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Green Libertarianism: The New Reformist Movement?

By Annalee Newitz, AlterNet. Posted May 29, 2007.


Combining libertarianism with green values might be a pragmatic way to convince some of the worst polluters to cut back by essentially bribing them with cash.
Annalee Newitz

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It sounds crazy, but it just might work: Green libertarianism could become the new reformist movement in politics and cultural life.

In the 1980s, suggesting that green culture could be combined with libertarianism would have been worse than foolish. Those were the days when libertarians protested having to get their cars smog-checked because it represented government control of their personal property. But now that even staunch Republicans like Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger are promoting ecofriendly policies and business leaders like Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla are hanging out at the Sierra Club, it seems that the times, they are a-changin'.

Over the past decade, experts have slowly and quietly been publishing studies on how to bring green sensibilities into line with the free-market agenda of libertarians. Natural Capitalism, published in 2000, was one of the first books to advance this idea. Last year two Yale environmental researchers, Daniel Esty and Andrew Winston, published Green to Gold, which explores ways that companies like Wal-Mart are attempting to bring sustainability into their business models. Though Esty and Winston conclude that there are no companies currently doing enough to be truly green, they acknowledge that some are on the right track.

They also explain quite succinctly why free-market leaders have joined what they call the Green Wave. No, it's not out of the goodness of their hearts. "Behind the Green Wave are two interlocking sources of pressure," they write. "First the limits of the natural world could constrain business operations, realign markets, and perhaps even threaten the planet's well-being. Second, companies face a growing spectrum of stakeholders who are concerned about the environment."

A lot of Green Wave entrepreneurs are probably disingenuous. One imagines they're like the antihero of underrated movie I Heart Huckabees, a slimy corporate type who feigns interest in green development to sucker a community into signing over its land to condo and mall developers. But I believe some real-life Green Wavers are genuinely fascinated by strange new ideas that could encourage economic growth and sustainable development. These are people who are talking about carbon credits, emissions trading, and various financial incentives for entrepreneurs who limit their environmental impact, recycle, use alternative energy sources, or encourage their employees to carpool.

The question is why would anybody want to marry green and libertarian values? It sounds like a way of letting business do an end run around international bodies and governments, groups that have traditionally set limits on industry. There's no doubt that states should have a role in setting policies for local corporations, but those corporations need rewards for their good behavior too. That's where capitalism comes in. Combining libertarianism with green values might be a pragmatic way to convince some of the worst polluters to cut back by essentially bribing them with cash. The state can step in to punish bad actors who refuse to try for the carrot.

On a less cynical note, one might say that libertarians and greens go together because both are focused on maintaining economic development in the long term. They aren't looking at next quarter: they're looking at next century. A green libertarian has realized that the freedom of future markets depends on maintaining a healthy environment.

If green libertarianism prevails, I'm guessing the future will look nothing like ecotopia and nothing like capitalist Utopia either. Business will behave more like government, limiting its growth for the sake of sustainability. And ecology as we know it will probably be a lot more engineered and synthetic than ever before because communities will carefully plan their ecosystems to remain healthy and whole alongside cities and corporations. We will reach a stage in our technological development when we have to manage our natural environments as well as our economic ones. Perhaps one day the capitalism that results from green libertarianism will know itself to be only one piece of a healthy social ecology. That's the kind of capitalism that even a grumpy old Marxist like myself can get behind.

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Annalee Newitz (annalee@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who thinks the next best thing to smashing capitalism is changing it entirely.

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