A few days ago, in a post entitled “The Gods Are Angry” I likened the climate change movement to a pagan cult. I identified California Governor Jerry Brown as a medicine man—I might have said, high priest—of this cult, someone who is telling us that we need to make sacrifices to propitiate the gods… lest they visit unspeakable harm on the human species.
Upon finishing my post I chanced on Joel Kotkin’s far more comprehensive analysis of the career of the same Jerry Brown. Kotkin also sees the environmental movement as a form of religion, though he compares Brown to Torquemada, the grand inquisitor during the Spanish Inquisition.
I am not overly worried about the possibility of mixing up the different religious traditions. One might well say that the inquisitions and witch hunts were vestiges of a suppressed paganism that has reared its head at various times in the history of Judeo-Christianity.
Of course, Kotkin is far better informed than I about the activities of Jerry Brown and he offers a much fuller exposition of the high priestly activities of the reformed seminarian.
At the site of real and immediate tragedy, an old man comes, wielding not a sword to protect civilization from ghastly present threats but to preach the sanctity of California’s green religion. The Paris Climate Change Conference offers a moment of triumph for the 77-year-old Jerry Brown, the apogee of his odd public odyssey….
Like a modern day Torquemada, he is warning the masses that if they fail to adhere in all ways of the new faith or face, as he suggested recently humanity’s “extinction.”
More than many others, Brown, like a man possessed, is so convinced of the truth of his green faith that he has no tolerance for those who dissent:
Increasingly, Brown has become the patron saint of climate change, while at the same time exposing the effort’s flaws and contradictions most clearly. Railing against the satanic greenhouse gases, Brown, one supposes unwittingly, seems unconcerned he is waging what amounts to a war against the state’s own middle and working classes. His intolerance of dissent—albeit less extreme than some—reflects the current trajectory of environmentalism, which increasingly seeks to silence and even criminalize those who dispute their analyses and prescriptions.
Those who believe in the dogma of anthropogenic climate change see it as the cause of everything that is going wrong in the world, from the rise of ISIS to the war in Syria to Islamic terrorism and to the mass migration of Syrians to Western Europe.
It's a way to shift the blame. For true believers, the deeper meaning is: I am not to blame for any of the consequences produced by my policies:
Like a religious adept, Brown shows his need to link everything to one sin—greenhouse gas emissions—to explain virtually everything from wildfires to the current drought on climate change, although with little support from scientists who study such things. As was common in the worst aspects of the medieval Catholic church, one increasingly cannot dissent in any way from revealed doctrine without being essentially evil.
California’s economic recovery, such as it is, seems to vindicate Brown’s green faith. If his state can recover and become home to many of the trendiest high tech businesses, then your state can too. Paul Krugman and Michael Kinsley believe that California should become a role model for strict government regulation of just about everything. They insist that California proves that big government does not hamper economic growth.
The argument is short-sighted. Kotkin rebuts it easily:
Outsiders think of California as a prosperous place that mints billionaires, but overall the state’s economic recovery has done little for many, if not most, state residents. Even with the boom in Silicon Valley, roughly one in three Californians live check to check, the state has higher rate of poverty than Mississippi, as well asone-third of the nation’s welfare recipients. Among the emerging Latino majority, a prime Brown constituency, the state’s cost adjusted poverty rate is more than 33 percent compared to just 22.7 percent in Texas, a state often derided as unenlightened and cruel.
During this “boom,” most California blue-collar workers in farming, fishing, and forestry have experienced actual average wage decreases. Employment in fields such as construction and manufacturing remain well below their 2007 levels. Much of this has to do with environmental regulation, which has raised energy costs almost twice those of nearby competitors and also helped raise housing prices to an unsustainable level.
The result, Kotkin continues, in a nicely turned phrase, is that California has become “the graveyard of middle class aspirations:”
Once the beacon of opportunity, California is becoming a graveyard of middle class aspiration, particularly for the young. In a recent survey of states where “the middle class is dying,” based on earning trajectories for middle-income cohorts, Business Insider ranked California first, with shrinking middle class earnings and the third highest proportion of wealth concentrated in the top 20 percent.
