Dave Newport (UC-Boulder) posted to his blog at ridiculous-o'clock this morning, reiterating his perception that a key reason environmentalism hasn't had much effect is that it's given its social justice component short shrift. Dave's point is valid, but I see it as merely one example of something Naomi Klein comments on in a recent interview in the journal Solutions. Environmentalism (and I'm thinking mostly about environmental sustainability here) has become a political football tied to what's known as "the left" not because it particularly serves the interest of traditional groups (labor, minorities, women) often associated with the Democratic Party but because, taken seriously, the concerns it expresses have the potential to undercut the organizations and traditional groups (financial and social elites) who tend to fund the Republicans. (And, since the Citizens United decision, fund it more than ever.)
Those financial and social elites are heavily invested (and I don't only mean emotionally) not just in the capitalist system, but in the particular flavor of capitalism which has become more and more dominant since about 1960. Not small-business capitalism, however much organizations like the US Chamber likes to present its membership in those terms. Not the sort of capitalism that Adam Smith envisioned and described, no matter how often the term "free market" gets used and the "invisible hand" metaphor invoked. As Klein notes, we're talking capitalism in service of Wall Street investors. not capitalism in service of Main Street entrepreneurs. Not the capitalism that provides goods and services demanded by specific clienteles, but the capitalism that artificially creates demands for mediocrities and distractions nobody felt a need for last week, and nobody will remember why they ever wanted next month. The sort of capitalism that demands ever-expanding profits and thus ever-expanding growth. The sort of capitalism that exhibits the ethics of a cancer.
Unfortunately, as Immanuel Wallerstein points out, US higher education has, in pretty much the same time frame, become increasingly dependent for its funding on precisely the corporate entities that embody this cancerous form of capitalism. Individual faculty members can rage against the machine. Small, radical departments (or, at the very least, significant majorities thereof) can stake out positions favoring social justice and social democracy. But no large US university (please tell me if I'm wrong here) can afford to speak this particular truth to power.
Climate change denialism has had disproportionate impacts on US political discourse largely because it expresses an internally consistent world view. The world view in question may be elitist, destructive of anything resembling an egalitarian ("of the people, by the people, for the people") society, even in the long-term economically unsustainable. Its internal consistency may result from the fact that it's carefully tailored to fit the needs of what used to be called the Four Hundred. The fact that serving the interests of the Four Hundred can be made to seem attractive to the four (or forty, or a hundred and forty) million should not be surprising. It's just a further application of the demand-stimulation techniques that have worked for decades.
Until such time as "the left" in the USA can put forward a world view which is similarly internally consistent and transparently aligned with the interests of Main Street, small business, the family farm and the American worker, denialism (for all its lack of scientific or even logical underpinnings) will continue to win. According to an old political aphorism, you can't beat somebody with nobody. In the current discourse, we can't beat a clearly expressed world view with an unclearly expressed or a fragmented one. Certainly, not when the audience is used to hearing itself defined as "consumers" rather than "citizens". Not when the audience has been conditioned to avoid any sort of (even arguably) objective comparison between any aspect of US society (current political debate suggests health care as a salient example) and practices/outcomes/priorities/experiences in the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, with each graduating class, Greenback contributes its share of just such an audience. Somehow, I think that virtually all major US universities and a large majority of smaller institutions do as well. We like to think of ourselves as part of the solution. But I'm wondering if we're not equally (or even more so) a part of the problem.