The Economist’s varied shades of green

2008-04-15

in Daily updates

In this Economist article, species conservation is compared with deciding what to save from a burning house. The comparison has some virtues of explanation, insofar as it strikes at the need to prioritize in the face of urgency. What the article fails to adequately consider is the way in which the ‘burning house’ analogy is deeply troubling. If we are really ‘burning down the house’ of the global biosphere, why are we making the ongoing credit crunch the major topic of issue after issue?

As a long-time and devoted reader, I have the sense that there is an unusual amount of turbulence about environmental questions within the staff of The Economist. While no articles are attributed to specific authors, one can nevertheless distinguish between different tones and voices, at least a few of which mock environmental concern as some hysterical distraction from the business of economic growth and technological development.

The possibility of serious global environmental collapse is only beginning to percolate into the thinking of even the most serious classical liberal and conservative thinkers. The fact that, in a world with ever more billions, it will not remain some shiny side-issue for the soft-hearted has yet to really be accepted. It is only when that begins to change that we will see how new vulnerability and old ideologies will bump along during the next few decades.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

tristan April 15, 2008 at 6:39 pm

Wouldn’t you say it’s not a matter of ideological shift (i.e. there is no need for conservatives to become socially progressive), but rather, what is required is something like the recognition of matters of fact? I think the thrust of your argument comes from the supposed clarity of the moral duty imposed on us by the matters of fact. Certainly, any reasonable person could not believe that they could morally stand idly by while the world was destroyed? In this case, ideology seems to be irrelevant.

I’m not sure if I have you right here, but if I do, then I would respond that exactly this kind of “ideological” dismissal of ecological issues in favour of the serious business of economic growth is a product of our method of thinking which values producibility and the increase of wealth the most valued thing. We forget, as the soviets did, that one increases wealth for the benefit of people and not as an end in itself. I think it is exactly this mistaking a means for an end that can cause ecological issues to appear as a distraction – if what one values is really just the increase in production of wealth (surplus value), then the only way ecological concerns come into it are insofar as disaster prevents the production of that wealth.

Then, time comes into the picture. If we value the increase of wealth on a long term scale, then environmental issues might seem very important. However, if we assess cooperate earnings quarterly, the benefits of long term planning are more difficult to focus on, no? What is the average term in office of a top 100 CEO?

Gerald April 15, 2008 at 7:30 pm

“some shiny side-issue for the soft-hearted” basically describes most of conservation.

Who really cares about tigers and rhinos and frogs?

Who cares enough to pay a dollar?

Milan April 15, 2008 at 7:35 pm

Tristan,

I don’t think either classical liberal or classical conservatives are well placed to understand our world. It is not as though shifting from one to the other ideology will do any good.

We need an ethic of conservation that supersedes ideology. Until such a thing emerges, we cannot really hope for sensible policy that endures from government to government.

Milan January 11, 2009 at 2:03 pm

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