New year’s arguments against fake liberal critiques to environmentalism

Federico Savini


2019 was a special year for global environmental movements. Existing movements grew, new movements emerged and gained traction. Like us, new people joined these movements, got excited, started to question their lives, got overwhelmed, digested, made mistakes, reflected, learned and got excited again… Many of us have great hopes for 2020. 2020 could be the year when a majority of global citizens rises up for true justice and sustainability, instead of empty words, green technocracy, and the shifting of damage into seemingly far-away places and generations. To do so, however, we have some work ahead of us. One task at hand is to deal with criticism and fellow-citizens who, for some reason or the other, do not share our thoughts, concerns and hopes for the planet (and therefore all of us).

Of course, it is very good and also necessary to engage in discussions with people who have significantly different opinions with regards to the current state of the Earth. It is not unlikely that such conversations include individuals who, while being friendly and perhaps interested in talking to you, contest your view that saving the planet requires collective and political action (such as striking). The difficulty in talking to such individuals often does not lie in their climate skepticism or even denial. Many of them agree with you that the planet is suffering and that ‘something’ must be done. Yet, some argue against any particular collective action and try to convince you that either there is NO hope – humanity is fucked anyways, so why bother – or that the climate movement is in fact ‘illiberal’ and therefore ‘undesirable’ in the long run. The first argument doesn’t justify much discussion. It’s cynical and only works as long as people are not personally affected by climate and ecological breakdown (e.g. through diseases or shortages), because then they’ll have to (re)act. In contrast, the second argument deserves some careful responses in light of the great misunderstandings on which it is based.

Let’s call the second line of argumentation anti-eco-liberalism. Individuals who put forth this argument tend to believe that engaging in collective ecological movements or activities will inevitably lead to decisions that reduce peoples’ freedom of choice and self-determination. The argument (often conveyed with the aid of scary words such as ‘eco-dictatorship’ or ‘eco-fascism’) is based on the conviction that, no matter which ecological disaster we are facing, it remains most important to preserve individuals’ fundamental right to consume, move, buy, produce, eat and do what they please. The argument is that the individual’s right of choice is untouchable in a liberal democracy – and it’s a difficult argument to dismantle, especially if you want to be quick, effective and polite (perhaps around your evening soup with relatives).

Below you will find four arguments falling into the category of anti-eco-liberalism. They are, in my view, the most frequent ones and may have different variations depending on the degree of (il)liberalism of the speaker. I will try to explain why each argument is either flawed, or based on a problematic understanding of liberty, or promotes unfreedom rather than liberty – or all of those things together!

Argument 1: Any process of ‘climate advocacy’ has to go through the supposedly ‘normal’ channels of a pluralist system where one interest meets the other. This is how democracy works. We need to wait until all ‘relevant stakeholders’ sit together at the table and formulate a policy response to eco-breakdown that represents all interests, including that of the eco-lovers (such as Thunberg & Co).

There are few great misunderstandings at the base of this argument. In particular, the proponents of this argument misunderstand (or totally miss) both the political nature and the geo-physical intricacies of the so-called ‘climate issue’.

First of all, the argument covertly presupposes that, at the negotiation table, there will be a party representing the ‘interest of the climate’ (or ‘the planet’) and other parties representing the ‘interests of the economy’, ‘society’, and others. Although this view may reflect how the media sometimes portray ecological issues, it is at best simplistic. The preservation of the ecological system in which we all live is not ‘one interest among others’ (such as the profit interests of the fossil industry, for example). Instead, it is the very precondition for our economy and society to work! Without clean water, fertile soils, sand, or metals – to give just few examples – farmers, car- and cell-phone producers could not do their business. Without it, we humans simply cannot survive. Protecting our ecosystems is thus not just in the interest of the some eco-lovers who feel particularly strong about the planet! It’s our planet, our future, and our children’s future. Equalizing this with partisan interests such as those of farmers or fossil investors is a grave misjudgment. When anti-eco-liberals argue that climate-activists should articulate their interest in a pluralist system, I literally ask myself ‘On which planet do they live?’

