Bruenig explains what is now the core argument used by conservatives and libertarians: the procedural justice account of property rights. In brief, this means that if the process by which property was acquired was just, those who have acquired it should be free to use it as they wish, without social restraints or obligations to other people.
Climate change, industrial pollution, ozone depletion, damage to the physical beauty of the area surrounding people’s homes (and therefore their value) – all these, if libertarians did not possess a shocking set of double standards, would be denounced by them as infringements on other people’s property.
It is frightening to think that Monbiot has taught politics and environmental policy at UK Universities; the students really would be better taught by simply being at the pub. Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons is a primary text in any course on environmental politics:
An alternative to the commons need not be perfectly just to be preferable. With real estate and other material goods, the alternative we have chosen is the institution of private property coupled with legal inheritance. Is this system perfectly just? As a genetically trained biologist I deny that it is. It seems to me that, if there are to be differences in individual inheritance, legal possession should be perfectly correlated with biological inheritance–that those who are biologically more fit to be the custodians of property and power should legally inherit more. But genetic recombination continually makes a mockery of the doctrine of “like father, like son” implicit in our laws of legal inheritance. An idiot can inherit millions, and a trust fund can keep his estate intact. We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust–but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.
In 1968, private property was understood — by Hardin at least — as the way to best protect the environment from over-exploitation. How can Monbiot not know this?
Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons lays the ground for much environmental regulation. Carbon markets are owed to the logic he proposes: the privatisation of the ‘commons’ — the atmosphere. What Monbiot doesn’t get is that you can use the ‘environment’ to make an argument for the abolition either of the commons, or of private property. The argument made on this blog is that between Hardin’s and his own times, political arguments are increasingly framed in terms of their environmental ‘necessity’, precisely because advocates of the arguments fail to make them persuasively on their own terms. It is moral blackmail, in other words… ‘Abolish private/public property, or the planet gets it…’ rather than an appeal to your conscience or ability to reason.
And that is why those of a greenish bent also seem preoccupied with the general public’s faculties of reason. Monbiot questions it routinely. Chris Mooney goes even further, suggesting that the differences between individuals on the left and right can be explained biologically, as can such individual’s attitudes towards scientific evidence. As discussed previously on this site, the fact that Mooney, the liberal, finds that liberals are more rational hardly needs an explanation. What is interesting, however, is the tendency of many — not just of the left, as it happens, as Hardin shows — to form scientific perspectives on the political/social world.
I feel somewhat annoyed that I may have flattered Monbiot by making him the subject of the last three posts here. In fact, I think he gets too much attention. It would be generous to say that he has even a mediocre grasp of his subject. The fact is though, that in this respect, he epitomises environmentalism. Ideas such as Monbiot’s and Mooney’s are in vogue amongst a narrow, sector of society. But it would be a great mistake to imagine that Monbiot and Mooney had much to do with their success.
Monbiot’s attempt to explain ‘denial’ as an expression of a particular political idea or philosophy is an attempt to draw lines over the debate: to give it dimensions and coordinates, not unlike ‘left and right’. As long as he can make ‘libertarians’ and conservatives just look greedy by their emphasis on private property, he feels he can explain the climate change debate. Never mind what libertarians actually believe, what they have traditionally argued for, and that the history of these ideas crosses with environmentalism’s development. Monbiot wants simple categories — nouns, to which he can put faces, at which he can shout. And he wants simple coordinates to the debate: goodies and baddies. It’s not really a matter of his simplifying matters for expediency, it’s more a case of him struggling to fit the world into a schematic that already exists in his head. His rants about ‘libertarians’ are an attempt to have a debate without understanding it, and thus it reduces ultimately to being about the world’s failure to conform to Monbiot’s will. It’s all the fault of ‘libertarians’.
The fact that Monbiot has no idea what ‘libertarians’ are, nor what they say or stand for, nor how they were able to engineer the world as they wanted it is immaterial. They’re just against him, on his view. And that’s enough, for someone who can’t tell the difference between Monbiot and the world, to think that ‘libertarians’ want the end of the world. Environmentalism, if it is anything at all, is mediocrity and narcissism combined.