Liberalism

Ten years ago, Mark Sagoff asked whether environmentalists could be liberals (Sagoff, 1988, pp. 146-70). At the time, the question appeared rather esoteric in that the interesting ideological and theoretical relationships seemed to be between environmentalism (or, as I want to call it here, ecologism) and socialism, or environmentalism and feminism, rather than between environmentalism and liberalism. It is now clear that Sagoff was more perceptive than most of the rest of us, not because ecosocialism and ecofeminism are not interesting - they are - but because the increasing dominance of the liberal world-view in academic and political life has necessarily brought the environmental and liberal agendas into close contact, with the result that some of the most intellectually interesting (if politically questionable) work in environmental political theory is being done in this area.

Thus Robyn Eckersley was able to write in 1992 that:

Although some emancipatory theorists, such as John Rodman, have noted and discussed these byways in liberal thought [that is, potential compatibilities between liberalism and radical ecology], the general tendency has been to look to other political traditions for the ideals and principles that would underpin an ecologically sustainable post-liberal society.

(Eckersley, 1992, pp. 23-4) Since then a number of theorists (e.g. Hayward, 1995; Eckersley, 1996;

Wissenburg, 1998a, 2006; B. Barry, 1999; Miller, 1999; Hailwood 2004) have sought to demonstrate compatibility between liberal and environmental themes or, more strongly, to show how the ecological political project can be expressed more or less completely in the liberal idiom.

My own view is that the answer to the compatibility question depends entirely on one's terms of reference: environmentalism and liberalism are compatible, but ecologism and liberalism are not. So even if it is true to say that political ecology 'draws on' liberalism, Martell is wrong to jump to the conclusion that this 'shows that green political theory does not stand alone as a new political theory' (Martell, 1994, p. 141). The tensions between liberalism and ecologism are by now well rehearsed. Martell himself points out that:

there is a lot in liberal political theory that runs counter to radical ecology. Individualism, the pursuit of private gain, limited government and market freedom are contradicted by radical ecology commitments to the resolution of environmental problems as a collective good and to intervention and restrictions on economic and personal freedoms to deal with them.

The issue of liberty is crucial here. As Wissenburg says, 'in no respect can liberal democracy and environmental concerns be so much at odds as where liberty is concerned' (Wissenburg, 1998a, p. 33), and while it would be wrong to regard political ecology as just a series of personal and social prohibitions, there is no doubt that ecologism's stress on 'limits' of all sorts amounts to the potential curtailment of certain taken-for-granted freedoms, particularly in the realms of production, consumption and mobility. It will not be enough for liberals to be told that these restrictions will be offset by hoped-for improvements in the quality of life: liberty is central to the liberal prospectus, and liberals will regard threats to it with great suspicion.

Liberals resist being told what to think as well as what to do. More technically, they regard their felt preferences as an accurate indicator of their interests, and they will say that attempts by the state to influence tastes and preferences are generally unwarranted. Likewise, liberals do not typically welcome suggestions that people do not know what is in their own best interest. Thus, 'From a liberal perspective, the objection to denying the equation of people's interests with what they think or say they are is that this appears at the same time to be denying basic respect for people's autonomy' (Hayward, 1995, p. 203). The problem from a political-ecological point of view is that this autonomy may clash with ecological objectives: 'Liberal democracy is totally incompatible with attempts to dictate people's tastes and preferences, yet we may reasonably assume that preferences are one of the determining factors of sustainability' (Wissenburg, 1998a, p. 7). Far from regarding people's preferences as sacrosanct, political ecologists seek to influence them all the time, and if we add to this the various potential restrictions on liberty referred to above, then the tensions between liberalism and ecologism become palpable.

