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. 

NEXT: Did Police and Paramedics Conspire to Invent George Zimmerman's Injuries?

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  1. God Dreher makes me tired! You don't want to you moved to Philly and've made your lifestyle choice.

  2. I'm not a conservative but I'm against tuberculosis too.

  3. Since when is it surprising that conservatives would be into limiting consumption? Seems like a perfectly reasonable concept for conservatives.

    The problem is that Conservatives are not conservative these days, but instead petulant children who want to do whatever they want without any consideration for damage or consequences.

    1. "Do whatever they want?" Are you railing against deregulation again?

      1. I don't recall railing against it before, at least not here.

        But, no, I am not.

    2. "The problem is that Conservatives are not conservative these days, but instead petulant children who want to do whatever they want without any consideration for damage or consequences."

      And meanwhile they're telling others they can't smoke pot, gamble, solicit prostitutes or marry someone of the same gender.

      Sicut dixi, non ut faciam.

  4. air conditioning = teh fatz

  5. If Dreher's against it, I'm for it. Tiresome man.

  6. Conservative means "against change". And there is a value to having people around yelling "stop" at progress. They never stop progress. But they can at least point to the adverse side affects of progress. So this really is a "conservative" view at least in the classical sense.

    Our problem is that we assume everyone who calls themselves a conservative or a liberal, actually is one. Many conservatives are for progress and reinventing society and government. And many liberals are Luddites pining for a lost past.

  7. I have never found progressives to be against consumption in practice. Their morality is based on whatever their lifestyle is or isn't. So living in the suburbs and driving a hummer is excessive consumerism. But spending $5,000 a year on tea and a million on a gentrified loft are progressive minimalism.

    1. Progressives want to force everyone to live in million dollar lofts, which makes me sick. I'm happy living in my trailer on the side of the interstate.

    2. I have never found progressives to be against consumption in practice.

      Certainly not their own.

      Other people's though? You betcha.

  8. This isn't surprising, given you'll always hear complaints about the commercialization of Christmas. Granted, prgressives and the Adbusters crowd complain about Christmas, but conservative Christians do it too. It makes sense that some would eventually rally against consumerism and abundance as well.

    "...many of which result from the gas-addled belief in human mastery, control, and autonomy, as well as attendant instability and societal transformation?"

    I don't quite understand his point. Autonomy and mastery ofver nature are good things, in my mind. Control over nature is what allows the human race to thrive. Authoritarianism is usually born under extreme scarcity, or in some cases, artificial scarcity. this is why the radicals in teh environmentalist movement want to limit energy. Wealth fuels free will, which I though conservatism generally though was a good thing?

    1. How much control over nature did those folks in N'Orleans have? Not that I don't get your point overall but we're still very far from trampling in god's domain.

      As far as environmentalists go, I think they're more worried about kids born with flippers and other such things caused by preventable and containable industrial pollution to be huddling in dark, smoke-filled rooms (dark because of those frickin' fluorescent bulbs and I think environmentalists will likely pass on the smoke, but still...)looking over your dossier and plotting to personally oppress you by depriving you of your gas-powered leaf blower.

    2. "conservatism generally though was a good thing" You don't pay much attention to conservatives, do ya, Deke?

  9. I say this as a conservative born and raised in a Christian conservative home. Deneen and Dreher are idiots.

  10. Behindertsein ist sch?n

  11. Cripes, Deneen & Dreher sound like they're about to start griping about those kids "getting frisky with some flapper in the back of one of those newfangled Model Ts". What can I say Pat & Rod, how ya gonna keep'em when they've seen Paree?

    1. correction: how ya gonna keep'em on the farm when they've seen Paree?

  12. I guess I'm going to have to find a new term to describe my pro-liberty, limited government leanings.

  13. Dreher really is the worst. He's sort of a horrible hybrid of the worst in both the right and the left.

  14. "" may be overlooking a chief cause of modern moral and social decay: increased fossil fuel use"""

    How many Afghans would agree?

  15. While the point that conservatives are as likely to want to exercise control over others as liberals is a well made one, this particular example isn't all that convincing if "conservative" really fits the narrative of its opposite. Isn't it the most ostensibly uber-conservative politicians who want expanded oil drilling? And nuclear power? And to block up our beautiful rivers with those hideous implements of hydroelectric power generation? The environment-hating fossil fuel addict has been the standard conservative caricature since the 1970's. Do we have to change that entire vision now just because of 2 opinions?

  16. American politics are driven by Puritan roots, on both the right and the left.

    Both "sides" want to force us all to live like the Amish, with different trappings.

    Screw them all.

    1. So, I have a right to a free pony? Guess it doesn't matter who I vote for.

  17. I think this is a case of correlation != causation. Increased fossil fuel is correlated with the rise of the following ideologies:

    the philosophies of Nietzsche
    National Socialism
    the philosophies of Heidegger

    Are these ideologies/philosophies the consequence of increased fossil fuel use?

  18. I remember reading a Rod Dreher column in the Dallas Morning News, in which he was lamenting the fact that younger Americans were less willing to enshrine their moral values into law. And I thought "yeah, that's the whole point". The younger folk see no reason to support nanny-state laws and are perfectly content with letting people do whatever they want as long as nobody or nobody's property is harmed. And the fact that this is lost on Dreher speaks volumes about his busybody mindset.

    If the Libertarian Party could only reach out to younger folks (if not now, then in 2016 when Obamamania will definitely be over), they would have massive growth potential. A flashy multimillion-dollar promotional campaign would help a lot.

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