In the more innocent time before the pandemic, we already knew that we were living in an era with a new name. We had entered the Anthropocene—a new epoch in which the chief forces shaping nature are the work of our own species. Some date the dawn of the Anthropocene to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, others to 1945 and the detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While we may disagree about when this epoch began, we are beginning to understand, and not a moment too soon, its moral imperative. It requires that humans assume responsibility for natural phenomena—the weather, sea levels, air quality, soil fertility, species survival, and viruses—that we once left in the hands of God or fate. This is a genuinely momentous alteration in our world view. We have for centuries boasted of our mastery of nature, but the time has come for Prometheus to shoulder the responsibility that comes with mastery and for us to make our mastery wiser.
We may be lords and masters of nature, but as philosophers have been telling us, we must learn to master our mastery. It is dawning on us that this so-called mastery could kill us, and not only us. According to what we currently know, a virus leaps from a nonhuman to a human in a wet market in Wuhan: a tiny entity composed of RNA acid and protein jumps the gap between species, and within eight weeks, thanks to the malign interaction between the global economy and the global biosphere, the entire world is in lockdown, parents and grandparents are dying, and the young adults who come to majority in the new precarious economy are wondering whether they will ever know economic security.
Naturally enough, the idea of the Anthropocene no longer awakens only a sense of mastery and control but also a terrible fear. We fear our own powers and their consequences; we fear our world ending, going dark in environmental collapse and plague, followed by that evil old standby, barbarism. Ecological pressure has ended other great civilizations: If Easter Island, why not us? If viruses finished off the Mayans, the Incas, the tribes that so innocently greeted Columbus, why not us?
The Anthropocene—and the fear that now haunts our mastery of nature—is putting enormous pressure on the whole spectrum of modern political beliefs. Some progressives accept the ecological facts but blame everything on capitalism, demonstrating pattern blindness toward the environmental devastation and public health incompetence in the command economies of Russia, China, and Eastern Europe for two generations after 1945. Ideologically hostile to markets, militant progressives are also giving away significant ameliorative tools, such as carbon pricing, that may be crucial to any solution to the climate crisis.
At the other end of the political spectrum, there are still many conservative parties—Republicans in the United States prominently among them—who are in double denial about the risks to the environment and the risks to human health, vitiating environmental controls on polluting industries and unlocking their local economies before it is safe to do so. Sometimes this know-nothing-ism derives from a larger hostility to science and objectivity that has emerged from the cultural and political agenda of the American right. It is just possible that the scale of the crisis of the Anthropocene will awaken conservatives from their dogmatic slumbers, because if they do not awaken, they will lose the power they live for. (And the eventual catastrophe will hardly be a good business environment.) There are also populists of the right—Matteo Salvini, Viktor Orbán, Geert Wilders—who prefer to change the subject, who tell their voters that the thing to fear is not climate change or pandemics but immigrants and foreigners. But a politics that changes the subject does not have much of a future either.
In a host of countries—the United States, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and the Nordic states—a new politics has been taking shape that identifies climate change as the central political issue of our time and argues, cogently, that species destruction and environmental wastage have rendered us also more vulnerable to pandemics. Before the pandemic broke, however, this politics seemed stuck, unable to achieve electoral breakthrough anywhere except in Germany and Scandinavia. It was asking for more change than most electors were ready to vote for. Now the question is whether the pandemic, combined with the increasing threat of climate change as it is quantitatively measured, will lure voters out of cautious complacency and pull them toward what the times seem to be calling for—a revolutionary politics.
Should we ready ourselves for a revolutionary politics? Does the threat to the natural environment deserve to erase what we know about revolutions and revolutionaries? For the dystopian imagination, the temptation is very great. Panic is not the friend of patience, and there are more and more voices urging us to panic. But, if revolution is not the answer, and we should not throw away the wisdom about politics we have gained from our experience of other historical emergencies, what would a nonrevolutionary climate-conscious politics look like? That is the question that liberalism must answer now. By liberalism, I mean any politics that as a matter of principle prefers reform to revolution, puts its trust in political institutions as instruments of change, and develops policies within the checks and balances of a liberal democratic system and with the market signals of a capitalist economy. This kind of liberalism has depended for its success on its association, since the Enlightenment, with precisely the historical story that climate change and pandemics put into question: the story of progress, the tale that science and the mastery of nature, married to the capitalist profit motive and free markets, have created an upward spiral in which political freedom advances hand in hand with economic liberty and technological change, all three combining in a successful synthesis that preserves our natural habitat and increases our lifespans.
