Wal-Mart environmentalism

Lawrence Solomon
FP Comment
October 17, 2008

The next commodity to collapse will be mass-marketed environmentalism, which will come to be disdained.

Stock market indexes have plummeted from their inflated peaks. Oil and other commodities have likewise plummeted. The next commodity to tumble from unsustainable peak levels: environmentalism.

In part, I am making this prediction because, in my 30 years as an environmentalist, I have never seen so many governments and so many corporations so profusely espousing so many environmental causes. Where promoting environmentalism was once seen as daring and counter-cultural, today it has become banal, no longer the exclusive preserve of a Body Shop chain, but of every retailer down to Wal-Mart. For the same reason that clothes go out of fashion after the masses embrace them, mass-marketed environmentalism will come to be disdained. That won’t sell for long.

I am predicting a collapse of today’s Wal-Mart environmentalism for another reason, too: Much of it is misguided, based on misunderstanding and vacuity. Global warming is by far the biggest such example.

Those who have been following my Denier series in these pages know that large numbers of distinguished scientists dispute the conventional wisdom on climate change, making absurd the claim that the science is settled on climate change. And yet government and corporate propaganda — in global warming and elsewhere — strip away all subltety and uncertainty in their public relations programs, portraying environmental problems and proposing environmental solutions in cartoon-cutout simplicity that, more often than not, accomplish nothing good or make matters worse.

While governments and industry discount major environmental issues that affect crown corporations and crown resources (nuclear power, forestry), they stir up concerns in consumer areas that have high visibility and often pose few true hazards. The results are often perverse: Blue Box recycling programs that promote waste; ethanol blends for automobiles that benefit the farm lobby while depleting the land and fouling the air; bans on incandescent bulbs that ignore consumer preferences but please light bulb manufacturers seeking lucrative new markets; public transit systems that run near-empty buses along low-density routes; “Right-to-Farm” laws that legalize polluting practices; demonization of private water systems, including bans on water bottles, when private systems have a superior safety and environmental record — in short, most of the environmental policies that governments put before the public are wrong-headed.

A third reason for my prediction that environmentalism has peaked is the instinct for self-preservation among the political leadership. Thinking they could raise revenues while appearing green, opportunistic politicians have been promoting environmental taxes without having a credible case to make. The result, increasingly, is political ruin. The federal election results this week are, in good part, a testament to Liberal leader Stéphan Dion’s failure to sell his Green Shift — the Liberals obtained the lowest share of the vote since Confederation. In England, where citizens face the world’s highest burden of green taxes, the ruling Labour Party received a miserable 3% of the vote in by-elections earlier this year and London’s mayor, the greenest in Europe, was thrown out of office. Across Europe, once-green politicians are now backing away from their earlier commitments to push green agendas.

In stock and commodity markets, when values fall from unrealistically high levels, they often fall further than justified. When environmentalism falls from its high values on the realization that many concerns have been oversold, it too will likely fall further than justified. Environmentalism will then need to reestablish public trust before real environmental gains can be made.

As history shows, after being burned in the stock market, investors often stay away for years, fearful of being burned again. The lack of trust harms the greater economy. We have no history of what happens when citizens feel taken in by false environmental claims. But we may soon find out.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute, and author of The Deniers: The world-renowned scientists who stood up against global warming hysteria, political persecution, and fraud.

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