Conservatives against Consumption: Are Fossil Fuels Responsible for Moral and Social Decay?

Article excerpt

REPUBLICAN presidential hopefuls, who are strenuously trying to outdo each other in defending family values, may be overlooking a chief cause of modern moral and social decay: increased fossil fuel use. That was the surprising suggestion recently made by a couple of conservative intellectuals, Georgetown University political philosopher Patrick Deneen and American Conservative blogger Rod Dreher.

The two were provoked by conservative columnist George Will. "A specter is haunting progressivism, the specter of abundance," Will declared in his final syndicated column of 2011. Progressives, he asserted, "crave energy scarcities as an excuse for rationing--by them--that produces ever-more-minute government supervision of Americans' behavior."

Writing on January 2 at the Front Porch Republic blog, Deneen replied, "Might some of the consequences of the mobility and power that expansive consumption of fossil fuels have engendered include the exacerbation of a number of baleful social trends, many of which result from the gas-addled belief in human mastery, control, and autonomy, as well as attendant instability and societal transformation?"

Dreher praised Deneen's insights the following day at The American Conservative, positing that "conservatism doesn't equal consumptionism." The "centering of American economic life around oil consumption," he fretted, "might have brought with it problems that ought to concern conservatives and the things they value, or ought to value."

What are some of those baleful social trends that track the rise of fossil fuels? Deneen listed "the decline of 'family values,' communal norms, educational attainment, religious standards, civility, along with the rise of a culture of consumption, rootlessness, anomie, relativism, a 24-hour culture of distraction, titillation, highly-sexualized and violent imagery, sexualized childhood and adolescent adulthood."

Oddly, Deneen and Dreher refrained from following the logic of their argument to its obvious conclusion: If fuel consumption breeds social dysfunction, then why not force Americans to consume less gasoline and electricity?

Fossil fuel use and wealth have increased hand in hand. The Energy Information Administration, the Department of Energy's independent statistics agency, reports that in 1949 Americans used 29 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs) of energy produced by burning fossil fuels. (A quadrillion BTUs is equal to about 170 million barrels of crude oil.) By 2010 fossil fuel use had nearly tripled to 8I quadrillion BTUs. During that span the U.S. economy grew more than sevenfold in real dollars, from $1.8 trillion to $13.2 trillion. Per capita GDP, also adjusted for inflation, more than tripled, from $12,000 to $44,000.

To Deneen and Dreher's dismay, fossil fuels have enabled Americans to flit freely about the country. In 1949 the U.S. had 300 vehicles per 1,000 residents. There are nearly 850 per 1,000 now. Only 17 million passengers traveled on domestic flights in 1949. In 2010 domestic airlines carried 630 million passengers.

What about the alleged erosion of "family values" and communal norms? It's true that at least one old-fashioned family value--the beating of spouses and children--has declined as wealth has increased. The U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics (BJS) reported that the rate of intimate partner violence fell by more than 50 percent between 1993 and 2008. Recent evidence also finds that physical abuse and sexual abuse of children fell by more than 50 percent between the early 1990S and 2007.

The BJS estimated that in 1973 there were 48 violent victimizations per 1,000 U.S. residents 12 years old and older. That rate inched up to 50 per 1,000 in 1993 but has fallen steeply since, to 14 per 1,000 (a decline of 70 percent). One likely hears more Anglo-Saxon expletives in public nowadays, but the significantly lower number of criminal assaults indicates a substantial increase in the type of civility that really counts. …