Combining ecology and freedom
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”.