O there is blessing in this gentle breeze,

A visitant that while it fans my cheek

Doth seem half-conscious of the joy it brings

From the green fields, and from yon azure sky.

So rejoiced William Wordsworth in 1795, walking from the city of Bristol into the countryside and the nature that sustained him. Three years later he and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads, a slim volume embodying an emotional reaction to the formalistic strictures of Enlightenment classicism and a milestone in the triumph of Romantic thought and feeling in the West.

Two centuries later, in the midst of another fin-de-siecle and on the threshold of the next millennium -- a double psychic witching hour -- humankind feels the rustlings of a resurgent Romanticism. At the very moment when classical economics has rested its case, when gnomish central bankers and wonkish high-techers claim suzerainty, a new mode of thought and feeling -- yet mixed with the implacable hard science of environmentalism -- confronts the worldview of the backers of the unfettered market and limited government. Call it Enviromanticism.

Adam Smith's thesis may find its antithesis not in the doggedly optimistic tomes of Karl Marx but in the ecologically pessimistic writings of Edward O. Wilson, Paul Ehrlich, and David Quammen. These thinkers' environmental ideas pose the only significant challenge to the regnant paradigm of market economics. For every Wall Street Journal editorialist affirming cost/benefit analysis, there is an environmentalist preaching the opposite. Indeed, environmentalism may be the refutation of both capitalism and communism, each of which has aimed primarily at maximizing economic growth.

Only in this century has economic expansion provoked -- or permitted -- the rise of an earth-first politics. Many people have become aware that unbounded cultivation, extraction, and construction have disastrously degraded the ecosystem of the planet. In becoming estranged from nature, Wordsworth declared, "we have given our hearts away." Looking beyond the grind and hum of technology, today's neo-Wordsworthian human spirit searches for both rootedness and transcendence in a new Gaiac vision of the earth.

Yet Nature has been the wellspring not only of noble art and philosophy but also of dangerous politics, including systems based on misty, forested homelands and their Volk. While Wordsworthian romanticism settled into a stolid English Victorianism, in Mitteleuropa the Sturm und Drang of Goethe and Schiller released an energy that swept Metternich away, until Bismarck had the bright idea of hitching Romanticism to the service of Realpolitik. And in the 21st century, one can imagine that a new romance of the natural world, this one reinforced by science, could bubble the Zeitgeist caldron toward a new explosion, the precise nature of which today's enviromantics can foresee no more than could Wordsworth when he composed his lines above Tintern Abbey.

THE GREEN CRITIQUE

According to Ronald Inglehart, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, eco-consciousness is rising across all developed Western countries. Values have been shifting in recent decades, he writes in Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society (1990), "from an overwhelming emphasis on material well-being toward greater emphasis on the quality of life." Recognition and attempted amelioration of environmental damage is part of the growing effort among academics, journalists, and government officials to come to grips with what Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) has called postmodern social ills -- maladies that have less to do with a lack of wealth than with the unintended consequences of the misallocation of wealth.

Although some environmentalists in the United States have formed alliances with the likes of conservative politicos Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot in opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement and freewheeling trade worldwide, the Green critique of market economics goes far beyond the patriotic protectionism of the right or the laborite Luddism of the left. Instead, it is a repudiation of virtually every familiar indicator of material well-being. Wordsworth saw the preoccupation with "getting and spending" as an abuse of human beings' deeper spiritual and creative powers. And since, as David Malin Roodman of the Worldwatch Institute asserts, it is in "the very nature of industrial economic systems to degrade the environment on which they depend," the factory and its bitter fruit are scorned by enviromantics.

This Green critique comes at a time when policy-propounding elites are threatened by an apparent mismatch between the number of would-be problem-solvers and the number of familiar problems that need to be solved. The business cycle has been evened out and angled upward, while schools improve and crime declines. If centrists of both parties can muddle through and achieve reasonable, boring solutions to conventional economic and social problems, then the excess intellectual energy of elites will inevitably flow elsewhere. As a spirit in the woods drew Wordsworth out of the city, so members of the post-millennial chattering class will likely be lured from their overcultivated policy plots into the fecundly vexing mysteries of environmentalism.

