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Capping Our Carbon and Crushing Our Spirits

Capping Our Carbon and Crushing Our Spirits

By Robert Tracinski - December 18, 2009

British global warming activist George Monbiot has just written probably the single most important column on the issue. He goes straight to the heart of the matter and makes clear that the deeper controversy underlying the fight over global warming has little to do with science and everything to do with one's view of human nature and man's place in the universe.

What is really going on at Copenhagen, he tells us, is "a battle to redefine humanity." If this makes you cringe-if you think the 20th century saw quite enough blood-soaked attempts to "redefine humanity" to fit some scheme dreamed up by Platonic intellectuals-than you have an inkling of what comes next.

This is the moment at which we turn and face ourselves. Here...humankind decides what it is and what it will become....

The meeting at Copenhagen confronts us with our primal tragedy. We are the universal ape, equipped with the ingenuity and aggression to bring down prey much larger than itself, break into new lands, roar its defiance of natural constraints. Now we find ourselves hedged in by the consequences of our nature, living meekly on this crowded planet for fear of provoking or damaging others. We have the hearts of lions and live the lives of clerks.

The summit's premise is that the age of heroism is over. We have entered the age of accommodation. No longer may we live without restraint....

This is a meeting about chemicals: the greenhouse gases insulating the atmosphere. But it is also a battle between two world views. The angry men who seek to derail this agreement, and all such limits on their self-fulfillment, have understood this better than we have....

There is no space for heroism here; all passion and power breaks against the needs of others. This is how it should be, though every neuron revolts against it.

Monbiot is right about the big question, even if he's on the wrong side of it. The goal of the environmentalist movement is not anything so trivial as capping our carbon. It's about crushing our spirits. It's about breaking the ambition of man the achiever-the explorer, the adventurer, the discoverer, the builder-and replacing him with man the meek, a modest little paper-shuffler constrained to live a small, inoffensive existence.

Monbiot is also right about who is on the other side. He talks about a "new movement, most visible in North America and Australia, but now apparent everywhere" that "will not be constrained by taxes, gun laws, regulations, health and safety, especially by environmental restraints." And he's right about our choice of literary and philosophical inspiration: he describes us as "clutching their copies of Atlas Shrugged."

I am clutching my copy of Atlas Shrugged, because it has never seemed more relevant than it is now. But in reading Monbiot's column, another Ayn Rand novel comes to mind: The Fountainhead, Rand's classic portrayal of the struggle of the independent creator against the grey conformity of collectivism. With a few updates in his ideology-environmentalism in place of socialism-Monbiot gives us a creditable audition for the role of Ellsworth Toohey, the manipulative intellectual who seeks to crush the human spirit in order to make men submit to his influence and control.

Late in the novel, Toohey gives a private confession to one of his victims in which he names his methods and his real goal. Some of it should sound familiar.

Make man feel small. Make man feel guilty. Kill his aspiration and his integrity....

This is most important. Don't allow men to be happy. Happy men are free men. So kill their joy in living.... Bring them to a state where saying "I want" is no longer a natural right but a shameful admission....

Let all sacrifice and none profit. Let all suffer and none enjoy. Let progress stop. Let all stagnate. There's equality in stagnation.

People say Ayn Rand's novels are unrealistic, so why does real life seem so compelled to imitate them? Monbiot even has the kind of last name Ayn Rand would have given one of her villains. Ellsworth Toohey, Wesley Mouch, Claude Slagenhop, George Monbiot. It just fits in.

Monbiot's message is the same as Toohey's. He describes his opponents as "angry," but his whole column seethes with resentment at the independent man who defies social conformity-who the hell does he think he is? To dress up this ugly motive, Monbiot keeps saying that we need to be "restrained" in order to keep us from "trampling on the lives of others." But isn't trampling on our lives exactly what he advocates? He offers a scheme for universal control, not just of the economy, but of the human spirit itself. Behind everything he says is the motive Toohey confesses as the goal of his crusade against the independent man: "I don't want to kill him. I want him in jail.... Locked, stopped, strapped-and alive.... And he'll obey. He'll take orders. He'll take orders!"

