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Dear Ed,

Welcome to the next instalment in the weekly series about Liberal Democrat political philosophy. I hope you find this edition about environmentalism interesting and useful - and if you do, by all means let other people know that they too can sign up for the series

The content draws very heavily on an excellent pamphlet edited by Duncan Brack for the Liberal Democrat History Group and by contributors to the group's (now sadly out of print) Dictionary of Liberal Thought.

If you aren't familiar with the group's work, particularly the website and quarterly Journal of Liberal History, I'd highly recommend taking a look.

If you like elements of the emails that follow, most likely Duncan and colleagues deserve the credit. For the bits you don't like, the brickbats should come my way.

Best wishes,



A political and ethical set of values that seeks to improve and protect the quality of the natural environment through changes to environmentally harmful human activities, through the adoption of forms of political, economic, and social organisation necessary for the benign treatment of the environment by humans, and through a reassessment of humanity’s relationship with nature.

Concern for humanity’s impact on the natural environment dates back at least to Roman times, when deforestation in Italy caused irreversible soil degradation and contributed to serious food shortages in the third and fourth centuries AD. Soil conservation was practised in China, India and Peru as early as 2,000 years ago, and in medieval times pollution was associated with the spread of epidemic disease in Europe. In general, however, such issues did not give rise to public activism or much activity by government.

Contemporary environmentalism arose primarily from concerns in the late nineteenth century over the protection of the countryside in Europe and the wilderness in North America, and the health consequences of pollution following the Industrial Revolution. Observing human impacts on the natural environment, the American writer Henry Thoreau, amongst others, argued for a duty to preserve areas of unspoiled wilderness. Environmental organisations, established from the late nineteenth century onwards, were primarily middle-class lobbying groups concerned with nature conservation, wildlife protection, and industrial pollution, though a wider concern with the effect of the natural and built environment on human happiness helped drive the garden city movement in Britain in the early twentieth century.

The 1960s and 1970s, however, brought a much wider realisation that environmental degradation was an inevitable outcome of modern (or at least industrialised) patterns of society and economic activity, and could not be halted simply by protecting endangered species, or setting aside land for national parks. Works such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) and the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth (1972) suggested that the planetary ecosystem was reaching the limits of what it could sustain. Further unchecked economic development would, through overwhelming natural ecosystems with pollution, exhausting stocks of natural resources and causing the extinction of species, severely restrict the chances of prosperity, or even of safe and secure livelihoods, for subsequent generations. 

The concept of ‘sustainable development’, expressed most famously in the Brundtland Report (1987) as development ‘that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, became widely accepted, at least in principle, and has subsequently been incorporated in many national action plans and international treaties, including the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals agreed in 2015. Yet, despite some successes, particularly in reducing local air and water pollution in developed countries, and reducing the use of the chemicals that destroy the Earth’s protective ozone layer, the overall record is not encouraging. In 2003, the first report of the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment showed that 60 per cent of the basic ecosystems that support life on Earth are being degraded or used unsustainably. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that global emissions of greenhouse gases – deriving mainly from the burning of fossil fuels for energy – need to halve by 2030 and reach net neutrality by 2050 in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and avoid the most serious impacts of climate change – but these targets seem highly unlikely to be achieved.

Schools of environmentalist thought

These developments have led to the emergence of a wide variety of schools of environmentalist thought and activism, influencing a huge range of campaigning non-governmental organisations, charitable foundations, scientific bodies and political parties (including explicitly ‘green’ parties) and ideologies. What follows is a brief sketch, though it should be emphasised that, as in other schools of political thought, environmental thinking is constantly evolving and shifting, and the divisions outlined below are by no means hard and fast.

Environmental thought and the various branches of the environmental movement are often classified into two intellectual camps: anthropocentric, or ‘human-centred’, and biocentric, or ‘life-centred’; other descriptions of the same divide include ‘light green’ versus ‘dark green’, ‘shallow ecology’ versus ‘deep ecology’ and ‘technocentrism’ versus ‘ecocentrism’.

The defining feature of anthropocentrism is that it considers the moral obligations humans have to the environment to derive from obligations that humans have to each other – including to future generations – rather than from any obligation to other living things or to the environment as a whole. Anthropocentric approaches therefore focus mainly on the negative effects that environmental degradation has on human beings and their interests; while wildlife and landscapes are afforded value, and their protection is a desirable objective, this is measured in relation to their worth to human societies.

Within this broad heading, there is a variety of viewpoints. Apocalyptic environmentalism, common in the 1960s and ’70s, suggests the incompatibility of current human lifestyles with long-term survival. It tends to argue for increasing the powers of government to restrict environmentally harmful activities, a viewpoint expressed most vividly in Robert Heilbroner’s An Inquiry into the Human Prospect (1974), which argued that human survival ultimately required the sacrifice of human freedom.

