I just read the New York Times excerpt of Michael Patrick F. Smith’s (names don’t get more American, or Irish–his middle, middle name is Flanigan) book The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown. What struck me first was how successful this guy is in the liberal darling — rough outsider: he’s story is about working on an oil rig — while still being pro-climate policy. He’s exactly the darling liberals have been waiting to come forward and lavish their praise on, to show that they are right and conservatives are wrong. But Smith aims to short-circuit this narrative with zingers: “Like most Americans I know, I have both strong progressive and conservative values.” This statement is immediately arresting because it is true. The Tweedledee-Tweedledum liberal conservative polarity is simply bunk. Any person, if they look into their own complexities realizes that the ideological camps we’re told we have to camp out in, never really represent our full values.
In reading the reader comments, the reason for the NYT (and Viking press) lauding and promoting this book are obvious, in addition to those described above. What is at stake is the definition of sustainable. Smith says that his conservative rural buddies have lower-carbon impacts than the liberal city slickers. This was the line most attacked by NYT readers. But what is at stake is something greater: liberals want an energy regime that sustains the unsustainable lifestyles of urbanites, tuning out to where there food, energy, water, and infrastructure come from. Cities are the classic reverse-Robin Hood: they rob from the peripheries and funnel resources to the centers. Most cities grow little food, and import almost all their stuff. Meanwhile, growing and sourcing your own food, and knowing your local ecology is something that you have to learn by default living rurally. You have to budget your ecology, live within your limits. Sure, you might burn a lot of wood during winter, but hell, its romantic — and local (if you’re not some rich ski person who buys or imports their wood).
So, the question is: does sustainability mean living off the land, more locally, more simply? Or does it mean technologically-driven and dependent futures that strive to be less impactful? The conceit of the first is that this is available for all — it’s not. We have to drastically reduce the world population to live sustainably like pioneers. The fallacy of the second is that we can have our cake and eat it too: that sustainability doesn’t require drastically re-engineering everything about our habits and lives. We can just surf on clean energy into the singularity. Both views are flawed, and will not get us to avoid collapse; but also have their merits. We must live more simply (without cars) but also in greater connection to the land. Slowing down the pace and scope of life will be necessary. We can choose it, or it will choose us. Global coordination and innovation, the type that cities provide, however, is also crucial for our future. The trick is, as Smith suggests, combining the virtues of both while owning up to their respective dark sides. Are conservatives ready for that? Are liberals?