Conservatives Against Consumption

Are fossil fuels responsible for moral and social decay?


All of the Republican presidential hopefuls who are so strenuously trying to out-do each other in defending family values may be overlooking one of the chief causes of moral and social decay: increased fossil fuel use. This is the surprising suggestion recently made by a couple of conservative intellectuals, Georgetown University political philosopher Patrick Deneen and American Conservative editor Rod Dreher.

Their speculation about the pernicious social effects of increased fossil fuel use was provoked by a recent article by conservative columnist George Will. In that column, Will argued, "A specter is haunting progressivism, the specter of abundance." Will asserts that progressives "crave energy scarcities as an excuse for rationing—by them—that produces ever-more-minute government supervision of Americans' behavior." Unfortunately, progressive schemes for using energy rationing to gain further control over American lives are being undermined by the abundance of natural gas that has been unleashed by fracking. In addition, Will celebrates the fact that by shunning G.M.'s all-electric Volt automobile Americans are ignoring progressive hectoring to consume less.

Will's analysis—whether one accepts it or not—called forth dark musings on the malignant effects of fossil fuels and associated economic growth from Deneen and Dreher. Writing at the Front Porch Republic blog, Deneen asks, "Might some of the consequences of the mobility and power that expansive consumption of fossil fuels have engendered include the exacerbation of a number of baleful social trends, many of which result from the gas-addled belief in human mastery, control, and autonomy, as well as attendant instability and societal transformation? 

Dreher praised Deneen's insights and chimed in, asserting that "conservatism doesn't equal consumptionism." Dreher added, "It has apparently never occurred to Will to consider whether or not the centering of American economic life around oil consumption might have brought with it problems that ought to concern conservatives and the things they value, or ought to value."

What are some of the baleful social trends that track the rise of fossil fuels? Deneen observes that "the decline of 'family values,' communal norms, educational attainment, religious standards, civility, along with the rise of a culture of consumption, rootlessness, anomie, relativism, a 24-hour culture of distraction, titillation, highly-sexualized and violent imagery, sexualized childhood and adolescent adulthood" have all followed in the wake of ever more abundant energy from coal, oil, and natural gas. 

Oddly, Deneen and Dreher refrain from following the logic of their argument to its obvious conclusion: Reverse the social ills and immorality they decry by forcing Americans to consume less electricity and gasoline. After all, if we had less electric lighting, we'd go to bed early thus reducing the amount of time available for committing mischief. If our televisions went dark, communities could be strengthened by nightly gatherings around campfires where we could join together to sing folk songs. If our gasoline tanks ran dry, we'd all enjoy the communal experience of riding commuter trains to work and walking to the general store to buy groceries and sundries. In short, the moral paradise of pre-20th century America would be restored.

It is certainly true that fossil fuel use and wealth have increased together. For example, the Energy Information Administration reports that in 1949 Americans used 29 quadrillion Btus (a quadrillion British thermal units is equal to about 45 million tons of coal, or 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or 170 million barrels of crude oil) of energy produced by burning fossil fuels. In 2010, fossil fuel use had nearly tripled to 81 quadrillion Btus. Since then the U.S. economy has grown more than 7-fold in real dollars from $1.8 trillion to $13.2 trillion and annual per capita GDP had more than tripled from $12,000 to $44,000. However, energy use and wealth creation do not march in a Btu-to-dollar lockstep since improvements in energy efficiency means that people today use less energy to produce a given unit of gross domestic product.

Deneen's chief problem with wealth is that it provides people with greater physical and economic mobility, thus enabling what he identifies as "rootlessness." The converse, rootedness—physical and economic immobility—is the natural consequence of poverty. Poor people lacking access to modern energy supplies have little time or bodily energy to devote to activities other than making a hardscrabble living. They have to get along with their families and neighbors since they cannot get away from them. Questioning traditions, especially those that undergird the authority and privileges of patriarchs and priests, will only cause the would-be freethinker grief.

To the evident dismay of Deneen and Dreher, it is certainly the case that physical mobility has increased. In 1949, the U.S. already had 300 vehicles per thousand residents and there are nearly 850 per 1,000 now. Only 17 million Americans traveled on commercial airlines in 1949. This rose to 630 million in 2010. Such mobility enlarges the freedom of Americans to live, work, and recreate where and with whom they like.

Deneen decries the erosion of "family values" and communal norms. The police didn't keep good national statistics on family violence back in the middle of the 20th century, but more recent trends are positive. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that rate of intimate partner violence fell by more than 50 percent [PDF] between 1993 and 2008. Recent evidence also finds that physical abuse and sexual abuse of children declined by more than 50 percent [PDF] between the early 1990s and 2007.

Speaking of communal norms, attempting to harm another person must surely be considered one of the more significant violations of those norms. Again, accurate national data only goes back so far, but the news is good. In 1973, there were an estimated 48 violent victimizations per 1,000 U.S. residents 12 years old and older. This rose to 50 per 1,000 in 1993 and has since steeply fallen to 14 per 1,000 (a decline of 70 percent).

And some communal norms are just evil. For example, one particularly noxious communal norm was the state-mandated and enforced racial segregation that prevailed in much of the United States. In 1949, nearly 30 states made it a crime for blacks and whites to marry. I am no great fan of public education, but with regard to educational attainment in 1949 barely 35 percent of Americans had graduated from high school by the age of 25. Today almost 90 percent have. In addition, only 5 percent had graduated from college, today nearly 30 percent have. With regard to civility, I suspect that it is true that one hears more Anglo-Saxon expletives in public than one did 50 years ago, but again the falling violent crime rate indicates a substantial increase in the type of civility that really counts. 

