The ecological challenge for Liberalism

A Review of ‘Liberalism’ by Marcel Wissenburg, in Dobson, A. and Eckersley, R. (2006), Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge (pp.20-34), Cambridge: CUP. In the opening chapters of Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge, the contributing authors attempt to demonstrate how different ideologies can claim common cause with environmental concern. As such, some readers might characterise this second chapter, following as it does that by Roger Scruton on ‘Conservatism’ (see yesterday’s post), as going from the merely foolhardy to the downright ridiculous. Certainly, Marcel Wissenburg acknowledges the severity of his challenge in his opening sentence by admitting that it is “…not uncommon to point to liberalism as the evil genius behind the ecological crisis”. This is, if you like, the null hypothesis that Wissenburg then sets out to falsify, by proposing ways in which the liberalism of today has in fact matured from a very rebellious youth – into a pillar of the modern global community – ready to take on the new responsibilities posed by the ecological challenges that we now face. Wissenburg therefore starts his defence by pointing out the differences between classical liberalism “…as a ‘pure’ political theory…” and “…the practice of liberalism or the practices ascribed to liberalism…” (p.20). Wissenburg alludes to the fact that, although the morality of human slavery was not questioned in the time of John Locke (1632 – 1704), it is now universally condemned as inhumane and racist. Therefore, Wissenburg’s defence of liberalism is based on an appeal to its philosophical roots rather than any of its political consequences (historical or current). Over the course of pages 20 to 22, Wissenburg discusses what he considers to be the three main reasons for the demonisation of liberalism; namely that (i) it has inherited from the Enlightenment a false (Descartian) dichotomy between humans and nature (p.20); (ii) it is inextricably linked to the idea that progress and/or growth is a legitimate end in itself and therefore sees nature in terms of instrumental (rather than intrinsic) value only (p.21); and that (iii) when it comes to any “system of rights” it must be “neutral” (p.22). In this latter respect, liberalism is thus the archetypal defender of moral relativism (or “pluralism” as Wissenburg prefers to call it). He then attempts his “greening of liberalism” (p.23-31), tackling the issues of liberalism’s neutrality; anthropocentrism, and focus on economic development (i.e. Karl Marx’s “money fetishism” and Herman Daley’s “growthmania”). With regard to neutrality, Wissenburg draws upon the work of John Rawls and John Stuart Mill in order to argue that liberal neutrality cannot be absolute; and is necessarily limited by ethical and ontological assumptions (i.e. that no-one can be entirely and consistently neutral without being an anarchist). So far, so good. With regard to anthropocentricism, Wissenburg sees the ecological challenge as being twofold, namely a critique of (a) “the liberal subject (individual humans)” and (b) “its conception of the value of nature” (p.26). Building on his preceding argument, he dismisses the first of these critiques by asserting that, because it ultimately limits the neutrality of liberalism, self-interest ensures the environment is protected purely by virtue of its instrumental value to both existing humans and future generations. However, Wissenburg concedes that adherence to the solely instrumental value of nature means that ecologism (i.e. ecocentric environmentalism) is much more of a challenge; and therefore proposes that there are three possible solutions to this problem, which are as follows: — Abdication (i.e. liberalism cannot accept inherent value in nature and thus it cannot be “greened”); or — Accommodation (i.e. “it is more important that the right things be done than that they be done in any particular way” ); or — Appreciation (i.e. “if liberals value choice for the sake of autonomy, then they should value the existence of as many ‘life environments’ as possible”. [i.e. Wissenburg’s summary (p.29) of an argument he credits to Dobson]). Finally, with regard to the liberal belief in the primacy of the pursuit of economic progress, Wissenburg proposes that the fundamental right of the individual to own property (as espoused by the founding fathers of the New World (p.29)) was based on the erroneous assumption that all resources (including land) are infinite; something with which Daley (and many others) would agree. However, highlighting Anderson and Leal as the proponents of “free market environmentalism”, Wissenburg insists that to argue that privatising natural resources makes individual owners directly responsible for [maintaining] the value of their property, is to conflate the exchange value of money with the (at least instrumental) value of nature (p.30). Furthermore, Wissenburg appears equally ambivalent about other attempts to reconcile liberalism and ecologism (i.e. green consumerism and ecological modernisation). Wissenburg thus proposes two initial conclusions (p.31): 1. Classical liberalism “cannot meet the ecological challenge… [unless it accepts] …limits to neutrality and [rids] itself of its anthropocentric bias”; but 2. Liberalism thus transformed (“perhaps beyond recognition”) is capable of meeting the challenge (“at least in theory”). However, it is debatable whether the arguments put forward actually support even these tentative conclusions: In the opinion of this reviewer at least, one does not have to believe that all property is theft in order to realise that liberalism is inherently incompatible with ecologism. Therefore, although Wissenburg then goes on to accept that liberalism is irreconcilable with “green thinkers who… reject the notions of property and ownership” (p.32), he rebukes deep ecologists for seeking an unattainable utopia; demanding instead that we all deal with the world as it is – not how we would like it to be. However, by rejecting any notion of “a unique road to salvation” (p.32) – or of any moral imperative to protect the environment – in favour of moral relativism; true liberals must surely be inherently selfish and incapable of altruism? If so, liberalism genuinely is the “evil genius behind the ecological crisis”; although that does not, by any means, excuse the behaviour of the rest of us. Accordingly, Wissenburg concludes by questioning why there is still a global crisis if liberalism can meet the ecological challenge. However, perhaps quite reasonably, he suggests that this is an unfair question because the world is run by liberals not ecologists, or to put it another way, he thinks the lunatics have not yet taken over the asylum!


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Climate Science, Consumerism, Ecological Modernisation, Economics, Environment, Growthmania, Liberalism, Limits to Growth, Modernity, Money Fetishism, Philosophy, Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The ecological challenge for Liberalism

  1. Pingback: The ecological challenge for Socialism | Anthropocene Reality

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  5. Eloisa says:

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the US government has announced only last September, the global average for the period January to August 2010 is 580F (14. The book then goes into discussions of “living systems” such as the role of forests (and deforestation), soil, and population as related to climate change and energy usage. Global warming is caused by burning hydrocarbons and depleting forests, not by the sun.


    • Anthropocene Reality says:

      Eloisa (if not Spam) I am grateful for your time taken to make this sensible comment (although I fail to see its relevance).


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