Often, autonomy for liberals is understood to mean the freedom to develop and pursue one's own moral goals in life. From this point of view, 'Liberalism is the political theory that holds that many conflicting and even incommensurable conceptions of the good may be fully compatible with free, autonomous, and rational action' (Sagoff, 1988, pp. 150-1), and so, 'The liberal state does not dictate the moral goals its citizens are to achieve; it simply referees the means they use to satisfy their own preferences' (ibid., p. 151). It will be clear from Chapter 2 that political ecologists have a quite distinctive view regarding our moral relationship with the non-human natural world, and this is a view that they will feel bound to encourage the rest of us to endorse. This gives rise, though, to another potential tension between liberalism and ecologism - and to the question from Mark Sagoff that heads this section: 'If the laws and policies supported by the environmental lobby are not neutral among ethical, aesthetic and religious ideals but express a moral conception of people's appropriate relation to nature, can environmentalists be liberals?' (ibid., p. 150).

There are two reasons why Sagoff thinks they can, the first of which has been adopted by many people who would like to press for compatibility between liberalism and ecologism (e.g. Barry, 1995, pp. 145-51). This first reason turns on the common distinction in liberal theory between the structure of institutions and the social policies that emerge from them (Sagoff, 1988, p. 166). Sagoff suggests that while liberals must be neutral in respect of the former (that is, that the institutions be fair between the individuals who participate in them), there is nothing to prevent them from having decided views on social policy - even views that are based upon 'particular ethical, cultural, or aesthetic convictions' (ibid.). Convictions of this sort, of course, amount to convictions regarding the nature of the Good Life about which liberals are traditionally supposed to be neutral. Sagoff squares the circle by making the distinction between institutions and policy, and arguing that liberal neutrality applies only to the former and not necessarily to the latter. Thus Sagoffs 'liberal environmentalist' will argue for neutrality only at the level of institutions, while remaining perfectly free to advance and defend Good Life-type views about the proper relationship between human beings and the non-human natural world.

Sagoff's second reason for believing that environmentalists can be liberals is based on liberalism's 'tolerance for competing views' (Sagoff, 1988, p. 167), and its endorsement of institutions 'in which individuals and groups may argue for the policies they favor and may advocate various conceptions of the good' (ibid.). It is a short step from here to the conclusion that anyone with a conception of the good they wish to advance would be well advised to endorse the liberal project because only in a liberal political environment is there the guarantee of being able to advance it. Nor is it just a question of ideas. Liberal tolerance of competing views and the belief that people should be allowed to choose their own versions of the Good Life raises the issue of the material preconditions for living the Good Life, whatever it may be. It is virtually meaningless to say that people are free to choose lives if the conditions for doing so are not in place. Liberals should surely therefore be committed to wide-ranging protection of the non-human world in case parts of it are fundamental to the Good Lives of current people. This point is perhaps even stronger if we take future people into account. We cannot know what conceptions of the Good Life future people will have, so it is incumbent on the current generation (the argument goes) to pass on as wide a range of possible conditions for living good lives as possible. We need only think of conceptions of the Good Life that are land-based (e.g. animist religions) to see the potential force of this argument. More technically: 'liberals . . . should be in favour of strong sustainability - and not because of any special commitment to "nature", but because a structured bequest package amounts to a wider range of options from which to choose good lives' (Dobson, 2003, p. 168). We might even agree with Sagoff by this point, not only that environmentalists can be liberals, but that they should be liberals.

At the same time, some liberals have become less demanding in terms of their views of what 'neutrality' in terms of the Good Life might mean. More accurately, they have come to argue that some 'ecological principles' may be included in 'the set of values on which reasonable individuals should agree'. These values 'make social co-operation possible and at the same time limit the areas in which individuals may disagree on the good life' (Wissenburg, 2006, p. 25). In other words, not all versions of the Good Life are compatible with sustainability, and ones that are not should be ruled out of court - even by liberals.