What about increasing anomie? Given our plummeting crime statistics, presumably Deneen doesn't mean literal lawlessness, but is referring to a sense of "personal unrest, alienation, and anxiety that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals." If wealth fosters anomie, wealthier people should be unhappy, right? However, recent research by University of Pennsylvania researchers finds that money does indeed tend to buy happiness, or at least greater life-satisfaction. Parsing data from 140 countries, the researchers report that "richer individuals in a given country are more satisfied with their lives than are poorer individuals" and that "those countries experiencing more rapid economic growth also tend to experience more rapid growth in life satisfaction."

Given the tenor of his screed, Deneen's worries about anomie likely extend to the oft-expressed concerns about the decline in civic engagement among Americans. Instead of volunteering at the local food bank, Americans are succumbing to the "distractions" and "titillations" of their big-screen televisions. And indeed there is evidence that volunteering has fallen off a bit and greater wealth and opportunity is to blame. Research by two UCLA economists finds that most of the decline in volunteering can be traced to the entrance of women fully into the paid work force since the 1950s and the increased segregation of communities by income. More recent data shows that for the last decade about 26 percent of Americans participate in volunteer work each year. With regard to pursuing one's ideals, surely putting your money where your mouth is would indicate some kind of civic engagement. As it happens, charitable giving in the United States has hovered around two percent of GDP for decades. 

All right, what about relativism and sex? Relativism is simply the flip side of Deneen's erosion of communal norms coin. The kind of "relativism" that especially annoys gloomy conservatives like Deneen is the increasing tolerance of gays by Americans. Deneen must surely believe that his bleak view that wealth produces decadence is fully vindicated in recent Gallup Poll data that shows that for the first time a majority of Americans favor gay marriage. And what about all those sexualized images? As it turns out, the more prevalent pornography has become the longer teens wait to have sex and the lower the teen pregnancy rate. In fact, teen pregnancy is down more than 40 percent from its peak in 1990. In addition, as access to pornography has increased, the forcible rape rate in the United States has fallen by 85 percent since 1980. Surely the decline in violent crime must indicate that "violent imagery" in movies, television, and video games is not having the effect that Deneen suggests. In fact, some recent research finds that violent video games are likely diverting some crime prone individuals from killing people to killing pixels [PDF].

Deneen's lament about the decline of family values no doubt incorporates concerns over contemporary out-of-wedlock birth and divorce rates. And no doubt increased wealth has intensified those trends. The trajectory of out-of-wedlock births has traced the increase in wealth in the United States. In 1940, 3.8 percent of American children were born to unmarried women; in 2009, 41 percent [PDF] were. Interestingly, 44 percent of nonmarital births were to women who had already given birth to one or more children. The entry of women into the paid labor force made nonmarital childbearing more economically feasible, although children living in single parent households are more likely to live below the poverty line. After women gained much greater control over their fertility with the advent of the contraceptive pill and the legalization of abortion men became less willing to marry the women they impregnated. The result was far fewer shot gun weddings than in the past. 

Growing up in a single parent family as a result of a divorce or a nonmarital birth poses challenges for child rearing and the relative lack of resources often restricts the educational and career opportunities that such children have. But the social consequences are less dire than many ominous predictions [PDF] made in the 1990s claimed they would be. For example, Princeton University sociologist John DiIulio famously asserted that a massive cohort of "fatherless, Godless, and jobless" criminal super predators would result from the rise in out-of-wedlock births. Instead, as we've seen, violent crime rates fell sharply rather than rose over the past two decades.

So why has traditional marriage "until death do us part" become less common? In the 1970s, University of Chicago economist Gary Becker theorized that marriage encompassed production complementaries in which husbands pursue market opportunities and wives specialize chiefly in domestic activities including child rearing. With this division of labor, couples are more productive together than apart.

However, as the economy grew and women had more opportunities to participate in the paid labor force, University of Pennsylvania economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers argue that that shifted the incentives that underpin marriage. According to the two researchers observe, "The spread of indoor plumbing and electricity in the first half of the twentieth century, along with the myriad of household appliances that diffused throughout the last century (particularly in the 1950s and 1960s), led to vast increases in the productivity of housework." Such modern advances meant, among other dreadful things, that doing laundry at home now only takes 40 minutes per week rather than the once traditional four hours.

So freed from domestic chores, more women chose to work outside the home. Instead of marriage being based on production complementaries, Stevenson and Wolfers suggest "increasing leisure time and wealth along with the changing landscape defining sexual relations potentially raises the gains from consumption complementarities." In other words, couples increasingly marry to combine resources in order to enjoy greater consumption opportunities like living in more comfortable houses, more travel, collecting art, seeing theater, and dining out. To put that yet another way, couples now partake of more of those modern "distractions" and "titillations" that so exasperate Deneen and Dreher. And yet, despite the distractions, Stevenson and Wolfers point out: "While divorce rates have risen over the past 150 years, they have been falling for the past quarter century."

Certainly economic abundance produces its discontents, most especially among the self-anointed guardians of traditional morality. But what Deneen can't stand is that what he deplores as "instability and societal transformation" is regarded by most Americans as greater freedom and new opportunities to flourish. While conservatives like Deneen and Dreher and progressives may have different goals, they do, in the end, share the same ambition to engage in ever-more-minute supervision of Americans' behavior.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.