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To Paris and Beyond: Climate and Freedom

For the modern radical is as confident in the moral expression of his stances and consequently in the assertive uses of the rhetoric of morality as any conservative has ever been.  Whatever else he denounces in our culture he is certain that it still possesses the moral resources which he requires in order to denounce it.  Everything else may be, in his eyes, in disorder; but the language of morality is in order, just as it is.

                                                                                                                Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

In my previous installments in this series[i]--a series in which I question how and to what extent “freedom” can be the main organizing principle of a sustainable civilization--I argued that most of what passes for freedom is dependent upon an open system.  To put this in historical terms I developed earlier, freedom is attendant to a cosmological transition from a closed world to an infinite universe.[ii]  I have been working these metaphysical metaphors in order to illustrate a suspicion I have been meditating over: not only that the “closed world” of our global ecology has been suffering because we treat it as an “infinite universe”; but also that this treatment is by and large the natural outcome of the unrestrained freedom which serves as the main operating principle of our politics, economy, and Liberal moral code. While I realize there are number of risks in questioning the modern unquestionable, I am working towards an articulation of human good and morality that does not hinge mainly on the notion of individual liberty, especially the freedom to consume, or the freedom to have whatever we can afford.

At the end of my last installment, however, I entertained a possible reversal in the main course of my argument, adopting for my purposes a title from one of the late Richard Rorty’s excellent papers on the relationship between philosophy and politics.[iii]  As “an end of philosophy” philosopher, Rorty suggests that most of the questions that philosophy has attempted to answer cannot be answered in the absolute terms the same philosophers tend to demand.  According to Rorty, we should expect the sort of suggestive answers that we get from novelists or poets.  The lack of absolute answers, Rorty argues, is hardly something to mourn—in large part because Liberal, democratic politics do not depend on a strong philosophical glue, any more than they depend on shared religious beliefs.  Rather, democratic deliberation requires only a process of negotiation and compromise, a process that is actually aided by the humility one gains by seeing his or her interests as having no solid philosophical backing.  We don’t need better philosophy, in short, we need better politics; a new philosophical theory or metanarrative won’t help us learn to treat our environment and each other better.

In arguing this, Rorty might also suggest that Mill’s rather pragmatic formula about the exercise of freedom up to the point it harms others is “all the philosophy we need.”  We may need a better understanding of the plight of others, or the history of the relationship between energy and the economy, or the details of ecology, but we don’t need another framework with which to consider all this.  As for political activists, he would say, our responsibility is to tell rich and sympathetic stories that might help our fellow citizens deliberate more effectively.  Were he still alive and were he to read my work here, he would likely say that we don’t need a new metanarrative about the end of freedom or its replacement by some other (forthcoming) vision; we only need to listen to each other more carefully and attend to each other’s pain and suffering—unless of course he realized how the prospect of global warming, and the end of growth and the beginning of contraction, might alter his rather blithe faith in the self-correcting capacity of “wealthy North Atlantic bourgeois democracies.”  For my position is precisely that: that a paradigm built upon freedom (with minor restraints kicking in only when one person’s freedom interferes with another’s), as I argued in my last installment, depends on an infinite universe, which in Rorty’s formative years appeared to be a fait accomplis of modern society.  This infinite universe, as well as Rorty’s Liberal pragmatism, is incompatible with the closed world we in fact live in and that Rorty did not live long enough to fully appreciate.  The apparent death of philosophy was concomitant with a narrative of permanent progress.

Getting to “No”

I’d like to test out Rorty’s thesis (which corresponds closely enough with mainstream negotiators who appear to have substantial faith in their philosophical paradigm), and mine (which maintains we need a revamped moral vocabulary), by looking at the Paris Climate Agreement.  Can an International Agreement meant to limit something, in this case greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), be written in the language of freedom? Is a simple formulation like Mill’s, that leaves the sorting-out of specifics to a political process, be effective without another set of values beyond Mill’s or Rorty’s, “do as you please, up to the point where it harms others”?  I will argue that, no, the language of freedom can only be successful at setting limits if these limits don’t require any real limitation on freedom, while a sustainable human civilization, in contrast, requires far more difficult decisions and, likely, some limits on individual liberty.  The language of freedom, I will show, does not seem able to set limits on freedom, at least if we take current climate agreements as solid test-cases.

