the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2003 January 31


Two years ago my daily routine consisted of fighting a lost battle on enemy territory. I engaged in this rather romantic endeavor with an unbelievably-talented group of activists. They must have been fearless; I, by available evidence, was stupid. The broader context was what may be the fastest-expanding human settlement in recorded history, metropolitan Atlanta. Beyond Atlanta’s perimeter road, New Suburbia meets the Old South in a frontier of cultural and economic conservatism of unsurpassed intensity. In Cobb County, whose infamy may precede it, it is possible to shuttle from soccer cul-de-sacs to gated mansions for the nouveaux riches (or at least hauts bourgeois) to land defended with shotguns under the Confederate Battle Flag. One must shuttle in a car, of course, for this is land explicitly hostile to public transportation, and even to sidewalks. Some of my favorite individuals live in Cobb County, including the most dedicated conservationist I have personally known; but even when I lived in Cobb County myself we were not exactly a weighty voting bloc.

My colleagues and I were canvassing for an environmental group on the issue of urban sprawl. At thirty years old, I was a decrepit grandfather in a band of earnest young liberals whose college educations were apparently insufficient to communicate the foolishness of our basic expectation. Our usual procedure was to knock on a door and assert that the relentless development that had produced the house we were standing in front of was a bad thing, and that the roads at the center of the occupants’ culture were bad things that connected other bad things. It was like selling air conditioners to Eskimos, not only in its futility but also in its underlying argument, namely: “When global warming really kicks in, you’ll be sorry.” ― not an obvious formula for success.

Recently I had the privilege, or burden, of explaining to a third party why the work of one of my colleagues was to be admired and commended. She was good, and so were others of the group; but collectively we were astonishing, as I seldom tire of remarking. We did things that had not been done before, in circumstances that by convention rendered them impossible. Our mounting success made most of the group arrogant, though it had no affect on me, being already insufferably arrogant. Beyond arrogance, which is always its own reward, there were other benefits coming from our undaunted nerve. For one thing, it implanted a conviction that any of our previous actions had been too much governed by a sense of impossibility.

I am not just talking about getting self-absorbed suburbanites to write checks to environmental groups. I am talking about getting self-absorbed suburbanites to write checks and hand them over to strangers who have just explained that our problems result from selfishness and shortsightedness and will only be solved at the cost of sacrifice. I am talking about proposing to a person who owns cars, and hates taxes, that cars be made more expensive, road expansion be halted, and taxes be raised, and suggesting that said person facilitate the process by parting with a hundred dollars on the spot. The shock alone may have accounted for some of our success. And the rest?

What my friends and I were discovering was the value of heroism. While it is not necessary for the argument to claim to be heroic myself, for the sake of consistency I will. That is part of what makes the whole proposition work. I knew I was heroic, and the people I was interacting with knew it also. They knew it in part because I knew it. Confidence inspires confidence. Resolution inspires resolution. Political opponents were shamed to silence, and supporters were effusive in their praise. Here, they both knew, was someone who actually believed something, and was willing to do something unquestionably difficult for that belief. I never needed to say, because it was always implied: “I have been walking around for five hours in the depth of winter so that we can all have clean air to breathe. Is there anything I could ask you for that would be too much?”

I am on record as saying that popularity and electoral success will, in the short and medium term, always elude us, precisely because, in word or in fact, we demand sacrifice and offer no immediate dividends. But acceptance of this fact can also free us to pursue the strategy that will achieve the most for us in the short and medium term. It sickens me to see our convictions reduced to pathetic arguments about some economic benefit. None of us believes that we should protect wilderness to develop a tourist economy, that we should pursue earth-friendly technologies because they will create jobs. Why do we continue to argue so? We should tell the ranchers that we will no longer let their cattle overgraze our fields and pollute our streams, that they will not profit off of public lands; and then tell consumers that if they insist on eating meat, they can pay what it actually costs. We should tell the oil companies that we will no longer let them place our wilderness in jeopardy, that they will not profit off of public lands; and then tell consumers that if they insist on driving, they can pay what it actually costs. We should go to the desert cities in the West, as I have done, and say: “You can live here; but you will pay the true cost of water, and you cannot have a drop for your lawn.” We should go into logging country in Montana, as I have also done, and say: “We need to protect the forests even if no human ever visits them. We will not extinguish fires, we will not log the trees; and yes, you are going to lose your job.”

Our political system is essentially built on telling people what they want to hear, and expecting them to believe it, as they invariably do. The heart of this is the debt financing of the government, which suggests that taxes can be low for everyone, the government can do everything that everyone wants, and no one will ever have to pay. One sorry capitalist, Steven E. Landsburg, has gone so far as to justify this with economic arguments about interest rates and devaluation and suggested that we should borrow and spend now because the taxpayers of the future will be able cover the expense at less real cost to themselves. He also argues that it is presumptuous to suppose that our posterity will place the same value on the forests and other wild lands that we do, and that preservation is therefore an affront to science and logic. Capitalism, private property, and wealth accumulation are, like debt financing, manifestations of egoism and dominion. More immediately, they are all based on lies. They are exceedingly-beloved lies, and thus we, if not inclined to repeat the lies, are rather hesitant to oppose them. We will not say that we know them to be lies, though they are, and we do.

But if we duck and weave, if we shade and finesse the truth, no one will respect us. If we shy from confrontation as cowards, no one will respect us, and we will certainly not respect ourselves. We will achieve nothing. But if we know our hearts and speak our minds, we will have the respect of ally and opponent alike, and those who are with us will not be tepid in their support. They will find it easier to know their own hearts and speak their own minds, and they will do so with great conviction. Stewardship in general and conservation in particular are difficult and often ungratifying but righteous nonetheless. They are heroic, if done boldly; and as we can never have the easy popularity given by the masses to the truckling sycophants who offer largesse that cannot be delivered, we may as well have the devotion of a smaller but more worthy group who are willing to commit themselves if someone, for the love of Earth someone, shows the courage to speak the truth. For eight months I was fortunate to work with this fact in practice, with a small collective of individuals whose sense of invincibility both came from and led to our success. We didn’t have majority support; we didn’t need it. We were right. And while that may only matter to a minority, to that minority it rightly matters more than anything else.


Landsburg’s articles, curiously not ironic:
Tax the knickers off your grandchildren
Don’t pay down the national debt

Original version


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