Virginia Postrel on the Allure of Having Friends and Enemies
(Cross-posted from @TAC.)
Virginia Postrel argues this weekend that environmentalists favor high-speed rail and wind power not because they reduce carbon emissions but simply because they look good. “These technologies,” she writes,
aren’t just about getting from one city to another. They are symbols of an ideal world, longing disguised as problem solving. You can’t counter glamour with statistics.
Though she doesn’t say so, Postrel plainly thinks that “statistics” — or what she later calls the “annoyingly practical concerns the policy wonks insist on debating” — militate against high speed rail and wind power. Environmentalists, in other words, can’t think straight because they are thralls to beauty. Like the philosopher who banished the poets from the city, Postrel concludes by admonishing her readers to shun the seductions of green technology.
Clever as it is, Postrel’s techno-glamour thesis doesn’t withstand scrutiny. For one thing, she takes for granted that wind turbines are attractive. Really? If anything the movement for wind power is handicapped by the ugliness of wind turbines. The Kennedys, for example, a wealthy Irish-Catholic family who now own a house on Cape Cod, objected to a proposed offshore wind farm on largely aesthetic grounds. As Kenendy scion Robert wrote in The New York Times:
Cape Wind’s proposal involves construction of 130 giant turbines whose windmill arms will reach 417 feet above the water and be visible for up to 26 miles. These turbines are less than six miles from shore and would be seen from Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Hundreds of flashing lights to warn airplanes away from the turbines will steal the stars and nighttime views. The noise of the turbines will be audible onshore. A transformer substation rising 100 feet above the sound would house giant helicopter pads and 40,000 gallons of potentially hazardous oil. According to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the project will damage the views from 16 historic sites and lighthouses on the cape and nearby islands. The Humane Society estimates the whirling turbines could every year kill thousands of migrating songbirds and sea ducks.
Giant arms, flashing lights, the annual slaughter of migrating songbirds: this is hardly the stuff of glamour.
Postrel skirts the ugliness of real-life wind turbines by focusing instead on the pleasant images we often see of them. Those images, she says, promise a radiant, efficient and clean future, which distracts us from the actual costs of green technology. But we are treated every day to glamour shots not just of green technology but of pretty much anything under the sun that anyone has any interest in defending. Check out these shots of off-shore oil platforms, for example. One could write just as rapturously of them as Postrel writes of wind turbines:
The platform stands potent and erect over the deep, a steel hymn to man’s mastery over nature. In the face of so mighty an image, arguments against drilling for oil are beside the point. You can’t counter glamour with statistics, after all.
Yet somehow environmentalists aren’t swept up in the romance of offshore oil drilling. Postrel, who makes her living writing about (and defending) the aesthetics of consumer culture, has grossly over-estimated the power of aesthetics to distort debate.
A better explanation of the appeal of green technology might start by asking what makes Postrel’s column so alluring. Might it not have something to do with the unflattering portrait she draws of environmentalists? Those who wish to cut carbon emissions often see themselves as level-headed champions of an indubitable scientific consensus. Postrel instead depicts them as aesthetes impervious to rational argument. At the same time, she shrewdly declines to take any stance on the actual merits of wind power. Enviro-skeptics can thus take pleasure in Postrel’s subtle ridicule without having to indulge in any crass ad hominem attacks.
Tribalism, in other words, and Postrel’s skill in catering to it, best explains the allure of her column. She depicts environmentalists as effeminate and irrational, skeptics as sober and analytic. For the enviro-skeptic, what’s not to like? Likewise, glamour shots of green technology help reinforce environmentalists’ belief that they seek a radiant, beautiful future, while their opponents, presumably, seek one that is polluted and ugly. All politics is tribal. That’s the lesson of green technology glamour shots — and of Postrel’s column.