Here is an interesting argument (to be clear, in a conservative outlet): environmentalism is something the upper class pursues because it no longer needs industrial progress.
In turning down Keystone, however, the President has uncovered an ugly little secret that has always lurked beneath the surface of environmentalism. Its basic appeal is to the affluent. Despite all the professions of being “liberal” and “against big business,” environmentalism’s main appeal is that it promises to slow the progress of industrial progress. People who are already comfortable with the present state of affairs — who are established in the environment, so to speak — are happy to go along with this. It is not that they have any greater insight into the mysteries and workings of nature. They are happier with the way things are. In fact, environmentalism works to their advantage. The main danger to the affluent is not that they will be denied from improving their estate but that too many other people will achieve what they already have. As the Forest Service used to say, the person who built his mountain cabin last year is an environmentalist. The person who wants to build one this year is a developer…
What finally focused my attention on the aristocratic roots of environmentalism, however, was a chapter in Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. Although the book is justly famous for coining “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous waste,” there is a lesser-known chapter entitled “Industrial Exemption” that perfectly describes the environmental zeitgeist. Veblen posed the question, why is it that people who are the greatest beneficiaries of industrial society are often the most passionate in condemning it? He provided a simple answer. People in the leisure class have become so accustomed affluence as the natural state of things that they no longer feel compelled to embrace any further industrial progress…
But that was not the point. It is not that the average person is not concerned about the environment. Everyone weighs the balance of economic gain against a respect for nature. It is only the truly affluent, however, who can be concerned about the environment to the exclusion of everything else. Most people see the benefits of pipelines and power plants and admit they have to be built somewhere. Only in the highest echelons do we hear people say, “We don’t need to build any pipelines. We’ve already got enough energy. We can all sit around awaiting the day we live off wind and sunshine.”
Environmentalists have spent decades trying to disguise these aristocratic roots, even from themselves. They work desperately to form alliances with labor unions and cast themselves as purveyors of “green jobs.” But the Keystone Pipeline has brought all this into focus. As Joel Kotkin writes in Forbes, Keystone is the dividing line of the “two Americas,” the knowledge-based elites of the East and West Coasts in their media, non-profit and academic homelands (where Obama learned his environmentalism) and the blue-collar workers of the Great In- Between laboring in agriculture, mining, manufacturing, power production and the exigencies of material life.
So the argument here is the wealthy of all political stripes are generally opposed to industrial progress, not just liberals or conservatives?
I wonder how much this explanation differs from explaining resistance to certain projects in terms of NIMBYism. When NIMBY is invoked in response to unwanted projects, existing residents can throw out a lot of reasons to oppose the project. Two reasons are commonly thrown out: safety and environmentalism. In a typical suburban situation, a new subdivision is going to be built on open land adjacent to another recently built subdivision. The current residents then complain about the open space that they is going to disappear, losing sight of the fact that their own neighborhood was just recently built on open land as well. If the above argument is completely true, then those existing residents would say, “we don’t need any more new houses. There are plenty of older homes for people to live in.” Is this exactly what happens or are they willing to let houses be built somewhere but just nowhere near them?
Also, if this argument is correct, then those who aren’t as wealthy will end up throwing environmental concerns under the bus when push comes to shove?