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”.