Com­bin­ing ecology and freedom

Foto: Shut­ter­stock

Fly less! Eat less meat! In the strug­gle against climate change, there is one thing in par­tic­u­lar we should do: mod­er­ate our lifestyles. Indi­vid­ual respon­si­bil­ity def­i­nitely matters. Will renun­ci­a­tion and pro­hi­bi­tions save the world, though? No, argues Ralf Fücks: we need a green indus­trial rev­o­lu­tion. If we pit the ecology and freedom against one another, we will end up losing both.

The efforts to address climate change have entered a new stage. Phasing out the use of coal, “auto-mobil­ity”, pes­ti­cides in agri­cul­ture, indus­trial meat pro­duc­tion: there are big issues with big con­se­quences on the table now. The more obvious the threat to the eco­log­i­cal foun­da­tions of our exis­tence becomes, the louder grow the voices calling on us to change the way we live. The pro­po­nents of a new con­trac­tionary lifestyle see climate change as the con­se­quence of the expan­sive way of life of a billion human beings, who have been enjoy­ing all the bless­ings of moder­nity with no thought for the con­se­quences. The joys of driving, air travel, a big home, energy-inef­fi­cient online com­mu­ni­ca­tion and eating a lot of meat: the list of eco­log­i­cal sins is a long one. By always striv­ing for more, we are rav­aging our planet. Hence, the new cat­e­gor­i­cal imper­a­tive: “Repent ye, and turn your­selves!”

The extro­verted self-real­i­sa­tion of moder­nity is based, even today, on the seem­ingly unlim­ited avail­abil­ity of fossil ener­gies. These fuelled a huge increase in pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion. Now that it has become appar­ent that the burning of coal, oil and gas is knock­ing the earth’s climate out of whack, modernity’s hedo­nism is coming under crit­i­cism as well. Freedom enjoyed at the expense of the rest of human­ity is sheer egoism. It destroys the freedom of future gen­er­a­tions to live in an envi­ron­ment that is at least some­what intact. Rather than con­stantly pushing the bound­aries of the pos­si­ble, we should be adapt­ing our oper­a­tions to fit within plan­e­tary bound­aries, the limits of what the earth can safely support. The age of “higher, faster, further” is over. The new ethics of lim­i­ta­tion demand that we slow down, live fru­gally. Focus on being, rather than having.

When appeals for restraint fall on deaf ears, col­lec­tive imper­a­tives and pro­hi­bi­tions must take up the slack. They restrict the liberty of the indi­vid­ual in order to protect the lives of every­one. The imper­a­tive of restric­tion appears morally unas­sail­able. It is nonethe­less the wrong response to climate change and species extinc­tion. Eco­log­i­cally, it falls short of the mark; socially, it gives rise to a high degree of polar­i­sa­tion; polit­i­cally, it leads to the skewed playing field of author­i­tar­i­an­ism in the name of saving the world.

The future: “a kind of eco­log­i­cal Calvin­ism”

In 2016, pre­scient philoso­pher Peter Slo­ter­dijk described the upcom­ing cul­tural battle: “... the ethics of the future, hostile to expres­sion and emis­sion, aims pre­cisely at the rever­sal of civilization’s direc­tion to this point. It (…) demands min­i­miza­tion where max­i­miza­tion used to hold sway... it pre­scribes thrift where profli­gacy was once con­sid­ered to be par­tic­u­larly appeal­ing, and it calls for self-cir­cum­spec­tion where self-lib­er­a­tion was until now cel­e­brated. If we think these rever­sals through to their end, then over the course of the mete­o­ro­log­i­cal ref­or­ma­tion we arrive at a kind of eco­log­i­cal Calvin­ism.”

The bit­ter­ness of the battles over speed limits and driving bans provide a fore­taste of the culture war brewing between those who believe in a morally charged policy of restric­tion and those who see such a policy as an attack on their way of life. The former invoke pro­tec­tion of the climate and public health as a com­pelling imper­a­tive; the latter see a con­spir­acy of anti-car dreamy gree­nies, clue­less about real life. There is a dis­tinct social skew to this con­flict, as it is pri­mar­ily the priv­i­leged chil­dren of the afflu­ent society who are pro­mot­ing the “less is better” phi­los­o­phy. Green-haters and defend­ers of the status quo rub their hands with delight when advo­cates of driving bans are revealed to be card-car­ry­ing members of the fre­quent-flyer class. The moral­ity of the climate issue bites the hand that lion­izes it.