In contrast, so-called emancipatory environmentalism, which began to take root in the 1970s and ’80s, took a more optimistic approach, emphasising the potential of technological progress to reduce humanity’s environmental impact. An important aspect of this approach is the effort to promote an ecological consciousness and an ethic of ‘stewardship’ of the environment. Individuals are encouraged to live less unsustainably, for example by recycling their waste, or reducing their energy consumption; governments are encouraged towards making the necessary long-term investments, for example in renewable electricity generation or public transport, and altering the framework within which the market operates, for example by taxing carbon emissions, to make it more likely that individuals will make more environmentally sensitive choices.

One form of emancipatory environmentalism, human-welfare ecology – which aims to enhance human life by creating a safe and clean environment – is part of a broader concern with distributive justice and reflects the ‘post-materialist’ tendency of citizens in advanced industrial societies to place more importance on quality-of-life issues than on traditional economic concerns. Emancipatory environmentalism also tends to place an emphasis on developing small-scale systems of economic production, more closely integrated with the natural processes of surrounding ecosystems. Important in this strand of environmentalist thought was the German economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, who emphasised, particularly in Small is Beautiful (1973), the need for productive processes that work with nature, not against it.

Bright green environmentalism, a term coined in 2003, accepts that radical changes are needed in the economic and political operation of society in order to make it sustainable, but that new technology, design and social innovation can offer the solutions. Compared to the apocalyptic messages of some green campaigners, bright greens stress a more optimistic approach, believing that any vision of sustainability which does not offer prosperity and well-being will not succeed. To their critics, they underplay the dangers of excessive reliance on technology (for instance, nuclear power) and the need for fundamental behavioural change, not just ‘techno-fixes’.

Critics of anthropocentrism point to its typically Western view of nature as merely a resource to be managed or exploited for human purposes – a view they argue is responsible for centuries of environmental destruction. In contrast, biocentrism claims that nature has an intrinsic moral worth that does not depend on its usefulness to human beings; humans are morally bound to protect the environment, as well as individual creatures and species, for their own sake, not for their utility to human society.

Within this general heading, the school of thought known as social ecology traces the causes of environmental degradation to the existence of unjust hierarchical relationships in human society, which it sees as endemic to the large-scale social structures of modern capitalist states. The most environmentally sympathetic form of political and social organisation is thus one based on decentralised small-scale communities and systems of production. Similarly, ecofeminism asserts that there is a connection between the destruction of nature by humans and the oppression of women by men: both arise from political theories and social practices in which both women and nature are treated as objects to be owned or controlled.

The more radical doctrine of deep ecology builds on preservationist themes from the early environmental movement. It shares with social ecologists a distrust of capitalism and industrial technology and favours decentralised forms of social organisation. More than this, however, it claims that humans need to regain a ‘spiritual’ relationship with nature; by understanding the interconnectedness of all organisms in the ecosphere and empathising with non-human nature, humans can develop an ecological consciousness and a sense of ecological solidarity. In particular, James Lovelock argued in Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979) that the planet is a single living, self-regulating entity capable of re-establishing an ecological equilibrium, even without the existence of human life. The biocentric emphasis on intrinsic value and the interconnectedness of nature has also been important in the development of the animal rights movement.

Liberalism and environmentalism

Liberals in many countries, including the UK, have successfully incorporated many elements of environmentalist thinking into their ideology and political programmes; climate change, pollution and resource depletion are clearly major impediments to the liberal aims of freedom and self-realisation. It is still open to question, however, whether they (along with other mainstream politicians) have really appreciated the drastic measures that may ultimately be necessary to avert environmental catastrophe.

Classical liberalism is often blamed for the roots of the environmental crisis, in its promotion of free enterprise, free markets and free trade as necessary conditions for the realisation of individuals’ plans of life. The environmental impacts of economic decisions – for example, the production and consumption of fossil fuels – are seldom borne directly by those involved in the market transactions; nevertheless, they are real, even though the resulting climatic change may take many years to develop and affect most seriously people living thousands of miles away. In its failure to internalise such environmental externalities, the free market, the underpinning of modern capitalism, has been blamed for much environmental degradation.

Yet political liberals never accepted unlimited freedom of enterprise, always understanding that intervention in the market was justified in order to prevent harm to others – for example, by forbidding slavery. It is not conceptually difficult to extend this principle to altering the parameters within which the market operates, for example through informational tools (e.g. ecolabelling), green taxes or emissions trading systems, to attempt to internalise these environmental costs and benefits and to steer the market and its participants towards more environmentally sensitive outcomes. This can be seen as an attempt to correct a major market failure, the lack of the exercise of property rights over commonly held resources, such as the atmosphere or the oceans. The economist’s parable of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ (the tendency towards over-exploitation of land held in common and owned by no one individual) demonstrates how free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately dooms the resource through over-exploitation; if this was not a practical concern for nineteenth-century liberals, this was only because in general they did not conceive of the limits to natural resources that have become clear only in the last forty or fifty years.

