If I have a overriding theme, it is this: unless as a society or civilization we can conceive of a good that celebrates a low-energy and low-consumption way of life, one that offers intrinsic reasons for living simply and within the Earth’s ecological limits, we are likely either to consume our selves into oblivion, or should expect external or extrinsic limits of the sort imposed by heavy-handed governments.
How do we define “good” or “excellence” without imposing an ideology or world-view on others who have their own? Who judges and according to what standards? If such a reconciliation is impossible, will we be required to make a difficult choice? Or is there no real choice at all?
By “conservative” I am not referring to anything resembling Republicans or European “center-right” parties, or positions yet further to the right on the liberal-conservative continuum as it is commonly understood today.
Although certainly embraced more frequently and ardently by liberals than by what passes for a conservative today, Wendell Berry is clearly a religious rather than Liberal thinker, praising the unified and relentless in his criticism of the fragmented.
Growth is the social glue that has held liberal industrial societies together, which is one of several connected reasons why we won’t address our relationship to our natural ecology by becoming “more liberal” or “more progressive.” Sustainability, then, is neither liberal nor progressive.
The greatest threat to the “liberal world order” lies in its failure to reflect on its own fundamental injustices. It lacks accountability. If those who lead it can’t acknowledge its flaws – if Dr. King’s “revolution of values” can’t turn it into an engine of change for workers, the poor, refugees, and the other victims of its manifold failures – the system that Richard Haass wants to protect and improve will fail. And it will deserve to.
Now for the prediction. I think that this revolution will in part come from the fact that we love our children and will reach a point where we can no longer consent to the reproduction of false dreams. Of course this response is likely to be reactive and incoherent (which is a reason for thinking about it now).
So how can we define a Liberal? I would start with John Stewart Mill’s definition in On Liberty. Accordingly, a Liberal is someone who believes the following: people are and should be free to do whatever they like up to the point at which it keeps others from doing as they like.
Humans are symbolic creatures. We look for the signs in passing details that make sense of larger patterns – news stories, politics, natural events stitched into the narrative of our lives by small, local things. And always, perhaps, a reading of the portents for a prickling sense of threat, dulled but not dismissed by the comfort of the modern.
One of the big challenges faced by any student of current events is that of seeing past the turmoil of the present moment to catch the deep trends shaping events on a broader scale.
We are at the point, now, where we can replace the usual definition of wealth as having lots of money, with a definition based on surplus.
That being said, I find the alternative vision for the future that Trainer suggests improbable as well, though I should also add that it is only presented briefly in the article in question.