Liberal individualism is killing the planet
Anti capitalist and climate change activists demonstrate in London. Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images   

We have been given the ‘final call’ by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to save the world from “climate catastrophe”. Like last orders at the bar, one suspects there will be several more ‘final calls’ before we sit up and take notice.

For the far Left, it is the free market system itself that has created this existential crisis. If ‘Capitalism is killing the planet’, as the placards at radical eco-protests proclaim, then what other choice is there but to overthrow the system?

Yet to believe that anti-capitalism offers a panacea for climate change is to ignore twentieth century history. The destruction of nature in the former Soviet Union was unparalleled in Western democracies. By the time of its collapse, 40% of Soviet citizens lived in areas where air pollutants were three to four times the maximum allowable levels, nearly half of the children in Leningrad (St Petersburg) were suffering from intestinal disorders caused by drinking contaminated water, and a fifth of the population lived in ecological disaster areas.

Further reading

Blazing Arizona: why adapting to climate change is deeply immoral

By Peter Franklin

The market may not guarantee an optimum allocation of resources, but the price mechanism is essential in determining resource scarcity. No bureaucrat or communist idealist – whether Stalinist or Libertarian – has yet found a way to replicate this function.

This does not mean the state has no role to play in encouraging better choices (more on that later), but knowledge about resource availability is fragmented and fluid, and is not something that can be slotted neatly into a government database.

The existence of private property can also act as a bulwark against the destruction of the environment (though it by no means guarantees it). When nobody owns something – a plot of land, say, or a forest – it tends to fall into disrepair or be exploited to destruction.

All of which disproves the idea that capitalism is the root of the climate change problem – the anti-capitalist rhetoric of the radical environmentalists is the equivalent of standing atop a sand dune and grandiloquently declaring ‘If I were king’.

It is also a myth to think that liberal democratic countries are a bigger obstacle to climate action than autocracies. So far, democracies have taken a stronger stand in climate change mitigation than non-democratic regimes. The only exception is in democratic states where corruption is high.

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Deluded liberals can't keep clinging to a dead idea

By John Gray

The problem, then, is not liberal democracy, but liberal individualism. In a finite world, the demands of 7.7 billion people for a comfortable life will inevitably crash up against the planet’s limitations, whatever the economic system. In the face of a rapidly warming planet, liberal individualism is unsustainable. In Patrick Deneen’s words, it “undermines the virtues and cultural norms needed to enable humans to live together in harmony”.

Deneen is a Right-wing Catholic thinker who rejects many of the freedoms that liberals should defend (like gay marriage), but when applied to untrammelled markets, rather than to cultural questions, his argument stands. Without common forms of life there can be no freedom for the individual, and catastrophic climate change – prompting huge migrations of people and the potential submergence of great cities such as London under water – poses an obvious threat to this common life.

There is, therefore, something to be said for critiques of neo-liberal capitalism – even if calls on the far-Left to reject capitalism in toto and replace it with central planning are misguided. In Naomi Klein’s 2014 book on climate change, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, she writes:

“We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis.”

This is a pertinent critique of a particular strain of capitalism, rather than capitalism itself. As the Guardian economics editor Larry Elliott has written, the struggle to combat climate change “brings out the best and worst of capitalism”. It is because of capitalism, and the market incentives it creates, that great strides have been made in developing clean alternatives to dirty fuels such as oil, coal and gas. It is now cheaper to produce solar and wind energy than most fossil fuels.

Further reading

$10 a barrel for oil? The age of the electric car is closer than you think

By Michael Liebreich

The problem is when a particularly polluting resource is abundant, which is true of oil and gas. A decade ago peak oil theory was fashionable. It claimed that because oil was a finite resource demand would soon overtake supply, leading to the terminal decline of the industry in the foreseeable future.

The flaw in the theory is that new technologies are constantly being developed to extract resources from untapped sources, be it shale or mining deeper wells – also driven by capitalist incentives. Peak oil may become a reality one day, but we still have enough oil and gas to fry the planet many times over.

And that is why expecting the market alone to solve global warming is as much a mistake as believing that an end to markets will solve it. As long as fossil fuels remain relatively abundant they will be cheap enough to use profligately. Some government intervention is needed to change consumer behaviour. This is perfectly compatible with capitalism: the state shapes the context in which markets can operate, from defending property rights to regulating to protect consumers. But over recent decades we have become reluctant to use the state to defend the rights of the commons – that needs to change.

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A practical example of this would be getting rid of internal flights in Britain. Few of these flights are essential – it takes around half an hour longer to get to Manchester from London by train than it does to get there by plane. And this doesn’t include the extra hour it takes to pass through airport security. Yet the cost of train travel in Britain is so exorbitantly expensive – and trains are so unreliable and uncomfortable – that people regularly choose to fly.

The unwillingness of the state to restrict the use of inefficient and environmentally damaging transport brings us back to the belief in liberal individualism: that a person should be free to travel how he or she pleases, regardless of the consequences.

On climate change, as with much else, the public good is not always synonymous with the interests of private, wealthy individuals. Indeed, the two are often opposed. Yet it needn’t take any large-scale coercion to reconcile these competing interests, just a greater willingness on the part of the state to move people towards sustainable choices.

Our politicians appear to re-learning this lesson, albeit slowly. Prime Minister Theresa May vowed to intervene in “broken markets”, and the 2017 Conservative Party manifesto rejected what it termed the “cult of selfish individualism”. However we still have some way to go: which politician will call for a ban on private motor cars within our congested cities, as Peter Franklin asked on UnHerd last week? No prospective candidate for the mayoral seat in London – ranked as one of the world’s worst commuter cities – has yet dared propose the idea.

Further reading

Who'll have the guts to ban cars from our cities?

By Peter Franklin

As climate change ramps up, we can expect massive price-hikes for basic foodstuffs due to crop failures and severe flooding in coastal areas. As it prompts waves of migration from draught-stricken parts of the world, social tensions are likely to increase as populists stir up resentment against newcomers. The resulting tide of national chauvinism risks unravelling the social fabric that makes a country like Britain worth living in. There is still time to ward off the worst-case climate scenario, but as the IPCC put it, it will require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.

Those who have traditionally resisted the state taking any action at all to moderate human behaviour – typically in the name of classical liberal ideology – thus face a paradoxical choice: accept that liberal individualism means death for the common life, or acquiesce in the destruction of the very freedoms they purport to be defending.