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Liberalism relies heavily on certain assumptions about the human condition, particularly, about our ability to act rationally. John Rawls defines a rational person as one who can identify and prioritise from the options available, then follow a ‘plan which will satisfy more of his desires rather than less’. Both him and John Stuart Mill argue that all rational and autonomous people should be afforded the right to act freely, provided they do not use this right to inflict harm onto others. The provision of individualistic rights is therefore predicated on the assumption that people will, by and large, act in accordance with their rational faculties. A sense of justice is also required in a liberal society, justified on the grounds that this would be the choice of any rational and impartial person under ideal circumstances. An appeal to justice creates a sense of social solidarity (a sense of the common good), which is necessary for individuals to live together harmoniously.
Another assumption liberalism makes is that large and diverse groups of people, with different cultural and moral values, have the capacity to compromise and collaborate for mutual advantage. Rawls describes how a sense of the common good can be created through ‘a shared conception of justice [which] establishes the bonds of civic friendship’. In large and diverse (wide) societies, this appeal to the common good is grounded in the safeguarding of individualistic universal rights. These universal rights uphold a sense of justice, while also requiring one to make compromises for the common good. Liberalism therefore assumes that even in a wide community people generally behave rationally, identifying what is for the common good and collectively changing their behaviour to actualise this common good. Although this assumption may generally be the case, it does not appear to be holding true considering recent concerns about sustainability, namely: overpopulation, the water crisis, and climate change. Scope requires that we focus on the third primarily.
There is strong evidence supporting the claim that anthropogenic climate change is severely damaging the earth and therefore causing significant harm to humanity. In August 2019, the International Panel on Climate Change published a report titled: ‘Climate Change and Land’; it describes how climate change ‘has adversely impacted food security and terrestrial ecosystems as well as contributing to desertification and land degradation’. However, unlike issues of slavery and genocide, the consequences of climate change are gradual and incremental, therefore easier to ignore in the short-term. And while it would seem rational to make compromises which mitigate climate change, liberal societies appear reluctant to do so. This paradox begs the question – is one truly capable of acting in accordance with one’s rational faculties and collaborate with others for the common good, when doing so requires significant and inconvenient changes in one’s behaviour?
The lack of effective response to climate change within liberal societies, indicates that one is often unable, or unwilling, to change one’s behaviour in times of necessity, despite this being both rational and for the common good. Humans tend to be myopic. People therefore frequently apply their rationality by neglecting long-term for short-term interests. One might respond to this by arguing that liberal societies are in fact adapting to tackle climate change, the burgeoning green economy being an example of this. It conveys how many people act in accordance with their rationality by living more sustainably. Unfortunately, not enough people are making these rational changes to significantly curtail the ramifications of climate change. Furthermore, Andrew Vincent describes how eco-capitalism is only compatible with liberalism owing to its anthropocentric conception of justice and has ‘no commitment to nature per se’. A liberal understanding of the common good considers human interests to be the focal point of value and decision making, naturally, this often leads to the marginalisation of environmental interests, even when they inadvertently cause us harm.
I propose that liberalism overestimates our capacity to act rationally and for the common good. While we are certainly able to act rationally and for the common good, liberalism assumes we can easily extend this to those far beyond those closest to us. Humans are in fact social beings that develop a sense of identity, meaning and purpose within a more localised context. And while these social bonds can be extended to include those in a wider community – particularly through the use of (social) media – this process of extension is complicated, as it requires one to overcome differences in identity by finding more obscure commonalities upon which empathy can be developed. Hence, the social bonds built within local communities are generally stronger than those built within wider communities. Numerous failed attempts by the international community to effectively tackle climate change exemplify how difficult humans find it to extend our conception of rationality and the common good beyond our immediate community.
Robyn Eckersley presents a compelling communitarian argument, which holds that ‘our most fundamental allegiances will always be particularistic’ and that it is immensely difficult to construct the universalistic allegiances liberalism requires. Consequently, people find it easier to apply their rationality within small communities. Another consequence is that conceptions of the common good are most effectively developed and implemented within small communities. Climate change is a transnational issue and while a reduction in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions appears both rational and for the common good of the wider international community, it is often irrational and contradicts the common good of local communities. In my opinion, it is fallacious to assume that individuals can easily extend their conception of rationality and the common good to include the variety of preferences within the wider international community. People do generally behave rationally and for the common good but prioritise the apparent and immediate preferences of their local community above the abstract and distant preferences of the wider international community. For it is in the local community where the ‘bonds of civic friendship’ described by Rawls are strongest.
Some might argue that global governance is the best mechanism for implementing the changes necessary to effectively tackle climate change. I disagree. Instead I propose that the most effective way of re-ordering one’s rationality and conception of the common good, so that it is more sensitive to climate change, is through inspiring an appreciation for the severity of environmental issues at a localised level. Eckersley highlights how bioregionalism provides a model for the creation of small communities with strong attachments to their local environment. While this is certainly not the only solution, I do believe it is pivotal that people feel connected to and responsible for their local environment. As only through identifying personally with the environment will one be able to extend one’s rationality and conception of the common good to environmental issues. It is the development of an environmental empathy which is necessary to effectively tackle climate change and reduce the harm it inflicts onto humanity. An environmental empathy which is engendered within local communities and not on the wider international stage.
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