Most hurt, though, are the poor. California is home to a remarkable 77 of the country’s 297 most “economically challenged,” cities based on levels of poverty and employment, according to a recent USC study; altogether these cities have a population of more than 12 million. Some stressed cities exist cheek-to-jowl with the state’s uber-rich—Oakland, Los Angeles, as well as Coachella, near Palm Springs. Most others are in the poorer, more heavily Latino interior, places like Riverside, Stockton, and Vallejo. Journalists who come to California to praise the governor may think it’s still “California Dreamin’” but for all too many, particularly away from the coast (PDF), it’s more like The Grapes of Wrath.
The correct term for the California model, Kotkin argues, is feudalism:
Of course, there’s a long history of such bifurcated society, where people tend to stay in their class and the poor depend largely on handouts from their spiritual “ betters.” It’s called feudalism.
In many ways, Jerry Brown is a perfect medievalist—the son of a self-made man, a person who largely inherited his position. Without the legacy of his father, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, a natural politician and arguably the greatest governor in the state’s history, it’s unlikely the shy, awkward, although unquestionably bright kid would have been elected the first time in his mid thirties.
Naturally, politicians like Brown excel in empathy. They feel for the poor and the disadvantaged. Unfortunately, their policies do not fulfill thei promises:
Brown’s acuity has often been on target, as, for example, when he took on the encrusted bureaucracy at the University of California and inside state government. But Brown’s maverick approach also revealed a streak that reflected a harshness towards those who were weaker, including the poor. In his first term, Brown’s callous treatment of the mentally ill left 30,000 mental patients in worsening conditions in inadequate nursing facilities. As the Los Angeles director of mental health told me at the time, under Reagan there was “genuine concern for people” while under Brown he didn’t “see much concern for people at all.”
Kotkin next compares Brown to Savonarola, the Florentine monk who initiated the bonfire of the vanities, a Renaissance potlatch where people burned their most valued possessions in an ostentatious show of piety. Until he himself was incinerated, Savonarola had discovered a primitive form of sacrifice to assuage the anger of the gods.
The results have been detrimental to human beings:
He came into office, recalled top aide Tom Quinn, “questioning the values of the Democratic Party” and rejecting the “build, build, build thing” of his father. Like the 15th century Florentine Catholic monk Girolamo Savonarola, he came to Sacramento, in part, to rid it of suberbia and luxuria. Most important, he did not restart the infrastructure building, most portentously for water storage, that marked his father’s regime; the severity of the drought and the awful condition of the state’s roads are, to some extent, his legacy.
How has Brown put together a durable political coalition? He has done so by cultivating the tech oligarchs, the Hollywood elites and the labor unions:
Early on Brown cleverly cultivated the emerging tech oligarchy in Silicon Valley. This has created a new class of major donors who, along with the unions and Hollywood, have financed his political re-ascendency.
The oligarchs seem kindred souls for Brown, with little patience for less advanced beings. He also knew that their success has allowed him to show economic gains without having to concede to the regulatory concerns of more traditional industries. In the new Silicon Valley, most of the “dirty work” is shoved off to other more benighted states, or abroad; regulatory overreach poses only limited problems. For his part, Brown sees the oligarchs as the state’s economic foundation. “We’ve got a few problems, we have lots of little burdens and regulations and taxes,” he said recently, “but smart people figure out how to make it.”
High tech is clean work. It is mind work. It is purer than thou. It does not pollute the earth or the atmosphere. And yet, all of the support services that allow the high tech industry to pretend to moral superiority-- the dirty work, as it happens-- have been outsourced to places that pollute far more than anywhere else. Some places have welcomed the business:
Indeed, as one recent study found, California could literally disappear tomorrow with virtually no effect on the climate. Perhaps less recognized, its efforts to reduce emissions have accounted for naught, since so much industry and so many people—some 2 million in the last decade—have taken their carbon footprint elsewhere, usually to places where climate and less stringent regulation allow for greater emissions. Some states, rather than embrace Brown’s formula and seeing an opportunity to score, have detached themselves from renewable mandates entirely.
Kotkin concludes that it’s mostly about moral posturing, about showing oneself to be morally superior to the mass of common humanity. The purpose of the posturing is to persuade people that you should be making their decisions for them:
So why the dogged insistence on draconian policies? It’s very much for the same reason people take priestly vows, or why penitents whip themselves: moral posturing before the rest of the world and, for politicians, the prospect of attracting the adoring masses (or at least the media).
Where will it end? More importantly, how will the new green policies affect the current economy and the standard of living for everyday people: