Free Life Commentary,
A Personal View from
The Director of the Libertarian Alliance
Issue Number 166
21st November 2007
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Lecture on the Environment
by Sean Gabb
At one of the places where I teach, senior members of staff are required to work an environmental theme into every lecture course they give. Here is the lecture I shall give next Monday morning to three hundred undergraduates. I will not read this to the students. That is not my practice. It should instead be seen as a summary given in advance of what I shall say, and as a source of quotations to use against me in the subsequent group discussions.
Our Duty to Save the Planet
According to all the newspapers and television stations and all the politicians, we are facing a serious environmental crisis. We are told that global temperatures are rising, and that they are rising because of economic development, and that, unless we make radical changes to the ways in which we live, sea levels will rise and the world in general will become less pleasant.
I am not a scientist, and I am not competent to examine the detailed claims about the nature and extent and causes of global warming. But I believe these claims are all lies. I believe they are the latest attempt by some very nasty people to stop the progress of the human race to unlimited self-improvement.
History and Class Oppression
Until about 250 year ago, the normal situation of humanity was stagnation. There might be ages of improvement, but these hardly ever improved the lives of the poorest, and they were always followed by a decline of economic activity.
This was a world in which society was shaped like a broad pyramid—a very small ruling class enjoying fabulous wealth and status, and a great mass or ordinary people at the bottom living in poverty. It was a world in which more than half of all children born died before they reached the age of five, and in which the great majority of ordinary people died in their thirties.
The libertarian revolutions of the 17th century in England led to a sudden increase in general wealth during the 18th century. By around 1800, it was plain that this was an improvement unlike any other before. For the first time, larger and larger numbers of ordinary people were enjoying cheaper and better food and clothing.
Other European governments looked on this with envy, as greater national wealth meant greater military power. But many, both abroad and in England, were concerned about he social and political impact of these developments. They meant that more and more ordinary people were moving about and improving their lives, and they were thinking for themselves, and beginning to question political arrangements that delivered immense differences of wealth and status.
The first reaction against market liberalism was purely conservative. Churches and landowning interests put much effort into defending the old order of things. Look, for example, at this verse from a Church of England hymn:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate
The meaning of this is that God had given everyone a certain position in the world, and this position had to be accepted without complaint or attempts at change.
Without massive government force behind it, this sort of reaction was a failure in every place it was tried. Even there, it tended to fail. No dungeons in this world, or threats of hellfire in the next, could stifle the news of freedom and enrichment.
And so the next step in reaction was to disguise conservatism as progress. Ideologies were developed that looked progressive, but the effect of which would be to stop all further progress.
That is the significance of many kinds of socialism and particularly Marxism. These doctrines spoke about equality and freedom and growing wealth, but were obviously about the exact opposite. Even before the first socialist experiments, liberals were analysing the socialist claims and announcing that a socialist society would be a dictatorship in which the great majority of ordinary people would be made poor again.
This was the result of actually existing socialism in the 20th century. Countries like Russia, East Germany and Czechoslovakia had fast economic development among their stated goals. In fact, the only really growth was in the amount of pollution their factories produced.
The only liberty and equality and economic development that have ever been seen have taken place in countries like England and America and Germany and Japan— where people have mostly been left alone to look after themselves and their families.
With the collapse of socialism at the end of the 1980s, it looked for a moment as if all the barriers had been lifted to unlimited improvement for the whole human race. It seemed that we could look forward to a world in which everyone had a motor car and a refrigerator and a telephone.Environmentalism: The Last Communist Refuge
Then the environmental movement grew big. This had been around since the early 1960s. At first, it concentrated on things like chemical pollution and rapid population growth and how the world would soon run out of oil and other minerals. The problem was that its claims were always proved to be wrong.
For example, we were told in the 1960s that population growth would soon lead to mass starvation. In the event, living standards continued to rise faster and faster all over the world.
Again, we were told that the oil would run out before the middle of the 1980s. In the event, more and more oil was found, and we now know that we have enough o last for centuries to come.
Again we were told in the 1970s that industrialisation was leading to global cooling and that there would soon be another ice age. This also did not happen.
But, since the collapse of socialism, the environmental movement has grown bigger and bigger, and is now arguing for regulations and taxes that would soon stop all further economic growth—particularly in Asia, India, Africa and South America. That is the goal of all this endless propaganda in the media, and all the talk about carbon footprints.
Now, it may be that there really is a problem with the environment. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. But I find it historically significant that environmentalism has grown big at the very moment when every other argument against human progress has been disproved.
I therefore believe that the claims of the environmentalists are lies. They are an excuse for returning humanity to a dark age of inequality and stagnation.
An Invitation to Debate
I am circulating this lecture a week in advance, to give you time to read it and to consider the issues raised. I hope this will make the long discussion after lunch even more lively than it would otherwise be.
NB—Sean Gabb’s new book, Cultural Revolution, Culture War: How Conservatives Lost England, and How to Get It Back, can be downloaded free from http://tinyurl.com/34e2o3. You can help by contributing to publishing and distribution costs