Back to Nature—and Rousseau: The Environmental Attack on Market Liberalism

Commentary, Climate, Ben Eisen


The argument that liberal civilization is fundamentally flawed and necessarily brings about multiple evils is almost as old as liberalism itself. The first prominent advocate of this position was Jean-Jacques Rousseau but as of late, Rousseau has been revived by some in the environmental movement, deep greens, who see an opportunity in the “climate change” panic to overturn centuries of progress towards liberalism and markets.
This can hardly be exaggerated. It’s obvious with a review of the statements over the years from the green movement’s most influential thinkers and leaders. And it’s doubtful that the publication of the infamous “Climategate” emails from the Climactic Research Unit (CRU) or  the United Nation’s Himalayan glacier scandal will change this; the desire to attack markets and liberalism runs too deep.  
The response of the alarmist community to these stunning revelations that  undermine the case for catastrophic climate change is to simply carry on as though nothing has happened. But why have alarmists ignored the new evidence? Why aren’t they at least a little bit relieved by news that the climate crisis they warn of may not materialize?  
The answer to this question is suggested by a remark made by Al Gore the day his Nobel peace prize win was announced. “It [climate change] is the most dangerous challenge we’ve ever faced, but it is also the greatest opportunity we have had to make changes.”
Van Jones, a prominent American environmentalist and a former advisor to Barack Obama hints at the nature of this “opportunity” during a speech in 2009, in which he stated “This movement is deeper than a solar panel. No, we’re going to change the whole system. We want a new system.”  Jones makes clear the “system” in question is liberal capitalism. Jones goes on to suggest that unless the underlying disease of our “system” – the overconsumption and greed of liberal civilization- is addressed, solving climate change will do little good, as new symptoms will arise to take its place.
The purpose of the liberal project, as stated by Francis Bacon, was to “relieve man’s estate” through scientific progress and economic growth. But many modern greens find their inspiration in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who in contrast to Bacon, argued classical liberalism made human life miserable by releasing an unnatural and destructive desire for power and wealth. Rousseau argued that far from relieving man’s estate, classical liberalism created violent competition between men leading to war, overconsumption and environmental problems.
Descendents of Rousseau such as Van Jones hope that public concern over environmentalism will provide a “teaching moment” in which others will see the damage wrought by our supposedly evil  “system” of market liberalism and join them in demanding comprehensive change.  This is the “opportunity” that climate change presents in the minds of these activists.
Examples of green activists who seek to use the green movement to achieve broader objectives abound. Bill McKibben, a prominent activist, wrote in 2007 that we shouldn’t fear the economic consequences of rapidly reducing carbon emissions because such reductions will “Change [life] for the better, as we learn once more to rely on those around us.” To paraphrase, McKibben thinks emission reductions will be beneficial to us whether or not climate change exists at all because such reductions will restore a lost sense of community to our lives.
Al Gore may have the most ambitious goals of all. In a speech given immediately after Hurricane Katrina, Gore complained that our society is lacking in “moral health” because so many people waste their time following the trivial “sound-and-light show” of popular culture. But, by taking aggressive, drastic and self-sacrificial actions to fight climate change, Gore suggests we can “unleash” a “spiritual energy” that will restore a sense of meaning and purpose to modern life. Gore believes we have much to gain spiritually from taking extreme, self-sacrificing measures to combat climate change. It is therefore unsurprising that he is hostile to any suggestion that such sacrifices may be unnecessary.
However, for those of us who are interested in more prosaic concerns such as the improvement of human life in physical and material terms, the recent wave of scandals in the climate science community should be taken seriously. Carbon reduction plans are expensive, and take away resources that could be used to directly benefit people in need. We should insist that such policies be enacted only when they are backed by disinterested scientific research, and supported by sound, honest cost-benefit analysis.