Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Towards Liberal Environmentalism

Some weeks ago I wrote this post in response to an article by John Dixon asking whether environmental challenges demand a massive illiberal state intervention in people's lives.

I argued that this was not the case because the solutions to the problems we face exist, but we are failing to face up to a moderate increase in costs. I am a little unsatisfied with that answer, because there are two more critical arguments that can be made against John's original "the environment demands socialism" case:

1. Safeguarding the environment is not in fact a single objective that can be pursued 'at all costs' with a war communism kind of mentality. For one, it is many objectives; global warming is not the only problem we face, and the factors contributing to it are diverse. For two, the challenge might be better stated as sustaining ourselves without damaging the environment. Sustaining ourselves is as diverse a goal as it ever was, whatever constraints are applied or not. It is impossible to do well by central planning.

Whether war communism is the best way to fight a war is also worth asking, but as Hayek let it past, so will I for now.

2. What does this suggestion mean:
"It’s going to require radical structural changes in the way our economy and society function. People won’t do this on their own. Government must force the change, whether structurally or by actively moderating our behaviour."?
It's short on specifics, as usual. I was probably too charitable in thinking it referred principally to blunt and illiberal but reasonably effective measures such as rationing. But it could be worse. What if all the things we were told we ought to do - switching things off, modes of transport, consumer choices, and so on - what if the "correct" choice in each case became compulsory? Is this what we are talking about here? That would be active moderation of behaviour and it would be tyranny. And it wouldn't do much good. Why?
  • There's a rule that says "don't leave the TV on standby". There isn't a rule saying don't watch TV. My current TV uses 200W when on and 2W on standby. I can (and would) obey the rule by turning the TV on when I sit down, rather than 5 minutes later when the programme starts. (Using one sixtieth of a unit of electricity instead of one six thousandth of a unit. Big deal.)
  • There's a rule that says "recycle". There isn't a rule that says "don't use stuff at all". Recycling usually has some benefits compared to other means of disposal, but never has any compared to not using stuff in the first place.
  • ...etc. All this advice, don't fly, don't do this or that, probably does good overall, but there will be some unintended consequences. Make the advice compulsory and you will have unintended consequences in spades.

I hope to expand on both of these points in due course. Tristan has reawakened me from my blogging slumber with this post. Work has been heavy lately but I haven't forgotten you.

Tristan correctly identifies that much environmental advocacy seems to presume a collectivist philosophy. It is important to be careful here. I have no doubt that some 'collective' action will be necessary - some government spending is justified. But only in pursuit of a situation in which we are still free to pursue our own goals - to sustain ourselves according to our own desires and values. We won't get there by having the state micromanage us, or by turning well-meaning back-of-an-envelope environmental advice into hard law.