This second argument, though, merely confirms what we knew already: that liberalism tolerates competing conceptions of the Good Life. What political ecologists will want to know, in addition, is whether liberalism will bring about their objectives. No political system can offer such guarantees, of course, but liberalism's thoroughgoing focus on the means rather than the ends of political association makes it only problematically compatible than some other political ideologies with an end-orientated conception of political and social life such as ecologism. Thus while it is true that 'Liberal social policy cannot be inferred from liberal political theory' (Sagoff, 1988, p. 166) - i.e. that liberal political theory's neutrality as regards institutions should not be taken to entail morality-free social policy - political ecologists are likely to support institutions and policies that endorse their view of what morality should be, rather than 'merely' neutral ones.

Nor may it be so easy for a putative green liberalism to avoid nailing its colours to the mast so far as a moral conception of people's relationship with non-human nature is concerned. As Marcel Wissenburg surveys the likely future relationship between liberalism and ecologism, he writes:

We may also expect the introduction of the notion of limits to growth and resources, and with it that of sustainability, to lead to questions of a substantive normative nature. A sustainable society need not be one big Yellowstone Park - we can imagine a worldwide version of Holland stuffed with cows, grain and greenhouses, or even a global Manhattan without the Park to be as sustainable and for many among us as pleasant as the first. Hence a greener liberalism will have to define more clearly what kind of sustain-ability, what kind of world, it aims for.

If Wissenburg is right about this - and I believe he is - then this 'greener liberalism' will be obliged to develop a moral conception of our relationship with the non-human natural world as a necessary step on the road to deciding what kind of world we want to hand on to future generations. On this reading, environmental sustainability by definition raises questions regarding the Good Life, and so if liberalism is to have a 'take' on environmental sustainability then it must also have a definitive moral conception of 'people's appropriate relation to nature' (in Sagoff's words (1988, p. 150)). If this is a pill that liberalism cannot swallow - as I suspect it cannot - then this may be where liberalism and ecologism finally part company.

The history of liberal thought gives some succour to those who seek compatibilities between liberalism and radical ecology. Marcel Wissenburg, among others, has identified two types of liberal legacy, one centred on the work of John Locke and the other on John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham (Wissenburg, 1998a, pp. 74-6), and he (Wissenburg, 2001) and Piers Stephens (2001a, 2001b) have debated the relative merits of these two types of liberalism from the green point of view. The former type, according to most commentators, is broadly inimical to the modern ecological project, while the latter has resources that may be enlisted in favour of some aspects of it. In Lockean times, writes Wissenburg, 'Nature had two roles to play in liberal thought: physically, it was an inexhaustible source of resources; intellectually, it was the incarnation of the laws of nature over which humankind had triumphed, which it had transcended' (Wissenburg, 1998a, p. 74). It will be clear by now that this view of the 'role' of nature is roundly rejected by contemporary political ecologists: the limits to growth thesis suggests that nature's resources are not boundless, and the idea that human beings can 'triumph' over the laws of nature is the hubris that political ecologists blame - in part - for environmental problems surrounding issues such as genetically modified foods (discussion of the possibility of a more ecologically friendly reading of Locke may be found at Hayward (1994, pp. 130-6), and Dobson (1998, pp. 144-8)).

Similarly, Wissenburg refers to 'the crucial role of reason' in classical liberalism (Wissenburg, 1998a, p. 74). The idea, or category, of reason is central to liberalism since the view that all human beings possess reason (even if they do not always use it) constitutes 'the beginning of arguments for the political equality and influence of citizens, for the individual as the source of all political authority, for the priority of private over state interests' (ibid.). The explosive nature of this idea in the late seventeenth century should not be underestimated. But inclusion and exclusion are two sides of the same coin, and just as possessors of reason were drawn into the charmed circle, so those beings lacking it were left outside. As Wissenburg puts it: 'Classical liberalism recognizes only one essential distinction in nature: the line dividing reasonable and unreasonable beings' (Wissenburg, 1998a, p. 75). This is an essential and enduring distinction in one type of liberalism that legitimizes discriminatory treatment between humans and other animals.

