Why Do Environmentalists Hate Liberty?

by | Jun 6, 2014

Warning… This is a VERY long post! You may want to skip straight to the conclusion, labelled in bold.

This blog has always been interested much more in questions about what environmentalism is, rather than in the scientific claims made by environmentalists. One could argue forever about what lines on charts ‘say’ without ever becoming the wiser about what to do about them. The argument here is that in order to know what ‘science says’, you have to know what you have told it, and too much telling has been smuggled into scientific claims about the environment.

The problem is, environmentalism is rarely presented as a political idea in the way that, for example, the nature of capital has been discussed between Smith, Marx and their descendants. Environmentalism’s moral argument tends these days to come from projecting some trend or other into the future, to create imperatives in the present: if you drive your 4×4 today, your children’s’ children’s’ children’s’ children will suffer and die. Another form of environmentalism that looks less like blackmail, but which is consequently less useful to political campaigning is the notion that there is value in the natural world, independently of our being there to value it: that a river might have intrinsic rights to be as it is, free from our interference. The latter form of environmentalism is more nuts, but it is perhaps more honest.

The blackmail form of environmentalism leaves very little room for nuance, which is why contemporary environmentalism hasn’t really needed philosophers or political thinkers to shape the movement. ‘Science’ does the heavy lifting that, in other movements, have been done by branches of philosophy, such as ethics, and metaphysics. All it needed was scientists to make their discoveries, and for a few journalists to announce “it’s worse than previously thought”. Once you know that the End is Nigh, (or nigh enough), all you need to do to do the right thing is stop it. This is a shame, because it’s reduced debates about the environment to debates about lines on charts and the circumstances of their creation. The climate debate has descended to science. It hasn’t had any light shone on it by science.

A few philosophers have waded into the debate, however. Back in 2007, this blog noted that AC Grayling’s distaste for oil had led him to produce a less than rational argument. “…what the cost of the Iraq war to date would have funded in the way of research into alternative energy sources?”, asked Grayling, channelling the contemporary narrative of the time that wars between men are ‘about oil’, the implication being that ‘alternative energy’ sources existed in equal or greater abundance than crude, but that somehow the substance itself turns men into mad addicts. A more easily observed phenomenon is that environmentalism makes very clever men say very stupid things.

In 2008, I reviewed The Ethics of Climate Change by James Garvey, who was at the time working our of Cardiff University — an institution that seems to have attempted to identify itself with climate policy. A collection of more favourable reviews can be read at Garvey’s blog. I found it to be a hollow contribution to philosophy — an attempt to make an argument for ‘equality’ in environmental terms, without ever really interrogating environmentalism. That is neither ‘ethics’ nor philosophy; it is just preaching. To a choir.

Garvey tells us, ‘the larger moral problems won’t really bite unless you know something about our prospects, the prospects for us as a species, in the face of climate change. Those predictions are not rosy’. But without the dark vision made plausible by science, Garvey would not be able to make a case for such crude moral calculations – goodies, baddies, tragedies, poverty, victims and culprits – all of which act to displace from the discussion, a political understanding of equality. So much of Garvey’s view of the world depends on the science providing the most hideous nightmare, from which there is no escape, that it’s hard not to wonder if, in spite of his claim that there is more to his argument, the science is the ‘whole of it’, and is little more than storytelling.

The moral philosopher that needs a total catastrophe as the foundation of his moral argument probably isn’t doing any philosophy at all. The catastrophe is a fig leaf. I bumped into Garvey at an event where Nigel Lawson was introducing his (then) new book. But Garvey didn’t want to talk, and walked off, muttering ‘I don’t talk about science’ — a strange reaction from a man who edits a blog called ‘Talking Philosophy‘, the sister project of The Philosophy Magazine.

A post on Talking Philosophy was linked to by Shub Niggurath on Twitter. The post is by Rupert Read, reader of philosophy at that infamous climate institution, UEA, and a Green Party activist who blogs at http://rupertsread.blogspot.co.uk/.

At Talking Philosophy, Read claims to explain ‘The real reason why libertarians become climate-deniers‘. This gives us another chance to see what — if anything — is going on in the philosophical ground of environmentalism. And its an undignified start…

We live at a point in history at which the demand for individual freedom has never been stronger — or more potentially dangerous. For this demand — the product of good things, such as the refusal to submit to arbitrary tyranny characteristic of ‘the Enlightenment’, and of bad things, such as the rise of consumerism at the expense of solidarity and sociability — threatens to make it impossible to organise a sane, collective democratic response to the immense challenges now facing us as peoples and as a species. ”How dare you interfere with my ‘right’ to burn coal / to drive / to fly; how dare you interfere with my business’s ‘right’ to pollute?” The form of such sentiments would have seemed plain bizarre, almost everywhere in the world, until a few centuries ago; and to uncaptive minds (and un-neo-liberalised societies) still does. …But it is a sentiment that can seem close to ‘common sense’ in more and more of the world: even though it threatens to cut off at the knees action to prevent existential threats to our collective survival, let alone our flourishing.

Straight from the horses mouth: contemporary society’s material expectations are bizarre — people living in the dark ages say so. This is followed by the familiar motif, ‘existential threats to our collective survival’ — the moral philosopher as blackmailer, again. The demand for individual freedom is dangerous, says read.

But is it true that ‘We live at a point in history at which the demand for individual freedom has never been stronger’? Read confuses ‘the demand for individual freedom’ as the availability of stuff — supermarkets and cheap clothes. We should note that in many countries characterised by very strict religious laws, one can nonetheless shop almost endlessly. And in spite of the abundance of shops here in the UK, other individual freedoms have been eroded. We’re freer to buy things, perhaps. But try lighting up a cigarette in a pub. We may be wealthier, but the state is arguably far more extended into the private realm than ever before, my favourite example of which is the ‘happiness agenda‘, in which the UK government began its attempt to take on responsibility for our emotional lives.

