Humans and human institutions are clearly failing the planet.
And when environmental catastrophes finally hit the tipping point, panicked societies will start to fail humanity itself. Preventing global warming, it would seem, is not just about preserving the biosphere, it’s also about preserving human freedom.
At the recent IEET conference at Stanford University, environmentalist Walter Truett Anderson declared that global warming is the single most important problem to ever face humanity. In a history dominated by everything from plagues to genocide, that's a rather bold statement to make, and likely very true.
So, why aren't we mobilizing en masse to deal with the crisis? Why isn’t it the first thing we think about when we wake up and the last thing before bed? The reasons are frustratingly multifaceted--a long list that includes such factors as corporatist indifference (think of the Kyoto failure), a population largely ignorant and in denial, and an insufficient sense of crisis. The sky, after all, is not falling...at least not yet.
Another reason is the democratic and libertarian streak that now permeates all liberal societies. Rather than state coercion, people are expected to act voluntarily and to democratically establish institutions that will contend with problematic issues like global warming. The general assumption is that people tend to be intelligent, reasonable and self-preserving. Give them a good reason to act and they will do so out of their own volition.
Unfortunately, as the global warming issue has revealed, this tendency has not been put into practice to any great extent. SUV’s and Hummers dominate the streets, factories churn out the pollutants, and country after country fail the minimum requirements established by Kyoto—with other countries either not participating or threatening to pull out altogether (like Canada, for example).
Sadly, the only time in human history when people have been effectively mobilized for mega projects is when a state declares war on another, or when the state declares war on its own citizens (as witnessed by authoritarian dictatorships or totalitarian fascism, communism and theocratism). I don’t use these examples lightly. They reveal disturbing insights into human behavior and selfishness, the inefficacy of political and corporate institutions, and ultimately, the role of state coercion throughout human history. In the case of war and totalitarianism, they are political phenomenons that are both emblematic and driven by feelings of desperatism. Under these conditions, populations are compelled by their governments to fanatically work towards desired ends. And these ends, of course, trump such niceties as human liberty.
Sure, there’s no seemingly obvious reason for alarm or desperatism today—-but it’s not implausible to suggest that quai-totalitarian frameworks will arise as a result of the calamitous effects of global warming. Once the environment truly goes to hell and it becomes overtly obvious that a catastrophe is actually happening, our respective governments will find ways to a) control its fearful populace, and b) compell its citizens to live and work a certain way. It would be George Orwell on hydraulic despotism.
Such state prerogatives may come about through democratic processes—governments elected out of fear and panic. Or, these political regimes may arise from unilateral political action (a la the current Bush regime; as American libertarians are finally learning, when times get tough, the liberties get going). Regardless, they will morph into governments driven by a frantic and panicked call to action.
So, along with the environment, it’ll only be a matter of time before you can kiss your free ass good bye.
Tags: environmentalism, global warming, democracy, foresight, liberty, politics.