A WINNING CAUSE

Inglehart's data suggest that Enviromanticism may also prove to be powerful politics. The gains of the ecological parties in Europe indicate a potential electorate larger than that of the conservatives, almost as large as that of the Christian Democratic parties, and three times that of the communists. If the European left wants to remain a political force, it must seize the leafy high ground. Nor is this a purely European phenomenon. In the United States, the Green Party candidate, Ralph Nader, finished fourth in last year's presidential election and ran second in many college precincts; the Greens actually took control of one small northern California town, named, appropriately enough, Arcata. A recent search of the World Wide Web turned up nearly two million references to "Green Party," suggesting that the Internet is fermenting some strong new brews of beliefs.

Yet in America, an outrider ideological movement triumphs only when major-party players adopt and co-opt the message. President Clinton's eagerness for reelection last year spurred a move to the right on budget balancing and welfare; his advisers' "triangulation" strategy led him leftward on environmental policy. In an elaborate ceremony last September, Clinton signed a proclamation establishing the 1.7-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah on land that a utility company had leased, proposing to open a large coal mine. The president's decision caused consternation in the Beehive State, where mining is a leading industry, but his handlers saw it as a plus on the East and West Coasts, in states with hundreds of electoral votes compared with Utah's five. Wilderness preservation as part of a safety net for the earth was a sturdy, pollster-certified plank of a winning political platform.

PLANETARY FORCES

In past decades, the largest group among the Greens was the so-called watermelons -- green on the outside, red on the inside -- who positioned the flora and fauna of the earth as the new oppressed proletariat. Other groups, however, loom larger in the environmental coalition of the future. To the verdant left one can now add a reconsidered right. The fishhook-and-bullet bunch may not share the advanced vegan-pagan consciousness of the Greens, but their lineage can be traced back to the strenuous outdoorsmanship of Theodore Roosevelt and includes George Bush, presidential tree planter, and Newt Gingrich, once-aspiring zookeeper. Just last year, reacting to the failure of Republicans in Congress to roll back environmental legislation, Senator John McCain of Arizona warned his fellow party members that they must assure the public that the G.O.P.'s environmental agenda "will consist of more than coining new epithets for environmental extremists or offering banal symbolic gestures."

Another force for the green is manifesting itself among the upper-middle and upper classes across the developed world. Affluent Westerners are "relatively open to social change," Inglehart observes, although "the appeal must make sense in terms of their worldview." A stroll through the local shopping mall suggests that what today's yupscale suburbanites want is a greened capitalism -- organic, biodegradable products from the Body Shop, Fresh Fields markets, and the Rain Forest Cafe. To be sure, the suburbanite who drives his low-mileage sport utility vehicle to the local recycling depot might not qualify as a sincere environmentalist. Yet the distinction between the true- believing, ideologizing leadership and the more passive and less attentive rank and file is common in any movement; so long as the avant-garde activists do not move too far out in front of the regulars who merely vote and donate, the movement retains its muscle.

Also driving the new environmentalism are scientists. Some 519,000 "natural scientists" were employed in the United States in 1995, according to Labor Department statistics -- an increase of nearly 50 percent in a dozen years. The number of "biological and life scientists" doubled over the same period, to 110,000. The influence of this waxing class of "hard" scientists, increasingly savvy about public relations and self-promotion, contrasts with the waning clout of social scientists, who have lost prestige in recent decades as their proffered solutions made many problems worse. These days it is the natural scientists who benefit from calamity or the prospect of it, as each day brings a new revelation about the toxic, mutagenic, or carcinogenic properties of some substance.

David Quammen explores the grimmest prospect of all in the most persuasive environmental book in recent memory, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions, published last year to critical acclaim. Building on the work of the Harvard University entomologist Edward O. Wilson, Quammen asserts that even the costly strategy of setting aside nature preserves will ultimately fail to save endangered species. In humankind's "war" on other species, "the current cataclysm of extinctions is indeed likely to stand among the worst half-dozen such events in the history of the Earth." Quammen foresees the depredations culminating in the "silent spring" of which Rachel Carson warned in her book of that title 35 years ago.

Offering no quarter to those who think eco-compromise is possible, Quammen heaps scorn on efforts like the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Nor, he says, will the market-oriented ideas of free-market environmentalists, such as debt-for-nature swaps and eco-tourism, keep earth's other creatures alive. Only a drastic change in human ways can stop the downward spiral toward doom.

