McKibben and many other environmental writers affect an indifference toward, or transcendence of, politics in the ordinary sense, but ultimately cannot conceal their rejection of the liberal tradition. Here we observe the irony of modern environmentalism: the concern for the preservation of unchanged nature has grown in tandem with the steady erosion in our belief in unchanging human nature; the concern for the “rights of nature” has come to embrace a rejection of natural rights for humans. McKibben is one of many current voices (Gore is another) who like to express their environmentalism by decrying “individualism” (McKibben calls it “hyperindividualism”). Finding that individualism is “the sole ideology of a continent,” he explains:
Fighting the ideology that was laying waste to so much of the planet demanded going beyond that individualism. Many found the means to do that in the notion of â€˜community’â€”a word almost as fuzzy and hard to pin down as â€˜wild,’ but one that has emerged as an even more compelling source of motive energy for the environmental movement.
This is not a new theme for McKibben. Al Gore employed the same “communitarian” trope in his first and most famous environmental book, Earth in the Balance (1992), where, in the course of arguing that the environment should be the “central organizing principle” of civilization, he suggested that the problem with individual liberty is that we have too much of it. This preference for soft despotism has become more concrete with the increasing panic over global warming in the past few years. Several environmental authors now argue openly that democracy itself is the obstacle and needs to be abandoned. A year ago a senior fellow emeritus at Britain’s Policy Studies Institute, Mayer Hillman, author of How We Can Save the Planet, told a reporter, “When the chips are down I think democracy is a less important goal than is the protection of the planet from the death of life, the end of life on it. This [rationing] has got to be imposed on people whether they like it or not.” (Hillman openly advocates resource rationing.) Another recent self-explanatory book is The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy by Australians David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith. Shearman argued recently that
[l]iberal democracy is sweet and addictive and indeed in the most extreme case, the U.S.A., unbridled individual liberty overwhelms many of the collective needs of the citizens…. There must be open minds to look critically at liberal democracy. Reform must involve the adoption of structures to act quickly regardless of some perceived liberties.
In The Green State: Rethinking Democracy and Sovereignty, Australian political scientist Robyn Eckersley offers up an approach that, despite being swathed in postmodern jargon, is readily transparent. The “ecocentric,” transnational “green state” Eckersley envisions is represented as an explicit alternative to “the classical liberal state, the indiscriminate growth-dependent welfare state, and the increasingly ascendant neoliberal competition state.” Achieving a post-liberal state requires rethinking the entire Enlightenment project:
By framing the problem as one of rescuing and reinterpreting the Enlightenment goals of autonomy and critique, it is possible to identify what might be called a mutually informing set of “liberal dogmas” that have for too long been the subject of unthinking faith rather than critical scrutiny by liberals. The most significant of these dogmas are a muscular individualism and an understanding of the self-interested rational actor as natural and eternal; a dualistic conception of humanity and nature that denies human dependency on the biological world and gives rise to the notion of human exceptionalism from, and instrumentalism and chauvinism toward, the natural world; the sanctity of private property rights; the notion that freedom can only be acquired through material plenitude; and overconfidence in the rational mastery of nature through further scientific and technological progress.
Every traditional liberal or “progressive” understanding is up for grabs in this framework.
The entire article is worth reading. The degree to which the authors seem to understand the topic is in itself impressive. It eventually veers off course to make some tidy points by looking at partial data, but as it’s from a neoliberal source this is to be expected.
However, it brings to mind a vital point:
How do we create a system that accounts for top-down consequences (population expansion, pollution) when it is based on the bottom-up principle of individual liberty before all else?
The answer: the individual is a poor goal because by individual we mean both individual body and individual capacity for absolute choice, meaning the right/ability to do anything outside of social taboos like murder.
We need another goal, like “an organic civilization.” But that frightens people who are accustomed to being manipulated by those who pander to their individualism.