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The Perils of Performative Environmentalism

A recent piece in The New York Times seemed planted by conservatives. In it, an environmentalist derided the wearing of clothes as an environmental threat – admittedly somewhat tongue in cheek – and eventually came around to the alternative of investing only in high-priced, high-fashion, sustainable clothing. As one does. 

It was roundly mocked by liberals and conservatives alike, and represented the worst of a particular conservative trope: that environmental zealots are often so removed from reality that they paint their whole movement as a wealthy, elitist fantasy. While such a trope is far from fair across the board, it does contain more than a kernel of truth about the movement. 

I’ve written here before about why attention-seeking environmental protests often do more harm than good. But the damage isn’t limited to performative, unproductive events like the recent climate rally themselves. 

By side-stepping the hard trade-offs that an environmentally sustainable future requires, and replacing them with performatively woke thought experiments, environmental thinkers rob the movement of the intellectual rigor needed to address the very real problems it seeks to confront.

It bears repeating that conservatives haven’t exactly led from the front when it comes to combatting climate change. This is wrong for reasons both moral and political. 

Morally, it is inarguable that anthropomorphic climate change exists, and that it will mean that future generations inherit a world worse-off than current ones. Much like the national debt, this creates a multigenerational conflict where the tab for today’s bills are expected to be paid by future generations.  This is fundamentally unfair. 

Politically, there’s growing support for policies that address this reality. Gone are the days when a conservatives elected official can earn atta-boys for holding a melting snowball on the Senate floor. Conservatives – particularly in areas like Florida and Louisiana that are already dealing with the realities of climate change – are vulnerable electorally on this issue. 

The reality is that not just free-market capitalism but the nature of human existence in the 21st century is often at odds with environmental well-being. Solving this conundrum – particularly without serious human consequences – is a difficult challenge. 

New groups are springing up – particularly comprised of young people – to wrestle with this daunting reality. These groups span the political spectrum and offer myriad ways to address the crisis, from free market environmentalism to far more progressive groups that this author won’t pretend to endorse. 

One of the important components of this work is that it helps create the kind of momentum that can foster change by winning hearts and minds to the cause of environmentalism. That work is hamstrung when, instead, groups make a mockery of environmental conscientiousness by removing it from the everyday realities all public policies must confront. 

Today’s policy quandaries will require creative and thoughtful solutions. This is particularly true when the benefits of ignoring a problem are earned in real time, and the consequences come due in the future. 

Encouraging consumers to invest in Gucci, Balinciaga, and other high-fashion brands for the sake of the planet will surely make some ultra-wealthy liberals feel better. But it will do nothing but entrench public perceptions of environmentalism as an out-of-touch pursuit of the wealthy, aimed more at assuaging the consciences of those with means than driving the real change they purport to be after. 

Drew Holden is a public affairs consultant in Washington, D.C. and a former Republican congressional staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives 

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