Thanks to the generosity of the Koch Foundation, we have inaugurated a Visiting Speaker Series in Political Economy here at St. Lawrence. Our kickoff speaker in March was co-blogger Chris, who did a fantastic job with a talk on After War. Last night was our second speaker for the semester, Pierre Desrochers of the Geography Department of the University of Toronto at Mississauga. Many of you are probably familiar with Pierre’s work.
As I did with Chris, I gave a brief introduction that both said something about the speaker but also talked about the issues each was addressing. I tried to pick themes that illustrated the ways in which libertarianism shares the values of the left. In Chris’s case, I talked about the anti-imperialist tradition of classical liberalism. For Pierre last night, I talked about the parallels between the War in Iraq and the calls, especially in the current issue of Time, for a “war on global warming.” I share a slightly revised and extended version of my thoughts on those parallels below.
The willingness of people such as Pierre to challenge the commonly held beliefs about capitalism and the environment is a model of critical thinking and courageous scholarship. It is especially so when one considers the current issue of Time magazine, with its cover image of the Iwo Jima Marines planting not the US flag but a tree and its title of “How to Win the War on Global Warming.” That is a powerful image that suggests both that the debate over the facts is over and that we all should be in this war together, much as was the case in World War II… and it also recalls the atmosphere created in 2003 by supporters of going to war in Iraq. The text of the articles support this interpretation of the image.
The use of the war metaphor is troubling on several grounds. Any time war is invoked as a common cause, both critical thought and our freedoms can easily be lost in the name of militarizing society in pursuit of a moral cause. As Hayek recognized, the invocation of war is implicitly an attempt to turn a free society into a consciously organized one, with all of the attendant problems such an attempt will bring with it.
It is particularly ironic that a good number of folks who were rightly critical of the rush to war in Iraq because they questioned the apparent consensus about the existence of weapons of mass destruction there, as well as the ability of the US to “nation build,” appear to be so willing to undertake a “war on global warming.” I would hope that those who fit this category are as willing to entertain “dissent” on environmental issues as they are with dissent on the War in Iraq. Principled and courageous dissent can look like something different, and tolerating it can be a lot harder, when you’re on the “pro” side of a war.
More generally I would ask several questions of people critical of the War in Iraq but gung-ho about a War on Global Warming. Should we not be asking the same deep, critical questions about what we do and do not know about climate change and environmental issues more broadly, and how we acquired that information, as we should have asked about Iraqi WMDs before we go rushing to “war” on global warming? Though the earth has been warming, it is not at all clear that the consensus on the causes and consequences of said warming is as widely shared among scientists as Al Gore and others would like us to believe. Should we not also be asking the same questions about the effects that such a war will have on innocents in the third world as dissenters did with respect to Iraq? After all, the environmentalism-driven rush to biofuels appears to be a significant contributing factor to the run-up in world food prices, which is causing great harm to the poorest folks on the planet. And shouldn’t we be asking what the consequences of this “war” will be on our own freedoms and our own standard of living, just as critics of the War in Iraq have rightly drawn attention to those same issues in the context of that war? Finally, is it really all that much more imperialistic to try to create democracy at the point of a gun in Iraq than it is to tell the Third World that they must abide by high Western standards of environmental regulation in the name of a war on global warming and environmental destruction, when the consequences of doing so are sure to prolong their poverty?
The scholarship of those who are challenging the conventional wisdom of environmentalism, but who also do not have feature films to promote their views, are a crucial part of the critical thinking and provision of historical context that we need in order to make sure that we don’t go rushing into another mistaken war – one that will once again harm us and perhaps millions of innocents in the name of a moral cause whose factual assumptions may not be as certain as its proponents believe.
And those who have argued the hardest for the toleration, if not the encouragement, of dissent on the War in Iraq have an equal obligation to do so for the War on Global Warming. Whether they will do so is very much an open question. So far, when dissenters are relabeled as “deniers,” with the parallels to Holocaust deniers made explicit by some critics, the outlook for the toleration of dissent during this war remains unclear.
It is worth noting that the same argument can be made in reverse - conservatives who agree with my cautions about global warming should do some soul-searching about their support for the war. I'm not optimistic about that possibility either, especially when Rich Lowry of National Review says of the Time cover: "Regarding that Time global warming cover, just imagine if the mainstream media were as exercised about the war on terror and as devoted to crusading to win it. How different would the political environment look?" Sigh. The right-wing worship of war continues unabated.
Of course none of this is to say that we shouldn’t be attempting to tackle real environmental problems. Nor is to deny that such problems exist. But invoking the war metaphor to do so is not helpful to say the least, and a severe threat to liberty and prosperity at the most.
Cross-posted at Liberty and Power.