It is telling that Read conceives of shopping and liberty as equivalents. But rumours of ‘consumerism’ driving hoards of plebs unchecked through shopping centres have little foundation. The objection seems to be that poorer people can afford cheaper clothing and cheaper good quality food, not kept in their place by the necessities which trapped peasants and serfs in their condition. Read says the end of arbitrary tyranny is a good thing… but does he mean it?

Can he really mean it if, first, he thinks of liberty as libertarians conceive of it as meaning little more than consumer indulgence, and second, if he thinks abundance is the enemy of ‘solidarity and sociability’, as though austerity would unite the Nation once more? The question here that Read fails to reflect on is the possibility that his desire for what he calls ‘solidarity and sociability’ isn’t in fact a desire for order as only he prefers it — that he and his movement have been unable to put forward an argument for ‘solidarity and sociability’, and thus descend to blackmail in order to achieve the next best thing: obedience in lieu of assent. More charitably, Read, feeling alienated by contemporary society and its lack of meaning, experiences the material world in crisis. Either way, the impulse is narcissistic. And it is this failure to reflect on their own arguments that seems to characterise environmentalists’ attempts to set out their agenda.

Read continues,

Such alleged rights to complete (sic.) individual liberty are expressed most strongly by ‘libertarians’.

Liberty is not a straightforward concept. And so libertarianism is a broad category of thought, not all of which is formulated as libertarianism as such — people who identify as libertarians hail from left, right, and against politics. But the thing that libertarians would most likely emphasise in response to some incursion of this putative rights to enjoy consumer society is not the ‘right’ to consume, but the basis on which such an incursion was legitimised. If you say to me, “Don’t eat that burger”, my reply is not “it’s my right to eat it”, but “what’s it got to do with you?” The libertarian does not need a ‘right’ to eat a burger; he doesn’t think you have a right to prevent him.

It is perhaps a subtle difference. But the Moral philosopher seems to want to render in black and white what are actually nuanced ideas. And this creates a second, bigger problem for Read. As well as lacking insight into his own argument, he does not give a faithful account of the ideas he wants to scrutinise — a fatal failure for a philosopher.

Now, before I go any further (because you already know from my title that this article is going to be tough on libertarians), I should like to say for the record that some of my best friends (and some of those I most intellectually admire) are libertarians. Honestly: I mean it. Being of a libertarian cast of mind can be a sign of intellectual strength, of fibre; of a healthy iconoclasm. It can entail intellectual autonomy in its true sense. A libertarian of one kind or another can be a joy to be around.

But too often, far too often, ‘libertarianism’ nowadays involves a fantasy of atomism; and an unhealthy dogmatic contrarianism. Too often, ironically, it involves precisely the dreary conformism so wonderfully satirized at the key moment in The life of Brian, where the crowd repeats, altogether, like automata, the refrain “We are all individuals”. Too often, libertarians to a man (and, tellingly, virtually all rank-and-file libertarians are males) think that they are being radical and different: by all being exactly the same as each other. Dogmatic, boringly-contrarian hyper-‘individualists’ with a fixed set of beliefs impervious to rational discussion. Adherents of an ‘ism’, in the worst sense.

So which is it? Is it the preamble, which allows that some libertarians demonstrate the virtues of ‘intellectual strength, of fibre; of a healthy iconoclasm’? Or are libertarians, as the caveat proclaims, ‘to a man‘ deluded into thinking that they are ‘radical and different’ when they are all ‘exactly the same as each other. Dogmatic, boringly-contrarian hyper-‘individualists’ with a fixed set of beliefs impervious to rational discussion’? It cannot be both.

And what are these beliefs? Were they in fact so dogmatically-held, it would be easier to take issue with the beliefs than the act of believing them; Read turns liberarianism from an -ism into a character flaw. The moral philosopher takes a diversion into sociology…

Such ‘libertarianism’ is an ideology that seems to have found its moment, or at least its niche, in a consumerist economistic world that is fixated on the alleged specialness and uniqueness of the individual (albeit that, as already made plain, it is hard to square the notion that this is or could be libertarianism’s ‘moment’ with the most basic acquaintance with the social and ecological limits to growth as our societies are starting literally to encounter them). ‘Libertarianism’ is evergreen in the USA, but, bizarrely, became even more popular in the immediate wake of the financial crisis (A crisis caused, one might innocently have supposed, by too much license being granted to many powerless and powerful economic actors: in the latter category, most notably the banks and cognate dubious financial institutions…).

Here we see the problem of Read failing to interrogate his own perspective fully emerging. The ‘social and ecological limits to growth’ are not manifesting in reality. Indexmundi reports global GDP as follows

1999 3
2000 4.8
2001 2.7
2003 3.8
2004 4.9
2005 4.7
2006 5.3
2007 5.2
2008 3.1
2009 -0.7
2010 4.9
2011 3.7

Only a few months in the last 20 years show negative growth. This has been discussed previously as ‘the environmentalists paradox‘. The world is richer, and its population living longer and healthier lives than ever before. The limits that Read asserts exist in the present do not exist in fact.

In order to agree with Read, we need to presuppose that limits have been encountered. But it is the tendency of environmentalists like Read to see problems that certainly do exist, such as poverty, as encounters with a limit. In this they make the mistake of naturalising problems, as though were the weather in some far off place slightly more stable, it would give more comfort to the poor. So much for the environmentalist’s emphasis on ‘solidarity and sociability’ — he only thinks he owes someone thousands of miles away a commitment not to make his weather slightly worse. And worse, he thinks that the problems experienced by poorer people are problems transmitted by the weather.