This attitude is not new, even if it is cloaked in a new ideology and given a new pseudo-scientific rationalization. This is the big story of the last millennium: man's heroic rise from the poverty, dirt, ignorance, and oppression of the Middle Ages to the point where we have discovered, at last, the full extent of our potential for achievement-only to face resentment from those who want to throw us back into the Medieval mire.

You can see this from the beginning of the Renaissance itself. There is no more potent expression (or product) of an un-restrained view of human potential than Michelangelo's David, an image of man as a giant who can achieve the seemingly impossible. But even then there were men who didn't like it. At the height of Florence's golden age, the ascetic monk Savonarola led a reactionary movement that briefly took over the city, smashing its magnificent sculptures and heaping priceless paintings onto the "bonfire of the vanities." Back then, it was God who was supposed to be offended by man's limitless ambition for worldly achievement. Now it's the planet.

In this same dawn of human potential, Galileo started modern science on its quest to unlock the secrets of the universe-only to be struck down by those who demanded human submission. Galileo's inquisitor, Cardinal Bellarmine, is supposed to have inscribed on his tomb the epitaph: "With force I have subdued the brains of the proud." Perhaps Monbiot could suggest this as the official slogan for the Copenhagen conference.

But the achievements of the Michelangelos and the Galileos and their successors eventually broke the power of the Medieval church. The Enlightenment brought us a Scientific Revolution and an Industrial Revolution that made good on the promise of the Renaissance. Monbiot describes the achiever as a Neanderthal brute, a clever and aggressive ape. But in actual history, the cantankerous individuals who have moved humanity forward have been its thinkers, artists, scientists-and industrialists. As Ayn Rand put it in her notebooks for The Fountainhead, "it is not the big capitalists and their money that Toohey opposes.... He says that he is fighting Rockefeller and Morgan; he is fighting Beethoven and Shakespeare." In actual history, the men Monbiot opposes are the ones who created new art, ideas, and industries out of nothing. The achievements of these unrestrained men led us to a world in which ignorance has been driven out by knowledge, universal poverty is being replaced by universal prosperity, and unlimited opportunity is becoming the normal condition of human life.

A few intellectuals, particularly Ayn Rand, have grasped what this implies about man's potential for unlimited achievement. But the Savonarolas and the Bellarmines are still around; they've just become secularized. In the past century, they were the collectivist intellectuals on which Ellsworth Toohey was based, who argued that the extraordinary individual was a dangerous illusion and that the ideal is to meld into the anonymity of the crowd. Since the fall of Berlin Wall, these reds have reconstituted themselves as greens, but their hostility to individual achievement has not abated. Just as the reds concocted a pseudo-economics to justify their attack on economic production, the greens have concocted a pseudo-scientific rationalization to justify their attack on modern industry and technology.

And what do they offer us as an alternative? According to Monbiot: "All those of us whose blood still races are forced to sublimate, to fantasize. In daydreams and video games we find the lives that ecological limits and other people's interests forbid us to live." Can't you just visualize George slouching on his couch watching 300 and dreaming about what it would be like to have sculpted abs and to roar his defiance against tyranny-and then meekly taking his empty cup of non-fat soy chai latte to the recycling bin, because he might have to pay a fine if he doesn't sort his trash. There you have the environmentalists' ideal man: Walter Mitty. Talk about making man feel small.

Monbiot's column is environmentalism's real-life equivalent of Toohey's confession, and it indicates that what is at stake in the fight over global warming is much more than economics. Today's "progressives" have become the supreme reactionaries. They stand athwart history-the history of man's ascent from the cave to the stars-yelling "stop!" What is at stake is the survival of the human aspiration to achieve-and that is what we have to save from the environmentalists.

Robert Tracinski is editor of The Tracinski Letter and a contributor to RealClearMarkets.

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