Walsh: The environment isn’t free

From an Antique Land

Rush Limbaugh responds to a caller: “The Japanese have done so much to save the planet … and yet Gaia levels them [laughs], just wipes them out. Wipes out their nuclear plants, all kinds of radiation. What kind of payback is this? That is an excellent question. They invented the Prius. In fact, where Gaia blew up is right where they make all these electric cars. That’s where the tsunami hit. All those brand new electric cars sitting there on the lot … It’s like Gaia hit the Prius and [Nissan] Leaf place … What is Gaia trying to tell us here? What is the mother of environmentalism trying to say with this hit? Great observation out there, Chris.”

It is odd that efforts to help or serve or simply give a damn about the environment would invoke such callousness and ignorance, whether Gaia’s or Limbaugh’s. It is odd for many reasons, but I have space to consider only one: why is doing good and being progressive — minimally progressive in the cases of nuclear power and Priuses — cause for vilification and punishment?

Limbaugh is admittedly a straw man for Democratic ire, but the sentiments underlying his comment are not isolated. They are, rather, scarily representative given the composition of our Congress. Widespread opinion among conservative political elites, and presumably their constituents, is that terms like “environmentalism,” “green” and “sustainability” are inimical to core American values. Open any newspaper; the evidence is abundant. So I want to know: what is it, exactly, that conservatives are so allergic to?

There are two basic arguments that I’ve come across: an economic argument, and a related libertarian, way-of-life argument. The economic argument deserves more space than I can give, but suffice it to say that reliance on good economics does not necessarily provide good guidance. Yale’s own William Nordhaus calculated what he perceives to be the efficient, rather than scientifically prudent, response to climate change. According to his model, a rise in average global temperatures of 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial averages would cost only 5 percent of global GDP. To put that in perspective, some measures of global average temperature in past ice ages were only about 4 degrees lower than today’s. I’m curious what effects a 5-degree change might incur, but not that curious.

The other argument commonly put forth elicits McCarthyist threats to our way of life, as if environmentalists are expressly out to destroy the comforts we have (justly or unjustly) accrued. But these arguers seem to presume the right to a clean environment without affording room for corollary sacrifices. Limbaugh himself certainly expects leadless air, potable tap water, safe disposal of toxics, parkland for lazy enjoyment. These amenities, as they’re labeled, require a mentality and method of stewardship. They require environmentalism. Limbaugh’s, and others’, willingness to ride free can go only so far. It is unavoidable that we must sometime accept responsibility for livelihoods beyond our own, and that time is now. Deferral of the challenges we currently face only presages greater and more consequential challenges for coming generations. Are not conservatives interested in conserving some semblance of our way of life? Fooled me.

Environmentalism, as well, has been attached to the word sacrifice, and sacrifice has become anathema within politics. But Limbaugh, and Republicans generally, are apologists for war in the name of liberty. Our freedom does not come free, rings their patriotic refrain. Sacrifice for a greater good.

Well, nor does the cleanliness of our environment come freely. It does not come without environmentalism. So why is it such a laughable and readily dismissed subject? Let’s all suffer some accountability. Unless that’s no longer a core American value.

Dylan Walsh is a second-year student in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.


  • The Anti-Yale

    These are high minded and inspiring words. I fear money will prevail.

  • Leo

    If private property rights and economic freedom are core American values, then they are threatened by the ideology of environmentalism, which is inherently anti-capitalistic. I am extremely concerned about environmental pollution and degradation, which is why I support the extension of private property rights to all natural resources, and oppose government ownership and intervention. Common ownership leads to the “tragedy of the commons” (over-fishing is a prime example), while arguments in favor of the “common good” permit pollution at the expense of individual property-owners. In short, the price mechanism of the free market provides the only way to allocate resources efficiently with minimal harm to the environment. The other option, the allocation of resources by government, invariably results in starvation for humans and the destruction of their environment (witness the history of Soviet Russia).

  • lfsouth

    Good thoughts, Dylan.

    Limbaugh has quite the tribal attitude. Many commentators do, although few are able to get as much attention as does El Rushbo. It’s schadenfreude as a political philosophy. Or rather, environmentalism is bad because the other is for it.