Sunday, March 27, 2005

Greening the Elephants?

Oil prices are soaring, but America is not paying heed by reducing consumption. Thomas Friedman ran another op-ed on geo-greens today ("Geo-greening by example," N.Y. Times, Mar 27) as a follow up to an earlier piece ("No Mullah Left Behind", N.Y. Times, Feb 13). Friedman's main point is that George Bush's failure to articulate any coherent energy policy, let alone a sensible one, is causing the American people to finance both sides of the war in the Middle East; American tax payers are funding U.S. military operations, and their continuing avarice for oil is supporting world oil prices that fill the pockets of Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Iran and reduce their incentive to liberalize their economy and politics. The result is acontinued reliance on expensive imported oil, an increasing trade deficit and an ever weakening U.S. dollar. Friedman is dumbfounded at Bush's failure to embrace geo-greening, a sustainable energy policy which marries environmentalism, fiscal discipline, and sound foreign policy.

Even the The Economist is advocating that a green agenda would serve Bush well ("Greening Bush", The Economist, Mar 3). The self-proclaimed "newspaper" argues that environmentalism is consistent with the conservative movement in so far as conservation and stewardship is consistent with the values of the evangelical Christian right. It also observes that over the course of history, a string of key Republicans such as Teddy Roosevelt (who expanded national parks), Barry Goldwater (member of Sierra Club), Richard Nixon (created the EPA, presided over the passage of the Clear Air Act and created 600 national parks), Ronald Reagan (who was a notably green governor of California), George H. Bush (adopted the successful "cap and trade" sulfur dioxide trading regime) have embraced green issues. One might add the current Californian "governator" (adopting stringent regulation of mobile source greenhouse gases) to the list. The greening of the Republican party, The Economist argues, "is a revolution waiting to happen."

I wish I could be as optimistic.

It is questionable, for one, how green the motives of some of the above really were. Nixon and Bush Sr., for example, only jumped on the green bandwagon largely because such initiatives were popular among voters at the time, and not because of some independent green ethic. Furthermore, despite the the elegant argument that stewardship should resonate with the Christian right, there are at least two strong countervailing features of today's conservative movement that will keep environmentalism in check--Texas and business. Chapter 5 ("For Texas, Business and God") of John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge's The Right Nation sheds insight on the rest of my thesis.

The Bush political dynasty finds its home in Texas, together with all the state's ethos. In fact, America today is Little Texas. Texas embodies size, optimism, self-confidence and materialism. For starters, its sheer size of this frontier state engenders a "slash and burn" attitude towards the environment. In the view of Texans, the vastness of the state exists for man's dominion. The rich Texas oil resources have created a "gusher elite" leaving the pollutive byproducts of such bucaneering capitalism in its wake. The state's immensity has also bred a "swaggering boastfullness" that is personified with its unofficial "Don't Mess with Texas" slogan. It is easy to see how Bush, former governor of Texas, has carried these values into his presidency; pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol at the risk of pursuing an isolationist foreign policy never troubled his conscience.

The other distinctive feature of Bush's presidency is its unprecedented pandering to business interests. While regulatory capture by corporations is a recurring theme in U.S. politics over the past century, consider these facts. Bush is the first president to hold an MBA. More Bush cabinet members than any other administration are former CEOs (in Bush's first cabinet were Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfield, Don Evans and Paul O'Neill). In the 2000 elections, Bush out fund-raised the "incumbent" VP Gore by being the businessperson's candidate, outperforming Gore among businesspeople in almost every state and in every industry. Tax cuts and deregulation are music to industry's ears. The drilling of the Alaskan wilderness for oil is part of Bush's "energy policy," shaped in the early years of his administration from advice by Enron executives.

What Micklethwait & Wooldridge note is that Bush's weakest moments have resulted from the taint of his association with business interests, such as his decision to allow higher arsenic levels in drinking water, his questionable choice of Harvey Pitt as chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission (Pitt had blatant conflicts of interest given his prior intimate association with the accounting industry), his initial cool response to the Enron accounting scandal, his closing of one eye towards the dubious business practices of Halliburton, Dick Cheney's old firm, and resistance to the corporate governance statute, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Given the Republican's Texanism and corporatism, how effectively can environmentalism be pitched as a "faith-based initiative" that can appeal to Bush's "big-government conservatism" (explained by The Economist as the use of government to promote conservative values, such as national security and education)?

Not very, I argue.

The Republican Elephant is and will be very much more red than green.


At Mon Mar 28, 06:38:00 PM GMT-5 , Anonymous QMan said...

I agree with your fundamental conclusion, but I am more optimistic for two reasons.

1)I think the value of religiously-motivated environmental pressure lies not in ability of religious advocacy groups to act as a direct counterpoint to corporate lobbyists. Rather their value lies at a different level, in the ability of religion to influence individual behavior, in the voting booth and, more importantly, in the marketplace. IF religious groups adopt environmental issues, and IF religion can combine with science and secular morals in support of environmental behavior by consumers/voters, then I'm not sure corporations will have the ability to resist, nor will resistance necessarily be the profit-maximizing option. Considering that the marriage between the religious right and the corporate, tax-cutting right is tenuous to begin with, it even seems possible that Republican politicians would have to avoid being seen as favoring their corporate base over the environmental interests of their religious base.

2) I would hesitate to treat "corporations" as a monolithic entity that has a consistent set of motivations and act as a block. While most corporations share a variety of common interests, there are plenty of incentives in the marketplace that lead to widely divergent corporate motivations. Even looking beyond folks who profit directly from environmental policies (eg renewable energy providers or environmental engineering firms), subtle differences in incentives can lead to significant differences of opinion on policy. Western coal companies supported sulfur cap & trade because their coal has less sulphur than eastern coal. Utilities with old power plants want decisions on emissions rules to be made sooner rather than later so they can incorporate future regulation into long-lived investment decisions. Companies that benefit from a reputation for being socially responsible need to back that up in the way they advocate policy. [Furthermore, it seems likely that shifts in popular sentiment pointing toward future changes in regulatory structure or consumer preferences will only increase the divergence between companies favoring the status quo and companies looking to exploit change. Thus the behavior of individuals (as mentioned above) has a big influence the ability of corporate interests to block environmental policy.]

For those reasons, I am optimistic that something good could happen, though I’m not sure it will. On the one hand, it remains to be seen how strong religious support for environmental issues will be. (And, how well will it mesh with secular support for environmental issues?) On the other hand, corporate influence in politics is pervasive—and even though there may only be a limited number of bad actors, there is little incentive for other companies to push for change.

But I see two different problems. On the one hand, there is a lack of transparency: the absence of information combined with the presence of misinformation. (A problem that is only magnified when it comes from both sides of the issues.) On the other hand, there is the environmental apathy of the average American consumer/ voter. I don't think the real problem is a lack of “green” behavior by corporate and political leaders. That may be nice but I don't think it is realistic. Corporations will do what makes them money, and politicians will do what gives them power. And, if the people a) know what is going on and b) are engaged in the system as voters and consumers, maybe that is the way it should be?


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