The Magazine

Dick Cheney Was Right

The energy debate is about virtue

Jun 11, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 37 • By ROBERT H. NELSON
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THE RELEASE OF THE BUSH ENERGY PLAN is generating an intense debate concerning the best ways of producing and conserving energy in the United States. Much of the discussion involves complex technical issues such as the ability to produce nuclear power from new engineering designs that would need to be foolproof against almost any form of human error.

In seeking to lay the groundwork for the release of the energy plan, though, Vice President Cheney suggested that there might be another important part of the discussion. "Conservation," he declared, "may be a sign of personal virtue," but the nation’s energy policy can not be based solely on such a moral sentiment. Many in the media and the environmental movement rushed to heap abuse on Cheney. And he has made little effort to defend the remark. Yet he was right to suggest that energy policy has become a sort of surrogate moral debate for the nation. Until there is wider recognition of this, key elements of the Bush energy plan are not likely to go anywhere.

Exhibit A is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in northeast Alaska. Bush wants to open it for oil and gas drilling but so far lacks the political support in Congress. ANWR is widely treated as though it were an issue of trading off the benefits of oil development against adverse impacts on the environment. But it is really a debate about one way of expressing—or not expressing—the kind of "virtue" that Cheney was speaking about.

It is remarkable but true that 400 years after the Puritans settled the Massachusetts wilderness, and following waves of immigration from all over the world, America is still in important ways a Puritan country. To simplify, the Puritan branch of Calvinism preached that an excess of consumption is a temptation to sin and a threat to one’s immortal soul. Echoes of that conviction are still powerful in our discussions of the role of conservation in a national energy strategy.

Environmentalists like to say that oil development should not occur in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge because it is one of the few remaining "untouched places" on earth. However, ANWR is not significantly different in its degree of isolation and remoteness from tens of millions of acres of other lands in northern Alaska (and Canada and Russia) that border on the Arctic.

True, the Porcupine caribou herd has calving grounds there. However, there is little evidence that caribou—which number around 1 million in Alaska and have thrived around the Prudhoe Bay oil field—would be harmed by oil development. Moreover, every place on the planet to some extent has unique biodiversity features. Indeed, there is only one attribute of ANWR that makes it truly special—the enormous amount of oil that lies beneath it.

Why, then, has the environmental movement focused on ANWR as a special object of its attentions? Paradoxically, it is the very presence of so much oil. A deliberate decision to leave the enormous oil wealth of ANWR in the ground makes a powerful symbolic statement—that consumption is not everything in life, that there are more important things than producing energy, that economic growth will not yield the utopia once widely expected. In other words, in environmental eyes, closing ANWR off to oil development is a particularly effective way of affirming the "virtue" of the nation—a renunciation of material goods and acquisitiveness that Cotton Mather would have applauded.

Environmentalism, it has been often remarked, is in part a religion—and acts of deep symbolic significance have always been central to religion. Making a large sacrifice is one of the traditional ways in which a community makes a strong religious statement—from a primitive tribe offering up one of its valuable animals to God, to the gathering of contributions to build a Gothic cathedral in medieval Europe. In fact, environmentalists themselves sometimes refer to ANWR as a kind of "cathedral" for our time. To "save"ANWR would be to dedicate perhaps the most expensive church in the history of the world.

Many members of the environmental movement, to be sure, are secularists who are uncomfortable staking out explicitly moral positions. They resolve this dilemma by making a series of "practical" arguments against ANWR oil development. They really are new preachers in the land who want to teach us how to live righteous lives, but they couch their sermons in technical and economic language.