziness in our spirit." We should live differently, more authentically. We should live more like Ted Kaczynski.

Gore is not alone in that suggestion–or in his failure to confront its implications. Like Earth in the Balance, Bill McKibben's The End of Nature was a best-seller. Describing the world he'd like to see, McKibben imagines smaller wardrobes and communal washing machines: "If we reached that point–the point where great closetfuls of clothes seemed slightly absurd–unnatural–then we might have begun to climb down from the tottering perch where we currently cling." Obviously the man of the house, McKibben fails to realize that fewer clothes mean more washing, unless you plan to go the stinky Kaczynski route.

A similar failure to connect the dots marks another McKibben observation: "My wife and I just acquired a fax machine…on the premise that it makes for graceful, environmentally sound communication….But if communication prospered in a humbler world, transportation might well wither, as people began to live closer not only to their work but to their food supply. Oranges all year round–oranges at any season in the northern latitudes–might prove ambitious beyond our means." A world without the transportation for out-of-season oranges is unlikely to deliver fax machines to writers in the Adirondack Mountains. Electronic equipment does not grow on trees.

Such fantasies would be of no more consequence than bodice-ripping romance novels if their authors would stick to peddling pornography for puritanical intellectuals, and their readers would understand it as mere entertainment. A world without consequences or cause and effect makes for many a pleasurable fantasy, and even greens like to have fun. Unfortunately, however, these particular pageants get played out on a world stage, where laws get made and people's real lives are at stake.

That is where Kyoto comes in. The summit was supposedly about something real–reducing global warming. But it looked an awful lot like a pageant.

For starters, there was a lot of explicit pageantry: To portray fossil fuels as "the technology of the past," Greenpeace erected a 20-foot metal dinosaur made from old cars, gasoline pumps, and other detritus. Another green group seized a Kyoto gas station. Ice-sculpture penguins melted in the sun. And, of course, Gore jetted in at the last possible moment, playing Superman as negotiations broke down. Negotiators then proceeded to work without sleep for several days, a showy way to make good feature stories and bad policy.

No one seemed much interested in the scientific questions, many of which are still in play. You could pretty much predict what people would say about science by finding out what they thought about completely unrelated questions: about markets, about industrial civilization, about America, about oranges in the winter.

The whole thing was very disquieting, a struggle between competing world views decked out as a way of solving a technical problem. The diplomats provided the technocratic cover, pretending that "sacrifice, struggle, and a wrenching transformation of society will not be necessary." All the while, Greenpeace and its fossil-fuel enemies were arguing the opposite point.

In the end, the sleepless delegates came up with a treaty whose consequences are murky, to be determined in a later round of negotiations and, as important, by the actions of the U.S. Senate. The treaty takes the advice of economists, who, accepting the goal as problem solving rather than social transformation, recommended a trading program that lets advanced countries buy emissions credits from less-developed nations. The idea is that it's more efficient to bring well-understood emissions-reducing equipment to, say, China, which is still using highly polluting technologies, than it is to invent brand-new equipment and processes in the United States. This practical approach was immediately denounced as "immoral" by environmental puritans and anti-market technocrats.

Even on economics, a lot of pretending went on in Kyoto. It was common to hear that the United States can cut carbon-dioxide emissions without hurting economic growth, that the benefits might even outweigh the costs. The rest of the story was omitted: Those rosy projections assume a carbon tax to deter emissions offset by a huge reduction in taxes on capital. Dale Jorgenson, the Harvard economist who rallied economists to the no-cost side, writes that "reducing the tax burden on capital by substituting other forms of taxation would produce similar [growth] effects with no effect on emissions of greenhouse gases." In other words, cutting greenhouse gases is in fact expensive. The whole cost-free approach depends on a tax cut the Clinton administration would never in a million years support.

Of course, quibbles like these don't matter when you're putting on a pageant. The whole point is to look and sound good–to seem concerned about the urgency of the "environmental crisis." The last thing you want to do is take environmental rhetoric seriously. That would be crazy.