The second type of liberalism - that developed through the work of Mill, Bentham and their followers - tells a different story, however. As Bentham famously said, 'The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?? (Bentham, 1960: ch. 17, sec. 1). This new category of 'sentience' clearly broadens the community of beings entitled to moral consideration - broadens it sufficiently, indeed, to include some non-human animals. We saw all this in Chapter 2, and we also saw that the game of defining the 'X' in the question 'What faculty, X, must beings possess to be entitled to moral considerability?' can be played interminably. For classical liberalism, 'X' is reason, and this gives one kind of answer to the question. For Bentham (and utilitarians in general), 'X' is sentience, and this gives another kind of answer. Ecocentrics will answer the 'X' question in different ways again; Robyn Eckersley, as we saw (p. 42), refers to the 'characteristic of self-reproduction or self-renewal' (Eckersley, 1992, p. 60). This broadens the community of 'moral patients' beyond anything to be found even in Mill and Bentham, and provides circumstantial evidence that, however hard they try, liberals will not find much in their historical legacy to satisfy ecocentrics.

On the other hand, the idea of rights is inseparable from liberalism, and this idea can be - and has been - enlisted in favour of environmental objectives. This appropriation can take the form of piggybacking such objectives on specifically human rights. Tim Hayward points out that the idea of a 'right to . . . an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being' was mooted as early as 1972 at the Stockholm UN Conference on the Human Environment. From an environmental point of view, though, there are problems with such a rights strategy. In the first place, as Hayward observes, the problem with the idea of a 'right to an adequate environment' for political ecologists is that 'it does not really go beyond the view that the environment is just a resource which humans have a right to use for their own benefit' (Hayward, 1995, p. 144). Second, the 'limits to growth' thesis suggests that 'natural ecosystems have a limited carrying capacity which simply cannot support all the demands of a growing human population, and so cannot necessarily support all the rights they might want to claim either' (ibid., pp. 144-5).

This second objection points to the need to limit population growth. Such a policy may itself have distinctly non-liberal implications (see Wissenburg, 1998b), but Hayward refers to evidence which suggests that affluence is an effective contraceptive, and he also suggests (along with many others, e.g. B. Barry, 1999) that women's emancipation is the key to reduced birth rates. What should be noted, though, is that the 'affluence' solution both falls foul of the limits to growth thesis and is also the cause of the type of environmental problem associated with wealthy societies. Likewise, the 'emancipation' solution comes from feminism not from liberalism, so we are perhaps entitled to conclude that liberalism - on its own - lacks the intellectual resources for dealing with the problems associated with piggy-backing environmental objectives on human rights.

Another way in which liberal rights talk can make 'green' sense is in the context of animal rights. A flavour of this move has already been given in Chapter 2, and there is no need to go over the same ground again. Suffice to say that assuming some animals can be regarded as rights-holders (Feinberg, 1981), then rights claims can, in principle, be as politically useful for those animals as they are for human beings. This begs the question, of course, of whether rights claims are politically useful, even when social and economic rights are added to the political rights normally associated with the liberal project. Ted Benton, for one, has deployed a Marxist critique of such rights in the context of animals, and he suggests that the discourse of rights will always come up against the practice of exploitation:

rights are unlikely to be effective in practice unless those who have the power to abuse them are already benevolently disposed to their bearers. . .. Where humans gain their livelihood from a practice which presupposes a 'reification' of animals, or gain pleasure from sports which involve systematic animal suffering, it seems unlikely that a rational argument that this treatment is unjust to the animals concerned would be sufficient to make the humans concerned change their ways.

The crucial thing, he concludes, is to take into account 'the socioeconomic and cultural positions and formations of the human agents concerned' (ibid.).

