Conservatives Against Consumption

Are fossil fuels responsible for moral and social decay?


Republican presidential hopefuls, who are strenuously trying to outdo each other in defending family values, may be overlooking a chief cause of modern moral and social decay: increased fossil fuel use. That was the surprising suggestion recently made by a couple of conservative intellectuals, Georgetown University political philosopher Patrick Deneen and American Conservative blogger Rod Dreher.

The two were provoked by conservative columnist George Will. "A specter is haunting progressivism, the specter of abundance," Will declared in his final syndicated column of 2011. Progressives, he asserted, "crave energy scarcities as an excuse for rationing—by them—that produces ever-more-minute government supervision of Americans' behavior." 

Writing on January 2 at the Front Porch Republic blog, Deneen replied, "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 the following day at The American Conservative, positing that "conservatism doesn't equal consumptionism." The "centering of American economic life around oil consumption," he fretted, "might have brought with it problems that ought to concern conservatives and the things they value, or ought to value."

What are some of those baleful social trends that track the rise of fossil fuels? Deneen listed "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." 

Oddly, Deneen and Dreher refrained from following the logic of their argument to its obvious conclusion: If fuel consumption breeds social dysfunction, then why not force Americans to consume less gasoline and electricity?

Fossil fuel use and wealth have increased hand in hand. The Energy Information Administration, the Department of Energy's independent statistics agency, reports that in 1949 Americans used 29 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs) of energy produced by burning fossil fuels. (A quadrillion BTUs is equal to about 170 million barrels of crude oil.) By 2010 fossil fuel use had nearly tripled to 81 quadrillion BTUs. During that span the U.S. economy grew more than sevenfold in real dollars, from $1.8 trillion to $13.2 trillion. Per capita GDP, also adjusted for inflation, more than tripled, from $12,000 to $44,000. 

To Deneen and Dreher's dismay, fossil fuels have enabled Americans to flit freely about the country. In 1949 the U.S. had 300 vehicles per 1,000 residents. There are nearly 850 per 1,000 now. Only 17 million passengers traveled on domestic flights in 1949. In 2010 domestic airlines carried 630 million passengers.

What about the alleged erosion of "family values" and communal norms? It's true that at least one old-fashioned family value—the beating of spouses and children—has declined as wealth has increased. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that the rate of intimate partner violence fell by more than 50 percent between 1993 and 2008. Recent evidence also finds that physical abuse and sexual abuse of children fell by more than 50 percent between the early 1990s and 2007.

The BJS estimated that in 1973 there were 48 violent victimizations per 1,000 U.S. residents 12 years old and older. That rate inched up to 50 per 1,000 in 1993 but has fallen steeply since, to 14 per 1,000 (a decline of 70 percent). One likely hears more Anglo-Saxon expletives in public nowadays, but the significantly lower number of criminal assaults indicates a substantial increase in the type of civility that really counts. 

One particularly evil communal norm—state-enforced racial segregation—also became a thing of the past in the era of increasing wealth. In 1949 it was a crime in nearly 30 states for blacks and whites to marry. Back then barely 35 percent of 25-year-olds had graduated from high school; today almost 90 percent have. The share of the population with college degrees has risen from 5 percent to 30 percent. 

What about increasing anomie? If wealth fosters a sense of "personal unrest, alienation, and anxiety that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals," wealthier people should be unhappy. After parsing data from 140 countries, University of Pennsylvania researchers recently reported that "richer individuals in a given country are more satisfied with their lives than are poorer individuals," and "those countries experiencing more rapid economic growth also tend to experience more rapid growth in life satisfaction."

What about moral relativism and sex? Deneen surely believes that recent polling data vindicate his bleak view that wealth produces decadent relativism. For the first time, according to a May 2011 Gallup poll, a majority of Americans favor gay marriage. But many of us would see that as an increase in civility. While pornography and violent images may be distasteful, their increased availability does not seem to have produced much in the way of negative social effects. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics' annual National Crime Victimization Survey, the rape rate has fallen by 85 percent since 1991. 

Deneen's lament about the decline of family values no doubt incorporates concerns about contemporary divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births. In 1940, 3.8 percent of American children were born to unmarried women; in 2009, 41 percent were. The entry of women into the paid labor force made nonmarital childbearing more economically feasible, and with the advent of the contraceptive pill and legal abortion, men became less willing to marry the women they impregnated. 

Growing up in a single-parent family is problematic, but the social consequences have proved less dire than ominously predicted in the 1990s. Princeton University sociologist John DiIulio famously warned that the rise in out-of-wedlock births would produce a massive cohort of "fatherless, Godless, and jobless" criminal "super-predators." Instead, violent crime rates fell sharply. 

In the 1970s, University of Chicago economist Gary Becker theorized that marriage encompassed production complementarities in which husbands pursued market opportunities and wives specialized chiefly in domestic activities, including child rearing. With this division of labor, couples were more productive together than apart. Labor saving devices and increased female earning power shifted these reasons to marry. University of Pennsylvania economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers now suggest "increasing leisure time and wealth along with the changing landscape defining sexual relations potentially raises the gains from consumption complementarities." In other words, married couples combine their resources in order to consume more of those modern "distractions" and "titillations" that so exasperate Deneen and Dreher. Stevenson and Wolfers also note that "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 Deneen's "instability and societal transformation" is experienced by most Americans as greater freedom and new opportunities to flourish. While conservatives like Deneen and Dreher and progressives may have different goals, in the end they share the same ambition: to engage in ever-more-minute supervision of Americans' behavior.