 As I read The Paris Agreement and some of its important predecessors it does presents itself as a test case for what I am calling “the language of freedom,” which, recall, was the main topic of my previous piece of this extended argument.  I am leaning most directly on John Stuart Mill’s explication of this language of freedom.  Mill, recall, proposed that in a free society you can do as you like with no real constraints, up to the point where it harms others.  There are of course always political debates about what constitutes “harm” and how it might be prevented, punished, and redressed; and there are minor professional debates about what sort of theoretical or legal articulation this formula might require.  But in outline Mill’s formula provides the basis for the way much of the world, including that of international agreements, purports to operate.  The operating assumption behind the Paris Agreement is, accordingly, that nations and individuals should for the most part be able to do as they please, whatever that is.  This assumption about national sovereignty, as well as the slightly less self-evident right of individuals and corporations to compete in a global free-market, is unquestioningly accepted by the UN and other international bodies.  

These assumptions may seem unremarkable.  They may, after all, simply be a recognition of the nature of the current global order, or the current wants of most people.  Consider, for instance, how the Kyoto Protocol describes the poor and “undeveloped” nations of the world as “nations still transitioning to a market economy.”  On the one hand, there is more than a little teleology in this assumption, that a nation without a mature market-economy hasn’t yet achieved this allegedly universal goal, and therefore must be on its way—never mind if it has other plans or goals in mind.  But, on the other hand, it may just be an accurate description of the stated aspirations of those nations, or at least of their current governments.  At any rate, whether we are looking at the Rio, Kyoto, or Paris, we will see as a central organizing principle the right to, perhaps the necessity of, continued “development,” “economic growth,” and “international trade,” even if it is now supposed to be sustainable growth and development and trade.  Innovation, a global neo-liberal keyword, is likewise fore-fronted, with an emphasis on “public/private cooperation.” 

But this global order is, we should remember, reinforced and naturalized with each repetition and with each consecration into a set of laws or new international agreement.  That our main starting point for solving international problems or settling disputes is the complete freedom of individuals and their economic organizations to compete and win without limits has come to be seen as neutral system, if it is seen at all.  And to view it as natural, inevitable, and neutral is, of course to ignore its history, its alternatives, and its particular consequences.  With their intentional emphasis on free markets, growth economies, and an international expectation for increased global development, agreements like the Paris one, I am certainly not the first to notice, are clearly promoting a continued transition towards near complete techno-modernism.  While it is unclear whether development, growth, and techno-modernism are enshrined into international law as a way to protect freedom, or whether they are enshrined as an expression of that same freedom in the first place (and I think this may be a significant aporia), it remains clear that these freedoms (to grow, develop, innovate, and trade without restraint) have become official. 

And important to my purposes, here, it is also these very freedoms that will have to be constrained in order to halt runaway global warming.  If left to themselves, the nations of the world have no desire to curb their carbon emissions, for this is a burden that does not involve letting individuals and corporations simply do as they please.  Unilateral curtailment, moreover, would put the curtailing nation at a distinct competitive disadvantage in what remains a competitive world order.  While unable to say it this directly, there is at least a tacit understanding on the part of global negotiators that we can’t simply leave the nations of the world to themselves.  For if we do, and they all do as they please, we are headed towards as much as 6 degrees centigrade of global warming.  The “baseline” scenario established by the IPC might be redescribed as what is likely to happen if everyone and every nation does as it pleases, just follows market price-signals that may light the clear path of rational self-interest.  A global agreement to cut GHGs, in short, involves a constraint on freedom, even as this is rarely admitted or termed in this way.  If this weren’t the case, or course, there would be no international conferences and agreements in the first place.

