(This is the sixth in a series of posts looking in depth at issues from Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. Previous posts in the series are here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and my original post on the book is here.)
Out of all the posts I’ve done on this book, this one is going to have the least of Russell and the most of me in it because while Russell does embrace the idea of green liberalism, he was writing at a time when awareness of environmental issues was a lot lower than it was today, and it was less of a political priority too. I have also been reading Andrew Dobson’s Green Political Thought recently, so it’s possible that ideas from that may creep in too.
One thing that struck me while looking around for some inspiration on this post is that there’s still very little out there that looks at ways to philosophically or theoretically include the environment within liberalism. One can find lots of assertions about how liberalism has a strong environmental record, and lots of talk of green policies implemented by liberals, but as the French philosopher is supposed to have said ‘that’s all very well in practice, but how does it work in theory?’
Russell looks at the idea of sustainability, arguing that liberal attachment to the idea comes from the principle that power is a trust and trusteeship implies stewardship. This stems from the seventeenth century foundations of liberalism with Locke taking the idea from the critique of Charles I’s abuse of that trust. Trusteeship is not just about using power wisely in the present but ensuring that the environment is preserved for the future. This fits in with the principle of controlling power – if power is to exist, what is it’s proper role? We can also bring principles of internationalism and pluralism into this train of thought, perhaps embedded in the phrase ‘think globally, act locally’. It’s undeniable that protection of the environment is a global issue and needs at the very least co-ordination from a higher level, but effective action needs to be carried out at a lower level and with consent, not just something handed down from above.
One point to make here is that while there is much literature and debate on the concept of ecosocialism, there is little or none in developing comparable concepts of ecoliberalism. (Indeed, the term ‘ecoliberalism’ seems to be used as much, perhaps more, as shorthand for ‘economic liberalism’ as it is in an environmental context.) To borrow from Dobson’s formulation, liberalism appears to have no problem with environmentalism as ‘a managerial response to environmental problems, secure in the belief that they can be solved without fundamental changes’ but balks at any attempts to move on from that to a fuller ecologism, which ‘presupposes radical changes’. This difference comes from a different understanding of the scale of the response needed to respond to environmental crisis – in crude terms, green thought holds that the crisis is so severe it can only be thwarted by a fundamental change, while liberalism holds that the crisis is not severe enough to require that level of change.
However, I would question whether liberalism is necessarily as conservative about maintaining the status quo of society as it is sometimes depicted. As we’ve seen already, if we start from Russell’s conception of liberalism as primarily a philosophy of power and accept its radical roots, we can see that liberalism is capable of endorsing widespread change – indeed, Locke wrote to justify a change in power that had seemed completely unthinkable to many before it happened. The key, perhaps, is not the potential radicalism within liberalism but the rejection of utopias and the resistance to the idea of working towards some desired goal and elevating ends above means.
Conversely, there’s also the question of whether green ideology/ecologism is necessarily as authoritarian as it is sometimes depicted. Much of it is based on decentralisation and doing things locally, and there’s a compatibility with liberal ideas of pluralism, internationalism and the need for actions to be taken at the appropriate level. There is an authoritarian streak amongst some greens, and it is part of some strands of green political thought which hold that the necessity for ecological action takes precedence over any other concerns which perhaps eliminates the possibility of a complete synergy of liberalism and green thinking, but I don’t feel it’s entirely impossible.
What, then, might a more developed green liberalism – ecoliberalism – look like? I’m not going to attempt to define an entire new strand of ideology here, but we can look at how some of the principles and themes I’ve looked at already might drive it. I think it’s important for liberalism to be able to not just point to actions to show green credentials but to have a firm philosophical basis for those actions. As we see more and more information about the state of the environment, liberalism needs to be able to react and adapt to changing circumstances, and we do that best when we have firm principles to base that reaction on.
Any ecoliberalism has to address the joint issues of power and harm, and how they apply to the environment. The problem here is that we must confront existential threats, rather than ones that we can directly see. Someone being thrown out of their home as the result of an unjust law applied buy a corrupt government is clearly suffering harm from an unaccountable power, and we can see how that can be rectified and systems changed to ensure it does not happen again. What do we do, though, if that harm is at the end of a long causal chain? Who has exercised the power that forces someone out of their home because of rising sea levels or drought, and how do we make that power accountable? And what if the harm is dispersed more nebulously across a wider population – how do we account for the harm, restriction of freedom and reduction of opportunity caused by a lack of food and water because of climate change?
A potential ecoliberalism faces the same issues as liberalism in dealing with power being exerted globally while systems and structures to control that power and make it accountable haven’t kept up. Identifying the sources of power is not by itself sufficient, but merely a first step to finding the ways to make them accountable and disperse that power. This will likely mean coming up with new systems and new ideas, not just relying on the existing mechanisms we have. This is a radicalism that should not scare liberals, even if the task seems vast, because liberalism has done it before. From overthrowing monarchies to establishing the United Nations, things that would have seemed impossibly radical steps to take have become accepted and normal because people went out and made the case for them, so they could be built on consent.
Consent and persuasion is a key issue for any ecoliberalism to address. I’ve already discussed the importance of consent and the rejection of arbitrarily imposed utopias, and it’s an important issue to address as we look towards the future. Ecoliberalism cannot lay down a certain way of doing things as a goal and insist everyone comes along on the journey to that point. Instead it has to make sure that it goes out and involves everyone in building a future that we can’t know the shape of until we get there. The message of ecoliberalism should be that we can and should protect the planet for the benefit of all life upon it, but there are many ways of doing it and we need to work together to find out which is best, not arbitrarily decide that only one way should be followed.
Yes, I’m being vague, but this is an issue that needs a lot more thought from a lot more people than just one blogger. However, I do believe that we can move beyond a simple liberal environmentalism to a fuller ecoliberalism, and that it’s vital we do so to keep liberalism moving forward, adapting to circumstance and developing as it has done for hundreds of years.