“To hear men talk in those days, you would have thought that Providence had ordained that…it would be quite possible for the people who made money by buying and selling the natural treasures of the earth, to go and live in other places, and take their profits with them.”
George Tomkyns Chesney
Sustainability is not political – well sort of…
The association of sustainability with a political viewpoint is a seemingly eternal, and to my mind, eternally frustrating issue that threatens our chances of achieving a sustainable future. If you need to be a card carrying left or right winger (perhaps most likely a lefty) in order to understand the primacy of functioning natural systems then frankly, those of us who hope to be part of a sustainable society might as well give up the fight for change and go home to hide.
However, keeping sustainability out of politics seems to be an increasingly forlorn hope, especially recently. For example, on Monday the 30th January 2017, Myron Ebell, Director of Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and lead of President Trump’s transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was quoted as saying “The environmental movement is, in my view, the greatest threat to freedom and prosperity in the modern world.”
It’s quite a statement, indicative of a mindset that, in various ways, underpins the notion inherent in much discourse about politics and the environment; that human dependence upon the planet for the very existence and continuation of our lives is somehow a matter of political opinion.
If environmentalism and sustainability in general is understood as containing an implicit threat to the status quo then logically I suppose it could be seen as being generally political in nature – but I struggle to see why it is party political.
However, you certainly can argue that sustainability is about freedom. Sustainability is the idea that we should act in such a way as to allow equitable and long term access to the means of generating wealth and wellbeing within the limits of the planet’s ability to support us. This is, whether explicitly or not, all about ensuring the rights and abilities of human beings to have choices over the long term.
Given a focus upon freedom, it could be argued that sustainability aligns well with the importance which libertarians and conservatives give to individual liberty and agency. However, of course, the recognition of limits to possibility on a finite planet does imply that the rights of individuals might need to be balanced with the rights of others, which might not go down so well with those parties.
Conversely, the idea that we might need to collectively agree and act upon what is possible in a crowded and plural world could be construed (and often is) as centralist or socialist in nature.
From my perspective the real answer is that sustainability has nothing to do with ideology – it is about the nature and reality of our existence on this planet, and therefore much more to do with science than political outlook, party affiliation or sentiment.
Freedom to live or freedom to die?
How do we understand what freedom is? If we define freedom as the right to continue a particular course of action defined by custom, practice or profit then surely it should be questioned. There have been many historical sources of privilege, position or profit that we have, as a species, decided to question and discontinue. Whaling and slavery are two such examples. I am sure that threats to these industries were challenged at the time by similar language to that quoted above from Mr Ebell.
Global freedom isn’t the opportunity to carry on with something that limits the freedoms of others. It isn’t freedom to treat the environment in such a way as to destroy our ultimate capacity for freedom. That is the road to penury, servitude and misery.
Access to resources is freedom. If we act to limit access to the resources of the world to a minority of the world then we act to diminish the net-freedom of our species.
Our freedom’s dependence on a functioning environment is not a matter of ideology or politics, it is the bedrock fact of our existence.
Freedom for some or all?
Most of us want to be active in a market economy, most of us want to generate value for ourselves and others by selling something that people need, within the limits of this precious planet.
Why, as species, are we gambling on the idea that we don’t need to take care of the place where we exist? It’s not hard to imagine a world where we deploy the knowledge and technology at our disposal to generate money through doing something good for people and the planet. Why fight against something so transparently in all our interests?
Its all very well going by the mantra of ‘give me freedom or give me death’, but I think many of the world’s population might baulk at the idea that the freedom of the few means a lack of freedom for the many alive now and the countless generations as yet unborn.
Growing and making things sustainably isn’t politics (nor really is the economics which currently so powerfully discourages sustainable outcomes). It’s just a tool, a means to the end of delivering freedom of choice for the most people for the most time.
Liberal renewable energy & conservative fossil fuels
One particularly peculiar ideological association that has arisen in recent years is that which associates a political affiliation with particular sources of energy. Generating energy renewably isn’t an ideology. The use of and need for energy is a basic necessity for human endeavour, do we really need to label our energy either inherently liberal or conservative?
Were there fiercely promoted press and grass roots campaigns when the availability of fossil oil started to edge out whale oil, painting the emerging oil barons as dodgy liberals or left wingers seeking to infringe the freedoms of the right-thinking consumers of whale oil? Incidentally, here is a fascinating discussion on the dynamics of the emergence of fossil fuels vs whale oil and other energy sources in the latter half of the 19th century.
Living on another world?
Of course, we all live in subtly different versions of reality, in our own worlds. These worlds are defined by accidents of birth, history, wealth, psychology and political persuasion, each one contributing to the creation of an individual view of a common experience (unless of course you think that we are all living in a simulation, or solipsistically believe that each of us are the only ones that can truly be proven to exist).
This variety of lived experience and perspective should not, however, blind us to the circumstance that we all live on one, finite, planet. Ideological or political perspective is irrelevant to this unarguable fact.
Serfdom for some or all?
Doing things sustainably isn’t a politically motivated plot, or slavery in disguise. We are too interdependent to be able to carry off accelerated disenfranchisement, environmental degradation and increasing consumption all at once.
Doing nothing to alter our current trajectory will accelerate the return of near universal serfdom rather than preserve the precarious freedoms that some of us are lucky enough to be either born to or gain through wealth and domicile.
Understanding freedom is about understanding its limits
The course of human history has demonstrated consistently that large scale equity and rights for populations as a whole is rare or non-existent. The current international order, with its theoretical recognition of the rights of all humans, is the exception rather than the rule when judged over time.
Understanding the relationships between access to resources and freedom is fundamental to sustainability. So is the acknowledgment that we can’t just take it for granted that the world will keep supplying us with stuff, however badly we treat it.