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I was getting awfully suspicious of environmentalists. Their solutions to problems had an inordinate amount of impracticality about them, more than they would have tolerated in their own lives, and the environmentalists in any given area seemed easy to identify. They were, quite simply, members of the local aristocracy, often living at the end of long country roads. They had learned the lessons of conspicuous consumption and had allowed a certain genteel rusticity to enter into their lives, patterning themselves after the English landed gentry.

They knew the language of ecology, and could describe a future filled with windmills and with bright sunshine radiating “inexhaustible energy.” But somehow one never got the impression that these people were planning to take part in it. The “soft energy” of their imagined future was only a vision offered to persuade people to forgo the realities of the present. What a load of nonsense. And when I questioned the environmentalists closely I found that facts rarely intruded upon their vision. “Have faith” was the rejoinder, while economics and matters of sheer quantity were dismissed.

Environmentalism indeed seemed to favor the status quo. For people who found the present circumstances to their liking, it offered the extraordinary opportunity to combine the qualities of virtue and selfishness. When the first environmentalists were showing up at town meetings to argue against new apartment buildings, shopping centers, or whatever, it was obvious that they were actually acting out of the universal human impulse that makes people respond to incursions on their surroundings by saying, “Better to put it somewhere else.” What they wanted was to remain preserved in an untroubled stasis, though they ennobled their arguments with talk of “ecosystems,” of “rare, endangered species,” and of “carrying capacities.” People who would starve to death if they couldn’t drive their cars to the supermarket were opposing new road construction because “fossil fuels are disappearing” and “soon we aren’t going to be using cars anymore.”

But nothing they said ever had very much to do with sacrifice or self-restraint. If tweedy people with fireplaces in their living rooms could protect their “environments,” why couldn’t tacky people living in pink-and-gray houses at the end of culs-de-sac? All the same, “environmentalism” always seemed to work in favor of the people who were already established in “the environment.” I didn’t realize the extent to which this was true until I learned that a group of middle-class whites in Newark had prevented the construction of a low-income housing complex by raising a long series of challenges to the project’s environmental impact statements. Not long before then, “ecology” had been an obscure discipline found only in a few biology textbooks, and “environmentalism” a word that didn’t even appear in the dictionary.

There can now be no doubt that much of our response to the industrial crisis is formulated by this leisure class marching under the banner of “environmentalism.” This is not to say that we do not face enormous environmental crises and that there are not enormous numbers of people dedicated to solving them. My quarrel is with the political “environmentalism” that offers no reasonable alternatives but proposes solutions that entail delaying or abandoning present, feasible, and proven technology, and waiting for solutions that are “attractive” or “just on the horizon.”

The great appeal such environmental solutions offer is that they can appear prudent and win acclaim. Never mind that to identify as an “environmentalist” is to say that one has achieved enough well-being from the present system and is now content to let it remain as it is. Environmentalism, presenting itself to us as a form of “science,” only borrows the language of science to serve its own purposes. And thus are leisure-class environmentalists perfectly content to leave things the way they are, regardless of the economic consequences, since, as Thorstein Veblen notes, “the attitude of the class [is] to let well enough alone.”

From “Environmentalism and the Leisure Class,” which appeared in the December 1977 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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May 1981

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