Yet, their argument is also based on a second misunderstanding – or perhaps a total ignorance – of how democracy works today. Processes of negotiation at governmental levels (such as for instance the Dutch Klimaattafels) are often depicted as the pinnacle of democratic practice. The underlying idea is that, via the negotiation table, we can find a compromise that pleases all parties involved. What this perspective overlooks, however, is that democracy does not equal consensus building. Democracy means participation and pluralism, but it also means antagonism and conflict. And, importantly, democracy is a process that is oriented towards including even those interests that are not (yet) represented at the negotiation table – such as the interests of future generations, people far-away on this planet, and other people who, for some reason or the other, are not powerful enough to be granted a seat at the table. This is why the equation democracy = negotiation table after all exposes strong illiberal and conservative undertones. It promotes the idea that the solutions to common problems – problems of the demos – can be found by those that are powerful and well-organized enough to sit at the governmental negotiation table, by those who are in a position to talk to decision makers (such as lobbyists). Guess what, those subjects (often named ‘stakeholders’) are simply those who have the biggest shares in our economy, and therefore those who have the most to lose in a process of ecologically motivated socio-economic change. In arguing for the negotiation table as a universal means for solving contemporary problems of global warming and biodiversity loss, anti-eco-liberals therefore tend to defend the accumulated political influence of vested interests rather than the system of democracy.

The third misunderstanding at the base of their argument concerns their factual comprehension of the ecological problems we currently face: many liberals (whom we’ve just identified as conservatives and ‘il-liberals’) have little to no understanding of the most recent climate- and bioscience. You can help them by explaining that, even if their understanding of democracy was accurate, it falls short of taking into account the ‘speed’ at which decisions need to be taken today. When scientists speak of temporal urgency, tipping points, and a possible moment of ‘no return’, what they mean is that at some point in the future (a not too far away point, a point that may have been crossed already) we can make all the ‘good decisions’ that we like but these decisions will be too late to halt the domino effect of ecological degradation we are about to face. While, in the eyes of anti-eco-liberals, democracy has to be a negotiation-based and therefore slow and incremental, climate change instead is accelerating and exponential (due to self-reinforcing feedbacks in the Earth system). In other words, the slowness and moderation of negotiation-based policy making – the step by step approach – is at odds here with the rapidity and irreversibility of climate change, which is based on natural laws and therefore non-negotiable! It seems, however, that many anti-eco-liberals haven’t yet fully grasped the geo-physical intricacies of climate change.

Argument 2: The environmental justice movement is using ecology as a pretext for system change. This system change will require large-scale and unpopular decisions that can be achieved only through some sort of ‘eco-dictatorship’. This will pose a serious danger to democracy.

In a way, this argument is simply the ‘flipside’ of argument #1. The argument tends to be used by people who believe that our current liberal democracy is the best humans could achieve throughout history, and that it essentially works because of its representativeness. In their simplistic and dichotomous view, the opposite of democratic representativeness as we know it is oppression and dictatorship. There are several reasons why this argument is flawed.

First of all, the argument presupposes that democracy is about ‘managing’ a country (or a region, or a municipality). It assumes that the current democratic system is most of all a great bureaucratic machine that allows us to maintain the status quo (e.g. growth-directed global capitalism, nation-based representative democracy, etc.). This worship of the status quo of course jars with environmental justice movements’ demands for system change. When environmental justice movements advocate system changes, they advocate a society that sets itself radically different goals. They demand that interests currently unacknowledged are taken into consideration – such as the interests of future generations, or that of people at the frontlines of the climate crisis. They demand new and additional democratic procedures that account for such interests and also inform the demos better about what is at stake.

