Environmentalism, Liberalism, and Libertarianism

This blog is part personal reflection and part treatise.  Despite my best intentions, I doubt any subject I touch will ever get a full post to itself.  This is alright though, as I think exploring connections between ideas is generally more interesting and informative than exhaustive coverage of a single topic.

The subject of today’s post is where I fall on the political spectrum, and how I ended up here.  The lens employed for this viewing will be the politics of Environmentalism.

Why I Am Not a Liberal

If you have more than a passing familiarity with my blog or similar blogs, you are already aware of my viewpoint that Liberals (ie “Progressives”) exist in a world mostly separated from observable reality:

  • Post-Modernism Through Aristotle
  • Reality Is Not Mocked

Recently, I’ve read an interesting theory that Progressivism is essentially a form of non-theistic Christianity.  Accordingly, its beliefs are as prone to error as any arbitrarily passed-on cultural tradition.  Unfortunately, their inability to recognize their own circumstances makes them much more difficult to deal with than a straightforwardly religious person:

… there is no way to distinguish someone who worships theEnvironment from someone who venerates the Great God Pan. In the real world the two will act identically.

Indeed, it’s easier to reason with the Pan-worshipper. When he tells you that he needs to save the rainforest because the rainforest is sacred to Pan, the conversation (to a Pan-skeptic such as myself) is over. Both sides can see that there is no common point of reference, and the two of you can start working out how to agree to disagree.  Mencius Moldbug, “Our Planet is Infested with Pseudo-Atheists

While these are interesting ideas, they are (obviously) not my own, nor are they how I came to my opinion on the Liberal politics of Environmentalism.

Instead, I would like to use a different religious concept: Hubris:

Hubris (/ˈhjuːbrɪs/, also hybris, from ancient Greek ὕβρις), means extreme pride or self-confidence. Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence, accomplishments or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power. The adjectival form of the noun hubris is “hubristic”.

Environmentalism is the area where the extent of Liberal fantasy and hubris are most clearly intertwined and visible.

The Fantasy

First, the fantasy.  Let’s examine the language frequently employed: that is, the desire to “preserve” the environment.  While we’ve been conditioned to believe this is a sensible thing, a little bit of thought reveals it is not possible, it is not sensible, and it is not good.

Consider every other context in which the word “preserve” is used.  One preserves food against decay.  Why must this be done?  Because the food in question is dead: the fruit has been picked, the vegetables have been pulled, and the meat has been slaughtered.  Similarly, embalming is just a word used to specify the preservation of dead people.

Preservation, then, is a human endeavor to keep a dead thing from decaying.  More generally, it is a process meant to prevent external agents from changing a thing which no longer changes in and of itself.

Why is this a fantasy?  To be fair, “prevent external agents from changing a thing” is an accurate description of what Environmentalists aim to achieve.  But defining oneself is low-hanging fruit.  So next we have ask ourselves, if nature “a thing which no longer changes in and of itself?”

I submit that it is not:


WoollyMammoths dinosaurs

trilobite whale



None of the examples above are controversial among Liberals.  (And I’d hope that, the Bill Nye – Ken Ham debate notwithstanding, that they aren’t particularly controversial among too many Conservatives either.)

So we must conclude that nature is not an unchanging thing.  Nature is full of change on scales both large and small, and these changes are completely independent of human activities.

The Hubris

Now, the hubris.  While the definition of hubris involves a “loss of contact with reality,” as addressed above, I have always considered the word to emphasize the second half of the meaning: “an overestimation of human abilities.”  (After all, paranoid schizophrenic agoraphobic shut-ins have also lost contact with reality, and no one accuses them of hubris.)