And Read continues to fail to reproduce the libertarian argument faithfully, wondering how it was that the ideology became more popular in the wake of the banking crisis and economic recession. “too much license” was “granted to many powerless and powerful economic actors: in the latter category, most notably the banks and cognate dubious financial institutions”, says Read scratching his head. But that was precisely the point made by libertarians.

Just as Read did not understand that the libertarian objection to the injunction “don’t eat that burger” was not his assertion to a right, but a questioning of the legitimacy of the injunction, Read misunderstands the libertarian’s distaste for the regulation of financial institutions. At issue is not the freedom of banks to do as they will such that, unconstrained, they cause some crisis or other. The libertarian objection was that the crisis was caused by government’s proximity to financial institutions. The loudest complaints about the bailouts came from libertarians, one of the most popular arguments being that governments and banks are in cahoots, made possible by fractional reserve banking — legal counterfitting, on the libertarian perspective — to do the bidding of rich and powerful people. No libertarian I am aware of argues that financial institutions should not be the subject of regulation and the law, but on the contrary that financial institutions should be subject to strict regulation, not merely regulation, changed according to the whims of the government.

Read cannot complain that the libertarian argument is hard to find. Here is the first Youtube video I found when searching with the terms “ron paul” and “banking crisis”…

… And he counted libertarians amongst his own friends, who are victims of some dogma. Yet he cannot even identify the dogma to reproduce it to criticise it. He insists that these libertarians are impervious to his reasoning with them, and yet he manifestly has not heard their argument.

But the more revealing thing is Read’s claim that the popularity of libertarianism is driven by the ideology of the moment, with its “alleged specialness and uniqueness of the individual”.

I argue precisely the opposite: that the prevalent mode of politics is not one which celebrates the “specialness and uniqueness of the individual”, but on the contrary, has taken aim at it. The evidence of this is not found in shopping malls and the High Street, but in the foundations of post-democratic political institutions like the European Union and the United Nations. If shopping is a distraction from the Good Life, people in shops are a bigger distraction for the moral or political philosopher. It is telling that Read looks for politics in the place you buy your shoes and supper, not in the organisations which in fact decide our futures. And on this point, Read says,

In the UK, it is a striking element in the rise to popularity of UKIP: for, while UKIP is socially-regressive/reactionary, it is very much a would-be libertarian party, the rich man’s friend, in terms of its economic ambitions: it is for a flat tax, for ‘free-trade’-deals the world over, for a bonfire of regulations, for the selling-off of our public services, and so on. (Incidentally, this makes the apparent rise in working-class (or indeed middle-class) support for UKIP at the present time an exemplary case of turkeys voting for Christmas. Someone who isn’t one of the richest 1% who votes UKIP is acting as a brilliant ally of their own gravediggers.)

Read brilliantly — albeit unwittingly — crystallises the phenomenon which in fact has driven UKIP’s ascendency: the arrogance of a political class (in which I include academics who have prostituted their positions to policy-relevant ‘research’) who proclaim that the public are better off with them, but who do not trust the public with the right to make the choice to vote against them. Leaving aside the claims about UKIP being socially regressive/reactionary (they’re not) and their flat tax (which isn’t their policy), Read thinks that anyone who voted for UKIP, but who isn’t rich, is stupid. Indeed, the European Union thinks people are stupid. It thinks people are too stupid to appoint national governments through the ballot box. The vote for UKIP was a vote against the accretion of power away from democratic institutions, and all that goes with it. The possibility that people may have judged that, for the time being, seemingly progressive labour rights might be worth foregoing for the sake of a greater degree of political autonomy has not occurred to Read. He doesn’t credit people with the sense to make that decision.

Last week, similar comments to Read’s were made in The Conversation. ‘Right-wing flames that have licked Europe’, claimed Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin, Ian H Robertson, were ‘fanned by lack of education’.

Need for closure tends to produce what is known as “essentialist thinking” – which means creating simple categories – for example “blacks” – members of whom automatically have characteristics associated with the category. This easy and quick thinking habit avoids the need for any more complex analysis of individuals: if high NFC people are faced with contrary evidence to their quick categorization – eg a member of the out-group who is better educated than they are – they experience this as very uncomfortable and tend to shy away from it.

High NFC individuals are also very attracted to authoritarian ideologies because such ideologies satisfy their deepest psychological needs for certainty, quick solutions and unchanging, permanent answers.


Education builds IQ and IQ reduces prejudice – though obviously not on the part of some bright but ruthless far right party leaders. Educational also helps people think more abstractly, and if you get someone to think about a problem in more abstract terms, their prejudice towards the out-group is temporarily diminished.

Heav’n save us from ideologues bearing simple categories and their psychological need for certainty! That the idea of such an instrumental use of education can be uttered without blushes might indicate that the individual isn’t quite the first order of politics. People are stupid — they must be educated.

So not only does Read not even understand his own argument — much less advance it coherently — and not only does he fail to reproduce the argument of stupid people labouring under some dogma, he, like Robertson doesn’t even understand the context of the apparent debate between him and them.

Read continues…

This article concerns a contradiction at the heart of the contemporary strangely-widespread ‘ism’ that is libertarianism. A contradiction that, once it is understood, essentially destroys whatever apparent attractions it may have. And, surprisingly, shows libertarianism now to be a closer ally to cod-‘Post-Modernism’ or to the most problematic elements of ‘New Age’ thinking than to that of the Enlightenment…

It’s a big claim. But the reality is somewhat underwhelming. Libertarians like to emphasise their commitment to truthfulness and objectivity, observes Read. But a commitment to truth is a constraint on the individual, whose freedom is paramount.

I don’t think I have yet met a libertarian who has asserted the right to believe that the moon is made of cheese in spite of his knowledge that it is mainly rock (with a little bit of cheese). Certainly, I have met libertarians of a more Randian bent, who lay it on a bit thick sometimes. But Read is just as guilty here, as any adherent of any ideology of laying it on thick.