One final and very promising area in which rights have been deployed in the name of environmental objectives is in the context of future generations. It may not be immediately apparent how the rights of future generations and environmental sustainability are connected, but once we realize that 'the environment' is one of the things we hand on to future generations, and if we accept that future generations have a right to a sustainable and satisfying environment, then future generation rights and environmental sustainability may be seen to be intimately linked. As Hayward astutely points out: 'In talking about rights of future generations, one is already addressing matters of environmental concern' (Hayward, 1994, p. 142).

In this context as in many others, the work of the most influential (liberal) theorist of modern times, John Rawls, has proved remarkably fecund. Rawls it was who, in his A Theory of Justice, developed a 'savings principle' (Rawls, 1973, p. 287), whereby current generations are enjoined to save for future ones. Much turns on just what form this 'saving' is to take, of course, but if it is understood to include environmental goods and services (understood in the broadest sense), then this liberal theory of justice, at least, appears to be compatible with environmental objectives. Recently, Marcel Wissenburg has argued that this is true of all liberal theories of justice: 'liberals in general need to include a savings principle in their respective theories of justice - and . .. (some form of) obligations to future generations is a conditio sine qua non of any liberal theory of justice' (Wissenburg, 1998a, p. 134). Once again, the nature of these obligations is crucial, but Wissenburg believes it to be entirely compatible with a conditional view of liberal rights that these obligations take the form of what he calls the 'restraint principle':

no goods shall be destroyed unless unavoidable and unless they are replaced by perfectly identical goods; if that is physically impossible, they should be replaced by equivalent goods resembling the original as closely as possible; and that if this is also impossible, a proper compensation should be provided.

(Wissenburg, 1998a, p. 123)

From an environmental point of view this looks very promising. Yet - as ever - the devil is in the detail: what, precisely, does 'unless unavoidable' mean? Carnivores and vegetarians, for example, will have different answers to this question. More broadly still, the 'unless unavoidable' proviso takes us back full circle to an earlier point: that the idea of environmental sustainability enjoins us, by definition, to have a definitive moral conception of 'people's appropriate relation to nature' - precisely the kind of conception, though, that liberalism eschews.

The liberal language of rights, then, may be deployed in the service of environmental objectives, but not with conclusive success. My own view is that the intentions of ecologism need the idea of responsibilities to be added to those of rights because, as Hayward remarks, this:

seems to capture the key ecological intuition that it is necessary to change our basic attitude to the world from one which considers 'what we can get out of it' to one which considers 'what we can and must do for it'.

Whether or not animals or future generation human beings have rights, their peculiar vulnerability to our actions 'demands' a responsible attitude of care and concern (Goodin, 1985). Normally, rights and duties are seen as reciprocal - 'rights exist if and only if corresponding duties exist' (Hayward, 1994, p. 169) - and ecologism's contribution (as we saw in the discussion of ecological citizenship in Chapter 4) to this debate lies in severing the connection between rights and duties.

In sum there will always be tensions, to say the least, between liberalism and ecologism. Marcel Wissenburg summarizes the state of play as follows: 'Although liberalism has not been fundamentally changed by its contact with green political thought, it has developed in many important respects. To be more precise, some liberals have taken on a shade of green' (Wissenburg, 2006, p. 23). True though this is, pressure points remain. To the oft-remarked differences of opinion over autonomy and individualism we must add ecologism's insistence on a definitive view of the proper moral relationship between human beings and the non-human natural world. We must acknowledge the uses to which rights talk may be put for environmental ends, but also temper this with the recognition that such talk can never fully express the nature of the relationship between human beings and 'nature' that ecologism seeks to establish. Finally, liberalism is firmly located in a tradition of thought and practice that has distinguished sharply between the human and 'natural' realms, both descriptively and prescriptively (but see Wissenburg, 2006, pp. 26-9). Ecologism, by contrast, insists that we are human animals, with all the implications that this brings in its train.

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  • chilimanzar
    Is green political thought cmpatble with liberalism?
    1 year ago

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