This, understand, is not a “neoliberal” story, one supposing that markets left to themselves, disencumbered from regulation, will automatically create a society that reconciles freedom, equity, and environmental responsibility. That faith is absurd. The only morally supportable capitalism is a regulated capitalism. Nor will all the essential values of an open society ever go together perfectly or without dissonance. A properly liberal story is very different: it contends that politics—collective public action in the name of citizens and the state—is essential if technological progress can ever be made to serve human ends like freedom, justice, and the preservation of our habitat. Activism, representation, debate, compromise, reason, law: these are the elements of the liberal idea of public action against public harm. But will these suffice against the harm we are causing to our climate? Liberalism’s historical story—politics taming the capitalist leviathan—seems complacent in revolutionary times, or so many people think. Liberalism is not just associated with a story of progress that is now on trial; it is also associated with a style of politics—meliorist, gradual, compromising—that is now held to be unfit for a time that requires radical solutions. Liberal convictions seem out of step with the prevailing end-times mood, which warns that we are headed for apocalypse. And, in the face of a great fear, liberal politics may be swept aside.
Yet the liberal tradition happens to know something about fear. There once was a great liberal who knew about fear all the way down, so let’s begin with him. There is nothing to fear, he famously said, but fear itself, and he said so when the fear of his time was universal and truly terrifying. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s adage is more than just uplifting. It recommends an analytical approach to the causes of fear. Following FDR, a liberal believes that the first thing to do about fear is to disaggregate. Break it into little pieces. Attempt to distinguish what you fear most from what you fear less and least. The one big problem is in fact many smaller problems. If there is no quick and effective and salvific way to address the one big problem, there are ways to address the smaller problems, and this is a more likely way of solving them. Once you disaggregate, you can prioritize.
Once you prioritize, a politics begins to take shape. In the case of climate change: first recycling, then road pricing, then carbon pricing, then subsidizing renewables; when they are competitive, withdraw the subsidy; then take coal-fired and gas-fired stations offline; then, when renewables start generating sufficient load, start decommissioning nuclear; and so on. This liberal politics—as opposed to the progressive summons to the barricades—we might call the politics of policy.
In pandemics, disaggregation is also key. Break the problem down into the pieces you can fix: tracing, masks, ventilators, personal protective gear, distancing. As New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern observed, you go early and you go hard. In the absence of a vaccine, you shut down your borders, your schools, your whole economy, and you keep it down till the infection dies for lack of carriers. In the process of additively applying these partial solutions to this lethal problem, some liberal societies have pushed back against a very old canard: that capitalist societies value profits more than lives. (I know, some capitalists do.) As French president Emmanuel Macron recently said, in shutting down economies in their entirety, certain capitalist societies revealed their deepest anthropological commitments. They imperilled their economies to save their people.
Dissolving a big problem into little steps is the essence of a liberal politics. Radical environmentalists like to scorn gradualism and incrementalism, but working with incentives and markets, liberal gradualism is on the cusp of transforming Western energy systems. Look around at all those windmills and all those solar panels. Look at the way renewables are competing with fossil fuels on price. This is how regulated markets can work. It turns out that the environmental emergency does not refute liberal politics: far from being bankrupted by climate change, liberalism has turned out to be the only politics that has made substantive progress thus far. It has the eloquence of actual changes. Both the environmental crisis and, even more so, the pandemic have vindicated the liberal belief in government. Only a central government can enact the policies and enforce the regulations that will make a decisive difference. Who, worried about the fate of the earth, could oppose the regulatory state? Who, worried about protecting their families from infection, would not want competent government? Against such threats, the private sector is a reed in the wind. Competence, simple competence, on the part of public officials—governmental power used responsibly and effectively for the public good—has a way of vindicating liberal gradualism and of taking away the sting of fear.