Note the conspicuous absence in Read’s argument of what Truth has been denied. He says the libertarian denies ‘limits to growth’, but the argument is about ‘denial’ of climate change. And there is good historic and scientific evidence that the limits to growth thesis has been wrong since its inception, as evidenced in no small part by the continued existence of England, which Ehrlich predicted would have been destroyed by now.

This lack of precision in Read’s argument is a case of what I call a a consensus without an object. Although a libertarian might well agree that CO2 absorbs/scatters IR radiation, and that this will produce a warming effect, and agree that this effect could cause problems, and could even agree that it requires the intervention of some agency, he doesn’t have to agree with Read that this represents either a global catastrophe in the making, or a palpable ‘limit to growth’. Read gets to claim as the consensus position whatever suits his argument, without attention to the actual substance of the consensus, or its putative denial. He uses climate change and ‘limits to growth’ interchangeably.

This cannot be over-stated. The actual consensus on climate change is largely inconsequential, and does not yet include either the claim that any significant Nth-order detrimental effect of climate change has been detected, or that any projected consequence can only be addressed through mitigation, rather than through measures that I wouldn’t even call ‘adaptation’. Most future and extant problems that are attributed to climate change are problems that would not exist in a wealthy (or wealthier) economy. But growth, says Read, is impossible, it has reached its physical limit. And in this move he reveals that the apparent scientific conclusion of the ‘limits to growth’ thesis is in fact the premise of its political argument. Read takes it for granted. That does not make the prognostications that Read takes at face value wrong, but it does raise a question mark over what he claims as unimpeachable truth. One can make the point that somebody standing at the edge of the sea at low tide faces death if he does not move. But he has legs and can walk, and likely has the will to survive. The projection is correct, scientifically sound, True. But it is not the whole story, and worse, takes competing accounts of what is going on, and what could happen off the table, to force us into a course of action.

This explains the extraordinary and pitiful sight of so many libertarians finding themselves attracted to climate-denial and similarly pathetic evasions of the absolute ‘constraint’ that truth and rationality force upon anyone and everyone who is prepared to face the truth, at the present time. Such denial is over-determined. Libertarians have various strong motivations for not wanting to believe in the ecological limits to growth: such limits often recommend state-action / undermine the profitability of some out-of-date businesses (e.g. coal and fracking companies) that fund some libertarian-leaning thinktank-work. Limits undermine the case for deregulation. The limits to growth evince a powerful case in point of the need for a fundamentally precautious outlook: anathema to the reckless Promethean fantasies that animate much libertarianism. Furthermore: Libertarianism depends for its credibility on our being able to determine what individuals’ rights are, and to separate out individuals completely from one another. Our massive inter-dependence as social animals in a world of ecology (even more so, actually, in an internationalised and networked world, of course) undermines this, by making for example our responsibility for pollution a profoundly complex matter of inter-dependence that flies in the face of silly notions of being able to have property-rights in everything (Are we supposed to be able to buy and sell quotas in cigarette-smoke?: Much easier to deny that passive smoking causes cancer.). Above all though: libertarians can’t stand to be told that they don’t have as much epistemic right as anyone else on any topic that they like to think they understand or have some ‘rights’ in relation to: “Who are you to tell me that I have to defer to some scientist?”

Read does not know his own movement’s history very well. It was Garret Hardin who suggested that private property could solve the problem of environmental destruction. In the tragedy of the commons, Hardin argued that privatising common land was the best measure against over-exploitation by ‘free-riders’. Hardin’s theory is the ground for cap-and-trade and similar systems. So in this important respect, Read imagines a philosophical left-right divide between libertarians and environmentalists that simply does not exist (though may exist in others). In fact, it is therefore remarkable, in these green times, that more libertarians haven’t attempted to use the environment to advance their views.

On Read’s view, the libertarian imagines that he has a ‘right’ to his own scientific knowledge just as I have a ‘right’ to a burger, which is trampled on by scientist, whose science otherwise demands deference. This is his ‘gotcha’. But it is weak, in part because Read again fails to reproduce the libertarian’s argument, but more problematically this time, forgets to check his own position. The libertarian’s apparent denial forgets the proposition which has been rejected: Read’s claim that there exist ‘limits to growth’.

In other words, on the libertarian point of view, Read over-states the interdependence of people with the planet’s natural processes. And this is the real reason libertarians seem to ‘deny’ climate change (though they mostly don’t).

Recall that the environmentalist moral philosopher holds the public in low esteem. Compare this with the libertarian’s estimation of the far more robust individual. As I have pointed out previously, the low estimation of the ordinary human is coincident with an emphasis on the environment, and the rejection of both happens for good reasons. For instance, Chris Mooney proposed a while back, that there may be a biological basis for political preference, which, in the main, forced those of a more conservative persuasion to reject science. They were blinded by ideology, he said. I replied,

The short answer to Mooney here is that, if the putative Liberal/Left appears to be less-’ideologically-driven’ than the Right, it is because it is that much more hollow. This is not a defence of conservatism (I am not a conservative), it’s merely a fact that we can see the disintegration of the Left in general over the course of the C20th. It has sought legitimacy for its ideas not amongst the public, but in the scientific academy. Meanwhile, it seems obvious enough that a more coherent ‘ideology’, and concomitant views on social organisation might mediate the impact of seemingly self-evident ‘facts’. That is to say that a conservative might just be less terrified by climate change than a ‘liberal’ because the conservative puts more emphasis on wealth. The liberal/Left, however, has emphasised wealth less and less as it conceded to capitalism.

