Friday, December 3, 2010

Announcement: Al Gore and Russell Kirk Agree on Something!

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal ran a review by Nick Schulz, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, of Vaclav Smil's new book Prime Movers of Globalization. Smil's book is, as the subtitle puts it, a study of the "history and impact of diesel engines and gas turbines." The book would appear to be of interest to a history and economics buff who has a mechanical bent and a desire to learn more about the technical innovations that have driven globalization forward in the past two centuries. Besides explaining the role these devices have played in making it easier to travel long distances and transport great loads quickly, though, Smil also acknowledges that there are environmental drawbacks to these devices. Smil himself, according to the review, does his best to maintain a balanced perspective.

The review, on the other hand, is anything but balanced and can only be termed disingenuous. Schulz's rhetorical strategy is to frame his summary of Smil's book in a denunciation of environmentalism. He begins with Al Gore's utopian call (in Earth in the Balance) for the elimination of internal combustion engines by 2017. Then, at the end of the review, Schulz mentions that Smil addresses some of the environmental damage caused by diesel engines and gas turbines as well as "social disruption that their inventors could not have imagined." But if the "creative destruction caused by global trade" is so extensive, why then has Schulz just penned an ode to the internal combustion engine? How can he simply shrug off these problems? A hint comes in his final line, a variation on Irving Kristol's well-known quip about neoconservatives, saying that Smil, as opposed to environmentalists, "has been mugged by the reality of physics and engineering."

This phrase "mugged by reality" is obviously meant to show that Schulz is a realist, not a deluded "hard-line environmentalist." But what the last paragraph of the review really shows is that Schulz is dismissing out of hand concerns about social upheaval on a previously unimagined scale because they are not part of his reality, the "reality of physics and engineering." Since when, though, did any environmentalist deny the reality of the internal combustion engine, or of global trade? Do environmentalists believe that physics is an illusion?

Obviously not. Why, then, does Schulz resort to such dishonest rhetoric when discussing environmentalism? Schulz names Al Gore as the archetypal environmentalist because he can show that Gore's proposed cure would be just as bad as the disease. By holding up one prominent environmentalist for ridicule, Schulz can then sidestep the serious questions posed by Gore and others concerning the environment, such as: Is it possible that humans cannot be trusted to use internal combustion engines responsibly? Would it have been better if they had never been invented if the risk of serious damage to the environment is so great?

Schulz also resorts to dishonest rhetoric so that he can studiously avoid, while pretending to acknowledge, the social disruption caused by the internal combustion engine. But it is precisely this allegation of social disruption that forms the heart of the complaint against the internal combustion engine that Schulz refuses to answer. This allegation was leveled by at least one conservative thinker strongly opposed to all utopian fantasies: Russell Kirk, who famously called automobiles "mechanical Jacobins" on account of their revolutionary effect on society. If Schulz honestly faced Kirk's critique, he would have to ask himself more uncomfortable questions, such as: Is commercial prosperity perhaps bad for society because it chips away at solidarity among people? Is the decrease in social cohesion caused by modern modes of transport actually more harmful than the benefit of unrestricted mobility?

As strange as it may sound, Al Gore and Russell Kirk actually share common concerns about technical progress, though Kirk very likely would have rejected Gore's solution to the problem. This strange agreement should at least give Schulz pause to consider the morality of technology in addition to its creative power. But by ignoring Gore's and Kirk's questions Schulz shows that his ultimate fault is that he willfully equates what is technologically possible with what is morally good.

That anyone should make this mistake after the 20th century is sad indeed. The reality of the 20th century should have mugged Schulz and jolted him out of his complacent faith in technical progress. What, then, could prevent him from seeing that technical progress often poses difficult moral questions? Schulz, apparently a neoconservative, would likely answer that the "creative destruction caused by global trade" maximizes freedom through the increased production of wealth. But freedom and wealth are not ends in themselves, and neither is technology.
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