In fact, even some classical liberals did recognise the problems of unlimited economic growth; most notably John Stuart Mill, who, in his Principles of Political Economy (1848) argued that: ‘It must always have been seen … by political economists, that the increase in wealth is not boundless: that at the end of what they term the progressive state lies the stationary state, that all progress in wealth is but a postponement of this, and that each step in advance is an approach to it.’ Although Mill, following Thomas Malthus, was concerned with the limits to resources and the dangers of over-population (and, like Malthus, hugely under-estimated the potential of technological innovation to improve the efficiency with which resources could be utilised), his advocacy of the stationary-state economy was primarily concerned with the damaging effects on human character of the unremitting pursuit of possessions. In welcoming this condition as an opportunity for a large-scale transformation in social values – where intellectual and moral growth continues but without the need to despoil the natural world – Mill can perhaps be seen as a forerunner more of the post-materialist concern with quality-of-life issues than of the Club of Rome’s warnings of resource depletion.

The environmentalist approach fits most easily into the social liberal strand of liberalism, always readier to accept the necessity for the state to interfere in the rights of contract and property, and the operations of the market, in the interests of enlarging liberty for individuals – in this case, those affected by environmental degradation outside their ability to counter directly. The extension of this concept to the enlargement of the liberty of future, as well as present, generations also fits fairly straightforwardly into modern social liberal thinking, particularly in its idea of ‘stewardship’, of the natural environment held as a ‘trust’ by the present for future generations. John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice (1972), expressed his so-called ‘just savings’ principle, which required present generations to save some of their resources and achievements for future ones; this was modified, in his Political Liberalism (1993), to fit more comfortably into the concept of limits to growth, to become the principle that requires present generations to take the welfare of future generations into account in any circumstances.

Similarly, the Liberal Democrat thinker Conrad Russell argued, consistently with his view of liberalism as being concerned primarily with the control of the exercise of power, for liberal environmentalism as stemming from the concept of power held as a trust. The power is not the trustee’s own, it comes from the people; trustees do not hold power for their own benefit, but exercise it on behalf of the people; and – crucially for environmentalism – the duty of the trustees is to hand on the inheritance to the next generation in as good a shape as they can leave it: ‘in fact, sustainability is the trustee’s essential duty’ (Russell, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism, 1999).

It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that the Liberal Party / Liberal Democrats, in the main a social liberal party for over a century, has been able to claim, with reasonable justification, that it has become the greenest of the main British political parties. The Liberal ‘Yellow Book’, Britain’s Industrial Future (1928), contained a strong defence of the countryside, advocating the establishment of National Parks. In the wake of the upsurge of environmental concern later in the century, the Liberal Party published a comprehensive Report on the Environment in 1972, and in 1979 the Liberal assembly adopted a resolution declaring that ‘economic growth, as measured by GDP, is neither desirable nor achievable’. Liberal support for environmental causes, and in particular the party’s opposition to nuclear power, was a source of some tension with their more technophile SDP partners in the Alliance of the 1980s.

Similarly, the Liberal Democrats have consistently adopted a strongly environmental approach, the party’s election manifestos usually being rated (by environmental NGOs) just behind those of the Green Party, and well ahead of those of the Conservative and Labour parties (until 2017, when Labour’s was much greener than its predecessors). One of the major differences Liberal Democrat ministers made to the record of the coalition government of 2010–15 was in climate and energy policy, and this became one of the major sources of tension with their coalition partners.

As noted above, though, it is not clear whether the Liberal Democrat approach is really robust enough to cope with the increasingly urgent challenges posed by the current environmental crisis. The balance between the liberal adherence to individual freedom, of non-interference in people’s choices and lifestyles, and their desire to limit the environmental consequences of those choices, seems likely to become increasingly difficult to strike; but any party advocating truly radical solutions risks electoral unacceptability.

It should be noted, further, that it is not inevitable that liberals will adapt themselves to environmental programmes, and liberal parties have not always done so. There is some evidence to suggest that where they have failed to take up the environmental agenda, they have allowed the growth of explicitly green parties, most notably in Germany. In contrast, where liberals have ‘greened’ themselves, green parties have tended to remain marginal – for example in the UK or Denmark.

It should also be clear that liberal environmentalism fits squarely into the anthropocentric school of environmentalist thought. Liberalism is primarily concerned with humans, though, as we have seen, not only those alive in the present. Liberals have, in general, not accepted the biocentric insistence that non-humans, such as animals, or the environment as a whole, must be protected regardless of their value to human beings. For a liberal, the concept of intrinsic value can only be sensibly applied to humans, whereas all else that is valued must by definition be instrumentally valuable in some way (i.e. because of the purposes it serves).

It is possible to edge these two concepts together, for example by arguing, as does Andrew Dobson in Citizenship and the Environment (2003), that if liberals value choice for the sake of autonomy, then they should value the existence of as wide a range of ‘life environments’ as possible. This approach does not presume that nature is always already imbued with value – rather, it is valuable because it is there as an option, to be appreciated or not. This is something of an abstract argument, however, and, as Marcel Wissenburg has observed, ‘the reasons motivating ecologists and liberals may differ, but the results would be the same: maximised protection of ecological diversity combined with maximum freedom for humans to pursue a green life’. As the direct impacts of environmental degradation on human societies become steadily more serious, the distinction between protecting the environment for its own sake and protecting it for humanity’s sake are likely simply to disappear, for all practical purposes, and liberal (and other) parties will face the increasingly urgent challenge of living within the planet’s means.

Further reading

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