In other words, Mooney’s conservative and Read’s libertarian seem to have a better understanding that humans create wealth. (And for that matter, so too did many Marxists). On the limits to growth perspective, humans merely take wealth from nature. What Read describes as ‘interdependence’ between ourselves and with the natural world, isn’t as much a departure from the limits of consumerism, but their fullest possible expression: we are just consumers, not producers or creators. Moreover, rather than putting us into a more healthy relationship with each other (and the natural world) than is permitted in consumer society (to the extent that it exists), Read conceives of relationships as merely metabolic. Read wants to take you out of the consumer-capitalist machine, and make you a mere component of Spaceship Earth, which only he gets to drive.

In other words, in order to believe what Read says, you have to presuppose that there are limits to growth, and that they have been identified, and are a scientific fact. But they have not been identified, and they are not a fact. Worse, they are not really a claim about the material world at all, but of the limitations of humans. It follows that, if you think people are stupid, and that wealth comes from a delicate balance of natural processes which are easily disturbed by stupid people, you will lean towards the green perspective. If, conversely, you think that humans are capable of navigating the world, and improving its and themselves, without the authority of experts and their proxies, you are more likely to take a sceptical view of environmentalism. This is the point of difference in debates about the environment, especially climate change.

But read disagrees:

This then reaches the nub of the issue, and explains the truly-tragic spectacle of someone like Jamie Whyte — a critical thinking guru who made his name as a hardline advocate of truth, objectivity and rationality arguing (quite rightly, and against the current of our time, insofar as that current is consumeristic, individualistic, and (therefore) relativistic/subjectivistic) that no-one has an automatic right to their own opinion (You have to earn that right, through knowledge or evidence or good reasoning or the like) — becoming a climate-denier. His libertarian love for truth and reason has finally careened — crashed — right into and up against a limit: his libertarian love for (big business / the unfettered pursuit of Mammon and, more important still) having the right to — the freedom to — his own opinion, no matter what. A lover of truth and reason, driven to deny the most crucial truth about the world today (that pollution is on the verge of collapsing our civilisation); his subjectivising of everything important turning finally to destroying his love for truth itself. . . Truly a tragic spectacle. Or perhaps we should say: truly farcical.

Read’s conflation of ‘relativistic’ and ‘subjectivistic’ is interesting. Postmodern philosophy has been associated with relativism, especially in ethics. But largely at the expense of subjectivity. Relativism seems to deny that truth can be located. But science proceeds by eliminating, rather than denying subjective effects. You can’t do science without subjectivity. Put simply, differences between subjective experiences can be reconciled, whereas relativistic effects are seemingly insurmountable. As this account of postmodern philosopher Lyotard explains,

Like many other prominent French thinkers of his generation (such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze), Lyotard develops critiques of the subject and of humanism. Lyotard’s misgivings about the subject as a central epistemological category can be understood in terms of his concern for difference, multiplicity, and the limits of organisational systems. For Lyotard the subject as traditionally understood in philosophy acts as a central point for the organisation of knowledge, eliminating difference and disorderly elements. Lyotard seeks to dethrone the subject from this organisational role, which in effect means decentring it as a philosophical category. He sees the subject not as primary, foundational, and central, but as one element among others which should be examined by thought. Furthermore, he does not see the subject as a transcendent and immutable entity, but as produced by wider social and political forces.


He calls into question the powers of reason, asserts the importance of nonrational forces such as sensations and emotions, rejects humanism and the traditional philosophical notion of the human being as the central subject of knowledge, champions heterogeneity and difference, and suggests that the understanding of society in terms of “progress” has been made obsolete by the scientific, technological, political and cultural changes of the late twentieth century.

Accordingly, on many contemporary pseudo-scientific and scientistic rants in the postmodern era, subjective experience is merely an illusion (e.g. Dawkins, Dennet, Blackmore) — a difficult problem with the question ‘who the **** do you think you are?’, kicked into the long grass — reflecting the genetic determinism of Mooney, and the nasty near-eugenics of Robertson. And of course, Read. The belittling of individuals and their faculties… subjects… is very much a postmodern phenomenon, in which the belittlers grasp for authority. So the really remarkable irony is that Read continues:

The remarkable irony here is that libertarianism, allegedly congenitally against ‘political correctness’ and other post-modern fads, allegedly a staunch defender of the Enlightenment against the forces of unreason, has itself become the most ‘Post-Modern’ of doctrines. A new, extreme form of individualised relativism; an unthinking product of (the worst element of) its/our time (insofar as this is a time of ‘self-realization’, and ultimately of license). Libertarianism, including the perverse and deadly denial of ecological constraints, is, far from being a crusty enemy of the ‘New Age’, in this sense the ultimate bastard child of the 1960s.

“Postmodern” has become a pejorative used to diminish critics of ‘science’. But Lyotard in fact anticipates much about the climate debate. The postmodern condition, explained Lytoard, is ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives’, noting the displacement of religion, Marxism, and other encompassing ‘narratives’ in capitalist economies by science — ‘information’ had become the principal commodity. Metanararatives are, after all, what drives the thinking subject.

Isn’t this what we see in Read, and, in the previous posts, Paul Nurse, eschewing ‘ideology and politics’, in favour of ‘science’, concerned about all the little people, vulnerable to ideologues? And ditto Read, who sees no more in subjectivity than the slavish impulse to go shopping, driven by the consumerist ideology of our time, ignorant of the reality which looms over it. On Read’s view, we’re all ‘unthinking products’ in search of product. And don’t we see in Nurse and Read desperate arguments about whose information is the most legitimate, and should thus drive policy-making (pka, politics)?

But none of this is as remarkable an irony as Read’s closing words…

It takes strength, fibre, it takes a truly philosophical sensibility — it takes a willingness to understand that intellectual autonomy in its true sense essentially requires submission to reality — to be able to acknowledge the truth; rather than to deny it.