It is important to understand that fear is a political phenomenon. It is organized by interests whose purpose is to drive public opinion for profit, political gain, or public benefit. Fear is not only a feeling; it is also a strategy. We need to regard the tribunes of fear as political actors, to test their assertions, especially, as in the case of environmentalists, when we support their objectives. We need to be aware of our own susceptibility to fear. There is a voluptuous quality to it: we like to be afraid, even very afraid, as every Hollywood producer knows. Fear is also an industry: intellectuals build careers upon it; newspapers build circulation upon it; demagogues amass power upon it. Nothing sells like fear: it is a brand. Even a sincere fear may be politically constructed and politically manipulated.
Liberalism is the sworn adversary of such a politics. A liberal knows that the only antidote to fear is knowledge. While there may be legitimate controversies about what is true and what is not, the possibility of truth, the reality of verifiable facts, is—at least for liberals—the foundation of political action. But here we get to the heart of the problem. The reliance upon the facts is most often celebrated when truths are deployed against falsehoods so that prevailing misconceptions are corrected by accurate information. But what if the prevailing conceptions are not misconceptions? What if fear is warranted by the facts? What if the nightmares have a basis in reality?
After all, fear about climate change and pandemics is not delusion. We all know (unless we choose not to know) the facts already. Millions of human beings are carrying an infection for which there is no cure yet. The polar ice caps are melting. Sea levels are rising. Sea water is acidifying. Coral reefs are dying. Air and water temperatures are rising, accelerating the violence of storms, flooding, and wildfires. It is no wonder that the narrative of doom is penetrating our psyches, leaving us with a grim sense that our virtuous behaviours—and the politics of little steps—are now beside the point.
And yet, even when hysteria may seem like a plausible feeling about a problem, it is not a plausible feeling for the discovery of its solution. We need to keep faith with little steps—not despite the magnitude of the crisis but because of it. The environmentally progressive actions of individuals are more than just “virtue signalling.” All these small gestures certainly have “big number effects” when millions of strangers, uncoordinated, all join their little efforts to our own. In lockdown, we discovered the immense impact—we called it “flattening the curve”—that individual behaviours such as staying at home could have to reduce risk for us all. Little efforts scaled up are among the central tools of a liberal politics. They are also antidotes to despair.
Despair may be a way of simply registering, at the level of feeling, the gravity of the facts. But it is one thing to face the facts and another to question or even abandon the hope of remedies. Fear in the Anthropocene is also challenging the relevance of the very frame in which liberal politics operates: the nation-state. It is easy to believe that pandemics and environmental crises overrun the capacities of our sovereign actors. Climate change makes it easy for the powerful to claim that they are powerless—while their private planes idle not far from the conference centre—but it also makes it easy for activists to believe that the tactics of liberal gradualism, focused as they are on local, regional, and national governments, are irrelevant. When a problem as big as climate change, as global as a pandemic, enters the political agenda, the advanced chatter begins to claim that only global solutions matter—whereas, in reality, it is national authorities who actually have the power to close borders, quarantine their citizens, force the transition to sustainable energy. The gruelling months of pandemic crisis, far from demonstrating the irrelevance of liberalism’s chosen site for politics—the nation-state—have shown that it is the site that actually matters.
These narratives about the irrelevance of national politics should be seen for what they are: alibis for inaction. Those who do have power still make a huge difference, for good or for ill. Every day that Donald Trump dismantled the environmental protections built up since Richard Nixon’s time, every time he contradicted common sense in public health matters, he showed us what malevolence and incompetence in public office can do. Xi Jinping makes an equally malign difference, as 56 percent of the increase in CO2 emissions comes from China. Ditto Narendra Modi in India. Indeed, climate change and the pandemic—contemporary life in the Anthropocene—have also exposed the price we have paid for the shredding of what once passed for a liberal international order. We mock that phrase at our own peril. International climate change conferences—Paris, Copenhagen, Madrid—are easily dismissed, but for all their faults, they did edge states toward action, and for all the suspect friendliness of the World Health Organization toward China, does anyone, apart from the former president of the United States, seriously believe the world would be a safer place without the WHO?
