Often, environmentalist’s sense of triumph belies their actual intellectual reach. George Monbiot calls himself the winner of a debate with director of the Institute of Ideas, Claire Fox,
Last week, on an internet radio channel called The Fifth Column, I debated climate change with Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas, one of the rightwing libertarian groups that rose from the ashes of the Revolutionary Communist party. Fox is a feared interrogator on the BBC show The Moral Maze. Yet when I asked her a simple question – “do you accept that some people’s freedoms intrude upon other people’s freedoms?” – I saw an ideology shatter like a windscreen. I used the example of a Romanian lead-smelting plant I had visited in 2000, whose freedom to pollute is shortening the lives of its neighbours. Surely the plant should be regulated in order to enhance the negative freedoms – freedom from pollution, freedom from poisoning – of its neighbours? She tried several times to answer it, but nothing coherent emerged which would not send her crashing through the mirror of her philosophy.
The debate is available here. George opens with the classic litany of ecological alarmism, concluding that the ‘vast majority of climate scientists believe that climate change is happening’. The mistake, of course, is to forget that many — perhaps even the majority of — climate sceptics believe that ‘climate change is happening’, too. What is at issue is the degree to which it is happening, and what kind of a problem climate change is. ‘Climate change is happening’ doesn’t mean anything by itself; it’s an entirely empty claim. Complex debates, presuppositions, prejudice and claims are collapsed into one neat axiom, and allowed only to be ‘true or false’. George looks at the ‘opinion of the majority of scientists’ and ‘the weight of scientific evidence’, but is unable to discuss the object of all that ‘science’ and scientific opinion. It means whatever he wants it to mean.
Given that the substance of arguments like Monbiot’s are put beyond reach — in to the hands of some scientists, somewhere, according to him — it is inevitable that any attempt at reasoned discussion will end in an impasse. And so it was, really, with the debate between Monbiot and Claire Fox. Here’s how it continued…
Monbiot: Do you accept that some people’s freedoms intrude upon other people’s freedoms?
Fox: Um. Rarely.
Monbiot: So what about the situation for instance that I witnessed in Romania, where lead smelting plants, because they’re not properly regulated, are free to produced toxic fumes which are greatly shortening the lives of peope who live nearby? That’s one type of freedom intruding on another, is it not?
Impasses such as these are often more interesting than arguments that reach a resolution. ‘Freedom’ is of course a much contested concept. And it is telling that ‘freedom’ in Monbiot’s argument is an essentially problematic thing in itself. Monbiot is convinced that Fox — a libertarian — will want to defend merely the freedom to pollute. But Fox has a more sophisticated understanding of freedom:
Fox: Well, I don’t think it’s freedom. I mean, I think there’s problems of pollution. I think no doubt that behaviour of certain big, industrial, corporate organisations is not beneficial to people.
Monbiot: I’m talking about a clear case where regulation would be reduced in the name of freedom that you’re discussing, where industries are less regulated and so more able to produce pollutants, like the lead smelters I saw in Romania. Do you not accept that those enhanced corporate freedoms to do as they wish, or enhanced freedoms of the rich people who run those plants, limit the freedom of the people who live nearby?
Fox: It’s very interesting because you said ‘those enhanced freedoms’. Freedom is not about enhancing or not; freedom by the way is a political freedom, and political freedom is not divisible. I want people to be free. And that, by the way, means …
Monbiot: [Interrupring] You’re talking about being free to pollute in this case…
Fox: Yeah… In that instance…
Monbiot: [interrupting] You want people to be free to pollute.
Fox: I want freedom. You’re… I appreciate that you are keen to get me to say that I am on the side of the nasty polluters…
Monbiot: [Interrupting] No no no no. I’m just trying to persue this question with you…
This ‘clear case…’, it seems, is a reflection on experiences that Monbiot had in Romania, in 2000. Let us put ourselves in Romania in 2000. What would we be interested in? Ever the environmentalist, rather than heading for the huge expanses of wilderness — apparently the largest and least ‘disturbed’ in Europe — he heads for the environmental disaster: people living near lead smelting plants. My question would probably be: why are people forced to live in such proximity to this kind of industry; it’s not as if there’s no space in Romania. But if we really wanted to understand the condition of Romanians in 2000, wouldn’t the events of just a decade earlier provide a better account of them?
Just ten years before Monbiot’s visit, Romania was ruled by one of the most brutal regimes in the Soviet Bloc. The context of people being exposed to fumes from lead smelting then, is a nascent democracy in the aftermath of decades of oppression. The legacy of Ceausescu’s tyranny is not the subject of the discussion, however. But shouldn’t that be the discussion? If we want to understand why there are smelting works next to human dwellings, and why people are unable to either move, or force a change of practice at the factory, we surely have to understand the political and historical situation in Romania. But George — like most environmentalists — prefers a much more simple model of the problem. The case is not as clear as Monbiot wanted us to believe.
Fox: What I’d like to then persue back to you, as you were good on asking that, is, you see regulation then, constantly, top-down, regulation, limits and so on as the way to free society. Is that right? You think that will ‘enhance’ freedom? That will allow people in Romania to have a freer society?