Viewed this way, as a program for establishing constraints, the Paris Agreement has entirely failed--as did Kyoto, if for different, though symmetrical, reasons.  For its part, the Paris Agreement does not establish a clear path to emission reductions anywhere close to a “safe” level, in part because if offers no real and binding constraints.  Others have noted that the non-binding pledges made by the Parties to the Agreement put us on a path to a 3 degrees centigrade warming, and not the 1 ½ degrees that the Agreement makes as an explicit, if voluntary, goal.  But given the language of the Agreement there is no assurance that any nations will even stick to these already insufficient pledges.  As Brian Tokar has commented, the Paris Agreement is largely “aspirational,” at best a first step toward an agreement with real teeth, if not a gentle spur in the side of the technological miracle that the world’s powerbrokers may all be vaguely counting on.   As he explains, “words like ‘clarity,’ ‘transparency,’ ‘integrity,’ ‘consistency,’ and ‘ambition’ appear throughout the text, but there’s very little to assure that these aspirations can be realized. UN staff are to create all manner of global forums, working groups and expert panels to move the discussions forward but, as was clear prior to Paris, the main focus is to instill a kind of moral obligation to drive diplomats and their governments to take further steps” (emphasis added).[iv]

This notion of a “moral obligation” is central to my discussion here.  The language of freedom may, like some sort of holiday decoration, set up from time to time some or another vision of morality in its one-sided and empty ratiocinations.  But what we have, here, is far too pliant a medium to create anything that might be called a moral obligation. At best, we have a morality that is little more than a mush of self-congratulatory enthusiasm; it has no real necessity.  It stands no chance when confronted with the modern real, rational, and actual—the hard and fast laws of self-interest and the quest for competitive advantage.  Moral “obligation,” in the era of freedom, may be freely chosen or freely passed-over.

To put this another way, I am proposing that we lack a moral vocabulary in our official language of deliberation that could provide any necessary, yet acceptable, limits, or that could even provide a meaningful tug on the coat-tails of sort of modern adult mentality.  For this reason, I’d like to consider the language of the Paris Agreement a bit further.  Given the peril that current emission levels puts us in, no less, there appears to be an almost inexplicable allergy in public dialogue to any language of constraint.  The harm is clear, and the point at which it harms others has long since been surpassed, and still no one can agree upon a single substantial limit that might be imposed and accepted.  Meanwhile, the language of the Agreement strains itself to avoid the possibility that any such utterance might cross our lips.   Of course this might be predictable if we recall the singular role played by freedom in modern valuation, and the way freedom and its systems (and its most powerful spokesmen) held court throughout the Paris conference.   Thus the lack of any real or binding obligations.  Because of tooth-and-nail negotiations by the leaders of the “free world,” conference insiders report, the Agreement refers to emission-reducing pledges as “contributions,” and assiduously removed many “shalls” from the document, replacing them with the far more suggestive and non-demanding “should.” (The should/shall distinction is not just rhetorical, but has significant legal ramifications).  What “shalls” remain largely refer to reporting requirements, or are qualified in such a way that we witness the Agreement almost farcically “commanding” Parties what they “shall consider” or “shall take into account.”  This seems sort of like saying, “Thou shalt think twice before killing, or thou shall consider the consequences as you remove your neighbor’s blouse or briefs.”  There is no appealing to what is right, what is good, or what must or must not be done.

The closer we get to the heart of the agreement the softer the language becomes: “This Agreement, in enhancing the implementation of the Convention, including its objective, aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty”; “In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible” (emphasis added).  The Paris Agreement could be easily mistaken for an exercise in how to soften any sense of obligation one might impose upon others, regardless of the consequences.  The hope it maintains seems to be a hope that in pursuing their own self-interest and freedoms, the people and nations of the world might, now (God knows why), be more motivated to pursue low-carbon policies with the aid of low-carbon technologies—never mind that if this were true, there would be no need for a conference and an agreement.  For there are no penalties and consequences for rescinding one’s contributions or for a nation failing entirely to do anything about its greenhouse emissions whatsoever.  Conference Parties should aim do their best, if they can, and should enhance this effort through beneficial public/private information-sharing cooperation, backed, perhaps, by non-punitive policy measures.

