The earthquake and potential nuclear catastrophe in Japan have brought home a set of questions that have haunted philosophers for hundreds of years—and have played an important role in American politics for over a century. They have to do with the relationship between humanity and nature—not nature as “the outdoors,” but as the obdurate bio-geo-physiochemical reality in which human beings and other animals dwell. To what extent does nature set limits on human possibilities? And to what extent can human beings overcome these limits?
The past million years or so provide much evidence that humanity can overcome natural limits, including the seasons, the alternation of night and day, infertile soil and swamps, gravity (think of airplanes), and infectious disease. But every once in a while, an earthquake, a hurricane, a volcanic eruption, the exhaustion of precious metals, a huge forest fire, or the spread of a mysterious disease can bring home the limits that nature sets on humanity. Politicians don’t debate issues in these terms, but that doesn’t mean that these questions aren’t stirring beneath their platitudes.
In the United States, concern about the limits of nature used to be primarily a Republican priority. Theodore Roosevelt, of course, made conservation a governmental concern. But Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon also made their marks as conservationists—in Nixon’s case, as the president who presided over the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Democrats, and liberal Democrats, were more associated with a kind of can-do/anything-is-possible Americanism that aimed for everything from going to the moon to eradicating poverty.
But the political parties and ideologies have reversed dramatically on these issues. Republicans and conservatives have become not just less concerned than Democrats and liberals about the limits that nature puts on humanity; they insist, for the most part, that these limits don’t exist. They are in denial—whether about the availability of petroleum or the danger of global warming; and their denial imperils not just America’s future, but that of the world.
The big switch between the parties happened in the early 1970s, in response to increasingly serious air and water pollution, and to the first of several energy crises that saw the demand for oil exceed the supply. One of the first prominent politicians to respond to these twin crises was California Governor Jerry Brown, who proclaimed an “era of limits.” Brown’s crusade for clean air and alternative energy was taken up by Jimmy Carter during his presidency, and by the environmental movements, which had been associated as much with Republicans as Democrats, but which became increasingly supportive of the Democratic Party, eventually endorsing and helping fund liberal Democratic candidates.
During the ‘70s, the key figure in transforming the Republican outlook on nature was Ronald Reagan. In his 1980 campaign, Reagan criticized Carter’s measures to limit energy consumption and to finance alternative fuel sources. He blamed rising oil prices entirely on the restrictions that Carter had placed on the market. He denied that a problem of pollution existed—“air pollution has been substantially controlled,” he declared during a campaign stop in Youngstown, Ohio.
Once in office, Reagan put a foe of conservation, James Watt, in charge of the Interior Department; a critic of environmental protection, Anne Gorsuch, at the Environmental Protection Agency; and he cut the research and development budget for alternative energy by 86 percent. Under Carter, the United States had become the world leader in alternative energy. By the time Reagan left office, the country was beginning to lag behind Western Europe and Japan. Reagan didn’t try to overcome the limits that nature was placing on economic growth; he wished them away.
Reagan’s successors have followed his lead. Their “solution” to the prospect of a global shortage in oil is “drill, baby drill.” Their solution to global warming is to deny that it exists and to kill off measures such as high-speed rail that might reduce pollution and oil use. As my colleague Jonathan Chait has noted, Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously rejected an amendment that said that “Congress accepts the scientific finding of the Environmental Protection Agency that 'warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.'"
The Republicans, it should be noted, didn’t just deny that human activities are contributing to global warming, but that global warming itself exists—a position that is completely outside the realm of scientific belief. It doesn’t qualify as argument, but as delusion.
Yet during the last year, we’ve seen two disasters that show the price humanity can pay for harboring illusions about the workings of nature. First was the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that occurred in early 2010. Yes, it occurred due to lax regulation from the Department of Interior and a rush to profit by BP and Halliburton. But the reason behind the failure of the Interior Department to regulate, and the failure of BP to heed the dangers of a spill, was a belief that nature would not exact revenge. It was a refusal to take the limits set by nature seriously.
The Japanese, of course, cannot be blamed for the calamity that has befallen them. Lacking domestic access to oil, they relied on nuclear power, and they built their reactors to withstand the largest earthquakes and tsunamis—though they didn’t count on both happening simultaneously. Yet what happened in Japan shows vividly that millions of years after humans began inhabiting the earth, nature is still a force to be reckoned with, and it still imposes limits on the decisions we make as a society. Will Republicans come to understand that? Or will they continue to believe that the only limits worth acknowledging are those that government puts on the bank accounts of their corporate sponsors?
John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.