Yesterday’s Archdruid report triggers me to write a post I’ve been meaning to write for a while, which is to make the following point: the project of transforming society to use less resources, have less environmental impact, or emit less carbon, does not necessarily have anything to do with the project of making society more equal.  Environmentalism != Socialism, to reduce it to a bumper sticker.

One can be forgiven for thinking that these two projects are related, since the political right – the usual defenders of hierarchical privilege – have, in the US, gone into a state of near-total denial about environmental issues (as evidenced, for example, by the fact that it has become very difficult for Republicans to express belief in anthropogenic climate change, something that is almost completely uncontroversial amongst the scientific community). Meanwhile, the political left – the Democratic party – is for the most part in consensus that the problem exists, and Something Ought to be Done, even if it’s only prepared to make relatively modest efforts at the outset. At the same time, many ardent environmental advocates strongly believe that people should live in the smallest house possible, personally use few resources, and generally aspire to a state of voluntary poverty.  It’s perhaps natural that the traditional concerns of the environmental movement – the welfare of communities of plants and animals – should fall to the political left, since leftists are traditionally concerned with the underdog, and certainly plants and animals are the lowest status entities in modern society.

Still, as natural as these instincts are, I think they are seriously mistaken as a guide to thinking about the world.  And while I know a number of reasonably well-off people who care deeply about the environment and have taken many steps in their own lives to reduce their impact, it seems to me that I haven’t often seen people articulate this philosophy clearly and publicly, so let me attempt it.

Humanity has no idea how to construct a very equal society on any scale. We may very well be born with natural instincts to desire an equal society because we are evolved to live in small hunter-gatherer bands, and most hunter-gatherer societies are pretty equal (and indeed many have strong cultural norms preventing anyone rising too much above the others in status). If you look at small societies today (eg residential intentional communities) the secular ones almost always gravitate to very egalitarian structures with decision-making by consensus and relatively little degree of variation in house size, etc (spiritual communities are often not this way for reasons I don’t understand).

However, since humanity invented agriculture and thus civilization, all reasonably successful civilizations have been unequal to some degree. Early agricultural societies were all extremely unequal with a small nobility that maintained control over a much larger peasantry that worked the land. In every case, the nobility extracted most of the small surplus that these societies produced and used it to live in big houses with ornate clothing and lots of servants. There are no historical examples of highly egalitarian agricultural civilizations.

Since the advent of fossil-fuel powered industrial civilizations, with their higher economic surpluses, it has been possible to support a much higher standard of living for the people who would have been the peasantry in earlier times. Still, places like Sweden and Denmark represent the outer limits of what has proven possible in the way of equality, and still there are significant variations in the economic privilege accorded to a successful businessperson, a doctor, and a janitor. All attempts to create formally equal large societies have ended in dismal failure – places that have to keep their people in by force, make extensive use of secret police, etc. All have now either collapsed or effectively changed their form of government and society to moderate the degree of equality (such as China, now extremely unequal, or Cuba, increasingly undertaking market reforms). Perhaps the last holdout for some form of true communism is North Korea, which of course has become a byword for every tendency of totalitarian dysfunction that Orwell imagined.

So in trying to imagine a way through our various present difficulties, I don’t see how anyone with more than a passing knowledge of history can propose that we should try to reform society with a goal of perfect equality. It’s a perfectly reasonable position to say the the US has now moved too far in the direction of inequality (and indeed I share that view) and should move back toward the center of the historically workable range. But that’s different than claiming that society should be perfectly economically equal and there should be no economic elite.

So let us accept that, at least until we decide to engineer better human beings, a decent society will have an economic elite. I think it’s then pretty much a given (at least based on the behaviors of past elites in all civilizations everywhere) that the elite will choose to express their economic privilege by having larger houses and expending more energy than the rest of society. This may be somewhat more so, or somewhat less so, but it is going to be so to some degree.

So then, ask yourself, if you want society to move in the direction of emitting less carbon, being easier on nature, etc, what do you want your elites to do? Do you want them to expend their energies and economic privilege desperately trying to keep society in denial about our current climate and resource problems? Or do you want them, like Al Gore, to use a portion of their undoubted economic privilege in an attempt to move society in a direction of lower impact and less emissions?

One thing is for sure: if you insist that the only way for members of the elite to campaign for the environment is to give up all economic privilege, you will find very few takers. And any that do take you up will immediately be replaced in the ranks of the economically privileged by others less sympathetic to your cause.