What environmental justice movements demand, then, is that democracies do what they are actually supposed to do, which is not to maintain the status quo. Instead, democracy is about commonly setting goals, based on the recognition of newly emerging interests, which may not be considered in the current system yet. Democracy is not bureaucracy: it is the process of continuously defining and redefining the goals and priorities of bureaucracy itself. Therefore, the demand for system change is never in of itself dangerous or undemocratic. On the contrary, the fact that some people still dare to envision system change means that – non-withstanding all flaws of our current democratic systems (lobbyism, over-representation of certain interests, global and inter-generational unbalances etc.) – a grain of actual democracy is still alive!

A working liberal democracy strives towards continuous system change. It allows us to work together to change our common societal goals and enlarge our representativeness. In contrast, democracy as envisioned by anti-eco-liberals tends to reduce representativeness in order to maintain the usual goals (such as GDP growth). Currently, this has the dangerous effect that many voices remain un- or underrepresented, including those of our children, those of dying animals all over the world, those of (far-away) islanders being flooded, those of asthmatic children living in the polluted centers of international industrial offshoring, those of climate refugees, and the list goes on. Sustaining argument #2 therefore implies, again, the opposite of ‘liberty’ and democracy. It is a ‘technocratic’ argument aiming to silence people who still dare to work towards a different, better society, and it is an illiberal attempt to shut down (global) democracy in its full power!

What is more, the people who argue that ecological movements are dangerous and dictatorial display a great ignorance of how these movements are organized and what they propose. They hardly recognize the democratic organization of environmental movements, nor do they respond to their constructive proposals for sustainability and democratic innovation. Environmental movements have worked out a range of noteworthy solutions here. For instance, they propose to institute citizens’ assemblies, inclusive associations and cooperatives; they propose to diversify the economy (as well as politics) through renewable energies and ecological products; and they propose how to redefine societal wellbeing in a sustainable, GDP-growth-independent kind of way. How come these suggestions are never mentioned and debated, but instead silenced under the label of ‘eco-dictatorship’?

Anti-eco-liberals’ failure to recognize and engage with environmental movements’ array of proposals for systemic change indicates, again, how liberalism hides a form of conservatism. While liberals tend to embrace any type of technological innovation – no matter how costly or risky it is (e.g. geo-engineering) – they rarely manage to envision societal or economic innovation. In so doing, their position also indicates a limit in mindset and creativity, because societal progress is not just about digital revolution and artificial intelligence!

Argument 3: The environmental movement wants to impose particular lifestyles on others. It therefore endangers the sacrosanct principle of freedom of choice. It wants to forbid ‘us’ what we like to do. This will limit our liberty, one of the great achievements of the 20th century.

Depending on how it’s put forth, this argument either reveals great selfishness, or it simply shows how self-proclaimed ‘liberals’ often do not really understand what ‘freedom’ means and how the things they do impact others. To argue against this argument, it is important and useful to get some examples into your repertoire and to recognize that egocentrism is a very natural psychological safety net for many of us faced with uncertainty and risk.

The proponents of argument#3 mobilize the concepts of ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom of choice’ to argue that people have the basic (human) right to choose. People, they argue, have the right to choose how they want to travel (plane, train or car?), the right to eat meat in quantities of their liking (and wallet), the right to buy large houses, the right to buy stuff that is not recycled, the right to heat their home to a comfort degree above 20, the right to keep their lights on as they please, etc. They may argue that this freedom of choice should be granted to all (humans), as long as they pay the market price for the things they choose. This then makes spending power the determining factor for individual freedom. Those who earn a lot have the right to use money as they please, which also includes the unlimited right to consume and pollute our common planet!

