Liberty – the Missing Ingredient in the Green Analysis

June 21, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Liberty. Freedom. These ideas inspire risk-taking and self-sacrifice. But the green movement offers the exact opposite.

A streetcar terminal in 1939 Oklahoma. Photo by Russell Lee, from the American Memory Collection.

I recently read a blog post – or perhaps it was a comment to a blog post – that talked about liberty in the context of green activism.

I have tried, so far unsuccessfully, to find it again because the more I’ve thought about this idea, the more insightful and important I think it is. The writer observed that the fight for civil rights in 20th century America, and the fight against the Nazis during World World II were both struggles for liberty.

People such as Al Gore like to compare climate activism to both these historical events. They say that saving the world from allegedly human-caused, allegedly catastrophic global warming requires similar moral indignation to the civil rights movement and similar sacrifices to World War II (see here and here).

I think this is a cheap rhetorical ploy. Nothing prevents anyone from comparing any cause they happen to support to the fight against the Nazis. Those who succumb to that temptation seem, to me, to be self-aggrandizing personalities too lazy to construct persuasive arguments that sell their cause on its own merits.

They also seem oblivious to the fact that civil rights leaders and soldiers took huge personal risks to make the world a better place. By comparison, Gore demands speaking fees of $175,000 to tell audiences about our alleged planetary emergency, while activist scientist James Hansen’s scaremongering netted him $683,000 in environmental prize money between 2001 and 2010 (on top of his NASA salary).

The far more profound issue, however, is that the civil rights movement was fueled by a love of liberty. The right to sit wherever they chose on public transit, to attend white-only schools, to use white-designated public drinking fountains were at the core of the black community’s struggle. Large numbers of people, irrespective of their skin colour, were appalled by the formal and informal rules that enforced segregation. They regarded such rules as an affront to the personal liberty to which all Americans are entitled.

1941, Chicago. Photo by John Vachon, from the American Memory Collection.

Similarly, when members of the armed forces performed inspiring acts of heroism during WWII, they did so out of a conviction that their own freedom – as well as the freedom of others – was on the line. Here’s a quote from the introduction to Stephen Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers: The US Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany:

the GIs believed in their cause. They knew they were fighting for decency and democracy and they were proud of it and motivated by it…They were, overwhelmingly, high school or college students when America got into the war…They came as liberators, not conquerors. [see page 14]

Liberty. Freedom. Those are the ideas powerful enough to inspire risk-taking and self-sacrifice. The green movement’s problem is that it offers us the exact opposite.

According to Helen Clark, a United Nations official interviewed recently by the Agence France-Presse, saving the environment requires less personal liberty. In her opinion, those of us who live in the affluent West “don’t need more cars, more TVs, more whatever” (backup link here).

But the whole point of being free is that each of us gets to decide such matters for ourselves. If an additional car means that our early-20s daughter is able to commute to a work term at which she’ll gain valuable experience, or a new computer means that our disabled son lives a richer life more connected to the larger community, who is Helen Clark to decide that we “don’t need” those things?

UN officials expressing such opinions are a flashing neon warning sign. Ordinary people understand perfectly that a world in which the UN is in charge would be one in which their personal liberty would diminish.

Indeed, you’d have to deaf, dumb, and blind not to notice that undercutting the public’s right to make its own decisions is a big theme with UN officials. In 2010 Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), authored the foreword to a UNEP publication titled Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production (112-page PDF here).

The cover of that report bears a photograph of a well-stocked supermarket aisle. Words such as “prosperity” and “affordable” are nowhere to be found within its pages, but the report goes to great lengths to catalog the relative environmental impact of different kinds of activities and products.

According to the chairman of the group that wrote the report, future research will reveal “what changes are required” to lessen the environmental impact of our consumer lifestyles (see page 5 of the PDF). Only a fool would conclude that the UN has no plans to pass judgement on/meddle with what products we will be permitted to purchase.

Included in UNEP head Steiner’s remarks in the foreword is the following statement:

We must start looking into our everyday activities if we truly want a green economy…

But that is exactly the problem. I have chosen those everyday activities from amongst all the other options that were available to me. What makes Steiner imagine I am remotely interested in replacing them with anything else? My everyday activities represent my choices. They are not anyone else’s business.

Other examples of the UN talking about how our lives need to change in order to combat environmental threats are evident in these headlines:

Similarly:

  • Friends of the Earth, back in January 2004, issued a press release titled Over-consumption wrecking the planet (backup link)
  • in 2006 the head of the World Wildlife Fund declared that “we are living beyond our means” due to our “damaging overconsumption” (see page 3 of this 44-page PDF)
  • a 2009 Greenpeace “climate vision” document talked about the need for us to change our “lifestyles and consumption patterns”
  • the Sierra Club’s website includes a report from the year 2000 that was already declaring that “world has been on an unprecedented consumption binge” that has been “devastating” to the planet (backup link)

Together with the UN, green groups want you to have less. Less meat. Less dairy. Less technology. Less travel. These people want you to have fewer things – and fewer choices.

In short, green activists think your life – and the lives of your children – should be characterized by restraint rather than opportunity. They think their green ideals are more important than your liberty.

Their campaign will fail because history tells us that ordinary people will take huge risks and perform amazing feats to gain and keep their freedom.

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Entry filed under: activist scientists, Al Gore, ethical & philosophical, Greenpeace, James Hansen, NGOs, World Wildlife Fund. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

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