The real object of Read’s ire is disobedience. Notice that, in his rant, he does not produce a single instance of ‘the reality of climate change’ being denied at all, let alone in the words of a single libertarian, much less all of libertarianism, in all its forms. We have to take it for granted that the object of the denial is true, and that the deniers denied the object. Not once does he let libertarianism speak for itself… Not even a quotation mark litters his argument that climate-change denying libertarians cannot think for themselves. It is not obedience to reality that Read is demanding, but obedience to scientific authority — science as an institution, not science as a process through which ‘reality’ — the material world — can begin to be understood. God forbid that the un-anointed should be allowed to use the scientific method for themselves.

There is no ‘philosophical sensibility’ about Read’s argument. If there were, we would see an actual dialogue between Read and libertarianism, on the subject of climate change and limits to growth. The ‘reality’, or ‘truth’ to which he demands we submit is not scientific fact, but a presupposition of political ecology, that there exist ‘limits’. Note furthermore, that these limits are not equivalent to ‘climate change is happening’, but a far-off consequence of climate change, if it is happening, and even then, only if we take the remaining precepts of environmentalism for granted.

We see this often in the climate debate: many figures, from Cook and his 97%, through to John Gummer restyled as Lord Deben, pronouncing on ‘deniers’ and what they deny, without ever actually taking any notice of what was being ‘denied’ — the consensus without an object. And we see it so often that I think we can now call this other-isation of ‘deniers’ an essential characteristic of contemporary environmentalism’s argument:

* The ‘deniers’ are never identified.
* No account of the deniers’ arguments is ever given.
* The object of the deniers’ denial is never explained.

It’s like a debate, but without an interlocutor. Socrates in solitary confinement. A dialectic with no antithesis. And from that, we can establish:

* Environmentalism needs denial to exist.
* The deniers do not exist.
* The deniers are simply figments of environmentalists’ ideology or imagination.
* Environmentalists pick fights with phantom deniers to avoid actual debate.

If it doesn’t matter what the arguments are — be they scientific or ‘ideological’, right or wrong… If there is no dialogue, then there is no philosophising about what denialism is. There is only some kind of academic onanism. Meanwhile, a lot has been revealed about environmentalism, and the state of academic philosophy.

Read does not want assent to scientific fact. An entire legion of morons could give their assent to Read’s claim, to qualify as having ‘truly philosophical sensibility’ without him chucking them out of the philosophers’ circle jerk for not, in fact, having the gift of ‘intellectual autonomy in its true sense’. Anyone can assent to ‘reality’ without actually thinking about it. Read wants obedience.


People who want obedience hate liberty. It’s that simple. They see people acting on their own thoughts as a symptom of society breaking down, not a society made up of individuals cooperating and negotiating with each other autonomously, who have rejected the moral philosopher’s bogus imperative for good reasons. And in the case of environmentalists like Read, that sense of breakdown emerges in his views on the environment. It’s an infantile reaction to a world that does not conform to his wishes. Finding the reality hard to accept, he cannot tell the difference between the end of the world and his failure to assert himself over others. And there’s nothing that people with a sense of entitlement hate more than being challenged.

Angry, condescending academics are nothing new. And ridding the world of them would not make it a better place. But the Academy had a culture — was a culture — in which pig-ignorant angry, condescending academics could be kept in check, either by squabbles with each other, or through institutions like peer-review or through criticism from more reasonable academics. Either as cause or effect, academe seems no longer able to foster debate, especially on the issue of climate change. I suggest that one reason for this is the extension of University departments into governance. That’s not to say that academia has nothing to say about the organisation and functioning of government and society, but that there must be some principle, not unlike the separation of powers, which, once abandoned, turns those who can speak truth to power or hold it to account, merely become its instruments.

As we have seen with other UK academics and their departments — Lewandowsky and Cardiff University psychologists have been discussed here at length — the academic has turned his sights at the public in general and climate sceptics in particular. We have seen, in other words, mediocre academics make big names for themselves — ‘impact’ — by objectifying or pathologising impediments to official agendas, using the resources of the academy. Just as Lewandowsky couldn’t take the perspectives of climate sceptics in good faith — he had to probe inside their minds, using a shoddy internet survey — Read does not take issue with the arguments actually offered by actual climate change-denying libertarians, he takes issue with his own fantasy libertarian, abandoning all the rigour and practice that the discipline he belongs to has established over the course of millennia, to score cheap rhetorical points.

In a number of cases, there seems to be good evidence that the academy’s involvement with environmentalism seems to show that it has become dominated by contempt for the public, and hostility to interlocutors, even those within the academy. Like some kind of anti-proletarian Cultural Revolution, counter-revolutionaries are denounced, and orthodoxies — like Read’s weird limits-to-growth anti-capitalism — established. To anticipate Lewandowsky-esque criticism that this is conspiracy ‘ideation’, the point here is to say if only there were a green Mao, with a Little Green Book… There would then be some discipline to the green campaigning in academia, which could, in turn be engaged with, or even better, engage with its critics. But instead of environmentalism as a political philosophy or ‘ideology’ as such, we seem to see environmentalism as a phenomenon in which putative experts in fact eschew such discipline as it applies to them. This gives the lie to the Philosopher Kings. The Likes of Read, Lewandowsky and all those Consensus Police don’t seem to elevate the academy as an institution which is as good for wider society as much as they seem to think that academics are entitled to rule. They have convinced themselves utterly that without them, the world will surely fall apart. But their emotional sensitivity to criticism suggests that such a view is not grounded in fact, and that what is at stake is their own tenuous hold. Like a paranoid tyrant — like Stalin, perhaps — nervous political power lashes out at the threats it perceives, real or not.

Here is Read’s explanation for his failure to win a seat at the recent European elections, and his party’s failure to increase their share of the vote.

