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The potential future impact of climate change on the planet is so immense that it’s causing widespread traumatic stress amongst vast sectors of the global population.
In my case, it’s resulting in the experience of multiple personalities.
On the one hand, I have the personality of an ardent climate change activist. I believe that climate change is an incredibly serious problem, and we need to take drastic action in reducing the impact of humans on the environment.
We can’t wait for governments to solve the issue for us. Big business will continue to pollute the environment if it means a reduction in costs and an increase in profits. Unless we create a radical disruption in how we collectively organize ourselves and our production, our civilization is doomed.
But on the other hand, coexisting with my climate change activist identity is the personality of an economic libertarian. I believe that humans are incredibly adaptive and continually create solutions to the world’s most intractable problems.
While economic growth undoubtedly has negative impacts, it also fuels innovation and is the greatest harbinger of progress in human history. I worry about throwing the baby out with the bathwater if we shift our focus from economic growth to the kind of activism that upends industries and slows global production to a halt.
As far as I can see, the science is settled about what’s going on. Climate change is 100% real and man-made pollution is causing a disastrous rise in carbon levels that is harming our ecosystem and atmosphere. We all see the awful effects of climate change all around us, but what is the best way to deal with it?
I feel genuinely conflicted deep down inside when it comes to how to respond to climate change. And I’ve noticed this conflict results in me dissociating myself from what’s happening in the world. I’ve had too many arguments inside my head, and I suspect that I’m not alone in dissociating from these issues in the face of seemingly irreconcilable conflicts.
Now, I want to resolve this inner conflict once and for all.
It’s time to resolve the conflict between my inner climate change activist and my inner libertarian. I believe a bridge can be built between these conflicting identities and differing approaches to climate change.
The climate activist
There’s a simple reason why the climate change activist is in conflict with the economic libertarian. At the core, there is a seemingly irreconcilable difference between these two mindsets when it comes to the role they want economic growth to play in our future.
The activist is usually sympathetic to the ideas of the degrowth movement. Degrowth’s proponents argue that to meet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) target of stabilizing global temperatures at no more than 1.5 degrees of warming, we must reorient our focus toward sustainability and deconstructing growth-based economic models.
The climate crisis is fuel for the degrowth movement, which argues that in order to save the planet, humans need to drastically reduce economic activity. The degrowth movement values human flourishing but believes that humanity and our communities are being actively harmed by putting profits over people and production over the wellbeing of our natural world.
The rational argument here is simple: at our current levels of global consumption, the world won’t hit the IPCC target of stabilizing global temperatures at no more than 1.5 degrees of warming. The degrowth movement then goes on to suggest that we radically rethink the priority of economic growth. We would be much better off focusing on creating a world that doesn’t rely on economic growth fueling it.
One of the leading voices for the degrowth movement is Jason Hickel. He’s an anthropologist at the London School of Economics and the author of Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World. According to Hickel, degrowth is the only real solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well as the evils of overfishing, pollution and unsustainable practices leading to deforestation, plastic destroying our oceans and worldwide economic devastation. If we try to solve this problem in our current economic model we are bound to fail, argues Hickel.
As he writes in Less is More: “In a growth-oriented economy efficiency improvements that could help us reduce our impact are harnessed instead to advance the objectives of growth — to pull ever-larger swaths of nature into circuits of extraction and production. It’s not our technology that’s the problem. It’s growth.”
This is echoed by leading scientists such as ecology Professor William Ripple and others, who have warned that if we don’t scale down our economies and growth outlook we are headed for a full-on carbon apocalypse in the near future.
“Economic and population growth are among the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion; therefore, we need bold and drastic transformations regarding economic and population policies,” Ripple and 11,000 other scientists warned in an open letter published in BioScience in 2020.
What Hickel envisions as a solution to climate change while allowing human flourishing is a global movement in two directions: poor countries could develop up to a certain level of prosperity and then stop, while rich countries could develop down to that agreed-upon, sustainable level and then stop. Thus, climate catastrophe could be averted, all while making the world’s poor more prosperous.
As Kelsey Piper explains at Vox:
“The degrowth movement, as it’s called, argues that humanity can’t keep growing without driving humanity into climate catastrophe. The only solution, the argument goes, is an extreme transformation of our way of life — a transition away from treating economic growth as a policy priority to an acceptance of shrinking GDP as a prerequisite to saving the planet.”
There is real promise in the idea of the First World scaling down its consumerism. But there’s a key problem that often isn’t acknowledged by the degrowth movement. Our global economic has become so interconnected that consumerism in the First World grows the economies of the developing world. A top-down and large-scale reduction in consumerism in rich economies will gut emerging economies around the world. The COVID pandemic has already demonstrated that a reduction in consumption in rich countries contributes to poverty in the developing world by reducing Western imports of goods.
This points to a certain sense of over-idealism in the position of thinkers such as Hickel and Ripple. However, my inner climate activist simply can’t deny the validity of their insight that we cannot continue on our current consumerist path. We are headed in a deeply harmful direction and something has to change.