MAJOR FAITH

The final, still speculative, component of Enviromanticism is what proponents hope will be a broad-based movement: a green general will. Two centuries after the proto-environmentalist Jean Jacques Rousseau's death, prosperity and education have given humankind a longer perspective without providing a larger purpose. Since neither economics nor science can provide a satisfactory teleology, poets and philosophers are free to try to fill the void.

University of Wisconsin professor James I. McClintock, in his 1994 book Nature's Kindred Spirits, argues, "Ecology encourages a biocentric perspective that emphasizes kinship, even equality, between humans and other forms of life. Its compatibility with a Romantic outlook is striking." Indeed, Enviromanticism owes much to the first Age of Aquarius stirrings in the 1960s. Thirty years later it is clear that the shifts that set off earthquakes in mainline culture have never stopped; the lifestyles of aging baby boomers are more influenced by Eastern and New Age thinking than by the dictates of traditional Judaism and Christianity.

Senator Al Gore caused a stir when, in his book Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (1992), he questioned the ecological viability of the internal combustion engine. And he forged beyond that challenge to modern orthodoxy to proclaim, "We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization." Gore wrote of "a spiritual crisis" that can be resolved only with an "inner ecology that relies on the same principles of balance and holism that characterize a healthy environment." Not only did lightning not strike him down -- a year later he was vice president.

Conservatives, pointing to recent books with titles like Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Eco-Feminism and When the World Will Be As One: The Coming New World Order in the New Age, have derided the environmental movement as greenolatry, a promiscuous yearning for something beyond tried and true subdue-the-earth Christianity. The Weekly Standard chastised Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt for abandoning his Catholic upbringing and following the "priests of the snake clan." Of course, if the right's assessment is correct, the greenward trend will be all the harder to thwart; religious impulses rarely respond to rationalism. Political scientist Robert Booth Fowler, in his 1995 book The Greening of Protestant Thought, sees theo-environmentalism as "a fresh engagement in the permanent quest to bring Christ into the culture." Yet campuses and most other petri dishes of ideological efflorescence display less interest in monotheism than in pantheism or, more precisely, an oceanic affection for the natural world. Wilson in his book In Search of Nature (1996) writes of a spreading "biophilia," which he defines as "the innate and emotional affiliation of human beings to other organisms."

Despite their omnideistic distaste for modernity, many Greens display a surprising appetite for modern government in all its gigantism. There is precedent for that propensity: in the last century, the nationalistic passions inspired by Romanticism led to Bismarckian bureaucrats and empire-builders and eventually to the welfaring, warfaring nation-state. In the next century, Enviromanticism may well seek to reverse the current trend toward downsizing on the theory that only big government can wage war against eco-dammerung. Worldwatch's Roodman almost begs politicians to seize this bureaupreneurial opportunity: "Forcing economic development onto an ecologically sound path will also take leadership at every level of government." He urges Group of Seven policymakers to "marshal domestic as well as international support for action."

But what sort of action is needed to save the green fields and azure sky of Wordsworth's rhapsody? In the next 25 years the urban population of the Asia-Pacific region is projected to more than double, to two billion-plus people. The number of private cars in the region is expected to jump nearly 600 percent, to 522 million. Asia, which now produces just a quarter of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, will account for a third by 2025 and for half by the end of the 21st century. The next "yellow peril" the West fears may be off-color clouds of lung-searing, globe-warming, ozone-depleting molecules. So is it possible that nations will return to gunboat diplomacy in seeking to persuade the Chinese, for example, not to build the Three Gorges Dam or use CFCS in their refrigerators? Will well-meaning but self-righteous missionaries attempt to colonize minds and lands that haven't yet seen the light on conservation and recycling?

Like Romanticism before it, Enviromanticism could send passions spilling across national as well as intellectual boundaries, sparking war and its moral equivalent. Adam Smith and his cheerful vision of nations gaining wealth through peaceful commerce could yet be confounded -- and Bismarck's harsh vision of conflict and conquest confirmed. In the Enviromantic 21st century, will eco-war be the health of the state?

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  • James P. Pinkerton served in the Reagan and Bush White Houses, departing as Deputy Assistant to the President for Policy Planning. He is a columnist for Newsday and a lecturer at the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University.
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