Everyone is talking about the New York Times feature on climate change by Nathaniel Rich. In “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change,” Rich details the history of climate science and politics between 1979 and 1989. He argues that there was a window of opportunity where bold action could have taken place given bipartisan support for climate policy and even a receptive fossil fuel lobby. Ultimately, though, action didn’t happen.
Why? Rich blames human nature: “human beings, whether in global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties or as individuals, are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations.” In other words, it doesn’t matter which social organization they adopt, humans are selfish and short-sighted and, thus, bound to trample over ecological limits.
While acknowledging his good history, critics have accused Rich of doing bad philosophy. It is not human nature that is to blame, Naomi Klein writes, it’s capitalism. The 1980s was the worst possible time to fashion serious climate policy or any other collective act of solidarity, because that was the zenith of neoliberal ideology. Deregulation, privatization, and free trade became the dominant global recipe. China opened up to the world, further ushering in globalization, neo-colonialism, and thoughtless consumerism. Profit making dominated all else, smashing labor unions and, most importantly, ushering in a cultural imagination with no room for collective action, because ‘we’ humans are consumers not citizens. The invisible hand will fix everything.
Other critics have come to similar conclusions, substituting certain kinds of humans and social organizations for Rich’s royal “we” of human nature. Kate Oronoff argues along with Klein that the problem is basically American-style corporate capitalism. The same goes for Alyssa Battistoni in Jacobin: the 1980s were crucial because democratic control was subordinated to elite economic power and an ideology of endless growth. Other critics have also labeled Rich’s central thesis as “naïve” and “absurd” for similar reasons.
What these critics fail to mention is that environmental philosophers were having this exact debate during the 1980s. Founded at about the time that Rich’s story begins, the field of environmental philosophy took as one of its central tasks the diagnosis of our environmental crisis. Why were we despoiling the planet? Environmental philosophers understood that we needed a fundamental understanding of the problem, a theory, if we were to arrive at the proper solution.
One popular early theory was Deep Ecology. Like Rich, the deep ecologists tended to see the problem rooted in human nature. Humanity has fallen out of balance with the natural order of things. If humanity is like a cancer on the planet, an original sin, then what we need are severe restrictions. This took its purest form in the eco-brutalism of Dave Foreman and others who advocated a Malthusian lifeboat ethics, where watching poor people starve was actually the ethical thing to do – it meant fewer people and “people” are the problem, after all.
And just as Klein criticizes Rich, Murray Bookchin criticized the deep ecologists. In his 1987 take-down, “Social Ecology vs. Deep Ecology,” Bookchin lays out the same theory now being popularized thirty years later by Klein and others. The problem is not some “human nature,” but the capitalist social structure. The solution is the one worked out by anarchists starting with Peter Kropotkin and refined through the 1960s: “decentralization, a nonhierarchical society, democracy, small-scale communities, local autonomy, mutual aid, communalism, and tolerance…” In other words, humans are not the problem, but humans who are organized around hierarchy, bureaucracy, privilege, oligarchy, global flows of capital, impersonal relations, and ideologies of endless growth and desire. In short, capitalism is the problem.
So, in that crucial decade of the 1980s, not only was neoliberal ideology becoming dominant. Philosophers had already identified it as the problem. Now, if society would have only listened! But that didn’t happen for two reasons. First, the most powerful aspect of neoliberal ideology is its systemic thoughtlessness. If the invisible hand automatically solves problems, then there is no need for philosophy or theory – there is no need to first think about what is going on and then re-think the way we behave. Philosophy was cast as irrelevant and superfluous – economics is all we need.
Second, philosophers never came to a moral consensus among themselves. The social ecologists had allies in the ecofeminists and others. But there were still the deep ecologists on one side and the free-market environmental thinkers on the other side. Add to this mix those inspired by Heidegger who think the ultimate cause of our environmental problems is the modern scientific worldview and its technological way of setting up the world as a stock of resources. And we could add those who see the roots of our ecological crisis in the Judeo-Christian worldview and the divine command to subdue nature.
Environmental philosophy, in other words, has long remained riven by deeply divergent theoretical accounts of the problem. Had they arrived at some consensus view, things might be different. By way of analogy, bioethicists during the 1980s largely agreed on a moral framing of biomedical problems. And this consensus helped to grant them the social power to shape public policies. Bioethicists came to sit on Presidential advisory committees and the call lists of reporters. Environmental ethicists, by contrast, languished in the background hashing out incommensurable accounts of our times even as the world burned.
Imagine if a great Environmental Ethics Consensus had emerged in the 1980s. Imagine that every college student back then got the same message loud and clear: the ultimate cause of climate change and our other environmental problems is capitalism. We must seek structural changes to economic systems and fundamentally new ways of thinking about ourselves. Those kids demand in their economics and business classes that their teachers take account of this reality, updating their neoclassical and neoliberal models of human society. Now imagine all those college kids go on to shape public policies and business practices in the 1990s and 2000s.
Would that have made the crucial difference? If so, maybe the ultimate root of our ecological crisis is the failure of philosophers to agree with one another. Maybe what we needed was an ideology powerful enough to push back against neoliberalism. Philosophers had the conceptual ingredients for this, but failed to deliver the goods. In other words, philosophers suffered from their own brand of neoliberalism where they conceived of their work as radically independent, libertarian thought-experiments unconnected to collective action. They were knowledge producers and consumers rather than citizens.