Environmentalism is the tree that grew in the shade. When the modern environmental movement first flowered in the early 1970s, its intellectual genesis was soon overshadowed by a profound convulsion in the political economies of western democracies. The breakdown of the Keynesian consensus ushered in a much more free-market variant of capitalism – ironically, at just the moment that early greens began calling for greater market regulation to respect ecological limits.
This coincidence has cast a shadow over subsequent efforts to build sustainable economies. For the past three decades, environmentalism has found itself operating within an economic context that finds it difficult to even consider political intervention in markets. Climate change is, in the words of Lord Nicholas Stern, “the greatest market failure the world has seen”. Yet how does one go about addressing such a failure within an economic orthodoxy that sees the free market as king?
The result has often been messy compromise. One oft-cited example is how environmentalists have been at pains to construct complex market-based mechanisms for the trading of carbon – mechanisms which have proven wide-open to abuse and have so far failed to deliver significant cuts in emissions. Another instance is the trend towards a ‘green consumerism’, which for all its incremental gains does nothing to challenge the recent dominance of consumerism itself, nor the atomistic vision of society it promotes. A third case is the drive towards a narrowly economistic valuation of ecosystem services. Whilst as an intellectual exercise it may have had some use, compressing the panoply of life into a cost-benefit analysis does not by itself seem to offer much hope for its protection. Instead, all three of these examples attest to a different set of imperatives – not environmental protection so much as marketisation.
Though much of this has been forced upon environmentalists by the prevalent political consensus, sometimes we have brought it upon ourselves. The American ecologist Garrett Hardin did much – inadvertently – to ingratiate environmentalism to neoliberal thinking through his infamous concept of ‘the tragedy of the commons’, first articulated in 1968. Hardin argued that shared natural resources would always end up being depleted by multiple individuals acting independently and in their own self-interests, even when this contravened their collective long-term interests. As a solution, he advocated the extension of private property rights and the privatisation of natural resources – ignoring the long history of common property systems and giving a fillip to the nascent neoliberals who would soon enact programmes of privatisation across the globe.
And yet, as Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang writes: “Capitalism has… evolved in very different ways across countries.” The Anglo-American free-market variant of the past thirty years is just one flavour of capitalism. It will not last forever and whilst it limps on, its assumptions have recently been shaken to their core by the financial crisis. It is certainly not the variant most likely to respect environmental imperatives. But alternatives are not hard to imagine.
It’s an interesting thought experiment to consider whether modern environmentalism would have fared better if it had appeared before the breakdown of the Keynesian consensus. It could not have done, of course: scientific understanding of our impacts on ecosystems and the climate, though present at the time, was not sufficiently advanced. But it seems a fair bet that a variant of capitalism which (in Britain) established the welfare state, protected the collective bargaining rights of workers and made British society the most equal it has ever been, would also have seen fit to tame the market for the sake of the biosphere.
I make this assumption for two reasons. Firstly, because the politics of the post-war consensus agreed there were certain goods that should be held in common and deserved protection from market forces: from the provision of healthcare for its citizenry to higher education and social housing. Extending this way of thinking to the present day, one can start to view the climate, too, as a common good, something which markets should have no truck with. Secondly, before the rise of neoliberalism, both left and right shared a more collectivist vision of society, one which was imbued with far more shared purpose than merely the sum total of individuals’ purchasing decisions. As environmental thinker Tom Burke has stated, “Dealing with a shared environment requires collective action above all… meeting this challenge sits oddly with a political philosophy that asserts the imperial authority of individual choice.”
Saying this is not to wish for a return to a lost world, but to salvage those concepts which might best suit our brave new one. The financial crisis, and the raging debate it has started about how to build a more moral and equitable economic system, offers a chance too for environmentalists to press for a more sustainable variant of capitalism. Environmentalism needs to rediscover the concept of the commons, and how this alternative approach to managing shared resources – as recently explored by Nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom – can form an alternative to market-based policies. Much-needed, too, is an approach to cultural change that reprioritises the citizen over the consumer, the collective over the individual – a rebalancing that environmentalists have so far failed to sufficiently champion.
We are living in a time of great upheaval. Whether the next few years witnesses economic rescue or abrupt collapse, it is plain that the political consensus of the past thirty years has been shattered. If a new consensus can emerge from out of the shadows of the old that enshrines collectivism and the protection of common goods, then environmentalism may yet flourish in the new dawn.