Monbiot: I think that if the lead smelters that I saw in Romania were less free and more regulated, then the people living around them would be more free of the horrible diseases and shortened life expectancy which they currently face. Now, I’ve answered your question, in a very straightforward way, you still have not answered mine.
Fox: They wouldn’t be less free by the smelters being regulated, because freedom is not the same as, in the way that you’re describing. Freedom is political rights question…
Monbiot: [Interrupting] Yes, and at the moment the political rights of the smelters is to be able to produce these fumes which are doing other people in.
Fox: Yes, but I’m actually talking about… I mean if you want to talk about the political freedoms of the people in Romania, what you need is actually a sense of freedom in Romania, to fight for your rights, equally. And you might then go out and fight the smelters, as it happens…
Monbiot: [Interrupting] Wait a minute, you’re dodging the question again. OK. You say…
Fox: Listen, George, I’m answering it in a way that you don’t find satisfactory. That is not quite the same as dodging it…
Fox is about to answer Monbiot’s question. Sensing progress, Monbiot interrupts. As Fox explains — or tries to — people in Romania should be free to challenge the polluting effects of lead smelting.
George’s sense of triumph was misplaced. Fox had not argued that people should be free to pollute others. But in Monbiot’s head, that was what she had been arguing for. It’s what he came prepared for. Monbiot had imagined that libertarianism stood for nothing more than simply being ‘against regulation‘, rather than an idea about what constitutes political freedom. Again, ‘freedom’ is a contested idea, but in Fox’s argument it was that a free society creates the possibility of autonomous citizens challenging polluting industry. Fox was not against ‘regulation’ after all.
This speaks about the very narrow conception of ‘freedom’ in environmentalism in general, and in Monbiot’s perspective in particular. He simply doesn’t understand the concept of political freedom, let alone the nuanced discussions about it. On that eco-centric perspective, ‘freedom’ is understood merely in terms of metabolic function: your freedom to emit substances interferes with my biological processes. Metabolic freedom, not political freedom. Absent from this view is the possibility that lead smelting can become a mutually-rewarding enterprise. No. Lead smelters can only be greedy bastards, and can only be stopped by regulation. Never mind that lead has utility in a free society, as do many other materials.
Monbiot: I don’t find it satisfactory becuase you’re not answering it. And in this particular case, what people… The very people I met… were doing were demanding that the factories should be restricted, through regulations imposed by the government. Were they wrong to do so?
Fox: I would disagree with them as that being the priority. Let’s bring it closer to home, because you will know that one of the things that happens here is that whenever there’s a dicussion for example about climate change, or the environment in this country, one of the things that is constantly urged is that people, for example, curtail their use of energy, change their behaviour, and the government are asked to impose those changes because you can’t trust the democracy to do it themselves. Now do you think that what we should do is actually have no regulations about energy use in this country — we should be able to be free to use whatever energy they want. You can try to persuade them something, but we should get rid of all green regulations, from this country, ‘cos that would be free wouldn’t it. They would be free then to make decision based on genuine political choices, rather than having it dictated by a government.
Monbiot: You precisely illustrate my point. We would be free to limit other people’s freedoms in that case, because we would be to reduce the quality of life of people who are much poorer than ourselves, who have much less agency than ourselves…
Fox: [Interrupting] No, I’ll tell you what you need for cleaner technologies, you need to actually argue for greater investment in R&D, actually have a vision that is not about limits, and natures revenege and worrying about cutting down CO2 emissions, a vibrant, healthy, future-oriented society that says the way forward is to develop lots of new technologies, to industrialise everything.
Monbiot: But let’s look at what’s going on in the UK for a moment, where we’ve got a situation right now, where we’re faced with a very clear choice. We either go down the fossil fuels route, and replace current generating capacity with gas and coal. Or we go down the low-carbon route and go to a mixture of renewables and nuclear technologies such as integral fast breed reactors and so on. Route two is not gonna happen unless route one is regulated away, because at the moment the cheapest option is to go for gas and coal.
Monbiot, the new advocate of nuclear power, argues as if he’s the first person to have ever thought of it, not as the person who campaigned against it for years. And even now he has no insight into what drove his anti-nuclear impulse. The same arguments persist in his claims about climate change that characterise the anti-nuclear argument: that it is too dangerous, that it allows profit to be made at the expense of safety, that it was being undemocratically foisted on a population that were lied to about the risks. The idea that he should have convince people of the merits of nuclear, or even the dangers of climate change, is lost on him.
Back to George’s Guardian article — an attack on Libertarianism…
Freedom: who could object? Yet this word is now used to justify a thousand forms of exploitation. Throughout the rightwing press and blogosphere, among thinktanks and governments, the word excuses every assault on the lives of the poor, every form of inequality and intrusion to which the 1% subject us. How did libertarianism, once a noble impulse, become synonymous with injustice?
It’s an interesting reflection on his failure to move past his impasse with Claire Fox. The notion of political freedom lost on Monbiot, he now considers himself the saviour of the poor.