While Agreement apologists emphasize the important ways in which the Parties have now admitted and acknowledged the fact and danger of carbon emissions, the only thing it binds any of the Parties to do include some reporting and to reconvene in five years.  As Tokar reports, “Article 15 of the agreement proposes a ‘mechanism to facilitate implementation and promote compliance,’ but this takes the form of an internationally representative ‘expert-based’ committee that is to be ‘transparent, non-adversarial and non-punitive.’ This compliance ‘mechanism’ is described in three short sentences in the main Agreement and another couple of paragraphs in the Adoption document; as predicted, there’s nothing to legally pressure intransigent countries or corporations to do much of anything.”

Finally, one of the most disappointing aspects of the Paris Agreement, for many is the way it gutted any provisions for loss and damage caused by climate change.   Such a provision would amount to the rich, already industrialized nations that have been dumping carbon into the atmosphere for well over century taking responsibility for the damage that rising sea-levels, severe weather events, and decreased agricultural production is causing to poor nations in the global south.  True, the Agreement maintains that “developing nations” may continue to develop and increase their emission levels for a longer period; but it has ruled out any form of reparations. As Oscar Reyes reports, “the U.S. categorically refused to consider any proposals for reparations for the damage rich countries’ emissions have already caused.”  Reyes cites Leisha Beardmore, the chief negotiator for the Seychelles as saying, “the idea of even discussing loss and damage now or in the future was off limits. The Americans told us it would kill the agreement.”  Beyond this, “the U.S. even sought to go further, proposing that the Paris Agreement should insure wealthy countries against any future claims for “liability or compensation” for the loss and damage caused by climate change.”[v]

What we have, then, is an aspirational Agreement based on “contributions.”  If there is anything binding or substantial about the Agreement, it is that the poor countries of the world have given up any legal hope for substantial redress from the rich nations that achieved their riches by dumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  As Raymond Clemencon has commented, “The Paris conference has officially buried the Kyoto Process and abandoned the idea of an international equitable burden-sharing arrangement to control and reduce carbon emissions based on multilaterally negotiated, legally binding emission targets and time tables for each country.  By that it has effectively sidelined equity and environmental justice considerations.”[vi]

To return to my main thesis, there are, of course, specific political as opposed to philosophical shortcomings to which the overall failure of the Paris Agreement might be attributed.  Perhaps it was a failure of leadership, or a result of selfish bullying by wealthy countries like the United State.  Perhaps, in turn, negotiators were simply responding to the domestic politics of the nations they represent--constrained, then, by the beliefs and values of the global populace.  But I think it may be helpful to see these possibilities as a reflection of a broader system of belief which has become universal in this, the age of the infinite universe.  I suggested that the Agreement is written in the language of freedom spelled out by Mill, but this isn’t exactly correct.  For Mill is clear that freedom can, indeed must, be constrained once actions begin to harm and affect others.  And it is this second step necessary to a system based on freedom that the Paris Agreement cannot bring itself to address.  The Agreement, in other words, knows how to protect freedoms; but even when these freedoms interfere with the freedoms that others might want to pursue, there seems to be no language of constraint or restraint available.

True, this second step may have been blocked by some of the political interest roughly described above.  Maybe our leaders’ failure had nothing to do with their lack of a workable vocabulary of restraint.  Perhaps the language of freedom with its prohibition on limiting the freedoms of others is all the moral and political language we need, if only we could find more sensitive and articulate speakers, ones with enough courage to stand up and say, “no.”  Or perhaps, as I am suggesting, the Paris Agreement is almost as good as one might expect given our system of beliefs, which cannot imagine life in the absence of an infinite universe, and its main language of morality, which remains unprepared for a time when limits can no longer be deferred and in which we will have to stand up an say, “no, we can’t do that anymore.”

Compulsory Freedom

The only way we might be able to test this thesis further, it seems to me, would be to attempt to write an International Climate Agreement exclusively in what I have been referring to the language of freedom—a moral vocabulary that assumes complete freedom and self-sovereignty up to the point at which it harms others, most notably by affecting their freedom and self-sovereignty.  Before engaging in this exercise, I’d like to take a detour through the Kyoto Protocol.  To my question, “do we actually have the moral and deliberative language to impose real and effective limits?” the most simple answer would involve pointing to the Kyoto Protocol, which did set clear and binding GHG emissions for the agreement’s Parties.