We desperately need competent national governments to protect us, but we also need governments smart enough to learn from one another and share knowledge—open governments, empirical governments. The time left for this mixture of national and international action keeps getting shorter. If concerted and scientifically based action fails to address climate challenge, if the oceans keep rising, if the fires keep getting worse, if infections spike again, we may reach a moment when democratic citizens will demand that their leaders acquire autocratic powers to protect us from further harm: governments of national salvation, in the old expression. The pandemic has already demonstrated the use that authoritarians have for such crises. Climate change, if sufficiently terrifying, could cause us to vote ourselves into an authoritarian state.
Thus the climate emergency and the pandemic may test the viability of liberal democracy even more than populism has. Yet, before we allow ourselves to be rushed toward the authoritarian exit, let’s ask a simple question: Which global leader would you rather have in charge of your climate emergency and your pandemic? Xi Jinping or Angela Merkel? Jair Bolsonaro or Jacinda Ardern? Far from demonstrating that liberal democratic leaders are not up to the crisis, climate change and the pandemic have vindicated democratic leadership and demonstrated what it consists in: trusting your citizens, believing in reason and research, marshalling the forces of government to support them, and having the courage to tell your citizens the truth.
Yet even this is not the core challenge. Liberals face a deeper crisis—in our confidence in our stories about the past. It was technology and political reform that eased the burden of labour on the backs of men and women; it was science that enabled women to face childbirth without fear and gave us the prospect that everyone could have a full and longer lifespan, free of hunger and disease. This is the Enlightenment story, the saga of the empowering relationship between knowledge and freedom. It is the only good story left. It is the narrative that made us feel that all the senseless hustle and brutality of capitalist modernity served a higher purpose, even if we could not see it ourselves. We were bound on the wheel of progress, and it was inexorably moving uphill. Or so we thought.
Now, we are told that it is rolling down toward the abyss. Radical environmentalism, reinforced by COVID-19, has become the glamorous pessimism of our time. It has become an identity and a style: an opportunity to demonstrate one’s own righteousness, to express disgust at politicians, to give shape, however dark, to time. Better a master narrative that predicts doom than no narrative at all. To dissent from this view is to take upon oneself a whole lot of trouble. My own dissent is in fact pretty limited. I do not dispute the facts, of course—shame on those who do. I dispute the attitude. What I dislike is the pessimism, the misanthropy, the wholesale indictment of progress and humanism, the tendentious rewriting of modern history, the impatience with liberal half-measures—which, I insist, are the only ones that have made any constructive difference.
It is common these days to read that our species is a cancer upon the planet, a virus, an infestation—or, to change metaphors, that we are the chief serial killers on earth. Thanks to this dire and defeatist mental agitation, many people worry aloud whether we even deserve to survive. Young people actually ask themselves whether they should bring children into such a benighted world. The fight for life is damaging the appetite for life. Instead of feeling empowered by what we have come to know about the climate and about epidemics, the more we know, the worse we feel.
Are we guilty of crimes against our environment? Of course we are. (We are guilty also of crimes against one another.) Being human demands that we take responsibility for what we have done to the planet. But being human also means keeping faith with our species’ staggering and proven resourcefulness. In a crisis of these dimensions, misanthropy becomes a fatal spiritual temptation. Radical environmentalists understandably wish to shake us awake, but the language they commonly use fosters only despair and disengagement. The pandemic has given life to this new rhetoric of repentance and flagellation. Fire-and-brimstone language that calls for apocalyptic change has a long and unappetizing history: in the Protestant Reformation, in the French Revolution, and in the chiliastic fervour of the Russian Revolution. In all three, it led to a betrayal of the goals that revolutionary change sought to achieve. Our past should have taught us by now to recognize and reject such impulses.
