What is the endgame of the contemporary green movement? It’s a critical question since environmentalism arguably has become the leading ideological influence in both California government and within the Obama administration. In their public pronouncements, environmental activists have been adept at portraying the green movement as reasonable, science-based and even welcoming of economic growth, often citing the much-exaggerated promise of green jobs.

The green movement’s real agenda, however, is far more radical than generally presumed, and one that former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach said is defined by a form of “misanthropic nostalgia.” This notion extends to an essential dislike for mankind and its creations. In his book “Enough,” green icon Bill McKibben claims that “meaning has been in decline for a long time, almost since the start of civilization.”

And you may have thought the Romans and ancient Chinese were onto something!

Rather than incremental change aimed at preserving and improving civilization, environmental activists are inspired by books such as “Ecotopia,” the influential 1978 novel by Berkeley author Ernest Callenbach. He portrays an independent “green” republic based around San Francisco, which pretty much bans fossil fuels and cars and imposes severe limits on childbearing. These measures are enforced by a somewhat authoritarian state.

Malthusian roots

“Ecotopia” also draws on the green movement’s Malthusian origins, which well predate concerns over climate change. Robert Malthus (1766-1834), a Protestant cleric and scholar, believed that rapid population growth would lead to mass impoverishment and starvation.

Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book “The Population Bomb” helped revive the Malthusian ethos, in decline during much of the 20th century, with his hoary predictions of imminent mass starvation in the Third World. Not that he had much hope for richer countries.

“By the year 2000,” he predicted, “the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people. … If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”

Good thing Ehrlich is not a professional gambler – and that he didn’t control policy apparatus. Among the policies embraced by Ehrlich was the possible feasibility of placing “sterilants” in the water supply, and he advocated tax policies that discouraged childbearing.

Overall, Ehrlich’s dire predictions proved widely off the mark – food production has soared, population growth slowed and starvation declined – but his influence lives on. One of his closest acolytes, John Holdren, is President Obama’s top science adviser. Ehrlichian views would not be popular among the nonaffluent electorate, in contrast with more popular approaches that actually improved people’s lives, like cleaning up the air and water.

While Holdren may be too politic to embrace naked Malthusianism in the White House, many mainstream environmentalists continue to embrace strong steps to discourage people from having children. Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy, concluded that not having children is the most effective way for an individual in the developed world to reduce carbon emissions. In the United Kingdom, Jonathon Porritt, an environmental adviser to Prince Charles, has claimed that having even two children is “irresponsible” and advocates that the island nation reduce its population in half in order, in large part, to combat climate change.

Downsizing humanity

In Callenbach’s “Ecotopia,” the domineering state followed somewhat social democratic lines and emphasized an egalitarian culture. This idea could even work, if California was limited to the wealthy counties around the San Francisco Bay and, perhaps, had millions fewer poor people – including many immigrants – than it does now.

An Ecotopian state seems best-suited to a country that has a relatively homogeneous, wealthy population, like Finland or Norway. Green movements flourish among those who already have a high level of materialism – nice cars, homes, secure retirements – and do not require broad-based economic growth to make their lives better. Their relative wealth allows them to focus primarily on the environment, even at the expense of other people.

But this is not the reality for most of California – or the United States – where income disparities have grown in recent decades, and society has become ever more diverse. This reality may make people less enthusiastic about embracing calls by greens to lower living standards, particularly in the high-income countries.

Adviser Holdren, for example, in the past has called for “dedevelopment,” or the conscious ratcheting down of economy growth. A similar school of thought has risen in a well-organized European political drive to promote “degrowth,” which seeks to limit fossil fuels, suburban development and replace the current capitalist system with a highly regulated economy that would make up for less wealth through redistribution.

Perhaps those most cruelly treated under the neo-Malthusian regime would be developing countries, whose per capita energy use is far lower, something the greens hope to keep that way. Prince Charles, for example, embraces the “intuitive grammar” of ultradense slums such as Mumbai’s Dharavi, which, he claims, have perfected more “durable ways of living” than those in the suburbanized West.

The influential environmental group Friends of the Earth applauds recycling in Dharavi as an “inspiration” for the urban future. California’s environmental pioneer Stewart Brand openly endorses efforts to “Save the Slums” because they will save the planet.

A third way?

Prominent environmental thinkers, like the Guardian’s George Monbiot, maintain that, to save the planet we have to “redefine humanity” in a way that circumscribes opportunity. Some in the West, and even here in California, do seem to be willing, for the sake of Ecotopia, to throw opportunities for middle-class and working-class people under a bus.

But it’s highly doubtful that people like Vladimir Putin, the Iranian ayatollahs, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi or China’s President Xi Jinping are ready to sacrifice their people’s well-being to please comfortable Western greens. India has no plans to restrict building new coal plants – the country has tripled coal imports since 2008.

In the West, however, green politics increasingly demand not just reductions in, but the elimination of, fossil fuels. The progressive website Common Dreams, for example, proposes eliminating fossil fuels, Ecotopia-style, within five or six years in order to ensure a “reasonable margin of safety for the world.” Another goal is to demonize fossil fuel producers along the lines of what was done to the tobacco industry.

As we can see in California, such steps will greatly increase energy costs and especially hurt middle- and working-class people. Is there any alternative that gets us to reduced carbon emissions without exacerbating poverty? One alternative perspective comes from what has become increasingly defined as eco-modernists, a movement that maintains that “humans are capable of using technological innovation to solve critical environmental problems, such as climate change, at the same time as allowing economic growth to eradicate poverty in developing countries.”

Unlike some conservatives, eco-modernists do not consider climate change irrelevant or simply the product of a vast left-wing conspiracy. Instead, eco-modernists embrace many of the things environmentalists once at least considered, including expanded nuclear power and, most critically, a gradual shift from coal to much cleaner natural gas, which, as the Breakthrough Institute notes, has driven most of the reductions in greenhouse gases in America.

Fundamentally, eco-modernists see using technology, including in conservation, to improve the environment without asking Africans to do without electricity or Californians to do without decent jobs, which seems a cruel and self-defeating way to promote necessary environmental changes. But this approach does not appeal to many mainstream environmentalists like the Guardian’s Monbiot, who, using Robert Bryce’s term, tend increasingly to be “absolutists.”

In the past, one could count on political leaders to find ways to address such conflicts over priorities without undermining the livelihoods of their voters. But it may be too late for that expectation.

Progressive pundits increasingly envision the presidential election in 13 months as a “last chance,” as one put it, to stop “climate change catastrophe.” Even Gov. Jerry Brown, formerly more pragmatic, now uses extreme language about “extinction” – once again peddled by the irrepressible Ehrlich – in connection with climate change. If you believe that Gaia’s reckoning is imminent, after all, you can only accept the most extreme, draconian steps, whatever the effect on living standards and economies. And while you’re at it, bring on those sterilants!

Hillary Clinton’s shift from favoring to opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, despite strong union support for the project, makes clear that climate change policy will be at the center of the campaign, pitting the energy and manufacturing states of the U.S. interior against those controlled by the coastal gentry, among whom climate change has acquired something of a religious aspect.

The only way to break the grip of the Ecotopian fantasy will be for others – including what’s left of traditional Democrats – to join with Breakthrough and other pragmatic thinkers to come up with sensible alternatives to address the climate issue. Rather than accept the intimidating treatment of the greens and their media enablers, mainstream businesses and middle-class voters need to insist on practical ways to preserve the planet without destroying humanity.

Originally published in the Orange County Register.

Cross-posted at New Geography.