Unlike the Paris Agreement, the Kyoto Protocol makes much stronger demands, though, importantly, not exactly in a language of prohibition.  Of course the Kyoto Protocol was never ratified widely enough to make anything beyond the slightest difference in carbon emission.[vii]  This may be proof enough that we are ruled by an ideology of unrestrained freedom, in which leaders of the “free world” like the U.S. will kill any agreement that limits their freedom.  But this answer also begs the more specific question I’m focusing on: whether it would be possible to write an effective treaty in the first place using our current freedom-based moral vocabulary? So it is worth having a look at the Kyoto Protocol before moving on.  Here we will discover, I think, that it too cannot imagine, let alone address, the possibility that unfettered freedom is incompatible with the ecological limits.  Or perhaps it can vaguely imagine this possibility, which it then smothers with legal-sounding language well before it can rise to full consciousness.

The heart of the Protocol comes in Article 3, which states the Protocol’s intentions and signals the binding language it will employ:

1.       The Parties included in Annex I shall, individually or jointly, ensure that their aggregate anthropogenic carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of the greenhouse gases listed in Annex A do not exceed their assigned amounts, calculated pursuant to their quantified emission limitation and reduction commitments inscribed in Annex B and in accordance with the provisions of this Article, with a view to reducing their overall emissions of such gases by at least 5 per cent below 1990 levels in the commitment period 2008 to 2012.

This has been frequently contrasted to the Paris Agreement, in which we don’t see any of this “shall . . . ensure” type of language.  Ignore, for a moment, the lack of sufficient ratification and the fact that this language has not been buried by the Paris Agreement.  Any such assurances are immanently checked and foiled by other parts of the Agreement.  Take, as the most strange and startling example, the preceding Article 2.  Here, the Protocol undermines, perhaps unintentionally, many of the actions that Parties might need to take in order to follow-through on the provisions of Article 3. 

Upon a quick scan, Article 2 may, in fact, appear to be use precisely the language of freedom that I’ve been discussing.  “The Parties included in Annex I shall strive to implement policies and measures under this Article in such a way as to minimize adverse effects.”  Do as you please, in other words, up to the point that it harms others.  But contrary to what one might expect, the Article, we will see, is not saying “emit as you please, up to the point where it has adverse effects.”  It is saying just the opposite: reduce your emissions as you please, but only up to the point where the activities of reduction might harm others.  In its most direct statement of constraint, the Kyoto Protocol does not limit the Parties’ freedom to do what they want, were there no pressure from an international agreement.  It does not challenge any of the freedoms implied in the business as usual approach. Rather, it limits the Parties’ ability to jeopardize the business-as-usual approach—never mind that this may be the only way to limit emissions. Amazingly, it is worth repeating, the one moment in which the international community puts is foot down and says, “no!,” it is only to  it limit the sort of mitigation action Parties might actually take. 

The prevailing sort of harm that one of the Protocol was established to constrain is, in effect, pushed to the side the moment we start talking about harm and adverse effects.  True, “sidelined” may be too strong a word, for “climate change” is one of the “adverse effects” that Parties “shall minimize,” but only one of several competing ones: picking up where I left off above, the Protocol reads, “including the adverse effects of climate change, effects on international trade, and social, environmental and economic impacts on other Parties, especially developing country Parties and in particular those identified in Article 4, paragraphs 8 and 9, of the Convention, taking into account Article 3 of the Convention.”  True, also, part of this provision intends to protect the delicate economic interests of “nations still transitioning to a market economy.”

But it is not my sense that climate change is first among equals here.  The Protocol does not say let’s cut emissions to a safe level and, if also possible, try to avoid disruption to international trade.  Rather it treats both the cutting of emissions and increasing growth and development as prime objectives.  Or as Article 2 begins, “Each Party included in Annex I, in achieving its quantified emission limitation and reduction commitments under Article 3, in order to promote sustainable development, shall: . . “ This is followed by a list of pro-development, free-trade oriented, innovation-based potential policy initiatives.  But consider carefully the wording: “in achieving its quantified emission limitations . .  . in order to promote sustainable development.”  Promoting sustainable development is the prime concern of Article 2, and, perhaps, the prime concern of the international community in which we’ve errantly put our fate.  At the very least the Protocol makes sure to emphasize the point that emission cutting action should not harm international trade or the global economy even before it begins to start talking about the actual cutting of emissions in Article 3.