As you can imagine, a lot is wrong with this argument. First of all, it is based on a great misunderstanding of how freedom in society works. The necessary condition of freedom is its own limitation. Freedom exists as a boundary between different forms of limitation, always! Limitation to certain forms of freedom is what generates freedom in the first place. This is not hard philosophy but pure common sense. Stealing from somebody may be an exercise of freedom (the freedom to appropriate). Yet, we have rules that limit this freedom in order to protect the more basic and valued freedom (and right) of other people to keep what they have. The same goes for murder or rape, and it also works for all the simple and non-criminal things we do every day. If I park a big car on the street, then I temporarily take away 5 square meters of street from somebody else. If I buy one object in the store, I erase another person’s freedom to buy the same object. If I over-consume water in a dry area, I take away other peoples’ (and animals’) chances to drink.

Thus, by defending a vague idea of ‘freedom’, anti-eco-liberals are in fact advocating particular kind of freedom – the freedom to consume. And, as any kind of freedom, this freedom entails a limitation for others. In the context of contemporary global warming and biodiversity loss, it even entails grave limitations. In this context, some people’s lifestyle choices will limit the fulfillment of other people’s most basic human needs. If certain people’s freedom to shop and burn fossil fuels diminishes others (e.g. our children’s) capacity to eat and breathe clean air, then this freedom has to be reconsidered! If it kills people and animals all over the world and thus takes away their freedom to survive, then we might even call it a dictatorship. We must therefore ask ourselves the crucial question: Is our freedom to consume without limitation really more valuable than other’s peoples (and other species) basic freedom to live?

Anti-eco-liberals implicitly answer this question with ‘yes’, which makes it clear, again, that their position is in fact far from liberal. What liberals protect when defending their ‘right to consume’ is not Freedom as such, but a whole set of regulations (e.g. regulations for free trading) that are put into place in order to protect their own freedom to over-consume a planet that is not theirs!

Society is based on the principle of limitation – often pursued by the State through laws. This is necessary to maintain greater, more important liberties (e.g. the liberty to live without fear). Differently from what anti-eco-liberals argue, engaging in the environmental movement is therefore precisely what protecting freedom means. Today’s environmental movements are liberation movements. Adopting a global and intergenerational perspective, they expand and repair the meaning of liberty instead of endangering it.

Argument 4: The pursuit of ecological goals will deny newly industrialized countries (such as China, Brazil or India) their legitimate liberty to grow their economies, eat meat, buy luxury goods, consume energy, etc. Ecological movements violate these countries’ right to enjoy lifestyles established industrialized nations have enjoyed for decades, as well as to freely self-determine their future.

Anti-eco-liberals often use argument#4 as an argument of last resort in order to shut down the conversation. Basically, what they say is this: You may be right in your call for collective pursuit of sustainability and system change, but achieving this aim in the country where you’re based won’t make any difference. Who can make a ‘true’ difference, they argue, are countries with the world-largest GDPs (such as China), and it’s not up to you to tell these countries and their citizens what to do. Telling newly industrializing countries how to develop their societies/economies would be a violation of their freedom towards self-determination. Obviously, the argument only works if you are not from a so-called ‘newly industrializing country’, which – by the way – is a problematic label in and of itself (I’ll use it here for the sake of simplicity).

You may feel that this argument is true (or may be true), but, again, it is based on quite few misunderstandings regarding our current global economic system, and thus also global democracy.

First of all, the argument is flawed with regard to the material facts at its base. If we look at newly industrialized countries’ ecological footprints per capita, we can see that the average individual in, say, China, India or Brazil, today has a much lower footprint than the average individual living in, say, Canada, Germany or the United States. In other words, the average individual in an newly industrialized nation still consumes and pollutes much less of our planet’s resources (such as land, water, food, emissions and other waste) than the average individual in an ‘established’ industrial nation. Ecological footprints are approximate measures, but they help us understand that it does make a huge difference if ‘established’ industrialized nations reduce their ecological footprints. This doesn’t mean that, in order to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss, newly industrialized nations won’t have to tackle their negative environmental impacts as well. However, to say that the problem can only be tackled in these countries is at best inaccurate and at worst an effrontery. It’s as if I live in a villa and consume 5 units of energy, and argue that the problem of energy-overconsumption has to be tackled in the multi-family house next door, where 20 inhabitants consume 15 units of energy.