I blame the tiny handful of multi-millionaires who bankroll the Party that shall remain nameless, and the national media for giving them bucketloads of coverage while ignoring the rise of the Green Party in the opinion polls during the campaign. I hope that once people realise what the Party that shall remain nameless actually stands for they will turn away from it in disgust, and turn to the Green Party, which offers a positive alternative to the old, failed parties.

It looks like Read wants to blame millionaires — Boo! Hiss! Millionaires!. But look deeper at the logic of the argument, and what it in fact says is that the voting public are stupid, and have been hoodwinked. This contempt is central to environmentalism, which explains why it suffers, even when it condescends to testing itself through democratic processes. And it explains why environmentalism is inclined to catastrophism. And that explains why environmentalists hate liberty. ‘Reality’ has nothing to do with it. The cause is misanthropic narcissism.


  1. Ben M

    Brilliant. Well worth the length.

    These two bullet points are incredibly revealing and potentially devastating:

    * Environmentalism needs denial to exist.
    * The deniers do not exist.

    Environmentalism laid bare

  2. Mooloo

    while ignoring the rise of the Green Party in the opinion polls during the campaign. …

    He seriously needs to look up the “Bradley Effect”.

    There’s only one opinion poll that matters, and that is the vote on election day. What people say they will support is something entirely different to what they will support. Most voters are canny enough to know that saying you will vote Green is actually an effective way of changing Labour party policy, just as saying you support UKIP may force the Conservative to alter position. But actually vote for them — not so much.

    which offers a positive alternative to the old, failed parties.

    I realise as I read you disect their position so well Ben, it offers a return to the certainties of the old parties, in that it is a tribal organisation which organises itself according to a pre-agreed dogma which is eternal and “moral”. Green voters in NZ, at least, are the easiest to spot because once you know anything at all about them socially, you know they will vote Green out of obligation. (How do you tell a vegan at a dinner party? You don’t need to — they’ll tell you!).

    They are not interested in details of the most likely policy to work at solving a problem — they already know which is the best policy a priori.

  3. hunter

    Mooloo, I noticed the comment by the Green Party regarding their loss. It is basically removed from reality.
    Here in the US, the extremists in charge take the position that if you do not agree with them, you should not be heard from. For them the politics, the law, the science are all settled. And if you doubt it, you are excluded from the public square, audited and disparaged from the White House on down.
    Ben, this is an amazing essay. It deserves to be read and re-read. Thank you.

  4. Craig King

    It is really about that absence of debate. The motivated scientists and their acolytes create the idea of a “denier” in their minds and then set about traducing him. The fact that their denier doesn’t actually exist is a problem for them hence there will never be a “live on TV” debate. It is so much easier to use PR and posturing through a compliant media than to actually allow the skeptical case to be exposed to the world.

    That said, it is quite astonishing to see how many ordinary people don’t buy into the catastrophist climate argument. The sophistication of the argument developed in this post may well fail to resonate with many “ordinary” folk but claiming that this last American winter was so cold because of global warming increases the skeptical army by cohorts every time it is trotted out by these very clever academics.

  5. hunter

    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who documented institutional evil in his magnum opus, “The Gulag Archipelago”, pointed out that “in order for men to do great evil, they must first believe they are doing good.” Here is what was said in an obituary honoring his life:
    What he said about evil being redefined as good helps explain how a government can set up such a vast system of prison camps. It is easier to get the guards to follow your orders if you can convince them that you and they are doing good.

    The self-righteousness needed to convince people that maintaining death camps is good becomes a slippery slope leading to horrendous evil not even recognized by its perpetrators, as we have seen from the history of how so many people were abused and murdered during WW II.”

    For me this resonates eerily with the environmentalist movement.

  6. Seth Roentgen

    Thanks Ben.

    This resonates for me:

    People who want obedience hate liberty. It’s that simple. They see people acting on their own thoughts as a symptom of society breaking down, not a society made up of individuals cooperating and negotiating with each other autonomously, who have rejected the moral philosopher’s bogus imperative for good reasons.

    I live in Tohoku. After the earthquake/tsunami, government/central authority was paralysed. The immediate, and for that matter many ongoing, relief efforts were made by local groups and “individuals cooperating and negotiating autonomously”. People acted spontaneously: self organising without reference to central authority. It was a demonstration of a healthy and resilient society, diametrically opposite from that demanded by authoritarians.

    Japan is a nation of individualists, united by the common belief in community harmony. Obey the one rule and you are free to do whatever you want. Anathema to

    People who want obedience [and] hate liberty.

  7. Craig Loehle

    The only way to force your values to trump all other values is to claim there is an overwhelming threat (a catastrophe). That is why environmentalists will never declare victory (air is clean enough) and go home. The air will never be clean enough. Now alarm is sounded about parts per billion of this and that because the smoke-filled air is gone in most places in US. I have to go right to downtown Chicago to see any dirty air–it is clean in the suburbs so no one worries about it.
    This I think is your best essay of all time Ben. Congrats.

  8. Alex Cull

    Excellent essay, Ben, and also some fine and thought-provoking comments. As well as voters being hoodwinked at the hands of nefarious millionaires, a “media blackout” due to BBC bias is being blamed for the Greens’ apparent lack of visibility in the runup to the elections, hence a petition doing the rounds earlier, which was started by Portia Cocks, a member of the Young Greens, and which has gathered at least 40,000 signatures from the faithful.

    Meanwhile, Natalie Bennett accuses the main political parties of “pandering” to UKIP and enabling them to “capture the agenda”, while Caroline Lucas complains about journalistic failure, UKIP’s wealthy donors and a Sky News graph which omits the Greens altogether.