 What, I would ask, if we have to choose one: development or quantified emission limitations?  What if we must shrink the global economy, go without goods and services we desire, limit what we can have and do?  What, to put it as basically as possible, if the way I exercise my freedom in Wisconsin harms the people in Syria or the Maldives? No one has dared arbitrate that. 

Of course, to return to my thesis concerning the dearth of a working moral language of constraint, the fact no one has risked mentioning the possibility we may have to choose between some freedoms and carbon limits does not mean that it couldn’t currently be considered.   Perhaps we only need a leader who will dare to go where no one has yet been willing to go.  Nevertheless, the Kyoto Protocol does not offer itself as a model, in the passages I have cited or elsewhere, according to which we might do whatever it takes to make the planet livable for humans long into the future.

Consequences of Pragmatism?

Finally, let’s see how far we can get if we try to sketch in outline what a binding international climate agreement might look at if we were truly intent on limiting the rise in global average temperature to 1 ½ degrees Celsius--and without depending on imaginary or improbably expensive technologies to relieve us of all real dilemmas.  And let’s try to write this according to Mill’s formula in which a nation, like the individual is assumed to be sovereign, and that in the part which merely concerns itself, to paraphrase Mill, its independence is, of right, absolute.  In this case, then, the only purpose for which power (including the terms of a binding international agreement) can be rightfully exercised over another nation, is to prevent harm to others.  Or to paraphrase Mill once more, the interests of global good authorize the subjection of national spontaneity to external control only in respect to those actions that concern the interest of other people.

Put this way, there is hardly an aspect of the way a nation like the United States or the members of the E.U. acts in the world that does not concern the interests of other people. We don’t, it turns out, get very far writing this imaginary agreement in the language of freedom.  To return to the terms of my previous installment, ours are very large actions in a small closed system, already saturated with cause and effect.   There is no space, now, for the inconsequential or isolated effects of doing as we please.   As rising sea-levels threaten the very existence of some small Island nations--not to mention the climate-change roots of the Syrian civil war, or the rash of mudslides and floods throughout nations like India and Pakistan or the coming threat to coastal billions--an international treaty that takes seriously the “preventing harm to others” clause would require that large per capita emitting nations in North America and Europe immediately reduce emissions by about 75%.  This would or course change everything about the way Europeans and Americans live, and everything about the way their nations operate internationally. 

Given our accumulated emissions, many in other nations might suggest that dealing with these sudden changes are our responsibility and problem.  Others might argue that it would be unfair for Americans and Europeans to suffer more harm from this sudden change in lifestyle than is already being suffered by the current victims of our way of life, and some leeway and adjustment-time would be necessary so that Europeans and Americans might learn how to survive on far less than we are accustomed to—a skill that many others already have, but that we would be required to learn according to some sort of resilience reskilling crash-course. But now, finally, we would at least be talking about where the sacrifice is going to occur and who is going to take it on.  With such an agreement, imaginary as it clearly is, however, we are no longer talking about freedom as much as sacrifice and constraint.  As I mentioned in my last installment, freedom, in modernity, is the assumed backdrop against which minor restrictions might appear.  In our imaginary agreement, in contrast, the emphasis would be on the constraints—on how quickly and to what extent the citizens of the world’s wealthy nations have to stop “doing as we like,” or “of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character.”  The point at which doing as we please might harm others has been long since surpassed.  We have come to the end of win-win growth and development.  Our choices are extreme denial, brutal power-politics, or drastic change and humility.  Our political and moral divides will be shaped along these lines