Pro­po­nents of a restric­tive envi­ron­men­tal policy are fond pithy phrases like “You cannot nego­ti­ate with the climate.” They invoke objec­tive eco­log­i­cal neces­si­ties that tran­scend pol­i­tics. Thus, the roadmap for phasing out the use of coal is not the outcome of a process of nego­ti­a­tion among diverg­ing eco­log­i­cal, eco­nomic and regional inter­ests but the product of osten­si­bly precise spread­sheets showing the annual reduc­tions in the German energy sector’s CO2 emis­sions required to keep global warming below two degrees. Osten­si­bly precise, because an analy­sis restricted to indi­vid­ual sectors is as divorced from reality as one that con­sid­ers only a single country. Yet climate pro­tec­tion would benefit more from a sus­tain­able con­sen­sus on phasing out coal than it will from a highly con­tro­ver­sial plan involv­ing sub­stan­tial eco­nomic and social risks imposed from on high.

Is democ­racy a luxury?

The cri­tique of the slow pace of democ­ra­cies, with their endless com­pro­mis­ing, has a long tra­di­tion. There is a reason that promi­nent envi­ron­men­tal­ists like the Nor­we­gian Jørgen Randers see the Chinese model as worthy of imi­ta­tion. This is a logical con­se­quence of under­stand­ing eco­log­i­cal pro­tec­tion pri­mar­ily in terms of the cur­tail­ment of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion. Author­i­tar­ian regimes appear to be better placed to get their pop­u­la­tions to make do with less. Democ­racy becomes a luxury that we can no longer afford in view of the melting ice­bergs; when staring down the barrel of eco­log­i­cal neces­sity, freedom is hardly a concern.

If global warming gets out of control and the oceans are pushed over the tipping point, there will be upheaval on a vast scale, from eco­nomic col­lapse to global migra­tion flows. Thus, the envi­ron­men­tal crisis is also a threat to democ­racy. We must there­fore do every­thing we can to drive forward the eco­log­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of indus­trial society without sur­ren­der­ing the liberal free­doms.

Those wishing to rec­on­cile freedom and eco­log­i­cal sus­tain­abil­ity must look above all to inno­va­tion and foster com­pe­ti­tion to find the best solu­tions. True, even a liberal nor­ma­tive eco­nomic frame­work will not get by without setting limits and impos­ing bans. But these are not the silver bullet solu­tion to the eco­log­i­cal crisis. Incor­po­rat­ing eco­log­i­cal costs into pricing is a more expe­di­ent approach. Market economies will only func­tion if prices tell the eco­log­i­cal truth. Payroll taxes and social secu­rity dues can be lowered to com­pen­sate for the addi­tional burden result­ing from envi­ron­men­tal taxes.

The idea is to uncou­ple afflu­ence from the con­sump­tion of natural resources.

Let there be no mis­un­der­stand­ing: in the absence of the indi­vid­u­als’ respon­si­bil­ity for their own actions there can be no freedom. So, it is right and nec­es­sary to ride a bike or travel by rail and to refrain from buying goods whose pro­duc­tion entailed the mal­treat­ment of human beings or the suf­fer­ing of animals. Each of us is free to seek the “good life” in a net gain of leisure time and social inter­ac­tion rather than an increase of income and con­sump­tion. But a sober look at the scale of the eco­log­i­cal chal­lenge we face makes it plain that it will not be over­come by an appeal for fru­gal­ity. We are not going to win the race against climate change without a green indus­trial rev­o­lu­tion. This requires a switch to renew­able ener­gies, an effi­ciency rev­o­lu­tion in how we manage scarce resources and the tran­si­tion to a modern cir­cu­lar economy. The idea is to uncou­ple the pro­duc­tion of afflu­ence from the con­sump­tion of natural resources. An ambi­tious goal, but a fea­si­ble one.

Given the esca­lat­ing eco­log­i­cal crises, three pos­si­ble paths appear open to us. The first lies in the rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion of a move­ment advo­cat­ing a course rever­sal. This path to sal­va­tion involves the vol­un­tary or coer­cive repro­gram­ming of human beings, renun­ci­a­tion and pro­hi­bi­tion. Dia­met­ri­cally opposed to this is the option of an intractable “stay the course”. Slo­ter­dijk calls this a “com­ple­men­tary wave of res­ig­na­tion, defeatism, and a cynical ‘devil-may-care’ atti­tude”. There is a high prob­a­bil­ity that this is the path we will take. The third path lies in a new syn­the­sis between nature and tech­nol­ogy, a co-evo­lu­tion between bios­phere and tech­ni­cal civil­i­sa­tion. Given the limits to what the earth’s system can tol­er­ate, we are left with two main sources of progress: the solar energy radi­at­ing to the earth and human cre­ativ­ity. We must build a liberal civil­i­sa­tion based on a com­bi­na­tion of these two. If we pit ecology and liberty against one another, we will lose both in the end.

This essay was first pub­lished in the orig­i­nal German on 27 Feb­ru­ary in the German daily Die Welt , under the head­line “Die Logik der Restrik­tion scheint zwin­gend – und ist doch falsch”.