How is it possible to continue going the way we have been going without torching the environment?
The economic libertarian
The economic libertarian, on the other hand, believes that the benefits of economic growth and market freedom will eventually outweigh the disastrous effects of climate change.
They argue that industries and technologies must be allowed to continue unimpeded in order for humans to have a better future. They also generally regard advancements such as renewable energy and environmental progress to go hand-in-hand with letting the market self-correct and innovate based on a laissez-faire approach.
As Tim Black writes for Spiked Online, “there is something especially grotesque about framing climate change as a health emergency. Almost all the advances in medicine, diet and general welfare that we enjoy today rest on economic, material development – in short, on growth. The energy powering our hospitals, the technology at work in water-sanitation plants, the agricultural revolution that fuelled the expansion of food production – all this and so much more means that we now live longer, healthier lives than ever before.”
Economic libertarians have a point. While weather-related disasters have increased in number over the last 50 years, total human deaths from these disasters have decreased in this time. Our ability to respond to these disasters is enhanced by technology and innovation which is a byproduct of economic growth.
As Ben Pile writes for Spiked Online:
“The key fact that is missing from the discussion, as countless analyses from independent researchers demonstrate, is that vastly fewer people in the world now die from extreme weather than at any point in history. Moreover, people live significantly longer, wealthier and healthier lives today than even just a few decades ago. That progress is owed to economic development. It is wealth, not weather, that determines human outcomes. We should therefore be extremely suspicious of any attempt to argue otherwise – that our past, present or future was or is dependent on a ‘stable’ or favourable climate.”
Growth advocates point to figures such as this one from the World Health Organization, which predicts that the global burden of disease will go down by over 30% between 2004 to 2030 if economic growth is allowed to continue unabated. They caution that a turn away from growth and industrial progress could lead to far greater poverty, illness and death around the world.
“Richer countries are countries that are generally better-off in almost all metrics, from education, life expectancy, child mortality to women’s employment etc. Not only that: richer people are also on average healthier, better educated, and happier. Income indeed buys you health and happiness. (It does not guarantee that you are a better person; but that’s a different topic.)
The metric of income or GDP is strongly associated with positive outcomes, whether we compare countries to each other, or people (within a country) to each other,” writes economist Brank Milanovic.
This brings us to one of the core positions of economic libertarians. They tend to believe that arguments for slamming the brakes on economic growth are shortsighted, morally self-righteous, and ultimately harm humans more than it benefits us. The cure of throwing out our capitalist system could be worse than the disease, and we’re better off relying on the economy to self-correct and serve our needs.
We disagree on things we don’t know
My inner climate change activist and inner economic libertarian start to but heads when considering the role that economic should play in our collective future.
But herein lies the problem. These two inner characters are trying to win a debate that can’t be won.
It could be that the transformation of ecosystems at an accelerated rate isn’t as big a deal as it’s made out to be. Perhaps technology and innovation will address our environmental issues and enable the world to continue to emerge from poverty. Or it could be that we’re screwed unless we hit the brakes hard as soon as possible.
Perhaps we are driving over a cliff into a massive climate meltdown with no path back.
We simply don’t know.
My inner conflict is a minor representation of something that is happening much more broadly. We are so polarized as a global society when we try to discuss climate change and what to do about it. We easily engage in shouting matches, arguing about things that are very difficult to resolve.
And just as I’m experiencing the dissociative effects of this inner conflict, at a global level our deeper conflicts are preventing us from joining forces in improving the world.
Therefore, I want to engage in an exercise to find some common ground between these seemingly disparate positions. First, let me outline the key difference in values between these two characters before explaining what they actually have in common.
Humans and Nature
Climate change activists (as represented by the degrowth movement) and economic libertarians have radically different values when it comes to the relationship between humans and nature.
Those who are preparing for a climate apocalypse and who argue for degrowth generally do not consider humans to be above nature. They don’t think it’s legitimate for people to extract resources or utilize nature for profit if it harms the natural balance of our economic systems. They believe that all living beings on the planet matter equally.
This mindset emphasizes living in harmony with nature and finding sustainable ways to eliminate carbon emissions and fossil fuel-based systems and economics as soon as possible. While the dramatic nature of the solutions offered can vary in intensity, the basic position of the climate change activist is that we, as a global community, need to shift from consumption to cooperation. They believe that this path will lead to human flourishing, community, health and happiness, and eventually to the flourishing of other species, too.
Those who want to unleash economic growth and free markets have a different value system on the relationship between humans and nature. They generally believe that human beings have an inherent right to profit from and use nature. Resources are here to be exploited for our needs and not doing so would be foolhardy and wasteful.
This mentality emphasizes that human progress is inevitable and often far more rapid than expected. We don’t need to regulate or tone down our growth, we simply need to unleash it and let humanity work its magic. They believe that this path will lead to human flourishing, community, health and happiness. For their proof, these thinkers point to human history itself.
