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The Tea Party Versus Sustainable Development: Part One

The way other people get at Christmastime is the way I get around Thanksgiving. I enjoy Christmas well enough — I like it when the world is quiet and still and indoors, and for we non-celebrants of that bent, Christmas day is indeed the most wonderful time of the year, even if we just use it to watch movies or whatever. But while the hysterical consumerism of Christmas has struck me as being in kind of crummy taste in the past, the real turnoff, in recent years, has been the way in which the sour, aggrieved politics of the age have somehow washed over and seeped into the holiday.

Honestly, I don’t care if someone says “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Tuesday” or anything else to me at any given time — New York inures you to that sort of thing, and more to the point there are a few thousand things I can think of right off the top of my head that are more important. The thing to dislike and rebuke about the idea of A War On/For Christmas is that it turns the acid, umbrage-based discourse that defines so much of our national conversation on something that just about everyone can get behind — namely the non-shopping things that make the Christmas season appealing, the goodwill towards (wo)men, tidings of comfort and joy, so on. If we can’t agree to be nicer than usual for a week — if the closest we can come is “goodwill towards men who believe that we must stop punishing our most productive citizens with an unfair income tax” — then we’re in a bad spot. It sounds stodgy, and it might actually be stodgy, but a little bit of consensus goes a long way, and is eminently worth aspiring to. With Thanksgiving, at least, the nation agrees to set aside some time to have a big dinner with friends and family. That general and good-natured culture-spanning agreement, in addition to the fact that I like me some big dinners with friends and family, is part of why I love the holiday so much. There are other reasons, of course, but part of this comes back to the happy absolute of it all.

This green building thing that we talk about here at gbNYC is not so much about absolutes. There are certifications and labels that pretend to objectivity, but there’s hardly consensus on anything about those. There are macro-scale principles that green-minded individuals can agree upon, but in green building as in everything else, the pressures of practical, world-as-it-exists application often lead to a wholesale fissuring and fragmenting of these principles. This is what makes green building so fascinating and so frustrating — the challenge of making ideas work like things, of making principle practical. Undergirding all this compromise and confounding complexity, though, there is a basic idea that is unchallenged — that it is better to use less when possible; that it is better to be smart and mindful than ignorant and ignorant; that a more nuanced idea of “living better” is worth it. That basic consensus has become the foundation for a weird tower of babel, but there is at least something there to understand and agree upon.

One of the more fascinatingly paradoxical things about the new/old right wing in American politics, for me, is the way in which it has unconsciously adopted the near-nihilistic radical subjectivity of post-structuralism. Most of the time, this is done in the service of simple parochial trollishness, but there’s something radical embedded in it nonetheless — and something, as we saw with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s death-by-demagoguery approach to the Access to the Region’s Core project. There had been very little disagreement, for the most part, on that project’s worth — a decade of studies attested to its necessity and economic multiplier effect; the necessary funds were near at hand. That Christie chose to get ig’nant on it and use it to build his personal bully-boy brand is not surprising — he’s that kind of guy.

But with Christie’s anti-tunnel campaign came a host of other, stranger mini-critiques designed to puncture the consensus behind the tunnel. Did we really even need mass transit? How can we know whether the short- and long-term job creation effects of the ARC tunnel would really come thanks to the tunnel? It was a rhetorical cul de sac — a descent into semantics in the service of the most cynical clock-killing. It was a trap, in other words, and it worked. The ARC tunnel is dead for the time being, and the long-shot extension of the 7 train into New Jersey likely isn’t happening, either. And so it has gone with climate change, with financial regulatory reform, with whatever you choose — politicization now has less to do with demagoguery than a disingenuous call for re-examining even the most fundamental points of consensus. It’s less conservative than it is post-structuralist, if you think about it.

All of which is a long preamble to these two articles. The first is by Bradford Plumer, in The New Republic, and it’s about the strange ascent of resistance to 2007′s national light bulb efficiency standards as a conservative article of faith. The second is about the rising resistance to sustainable development on the part of the Tea Party right. They will, I hope, not ruin your Thanksgiving break. I’ll be back on Monday to discuss them in greater depth; feel free to email or comment if you have any thoughts of your own on these. And enjoy your holiday, of course.

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One Response to The Tea Party Versus Sustainable Development: Part One

  1. Ujjval December 3, 2010 at 12:23 pm #

    David,

    It may be worth trying to wrestle with one of the basic tenets of the consensus you describe: “it is better to use less when possible.” This is something that often proves difficult to understand in theory or practice. Clarifying what is meant by this amorphous tenet of some sort of vague self-abnegation may prove useful. Most of what passes for valuable in culture and society could easily be seen as waste or excess: art, architecture, music, sports, wine, gift-giving, the list could be a very long one indeed. Much of what we think valuable about leading a good life revolves around wastes of time, money and information. Do you really need to go far out of your way to get to the trendy bar on the other side of town so you can look like one of the in-crowd? Wouldn’t a move to eliminating the staggering amount of money and time wasted on sports be a good thing? Do you really need to tell your kids you love them so often? Do you really need any more colleges giving out humanities degrees? Let alone those useless degrees and wastes of time we call basic research in medicine, physics, etc.?

    The idea of using less when possible is fine as a kind of empty exhortation (Gooooo Team!!), but may have fatal flaws if used to drive policy. Waste is not a bad thing in itself and wearing a hair-shirt is not a good thing in itself. Attaching a moralistic tone to commonly held beliefs is not necessarily useful for either real ethical improvement or creating public policy. In this regard, the aspects of the Tea Party (or any political group) that use this moralistic shortcut are to be examined closely and questioned deeply. But such claims about the moralizing high-ground are to be applied equally across the board and it may appear to some a case of the pot calling the kettle black. After all, the common consensus might think it a waste of time to figure out what a “nearly nihilistic radical subjectivity of post-structuralism” could possibly mean. The role of consensus in political life is a puzzling one since we have much evidence to suggest that the consensus is often mistaken. Certainly a great deal of ink has been wasted on this problem from the origins of that useless discipline that goes by the term political philosophy.

    Consensus does not virtue make, just as thinking of oneself as more ethical than others does not make one more ethical. In fact, one might say that trying to lead an ethical life is the definition of a wasted life.

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