More to the point of yesterday’s post about the slow and agonizing death spiral of the environmental movement: could anyone have predicted this? In fact, some one did, at the very beginning of modern environmentalism around the time of the first Earth Day. The political scientist Anthony Downs offered up his theory of the “issue-attention cycle” in a classic 1972 article in The Public Interest, explaining the five stages that virtually all issues go through in the course of their public life. Downs specifically said that the environmental issue cycle would be longer than most.
The issue-attention cycle begins with a group of experts and interest groups promoting a problem or crisis, which is soon followed by the alarmed discovery of the news media and broader political class. This second stage, significantly, typically includes a large amount of euphoric enthusiasm—you might call this the “dopamine” stage—as activists conceive the issue in terms of global salvation and redemption. One of the largest debilitations of environmentalism from the beginning was to conceive it not as a practical problem of public health or nuisance, but as an expression, in Al Gore’s view, of deeper spiritual and even metaphysical problems arising from our “dysfunctional civilization.” These people don’t just want to fix our tailpipes; they want to fix our souls.
The third stage is the hinge. As Downs explains, there comes “a gradually spreading realization that the cost of ‘solving’ the problem is very high indeed.” This is where we have been since the Kyoto process proposed completely implausible near-term reductions in fossil fuel energy as the sole solution to climate change—a fanatical monomania the climate campaign has been unable to shake and which has eaten the environmental movement, hastening its death. In retrospect it is now possible to grasp the irony that President George W. Bush’s open refusal to embrace the Kyoto framework kept the climate campaign alive by providing the all-purpose excuse for the lack of “progress.” With Bush gone, the intrinsic weakness of the carbon-cutting charade is impossible to hide.
“The previous stage,” Downs continued, “becomes almost imperceptibly transformed into the fourth stage: a gradual decline in the intensity of public interest in the problem. In the final [post-problem] stage,” Downs concluded, “an issue that has been replaced at the center of public concern moves into a prolonged limbo—a twilight realm of lesser attention or spasmodic recurrences of interest.”
The death rattle of environmentalism will be deafening. It has too much political momentum and fanatical devotion to go quietly. The environmental establishment is a billion-dollar a year business, and there are plenty of stupid guilty rich people, idiot Hollywood celebrities, and direct-mail dupes to keep the agitation machine going for many years to come. The architecture of environmental law and regulation, and the administrative momentum of the EPA, assures that this zombie movement will continue to do great damage to the economy for a long time to come. But make no mistake—it is a bunch of brain-dead zombies that we face in the environmental movement today.
As for cause of death on the official death certificate, mark it down as “suicide, brought on by hubris.”