Sunday, January 31, 2010


Love and Liberty V – Green Liberalism (#LibDemHeart #LibDemValues 1.5)

I get to the widest possible focus for Liberals in today’s instalment of Love and Liberty, a 1999 booklet exploring my own Liberalism – continuing my series on what the Liberal Democrats stand for, this time it’s the planet Earth. That’s a light topic for a Sunday noon. What’s the philosophical case for looking out for the interests of future generations? How uncomfortable should you be with thinking, ‘Hmm, I’m not sure this bit and this bit of my philosophy quite fit together’? And when am I going to get on to the “Liberty” part? It starts off today, actually…

Love: Green Liberalism

For a good forty years now, Liberals have increasingly become environmentalists, too. Like so many parts of Liberalism, this is for a mix of reasons and has a mix of implications; some of our ecological concern arises straight out of our Liberalism, while some of it makes sense to make it work – not everything in a philosophy comes from exactly the same stream. It poses some of the same problems as Liberal internationalism, requiring action locally, nationally and across consenting international institutions, and raising a quite different problem of consent – bonds of human duty should also apply to the opportunities of future generations, even though they can’t ask for it. We can’t know exactly what future generations will want; they can have no duties towards us; yet they’re not here to defend their own interests. Using up every resource that exists for humanity is recklessly irresponsible; Liberals should believe that future generations must have the same, or better, choices and chances as we do. So we work to put our ideals into practice across the world, and protect the environment to hold that world in trust for our children and theirs.

Once again, there are immediate pragmatic as well as long-term and principled reasons for tackling the crisis of pollution and resource depletion – not just for future generations, or those alive today who would grow up in a screwed-up world, but for people’s lives now. That environmental problems cross-national boundaries is a pragmatic reason for internationalism. The destruction of areas such as rainforests for short-term gain doesn’t just increase the danger of unpredictable global climate change or desertification for the future, but hurts all the members of the human family living there now.

In Britain, rising car emissions don’t just add to the global warming endangering years to come. The crisis in asthma and other respiratory diseases resulting from pollution is a threat to health, a cause of misery and expense right now that pure market calculations don’t reckon on. The arbitrary and increasingly danger of floods is already a devastating reality to many areas. And if you can’t move for hours in a traffic jam in the middle of a city, the car is plainly not always a contributor to freedom of movement. According to the CBI, hardly radical anti-capitalists, traffic congestion costs business over £20 billion a year, which the market will only make worse unless the state intervenes to point some of its signals in a more practical direction. That same congestion means that buildings are gradually eaten away by the toxic waste in the air – just look at old statues losing their details in our cities. Liberals believe in pragmatic state intervention; if it works and won’t make things worse, as we don’t have a bugbear about private or public action, we’ll try it. Government action on a collective good like public transport actually increases freedom overall – it boosts free movement by reducing congestion, improves health, and does less long-term damage to the environment.

Drawing Liberalism and Ecology Together

A sense of the importance of ecology comes naturally to today’s Liberals, both through care for the future of the human family and through simple pragmatic observation of current problems. Certainly, earlier Liberals were often short-sighted when it comes to the environment, right from Locke, who – far from advocating responsible stewardship – wrote that nature was worthless unless worked on by labour. This wasn’t a drawback for every classical Liberal thinker, however; Mill, for example, though he may not have been the most enlightened internationalist, was rather better at seeing the danger of attempting permanent ‘growth’ with no thought for the cost.

Basing a green Liberalism on the needs of humanity today and on our duties to the future members of the human family arises perfectly consistently from the underpinning concept of love for every individual. Many green Liberals would wish to stretch the definition to include care for other species, or valuing all life. Logically, that can be balanced with the rest of Liberalism, requiring still more restrictions on people for a much wider common good; but it’s a compromise that needs some finding your way around, as once you start down that road, it lays open a whole field of new issues regarding the extent to which humans are special, or simply a part of nature, or how animals or plants might be considered to have rights when (without taking an extremely long-term view of potential evolution) they will not at any stage have a concept of duties, as we would hope for from future generations of people. My own view is that we should have concern for the welfare of animals, and for biodiversity in all its forms, but that’s another sort of philosophy that may run in tandem with Liberalism rather than arising naturally from it, and it’s not on the same level as ties of love for humanity. Liberalism starts with individuals, not the planet. Though not all good things are the same things, it’s tempting to try and cram absolutely every ‘good thing’ into the same message, but Liberals can be relaxed – we’re pluralists, so taking on relatively complimentary views from very different starting points shouldn’t bring us out in a cold sweat. Again, Liberalism doesn’t rely on one sacred text that can never bear additions.

Love Needs Liberty

What does define Liberalism is the idea of liberty. Love on its own is not enough, though it is a necessary prerequisite to social Liberalism; many religions or well-meaning but paternalist philosophies could share such views with Liberalism, without being known for their commitment to freedom. Liberalism sees humanity as all one family, but families can be oppressive, too. Liberals believe if all individuals are equal, so is their right to make up their own mind; each is the best judge of their own lives, so freedom follows on. In a ‘benevolent’ dictatorship, people might have perfect material satisfaction at the expense of freedom, but it would be a bad bargain. Free choice can lead to failure and tragedy, but it is also the source of every advance, and of real satisfaction that doesn’t come from spoon-feeding. Even freedom from war and freedom from want – each of which Liberals struggle for with passion – must not, as the Doctor once said, be bought at the cost of “Freedom from freedom”.

While love is the moral foundation of Liberalism, liberty is its aim and purpose. They’re not the same thing, but they are related. Liberalism’s view of the universal duty between humans and the importance of every single person links each individual to the international, making real the slogan 'think globally, act locally', but that vital link is not just so everyone is ‘equal’ in well-looked-after servitude. It is to ensure that everyone has the freedom to live their own life.

Like yesterday’s post on Liberal Internationalism, what I was in part struggling towards there was why sometimes there’s a clash of views, and trying to be even-handed about them while still making clear my own; again, it’s something I thought about a bit more coherently for my thoughtful and understated later article, When Liberals Attack!

You can find the evolving links to the whole of Love and Liberty with an introduction here. Over the following days, I’ll be expanding on the liberty at the heart of my Liberalism – check back to that contents list and watch for those links to spring into life. Oh, and don’t forget to give your opinion on whether #LibDemHeart or #LibDemValues makes the better tag!

Back to IV

Forward to VI

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