Let’s re-use our examples from before:

  • The splitting of Pangea into today’s 7 continents
  • The rise and extinction of the dinosaurs and the mammoths
  • The rise of the first sea life and the evolutionary chain to modern whales
  • The life-cycle of stars
  • The finches of the Galapagos Islands

Just as few would doubt that the continents are drifting, I suspect few would claim that humanity could do anything to stop them from doing so.  Similarly, one fateful day, the sun will swallow up the Earth and all it contains, and I hope by that time humanity has achieved the capability to flee to a new home, taking precious cultural artifacts and archives of this blog with them, perhaps as their Holy Text.  While we may be approaching the ability to deflect meteors, few would argue that the extinction of the dinosaurs was anything but natural, as were their origins.  In evolution’s round-about way, trilobites gave rise to much larger ocean life, and Darwin’s finches are perhaps the #1 cultural icon of the idea that systems in nature constantly change to reach a balance, with or without human intervention.

So nature changes on scales both within and outside of humanity’s capacity to influence, but at no point can humanity put a total stop to nature’s change.  Nature is not a dead, static thing.  Nature cannot be, in any meaningful way, “preserved.”

This sort of hubris stems from a certain sort of self-centeredness, a thought pattern of “The way *I* experience things is obviously the way things must remain.”  It is a remarkable act of narcissism to take the infinitesimally small sliver of the world’s timeline that one inhabits and declare that the state of the world, at that particular instance in time, is the ideal and proper way for all things to remain for all time.

<Placeholder for the awesome Calvin and Hobbes comic that I can’t find but absolutely belongs here>

This narcissistic endeavor is a Sisyphean task that will fail no matter how many resources are thrown at it or how good the intentions behind it may be.  Beaches and mountains erode, sea levels rise and fall, forests grow and burn down, the planet’s ecosystem hovers near an equilibrium, and life, quite literally, goes on.  The fanatical dedication to resisting the inevitable is clearly not a sign of healthy and accurate thinking.

hug nuclear arms

Also, this seems relevant.

Why I Am Not a Libertarian

We’re now 1104 words into this post, mostly about Liberal Preservation Hysteria to this point, but it’s time to circle back to the point of this post: me.

The truth is, I wasn’t a Liberal at the time I understood the intricacies of Liberal Environmentalism.  My realizations in this regard had no practical effect on my own personal politics.  This is not the case with my adventures with Libertarianism.

It has been frequently remarked that Neoreactionaries tend to be former Libertarians.  I count myself among them.

I loosely affiliated with the Libertarians for the same reason I suspect most people do; not because they are through-and-through anarco-capitalists, but because they are the only remotely viable alternative to the obvious ills of the Democrats and the Republicans.  However, despite the fervor of the hard-core devotees of Ron and Rand Paul, I suspect most Libertarians are like I was; loosely grasping at something that seems to not suck so bad as what we had before.

By way of analogy, I like to imagine a man being held at gunpoint by two bandits, having to choose between being shot twice in his right knee and twice in his left knee.  Then the second bandit offers him the choice to shoot himself once in the calf, and the man praises the second bandit as his savior.  Thus it is with Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians.

As much as the environment was a non-issue in my non-affiliation with the Liberal viewpoint, it was really the catalyst of my dissatisfaction with Libertarianism.

Libertarians advocate remodeling our government with an assortment of chainsaws, dynamite, and blowtorches, slashing and burning all sorts of organizations to the ground, and leaving a bare minimum structure to accomplish things that government is uniquely suited to accomplish.  A minimal government sure seems like a great way to avoid wasteful, malignant bureaucracy, endless foreign wars, an ever-growing welfare state, and many other ills of big government’s tendency to become a self-licking ice cream cone.  So far, so good.

It seems the number one agency on this list of things to do away with is always the Environmental Protection Agency.  Up front, I will agree the EPA has a serious problem.  Its undoubtedly suffers a serious selection bias which collects a large number of Liberal environmentalists/Pan worshippers.  Coupled with a lack of any metric of achievement short of “total opposition to man-made change,” the EPA is both incapable and uninterested in making anything like a balanced decision on anything.  In a perfect world, it would probably need to be restaffed from the ground-up to affect a more reasonable culture.

However, this is not the Libertarian position.  The Libertarians want no EPA, whatsoever.  The argue that businesses will police themselves.