When we drill down into the core of these polarized positions, I see a huge split in their alternative philosophies on the primacy of humans on the planet. Are humans in charge and do we have a right to treat nature how we wish and judge best? Or should we reign in economic growth and direct our creativity to a vision of change based on us having a smaller place in nature?
[show picture of iceberg – the top part above the water is where we’re trying to debate each other, but underneath are our philosophical frameworks, our values, etc]
I think these two philosophical positions are rarely acknowledged. We argue with each other without understanding the core of what makes each of us tick.
We let a difference in philosophical positions divide us, rather than providing us with an opportunity to be inspired by one other so we can learn and grow together.
And that’s what I want for my inner climate activist and economic libertarian.
Let’s put aside the philosophical differences between these two characters and now flesh out what they have in common.
Climate activists and economic libertarians both want to see humans flourish. They do have very real differences when it comes to how humans flourish. But there is no denying that both camps are focused on the outcome of humans flourishing.
They are both extraordinarily passionate about the flourishing of human beings.
According to the economic libertarians, when humans are unshackled to be creative, we thrive and progress is the inevitable result. According to the climate activists, human progress is essential alongside replenishing what we use and empowering those who are contributing to sustainability and ecological balance.
Climate activists undoubtedly will agree that economic growth is important when it reduces poverty and contributes to human welfare, as long as these economic activities are happening in a way that is harmonious with the environment and human society. The economic liberation camp can agree that we want to have balanced ecosystems and a planet that serves the needs of humans in the future, so long as we’re heading in the direction of sustainability by driving the economy forward, providing jobs, increasing energy supply and enhancing our prosperity.
There’s no amount of economic growth that will make up for a desiccated and destroyed planet, and there’s no amount of environmental harmony that will make up for destroyed economies and stunted technological progress.
There is common ground in these positions. There is an intersection of values and the outcomes that these values drive us towards.
I don’t want to be naive about the differences in these positions. The differences are real and there will be conflict between them as we bicker and argue about what “progress” looks like.
But for the sake of resolving this inner conflict I’ve got, which is reflective of a broader conflict in society, the common ground between these positions is important to acknowledge.
Giving up on seeing the other side as “bad” or “wrong”
Finding common ground hinges upon giving up on seeing the other side as “bad” or “wrong.” It might make us feel good or familiar to cling to stereotypes about those we disagree with, but it doesn’t move our collective any closer to real solutions.
Climate change activists are not, by and large, looney-tunes humanity-hating extremists who want to shut down every business. They tend to be reasonable and compassionate people who simply want to help create a future where the planet won’t burn.
Economic libertarians are not, by and large, money-worshipping fiends who torch forests for fun and think pollution is cool as long as it’s profitable. They tend to be rational people who simply want to caution against moving too dramatically to scale down the advanced societies we’ve built.
For the most part, both sides of this equation want a wonderful future where we can achieve our potential. And both of their perspectives can feed into achieving that future if they work symbiotically.
In other words, it turns out that my two multiple personalities can be friends and can have a shared vision of human prosperity.
We all need to keep on finding common ground. If we want to have a hand in the future we’re planting, we need to take pollution and climate change very seriously while also understanding that pro-growth people don’t have to be the enemy. They can be an asset.
As Pennsylvania State University climatologist Michael Mann says:
“If we are to avert catastrophic warming, we have to lower carbon emissions by a factor of two within the next 10 years. I find it highly implausible that capitalism/market economics will be abandoned by the world on that time frame.
That means we have to act on the climate crisis within the framework of the current system.”
Can humans flourish in balance with nature?
What can both camps get excited about?
Projects that stimulate economic growth while contributing to regenerative ecosystems. Ideas like permaculture, sustainable fishing and logging, carbon capture technology and public-private partnerships to fight climate change.
There are so many ways we can explore collective human flourishing in a sustainable way.
It’s in the self-interest of both camps to join together and tackle these issues so that we can make money and make the world a safe place to live in the future.
One way that both camps can also come together is localism and centering production on a smaller scale.
For the climate change activists, this can be a back-to-nature approach that emphasizes worker solidarity and regenerative practices. For the economic libertarians, these practices may be a way to reassert national sovereignty, tradition and family values. There doesn’t need to be a split. There can be an alignment.
On the other side, you can see how an issue like measuring economic health primarily by GDP is shortsighted and doesn’t take into account environmental impact and human wellbeing enough. Economic libertarians need to do more to consider the ways in which wealth and human flourishing aren’t just about material success but are also about the thick ties that bind us in culture, daily life and the way we work.
If both sides can advance from their corners and realize how much they have in common, they can see that their differences don’t need to be a roadblock to working together.
Our power as people who want to address the ravages of climate change is to find what we can come together on and work on collectively. Instead of highlighting our divisions, let’s focus on the ideal of living in a world where it’s okay to live alongside people who have different values, philosophies, spiritualities. Let’s focus on being able to work alongside someone who has a different value system.
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