Fear and knowing

Last night I attended “Fright Night,” a debate at the New York Public Library. The editors of n+1 invited contributor Alex Gourevitch to discuss his belief that environmentalism was becoming the lefty twin of the right’s war on terror—a fear-mongering technique designed to bully people into surrendering their right to healthy debate. Once the evening’s introductions were over, however, it transpired that the n+1 editors had invited Gourevitch in the belief that he shares with them the premise that climate change is a crisis in need of a political solution. In fact, he doesn’t. He believes that climate change is real, but that its dangers are wildly exaggerated, and that rather than try to lower carbon-dioxide emissions, concerned individuals should try to speed up the industrialization of the Third World, which will resist damage more stoutly as it becomes richer.

The ensuing debate was a bit chaotic, because no one but Gourevitch seemed prepared to engage the prior question that he raised. I blog about it only to add two footnotes. During the question-and-answer period, through a cold-virus-toxin-induced haze, I brought up an article I had recently read, though I couldn’t remember where, about two consultants who were advising the Democrats to drop environmental fear-mongering not because it was an emotionally coercive stifling of political debate but because it was hard to sell in the marketplace of ideas. Gourevitch graciously supplied the name of the article where the consultants first issued this hypothesis, “The Death of Environmentalism,” and I now see by inspection of my nightstand that I read about it in Gregg Easterbrook’s review in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas of the book that this article later became, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. In my memory of Easterbrook’s article (though not evidently in the article itself, so perhaps I read about the proposal elsewhere, too), the consultants had pointed to the Clean Air Act of 1970 as a resounding, unequivocal success and suggested that Democrats should be trumpeting the fact that air and water in America are much cleaner now than a generation ago thanks to governmental intervention, rather than looking forward to doomsday scenarios, which tend to cause voters to withdraw into their shells. My growing suspicion while listening to Gourevitch was that his concern about the potential of fear-mongering to stifle (small d) democratic problem-solving was notional, and perhaps just sheep’s clothing to disguise a libertarian wolf beneath. So I asked whether he could imagine any governmental intervention into the environment that was worth the burden it would place on industrial growth, and in particular I asked him to imagine it was 1970, and that he knew then what we know now, and to say whether his principles would allow him to support the Clean Air Act.

He answered that he didn’t know enough about the specifics of the Clean Air Act to answer. Since the Clean Air Act is one of the most widely heralded successes in environmental legislation of the last half-century, whose full benefits are still being researched (the latest suggestion is that by removing lead from paint and gasoline, the 1970 act and its 1980s updates improved children’s mental health so much that they preempted a crime wave), I took his nescio to be general, that is, to mean that Gourevitch would never feel that any centralized planner knew enough about the world to justify intervention in the environment, no matter how sure the plan’s benefits and no matter how limited the plan’s goal and costs, and that Gourevitch’s concern that fear might chill debate is, practically speaking, mere obstructionism. (To disprove me, of course, all he has to do is give an example of environmental legislation he supports.)

As an example of how counterproductive environmentalism could be, Gourevitch repeated several times last night that exaggerated concern over DDT had deprived Africans of a tool that could be useful to them in the fight against malaria. (I didn’t take notes, so I may be wrong about exactly what Gourevitch claimed here, but it was along these lines.) As it happens, I had in my knapsack an article about the topic that I had printed out earlier in the day but not yet read. As Aaron Swartz notes in “Rachel Carson, Mass Murderer?” there’s a new meme circulating in right-wing blogs and think tanks, to the effect that Rachel Carson’s campaign against DDT in her book Silent Spring is responsible for the deaths by malaria of millions of African children. The claim doesn’t hold up, as Swartz explains; for one thing, DDT use in Africa seems in fact to have declined not because of liberal woollymindedness but because mosquitoes became resistant to it, a danger that Carson herself warned of. The real goal of the pro-DDT campaign, Swartz suggests, isn’t to revive its use as a pesticide—it’s still legal in ten African nations—but to deprive environmentalism of one of its most charismatic successes.

UPDATE: The New York Times‘s Sewell Chan has a responsible and comprehensive account of the night’s debate.