    Basically, if it hadn’t been for pesky UKIP voters, UKIP themselves, millionaires, the BBC, Sky News, journalists, Conservatives, Labour and LibDems, the Greens might have triumphed big-time.

  9. Vinny Burgoo

    Alex, Cocks’s petition has been edited several times since it was launched. The first version got most of its energy from a claim about the local elections: that the Green Party now has more councillors than UKIP, so why was the Beeb giving more prominence to UKIP?

    In fact UKIP now has two or three times as many councillors as the Greens and increased its tally by a hugely larger number. The Cocks petition’s take on things came from the Green Party itself, which, stupidly or mendaciously, had compared an (inflated) estimate of its total councillors, new and old, with UKIP’s newly elected councillors. 165 versus 163, if memory serves.

    At least 5,000 people digi-signed that version of the petition.

    The first revision corrected that and other errors. Later revisions corrected still more errors and expanded the thing into a big waffly bleat about the Beeb refusing to recognize that the Greens’ moment has come..

    So 40k haven’t signed the Cocks petition; 40k have signed different Cocks petitions. All a bit rum.

    (I was initially somewhat surprised that the organization that hosts the petition, 38 Degrees, allows petitions to be edited once they have gone live. But then I did a bit of reading about 38 Degrees.)

  10. Alex Cull

    Curiouser and curiouser – thanks, Vinny. I hadn’t heard of 38 Degrees either, until a few days ago, but yes, it fits a certain pattern, doesn’t it.

  11. Peter S

    Ben – “They see people acting on their own thoughts as a symptom of society breaking down, not a society made up of individuals cooperating and negotiating with each other autonomously… Finding the reality hard to accept, [Read] cannot tell the difference between the end of the world and his failure to assert himself over others.”

    Negotiating our needs is an activity unique to humans. It stands to reason that, in doing so, we must first identify and agree to a felt need as a prerequisite to negotiating access to the objects able to meet it. A person might be unable to locate his own felt need when access to its object is known to be non-negotiable (or taboo). That is to say, when the felt need is to get rid of negotiation itself… and thereby return to an earlier experience of the world in which submission to one’s felt needs had not yet been replaced by the indignity of having to negotiate their being met (along with the even greater indignity – and risk – of their being refused).

    Here, we can begin to see both the misanthropic and infantile components of ‘environmentalism’. Creatures and baby humans (especially unborn ‘future’ ones) are highly privileged because both are absolved from any requirement to negotiate their needs. Whereas being an adult human is despised because it is defined exclusively by this requirement (‘consuming’ is demonised not as the cause of armageddon – as claimed – but as the ever-visible effect of successful negotiation).

    The narcissist, of course, is someone who has decided to absolve himself from negotiation by identifying himself as the object of his own needs. Having done so, the environment has no usefulness other than as an idealised location in which to play out this masturbatory fantasy – undisrupted by any demands on, or from, non-compliant others.

    Moral superiority is an intrinsic part of this self-sustainable fantasising – the environmentalist presupposes a shared human ideal in which negotiation is redundant and then seeks to present himself as the manifestation of this ideal… measured against a human reality of which negotiation is the central mechanism.

    The crisis of our listless age, perhaps, is that the environmentalist’s presupposition is correct.

  12. mike fowle

    Superb. Living in East Anglia, I find Read often quoted admiringly in the local press. Good to see him debunked. The arguments about bank bail outs are difficult, I think. I am much influenced by the excellent drama Too Big to Fail made by HBO, which shows how people can be caught up in a terrifying descent. My preference would have been to let them go to the wall, but would the resultant misery have been disproportionate and hit the wrong people?

  13. Doug Proctor

    In Canada a post referendum loss Premier speech blamed “ethnics and money”: again the dismissal of the average voter as a mindless dupe.

    The pseudo-intellectual is a self-proclaimed, elite. He hates the same unwashed masses he wants to lead to Paradise. Because what he wants is to control, not serve. We are all to disgusting and vulgar to create value on our own.

  14. michael hart

    “Most future and extant problems that are attributed to climate change are problems that would not exist in a wealthy (or wealthier) economy.”

    Good line, Ben. Good article.

  15. hunter

    I would have added “…wealthy, *well run* economy.
    The recent flooding in the UK, most of the damage from Sandy and the damage to New Orleans from Katrina stemmed not from a lack of wealth, but from the influence of greens in diverting government from basic jobs like flood control.

  16. Robert Jason

    As always, very thought provoking…in this case the similarity of the Social Darwinists of the late 1800’s with today’s environmentalists. Both extend observations taken from nature, and the theories constructed to explain them, and apply them to the psyche and institutions of humans. Both equate ordinary individual humans with ‘dumb’ animals. Neither recognizes the ordinary individuals ability to think and reason. Both seek to justify thier exalted status as enlightened through the immutable ‘laws of nature’.

    Furthermore, the modern environmentalist rejects the notion that humans can ‘harness’ or ‘tame’ nature in pursuit of food, shelter and clothing. Instead, they predict that nature willl ‘harness’ and ‘tame’ us either as punishment or our Icarus-like arrogance or as the relentless result of the ‘laws of nature’ (which if true would seem to be logically opposed to the idea that salvation is possible if only society were re-organized according to the demands of the Environmantalist).

    But, since we, the body politic, are mostly ‘dumb animals’ or unruly deniers who don’t seem to see the obvious superiority of the ‘fit’ or the Environmentalist, both try to mold and shape the instituions of politic to cement their position. To impose these minority views on the majority requires both subtrafuge to sweep up the gullible and/or force to impose upon the unwilling.

    To reiterate a favorite William Penn quote that I have used here before, “Force creates hypocrites, not converts”. So, who’s really the ‘dumb animal’?

  17. Steve Davison

    After the initial warning I wasn’t expecting to get to end but this is an excellent, well-argued piece.



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