There is a painful rift among self-described environmentalists in Vermont, a divide that is particularly evident in the debate on siting industrial wind turbines on the state's iconic ridgelines. In the past, battle lines were usually drawn between business interests seeking to profit by 'developing' the land, and environmentalists seeking to protect it. Today, however, the most ardent advocates of developing Vermont's fragile ridgeline ecosystems are environmental organizations. So what is happening?
The simple answer is that those supporting ridgeline wind believe that the costs of climate change to the entire biosphere outweigh the impacts to any particular ecosystem. But I believe there is something deeper going on. According to former New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges, this change is symptomatic of a broader shift that has taken shape over many years. In his book Death of the Liberal Class, Hedges looks at the failure of the left to defend the values it espouses -- a fundamental disconnect between belief and action that has been corrupting to the left and disastrous as a whole. Among other things, he argues, it has turned liberal establishments into mouthpieces for the power elite.
Historically, the liberal class has acted as watchdog against the abuses of capitalism and its elites. But over the last century, Hedges claims, it has traded that role for a comfortable 'seat at the table' and inclusion in 'the club'. This Faustian bargain has created a power vacuum -- one that has historically been filled by right-wing totalitarian elements that rise to prominence by ridiculing and betraying the values that liberals claim to champion.
Caving in to the seduction of careerism, prestige and comforts, the liberal class curtailed its critique of unfettered capitalism, globalization and educational institutions, and silenced the radicals and iconoclasts that gave it moral guidance -- "the roots of creative and bold thought that would keep it from being subsumed completely by the power elite." In other words, "the liberal class sold its soul".
From education to labor to agriculture and environmentalism, this moral vacuum continues to grow because the public sphere has been abandoned by those who fear becoming pariahs. Among the consequences, Hedges says, is an inability to take effective action on climate change. This is because few environmentalists are willing to step out of the mainstream to challenge its root causes -- economic growth, the profit system, and the market-driven treadmill of consumption.
Hedges' perspective clarifies a lot. It explains why so many environmental organizations push for 'renewable' additions to the nation's energy supply, rather than a systematic reduction of energy use. It explains why they rant and rail against fossil-fuel companies, while studiously averting their eyes from the corporate growth machine as a whole. In their thrall to wealthy donors and 'green' developers (some of whom sit on their boards), they've traded their concern about the natural world for the goal of 'sustainability' -- which means keeping the current exploitive system going.
It also makes clear why Vermont's mainstream environmental organizations as well as the state's political leadership have lobbied so aggressively to prevent residents from having a say regarding energy development in their towns. By denying citizens the ability to defend the ecosystems in which they live, these groups are betraying not only the public, but the natural world they claim to represent. Meanwhile, these purported champions of social justice turn their backs as foreign corporations bully Vermonters out of their homes in the name of 'green' energy.