Second, the argument that the ‘environmental issue’ is to be tackled in newly industrialized nations completely conceals the fact that these countries’ economies also work to sustain the lifestyles of ‘established’ industrialized nations. This correlation is often swept under the carpet – also when European and North American countries calculate their gross domestic emissions (and thus determine if they’ve reached their emission targets). Currently, these countries only manage to maintain (or mildly reduce) their emissions while at the same time growing their consumption because they delocalize their emissions and other environmental damages. What unites the component parts of our cars, the sand we use to build our houses, the metals in our mobile phones, and the electronic waste we produce when trashing our outdated techno-gadgets is that they are all extracted, produced and/or processed in Asia, Africa, or South America. The same applies for the biofuel we burn to produce so-called ‘green’ energy. To say that it’s up to newly industrializing nations alone to solve climate and ecological breakdown is therefore a huge lie. The argument only works as long as we ignore how things are produced and wasted within today’s global economy, and how consumption standards within ‘established’ industrialized nations keeps on driving much of todays global environmental damage. On top of that, the argument is also hypocritical. It’s as if I sit in a restaurant eating a huge Brazilian steak, and then I argue that it’s up to Brazil alone to solve the outrageous issue of deforestation in the Amazon.

Third, anti-eco-liberals using argument#4 often claim that countries should decide for themselves about their future. They depict ecological movements as some sort of new form of colonialism. This is absurd. The argument belies the fact that our current global economic system not only originated from but also still functions based on a long history of colonial and post-colonial exploitation. To a significant extent, the economic path that so-called ‘newly’ industrializing countries are taking today is the result of decisions imposed by former colonial powers. They follow a path of global market liberalism and consumerist growth that was imposed on them through violence, authority and expropriation yet sold to them under the labels of ‘emancipation’ and ‘development’. In many cases, this very pathway towards ‘liberty’ became a curse: countries that directed their economies towards the export of primary resources became mono-sectorial economies that now depend on global market demand and give little space to the development independent and diversified domestic economies. Freedom towards self-determination will therefore not ensue from business as usual. If anything, the current environmental movement is an opportunity for breaking with existing post-colonial dependencies and embarking on a path towards actual self-determination. This indeed cannot and should not be imposed by others but has to develop from within these nations. Fortunately, the current environmental movement is a global movement, whose local chapters are free to set their goals independently – even if they collaborate with international allies.

Fourth, argument#4 is simply an instrument for de-responsibilization. It tends to be used by people who, after all, are secretly convinced that their actions have to do ‘something’ with the current climate and ecological crisis, but are still wondering how to escape that call. To that end, they deliberately ignore the fact that, while we are all responsible for the wellbeing our common planet, some of us are more responsible than others. Some companies are more responsible than others because they emit more. Some individuals are more responsible than others simply because they consume and pollute more. Some countries are more responsible than others because the ‘know’ more and have the means to take action. And, finally, some countries are more responsible than others because their ‘cumulative’ impact – the environmental damage they’ve caused throughout history (here an example) – is way higher than that of others. In this context, it’s an impudent trick to claim that countries in Europe or North America are more sustainable than China – a country which is often used as universal scapegoat. Not only do European and North American countries delocalize their emissions (see my point above), but their environmental damage throughout history is in fact still larger than that of China. You can read more here on how the underlying calculations are obtained.

Finally, if all these counter-arguments did not convince your (il)liberal interlocutor, you can always say that as creative human beings, we must be free to strive towards changing our economies and democracies for the better. Nothing is wrong with that. If we’re not free to commonly search for better ways of creating shared wellbeing in interchange with the ecosystems we’re all part of, then all the liberties we’ve achieved so far would be in vain.  

I wish you a happy 2020!

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