Incredible as it may seem, after hundreds of thousands of people across the world have already died of the pandemic, there are some environmentalists who argue that this is a necessary wake-up call, even a price worth paying if it induces us to turn away, before it is too late, from the path of profligacy, waste, and consumerism. As in heartless religions of old, we are encouraged to make this suffering redemptive. Once again, radicals have uses for our terror. Surely there is something indecent about celebrating the desolation of city streets as good for us and something morally decadent about seeing the quiet of lockdown as a harbinger of a better world when freezer trucks are parked outside our hospitals.
In this new talk about how the pandemic points us toward environmental resurrection, there is a very disreputable idea about human wants and preferences. This is Karl Marx’s idea of false consciousness, according to which this vast world of capitalist consumption is an orchestrated delusion in which capitalism creates counterfeit needs and desires that then enslave us and lead us to environmental perdition. Liberalism’s belief about human beings could not be more different. We accept that people have the needs and desires they have, and we believe that a free society must respect these needs and desires for what they are. People want pleasure, goods, vacations; they derive comfort and consolation from possessions. They are willing to spend money, lots of it, in pointless but amiable sociability in restaurants, bars, cafés, and holidays on faraway beaches.
All this is not decadent; it is human. And the vast machine of capitalism exists to serve these wants. The market does not distinguish between those wants that are noble and those that are trivial, those that are conducive to the survival of the species and those that are hostile to it. These are choices that free men and women make for themselves, not least through their political choices. The world that results is only partly free since the combined effect of these wants can create externalities that then plague us and diminish our enjoyment, but still, fundamentally, the order of our world is created by human desire.
This set of ideas makes a liberal deeply resistant to an environmental moralism that implies that there is a sustainable world to be had if only we could realize that our desires are false. From a conviction that actual human wants are destroying the planet to the premise that human beings should not be allowed to want what they want is but one small step. Most environmentalists are democrats, but if they take that step, they will cease to be democrats and cease to be liberals. Pandemics and the climate crisis do not just empower autocrats. They can also corrupt democrats.
For what real alternative is there except to place our faith and direct our energies where they always should have been: in knowledge, reason, science, persuasion, and policy—in the imperfect and constantly adapting tools that we have used, since the beginning, to gain such mastery as we have of ourselves and of our world? What real alternative is there, what greater engine of mitigation, to democratic politics? Does anyone doubt that the planet will not be saved by dictators? Recall the earlier fascist enemies of democracy, who thought that it was feckless—only to discover how formidable a democratic people can be when their survival depends upon it.
A liberal’s criticism of radical environmentalism is that it is essentially a religious movement, in its absolutism, in its exclusive claims to virtue, in its contempt for differences of opinion, in its call for salvation. The pandemic has made these calls for salvation more insistent. Instead of a new secular religion, however, what the environment actually needs is a new politics. For any strategy that will get CO2 and pollution under control is bound to be deeply divisive. To deal with these divisions, green activism must become properly political, seeking the compromises between energy-producing regions and energy-consuming regions, between workers in smokestack industries and workers in the new economy, between those who benefit from green change and those who may be hurt in the long transition to a sustainable future. The pandemic, likewise, forces choices upon us. Neither the absolutism of public health nor the absolutism of the economy is any kind of guide to our perplexities.
The very idea of compromise sounds scandalous in the face of our emergency, but the core of a liberal politics, surely, is that there are no absolute claims—not even the melting glaciers, not even the spread of a pandemic—that clear the table in democratic debate. We must argue about everything if we wish to stay free. Experts must be heard, but they do not rule. Majorities rule, but minorities have to be protected. Legislatures pass laws, but courts have to rule on their lawfulness and constitutionality. All this slows down a liberal polity’s capacity to act, but that is the price of freedom—and also the condition of effective action against complicated problems. Above all, citizens matter, one by one. Energy workers and energy producers, in smokestack industries and regions, are citizens like the rest of us, and their claims deserve something better than moral derision. They need help, they need time, and like all of us, they need jobs.
