From Malthus to Trump? Our changing environmental policy


While the left chooses between blue and green, the right embraces both the coal country and a new focus on nature conservation.

There’s an old clip from Gore Vidal from (when else?) 1968 where our educated troll gives his interviewer a cool look and recommends all sorts of horrific things. He begins with overpopulation concerns and warns that humankind has too many children and that global famine is only a few years away. From then on, it moves on to mandatory birth control, sterilization, the condition that limits the number of children families can have – the entire Malthusian wish list in sleek style.

I like Vidal the way it happens, but this wandering is evidence of two things. First, despite the craziness of our politics, the Overton window was much wider today. And second, when the garbage was being picked up while the fires on the Cuyahoga River were being put out, there was a quarter of the left in general and the environmental movement in particular who viewed humanity as cancer on the planet. Vidal only parroted Paul Ehrlich, his book The population bomb, published the same year, advocated strict limits on human reproduction. And Ehrlich just echoed a broader Malthusian sentiment that had prevailed in America as early as the 1950s.

If you want to know why conservatives spoke out against the environmental movement so vehemently, then you’ve come to the right place. They didn’t see it as ecological, but as anti-human. Today the so-called Malthusian moment is over. You can still read the occasional pivoting-eyed essay that demands that we don’t have children to save the planet, but such arguments are relatively rare and tend to be put down by even progressives. Accordingly, the Right is now taking a fresh look at its own way of dealing with the environment. A new generation of conservatives is growing who support fracking and might resist the eschatology of climate change, but also want to protect our national parks and endangered species from the excesses of industry. Conservation has become a new catchphrase on the right. Malthus may still be out, but TR is back.

All of this begs the question: what will the politics of the planet be in the years to come?

I think part of the answer depends on how ready Joe Biden is to push his climate change agenda forward. And judging by the first month of his presidency, he’s ready to push pretty hard. One of Biden’s first steps after taking office was the discontinuation of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Texas Gulf Coast. It is estimated that this will cut 11,000 seasonal jobs, which is why even the head of the AFL-CIO union, one of Biden’s biggest supporters, was unsure.

Biden also plans to sign the Paris Climate Agreement, according to which states must reduce their emissions. He has temporarily stopped all oil and gas drilling in federal states (this production makes up about a quarter of our crude oil production). He has committed the EPA to reintroducing dozen of environmental regulations that were rolled back under Donald Trump. He has pledged to make America climate neutral by 2050.

What about the jobs that such a flash of green will inevitably kill? The answer for Biden is the same as always: replace them with new, safe, well-paid, unionized, presumably gender-specific “green” jobs. Whether the good people in the coal and oil country or not want Shaping their livelihoods socially in this way is a completely different story. And that’s important. Like many journalists, I did the whole ridiculous white working class safari routine in 2016 and ventured into the wilds of western Pennsylvania and West Virginia to find out what this whole MAGA thing was really about. What I found were people who were not concerned about secularism or libertarianism but about the future of their work. They accused the federal environmental bureaucracy of crushing the coal sector and feared that the fracking industry, in which many of them now worked, would be next. One man told me his vote for Trump could be summed up in three letters: EPA.

Now Biden promises more of it. That this could backfire, that those affected have the right to vote and could even contribute to a political reorientation, does not seem to have occurred to anyone on the left. Such economic disruption is not what these mid-century Malthusians advocated, but it has done real damage and is an important and often neglected factor behind the Trump phenomenon. It also poses challenges for the environmental policy of the future. Can the left balance their blues with their greens? Or will Allegheny protective helmets continue to be forfeited in favor of climate activists with “Save the Planet” bumper stickers on their Gulfstream jets? Can the new and supposedly worker-friendly law hold on to these voters? Even after Trump? And how will conservatives reconcile the demands on employment, stability and anti-bidding partisanship with their growing interest in nature conservation?

These are all questions that need to be answered. In the meantime, we can at least be grateful for that: Nobody suggests adding sterilant to the water.

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