In the name of freedom – freedom from regulation – the banks were permitted to wreck the economy. In the name of freedom, taxes for the super-rich are cut. In the name of freedom, companies lobby to drop the minimum wage and raise working hours. In the same cause, US insurers lobby Congress to thwart effective public healthcare; the government rips up our planning laws; big business trashes the biosphere. This is the freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor.
[Monbiot] claims we “pretend … that only the state intrudes on our liberties. [We] ignore … the role of banks, corporations and the rich in making us less free.” Not quite. We do believe that the state is the foremost violator of our right to life, liberty and property. But we also observe that banks are licensed and regulated creatures of the state, and that big business in general is only big because of state-granted privileges like limited liability, infrastructure subsidies, and tax and regulatory systems that cartellise costs and flatten competition from outside the magic circle. There is a difference between believing in free markets and supporting actually existing capitalism.
Monbiot has been banging on about ‘libertarians’ for years. And yet had he seen just one interview with Ron Paul, for instance — not that I am his biggest fan — on the subject of the economy, he would know that conservative libertarians are fiercely critical of the extant relationships between governments and banks, even in the United States of America! To criticise libertarians for ignoring the relationship between the state and banks would be not unlike criticising environmentalists for not ‘caring about nature’.
How can a man who purports to have an expert grasp on the world and its politics, fail so comprehensively to understand the very terms of the arguments he is taking issue with?
To make matters worse, Monbiot now turns to Isiah Berlin’s ‘two concepts of liberty’ essay.
So why have we been been so slow to challenge this concept of liberty? I believe that one of the reasons is as follows. The great political conflict of our age – between neocons and the millionaires and corporations they support on one side, and social justice campaigners and environmentalists on the other – has been mischaracterised as a clash between negative and positive freedoms. These freedoms were most clearly defined by Isaiah Berlin in his essay of 1958, Two Concepts of Liberty. It is a work of beauty: reading it is like listening to a gloriously crafted piece of music. I will try not to mangle it too badly.
It is something of an irony that Monbiot — who, as we have seen, has barely more than an idiot’s grasp of the terms of the debate — complains about the misconception of ‘The great political conflict of our age’. He flatters himself with the claim that ‘social justice campaigners and environmentalists’ exist on one side of a historical battle, pitched against phantom ‘neocons, millionaires, and corporations’. ‘In reality’, claims Monbiot, ‘the battle mostly consists of a clash between negative freedoms’.
This much is plagiarised from Adam Curtis’ trilogy, The Trap: Whatever happened to our dream of freedom.
But while what Curtis’s excellent films show is a complex world without straight lines and full of paradoxes, Monbiot’s fantasy depicts just two sides: goodies (hooray!) and baddies (boo!). In article after article after article, the recurring theme is a shrill attempt to reduce the world’s complexities to simple moral coordinates: cave in to the conception of liberty peddled by the libertarians, and Africa will be scorched by drought and heat, the waves will inundate the reminder of the third world, and Romainian workers will be forced to inhale lead. This cartoonish perspective on the world reveals Monbiot’s absolute failure to see any depth in it.
The claim that ‘the battle mostly consists of a clash between negative freedoms’ is true, but prosaic. There is no ‘great political conflict of our age’. What defines this age is not some battle between One Concept of Liberty, but a dearth of political conflict — of ideas, or concepts — of any meaningful kind. The millionaires, corporations and even neocons (whoever they’re supposed to be when they’re not a figment of Monbiot’s imagination) are as likely as not to be doing all that they can to demonstrate their ‘ethical’ credentials, to be showing themselves to be ‘caring about the environment’, and the ‘social justice campaigners and environmentalists’ only too keen to help them. You cannot move in this world without bumping into eco-marketing. There are even ‘ethical banks’. There are billionaire philanthropists, who donate vast sums to environmental organisations. NGOs are given priviliged access to policy-making processes at national and supranational political institutions. There are no straight lines. There are no simple moral categories. Monbiot concludes…
Modern libertarianism is the disguise adopted by those who wish to exploit without restraint. It pretends that only the state intrudes on our liberties. It ignores the role of banks, corporations and the rich in making us less free. It denies the need for the state to curb them in order to protect the freedoms of weaker people. This bastardised, one-eyed philosophy is a con trick, whose promoters attempt to wrongfoot justice by pitching it against liberty. By this means they have turned “freedom” into an instrument of oppression.
In real reality, however, libertarianism — of either the kind espoused by Claire Fox or more conservative libertarians — is not a political force. Yet. The idea that it is powerful, or has been able to assert itself is a fantasy. It is an illusion that is owed to Monbiot’s failure to grasp the world, and to understand the claims libertarians make, and thus to identify ‘libertarianism’ or its influence in the real world. Libertarians are perhaps environmentalism’s (and Monbiot’s) most coherent and vociferous critics, and hence they appear to him as the harbingers of doom: like a spoilt infant, he can’t tell the difference between the end of the world and a challenge to his will, or criticism of his argument. ‘Libertarianism’ becomes an encompassing explanation of his own sense of inertia, just as ‘the climate’ serves as an encompassing account of all that is wrong with the world.