Liberal institutions can handle climate change and pandemics, but only if they are honest and free. Here, liberals should confront some hard truths. We need to face up to the reality of how tarnished our chosen instruments have become. The climate crisis is exposing just how many of our institutions have been captured by the interests they purport to regulate. Liberals have to acknowledge, in particular, the distorting impact of energy oligopolies on market prices for carbon-intensive goods and the equally distorting impact of big energy money in politics. Equally, the pandemic has exposed, at least in the United States, the fearful way in which a private health industry weakened the capacity of states and governments to maintain a public health infrastructure that protects everyone, regardless of their ability to pay.
Liberalism is an elite politics in the sense that representative democracy consists in the appointment of a governing class or echelon by popular ballot—and that echelon, that elite, has become much too cozy with big money, whether it be from the pharmaceutical industry or big oil. Here, the climate change protesters have been proven right: we will not get climate policies that work if the legislation is written by the energy companies. Likewise, we will not get health care policy that protects all of us, especially the poorest and most marginalized, if policy is written by health care companies. So the liberal counterlobby, in favour of sensible and attainable policy, will have to be as well financed and as relentless as the forces it is up against.
It is commonly feared that liberal democracy may not be up to the challenge of cleaning its own house and making the right choices to protect nature and our lives. Yet, before we give up on liberal democracy, we should observe a significant fact—noted by historian Niall Ferguson—that it is only in liberal democracies that CO2-emission increase has halted. To be sure, these societies are still emitting CO2, too much of it, but they have stopped its increase, and with good leadership, they can attain carbon neutrality. Where CO2 emissions continue to increase, by contrast, is in authoritarian societies such as China and Russia. So the argument that liberal democracy is too paralyzed by polarization to meet the climate crisis may be wrong. Action on climate change needs more democracy, not less—it needs open societies that empower from the ground up and favour initiatives at every level, especially the municipal, and enable all of us as citizens to act, to protest, to represent, and to invent solutions.
It is also in open societies that basic knowledge about climate change and pandemics has spread most quickly. Only democratic societies can guarantee the freedom that knowledge requires, though the political and economic pressures on science and free public debate have lately been growing. Despite the counterattack of the know-nothings, we should remember how far we have come. Mass public awareness of the environmental crisis dates no further back than Earth Day 1970. Mass awareness of the existential lethality of pandemics is no older than HIV, SARS, and Ebola. But now we know, and there is no going back. We are closer now, in the early twenty-first century, to a mass politics based on environmental and epidemiological science than at any time in history. The new politics has begun, and we must give it time to have its effect, to make its way to government.
Radical environmentalists are already warning us that this is all too little, too late. In life, as in politics, it is never too late, and the suggestion itself encourages inaction. Already the next generation grasps that this will be the political challenge of their age, to which they must rise if they are to have a future to hand on to their own children. The politics of environmental correction and global health will not succeed if its core message is to hate ourselves for what we have done.
In finding the balance of activism and understanding, we need to remember how deeply men and women have loved the natural world and have ardently portrayed it in their cultures so that their fellow creatures would love it as they do. We forget how deep the respect for nature’s limits and nature’s laws goes in the anthropological record. We forget how epidemiology has enabled us to see that we are creatures whose survival depends on respect for our habitat and for other species. We walked away from this wisdom, but we are now walking back to what our Indigenous ancestors knew.
Let us face up to the whole complex story of how we became lords and masters of nature. The celebration of progress since the Enlightenment, the historical script that we inherited from Kant and Hegel, Smith and Marx, made sense of time for us, but it was always in part a myth, concealing the dark side of our conquest of nature. Yet let us also remember that an astounding amount of material, scientific, and moral progress was made, and remember also that the mythical dimension of the story of progress was an ennobling myth, which taught us to believe in our agency for good, in our capacity to become masters of our fate rather than slaves of gods and nature. We must be unafraid to confront the dark side of progress now, but without losing faith in the human campaign to make life better. This is the conviction that we need to save our planet and ourselves.
This essay originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Liberties. Reprinted with permission.