This is a fantasy.

The problem with pollution is that it is largely an externality.  By definition, an externality is an action whose cost is placed on someone other than the actor.  It is an expense that is not captured on a corporation’s balance sheet, and does not influence corporate decision-making in proportion to the costs inflicted on others.  I believe in Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, but I also know that an externality is a place where the Invisible Hand has no grasp.  While “The Wealth of Nations” is a centerpiece of Western economic theory, I have always held another, much shorter work in just as much esteem: The Tragedy of the Commons

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.

2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of −1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

The problem I could not avoid with Libertarian thought is the obvious and inescapable conclusion that it fails to provide a realistic definition of a public good which should fall under government’s aegis, and is either overly optimistic about the capabilities of private citizens to maintain communities, or is totally unconcerned about those who would fail to do so.  It advocates a level of freedom from structure so absolute that individuals would be incapable of exercising their freedoms.  It reminds me of this amusing bit by Bryce Laliberty:

What the feminists (in this case, libertarians) don’t seem to realize is that just because something is a construct, doesn’t mean one ought to go about tearing it down. I live in a house. A house is a construct. I’d really prefer if you didn’t start blowing it up with dynamite, because  the construct is designed to keep me safe and comfortable, thank you very much.

While a house certainly requires maintenance, the maintenance required pales compared to the convenience offered by its heat, cooling, electricity, water, space, safety, storage, etc.  While our government now is analogous to an exorbitant mansion too big for its solitary inhabitant to maintain and too expensive for him to afford, neither would this inhabitant be better off in a tent on the street either.  In fact, while downscaling from a mansion to a house or apartment would save him money, “downscaling” all the way to homelessness would actually make life more expensive for the man:

7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless – Cracked.com

Yeah, here’s the second big surprise waiting for you out on the street: how incredibly expensive homelessness is. See, living on the street wouldn’t be that big of a deal if you were, say, a robot. But as a functioning organism living in a society, you suddenly realize there are all of these basic needs you need to MacGyver solutions to on the fly.

First up: the ability to prepare food. I had to buy a camp stove and a mess kit, which will generally run you about $150 for stuff you can be reasonably sure won’t break, plus you have to continuously pay for the fuel. I didn’t want to get in trouble for sleeping in town, so I drove out into the woods to sleep, which meant I had to keep buying gasoline. Even people who work with their hands need to clean up and shower, so I spent the occasional night at a youth hostel or cheap motel ($25 to $50 a night) just to get access to running water and a mirror. Then there are all of the little complications that come from, for instance, not owning a refrigerator to store food in — and every little thing costs you.

I could have gone without these things, but then that would have meant sacrificing showers, privacy, and hot food, despite having a job.

And I was fortunate because it was summertime — winter camping in Montana would have made all of this far more complicated and much more expensive (it costs money to keep warm, no matter how you do it, and the odds of accidentally setting yourself on fire somehow rise exponentially). Still, I had to start buying rooms at the hostel or motel more frequently as fall set in and the weather got colder. I was working full time and taking care of no one other than myself, and I still couldn’t afford to drag myself out of homelessness.

So maybe it’s not that surprising that 30 percent of homeless people are employed and a significant number of people in shelters have full-time jobs. While they’re making enough to scrape by, the expense of homelessness is enough to keep permanent or long-term housing out of reach.

So, Libertarianism makes about as much sense to me as attempting to be frugal by becoming homeless; it is a view of economics and sociology so extremely overly simplistic as to be useless in the real world.  The fervor with which they target agencies which we actually need for liquidation led me to believe they really had no viable ideas either.

So I wandered around in political limbo for quite a while, before stumbling into this Neoreaction thing which I am now tangentially a part of.  While it is incoherent and easily criticized, and many of its solutions are as useless as Libertarians, many more of its ideas are valuable.  But that is a subject for later, in its own post.




One thought on “Environmentalism, Liberalism, and Libertarianism

  1. Pingback: John C. Wright’s “The Unified Field Theory of Madness” | iParallax

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