Can you hear the rustle of green handcuffs fastening around your freedom to fuel a patio heater, burn the rubber of a brace of 4x4s, or fly on a long weekend from London to Los Angeles? A vocal cabal of anti-environmentalists, latching onto genuine concern about rising fuel and food prices, would have you think so. Just as calls to save civilisation from runaway climate change finally seem to be achieving a critical mass, a sharp and monstrously ironic reaction is accusing the environmental movement of being a threat to freedom.
Wailing can be heard from the bewildered outrage of Jeremy Clarkson, like a child caught and told, 'no', he cannot keep torturing the cat, to the smug sophistry of both far left and far right political operators. Cheering them on from the sidelines are members of the commentariat such as Dominic Lawson. Odder still, is the free market Czech President, Vaclav Klaus (nb: not Havel), whose book on 'green shackles' is published by the ferociously conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute (Klaus, 2007). If you missed it, he suggests, in effect, that combating climate change is a threat to liberty on the scale of Soviet communism. Somehow, though, the cause of freedom to fry or drown ourselves in a warming world, lacks the moral oomph of those other freedoms of religion and association, democracy and universal suffrage.
But, the backlash is only likely to grow, driven by the upward trend in oil prices, the reality of global warming and the policy responses to both. As the scale and depth of necessary change becomes ever clearer, voices calling for there to be less, not more parameter set around individual consumption, get louder. An appeal to 'freedom' is their rallying cry. In promoting his own recent book, Austin Williams revels in extracting some small notoriety from a review condemning his call for the right 'to leave lights on in empty rooms, wallow in deep baths, drive cars, get fat and unfit, and fly further'. The argument runs, that action to maintain a habitable planet is either unnecessary or disproportionate to the scale of the problem (Williams, 2008).
But talking of 'green shackles' is like talking about 'anti-child labour' shackles, or the shackles of laws that prevent us burning down each other's houses. We need to set goals for sufficient levels of consumption, in order to prevent the footprint of our lifestyles outgrowing the shoe of the planet. To follow teenage fantasies of blithe, consequence-free, self-absorbed indulgence is, in effect, to deny the needs of millions in poorer parts of the world, whose lives might be improved merely by having a light in the room they are using, or hot water on tap, or any potable water for that matter. Not only does our grotesque rich-world over-consumption spit in the face of real global poverty, and drive potentially irreversible environmental degradation, its fall-out invariably hits the poorest first and worst.
This awareness that one person's freedom to unlimited luxury, might deny another's freedom to survive, is neither new nor owned exclusively by the left or environmentalists. In fact it was the conservative philosopher, Karl Popper, who pointed out that 'proponents of complete freedom', such as Williams, 'are in actuality, whatever their intentions, enemies of Freedom'. In The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper reasoned that unrestrained individual behaviour
is not only self-destructive but bound to produce its opposite, for if all restraints were removed there would be nothing whatever to stop the strong enslaving the weak. So complete freedom would bring about the end of freedom. (Popper, 1971) The mantra of consumer choice underpins our atavistic economic system. Now, it is the absence of action to curb individual excess that is the biggest threat to our freedoms. And, it is a depressingly unnecessary threat, grown from chasing the endlessly retreating shadows of our own well-being down blind alleys of conspicuous consumption. It is consumerism, we should now argue, not the environmentalism that seeks to end its worst excesses, that has enslaved us. In its cause we have become chained to the work place...