Even for those who believe the naïve fiction that we can maintain something resembling our current way of life in an ecologically sustainable manner by the adoption of new technologies, a transition that truly pays attention to the moral requirements of reducing, if not eliminating our “harm to others” would likely require substantial government control  of industry and commerce of the sort that the United States experienced during World War II, and which political conservatives fought at the time and ever since.  Then, the government forced the industrial production of consumer goods to change over to the construction of our war machine, while at the same time intervening in issues having to do with wages and profits.  Although retrospectively "worth it” (even to most so-called conservatives) it was a  time of restrictions on freedom.  It might then be possible to imagine a temporary reduction of freedoms until we get over some sort of hump of massive and mandated technological change, after which we return to normal and go about our own and inconsequential business of buying, selling, using, and disposing as we please

This, I think, captures the highest hopes of many mainstream liberal climate change activists, who often use language of a “war effort” or “Manhattan Project” to characterize the sort of endeavor we need to embark upon.  As the growth and development characteristic of the post-war years might also illustrate, this liberal hope assumes, in effect, that an infinite universe without real limits might still be maintained if we only build a new engine for our rocket ship.  There are no legitimately Liberal ecological stances that focus on living in a closed world instead of stretching it towards the infinite, for the very reason that without an infinite universe, there is no coherent Liberalism.  If we did actually have at our disposal an infinite universe even I would agree that we have all the philosophy and all the moral vocabulary that we need.

This sort of popular “Manhanttan project of green energy” view has a number of constituent facets that add to its attractiveness, but one of them is the way it promises to leave most of our freedoms intact, with the imagined regulations almost exclusively geared to the actions of production, and not the consumption with which people today tend to identify.  For others, this sort of “war effort” scenario may be the last best hope because it maintains some shred of political plausibility, in which only temporary sacrifices are made in the face of a great and threatening enemy. 

Having breached the question of political plausibility we might also consider whether there is any way we could, for the sake of argument, back out of the more extreme restrictions of my imaginary agreement, towards ones that would seem more acceptable given our widespread current sentiments and beliefs--those, in short, that maintain that there are no possible reasons why we should not be able to “do as we please (whatever that is)” far into perpetuity.  In addition to extending the timeline in ways suggested above, one could make sure that restrictions are implied only by carbon emission targets, leaving each nation (and perhaps each person) free to decide how best to meet those targets.  In this way “harm” might be quantified with limits set accordingly.  Although freedom would be transformed into the freedom to cut emissions however you’d like, it would preserve national sovereignty and certain kinds of political freedom.  Limits upon something abstract, yet quantifiable, like carbon emissions need not require the details of our life would be micromanaged by some overlord.

Since few people that I know would, at present, use their political freedom for anything other than maintaining their comparative privilege, this seems like quite the stretch, no matter how we dice it—unless of course Earthly life is in fact structured like an infinite universe.  Maintaining the freedom to decide how to reduce consumption is, in fact,  mainly a matter of moving harder restrictions up or down stream, or of dumping them into the market, where rationing would (as it is today) be performed by price.  It can of course be useful to place restrictions where people can most easily accept them, but the overall level of freedom would still be in decline, a fact that would be lost on few.   The drastic sort of reductions required as we speed toward the limits of our finite planet may be incompatible with people of industrialized or industrializing nations doing as they like, or at least (importantly) doing what they now like.  It seems far more plausible that as sufficiently stringent carbon targets would begin to threaten economies and reduce the standard of living, they will be abandoned as unrealistic and impossible and any international politics surrounding environmental issues would (as they often are anyways) become merely a matter of power-politics and the threat of violence.  That is of course where we are today.   Any politically feasible climate agreement, once we back out of the restrictions that will feel inappropriately restrictive, will end up looking like the Kyoto Protocol, the lack of ratification included, or like the Paris Agreement. Binding legal restrictions will remain off the table, while moral requirements will be aspirational—at least unless the global population undergoes the gestalt-switch of moral dispensation that I am actively (if equally implausibly) hoping for here.

[ii] And with the conquest of what appeared to be an infinite geographical space.

[iii] Rorty, Richard. “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy,” in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[vi] “Two Views of the Paris Climate Conference Outcome,” in Foran, John. The First Draft of History ( )


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