Climate Change and the Inconvenience of Individual Liberty by Deanna Simpson


The purpose of this essay is to provide a critique of individual liberty as a primary value for human life, in light of anthropogenic climate change. It will first argue that capitalism and Western democracy, conceptualized as safeguards of the liberal autonomous self, are co-facilitators of anthropogenic climate change. The essay will then consider recent efforts and ideas to mitigate climate change: both the market mechanisms prevalent in Australian and international policy debate, and the more radical idea of Steve Vanderheiden’s, to allocate ecological space among “various claimants, present and future” (Vanderheiden 2009). Such methods for mitigating climate change will be ethically problematized from an eco-feminist perspective which argues that the continuation of the privileging of liberal autonomy and progress is a morally questionable and constructed ideology of how the human species’ relationship with the earth should be, through invoking notions of ecological debt and providing examples of alternative livelihoods. Finally, the essay will briefly consider, still through an eco-feminist lens, inroads into climate change solutions that are reconceptualised around more essential values than individual liberty, such as survival and interconnectivity, with an inclusive approach that does not silence women and the ‘global south’.

Capitalism and Democracy as Co-facilitators of Anthropogenic Climate Change

The Privileging of Liberal Autonomy

Liberalism has long been the justification for both capitalism and democracy, with the belief that “the only freedom that deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to attain it” (Mill in Vanderheiden 2009). This essay understands capitalism as achieving the first part of this: “pursuing our own good”, where good is conceived of as economic gain; while democracy is about responding to the second part: making sure we “do not deprive others of theirs”, through ensuring individual rights and responsibilities (Shearman and Smith 2007, p. 12). Modern democracy, as Shearman and Smith assert, “grew up in symbiosis with capitalism and is now inseparable. Democracy provides space – the liberalism – within which freedom of action can occur in order for each individual not only to fulfill all material needs, but to accumulate unlimited wealth” via a capitalist economy (2007, p. 111). The current global economy, by virtue of these liberal values, practices an “ideological preference for neo-liberal economic policies and markets over state-led economic planning” (Newel and Paterson 2010, p. 19). The globalization of this system was prompted after economic growth slowed in the 1970s in the United Kingdom and the United States, and privatization and limitations on welfare were introduced to encourage free market flourishing. Neo-liberalism proliferated “in part because of the dominance of those two countries in global financial markets, but also because of their use of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank whose mandates were to promote neo-liberal reform agendas in countries from the South”, including deregulation, privatization, and free trade (Newel and Paterson 2010, p. 19).

While the economic system is largely global and transcends borders, democracy is and does not. Because of this, capitalism, based on notions of the liberal autonomous self, when viewed on a global scale, becomes a system of discursive control whereby the environment and “workers, women, indigenes, peasants, and environmentalists” become exploited in order for others to pursue their own good, namely economic wealth, in the world wide system of capital accumulation (Salleh 2009, p. 5). At least two features of democracy as it exists today contribute to this paradox: the lack of a globally inclusive democracy, and the shortcomings of representative democracy. These will be discussed after first outlining how the current neo-liberal economic structure facilitates climate change.

Capitalism and Climate Change

Climate change is an example of a ‘tragedy of the commons’ scenario, whereby “communities may over-exploit shared environmental resources even where they know that they are doing so and are aware that it is against their long term interests” (Hardin in Baylis and Smith 2001, p. 459). In an economic system where access to the common resource – in the case of climate change, the common resource being the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb emissions without risk of dangerous climate change (Garnaut 2008, p. 173) – is un-regulated, or not uniformly regulated, each user has individual interest in utilizing it as much as possible, while the cost of over-exploitation is borne collectively by the world’s population (Baylis and Smith 2001, p. 459). It is hypothesised that the costs of anthropogenic climatic change will be unevenly distributed with “the countries expected to suffer most (being) those with a low income and high dependency on climate–sensitive food production”, such as approximately twenty African countries with 30-60% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in agriculture (Spash 2002, p. 165). This means that for developed nations who contribute a larger proportion of greenhouse gas emissions to climate change and are better placed in economic terms to adapt to such changes, unilateral action to mitigate climate change is not a priority. As previously mentioned, one role of democracy is to ensure that individual rights are not infringed upon by others pursuing individual gain, however the difficulty with the climate change crisis is that climate change is a global problem proliferated by faults in a global economic system that promotes individual autonomy and economic gain, whereas democracies occur at the level of nation-states and therefore only have responsibility to protect members of those states from being exploited and suffering under this system (Bohman 2005). Because is no way of enforcing emission reduction targets on a global scale, each individual country has an incentive to ‘free ride’ or benefit from other countries’ reductions in emissions without incurring any mitigation costs itself (Brennan 2009).

The Lack of a Global Democratic Institution and the Impact of this for Climate Change

Bohman argues in ‘The Democratic Minimum: is Democracy a Means to Global Justice?’ that a transnational democracy is the best way to promote human political rights (2005). In relation to climate change, it is not only the case that developing countries will suffer the most economically, as aforementioned, but also in terms of the cost of climate change on human lives, with climate change set to deepen poverty in developing countries, impacting on health, access to food and safe drinking water, and land fertility amongst copious other development concerns (Spash 2002, p. 205) Women in particular, who account for 70% of the world’s poor and are the primary care-givers in most societies, will suffer significantly under the harsh conditions spurred by anthropogenic climate change (Hawthorne 2009, p. 97). Without a transnational democratic body in place that has responsibility to ensure justice and well-being for all people, powerful democracies will continue to exploit the poor in developing countries (both democratic and non-democratic) in exchange for protecting the right to wealth of their own citizens, sought after because of the privileging of individual liberty ideology in such nations. Although several inter- and transnational organisations designed to provide scientific and economic expertise on climate change exist, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there is presently no governing body that can enforce policy formation and action on climate change transnationally in order to meet the rights and needs of all people, including those who face further entrenchment in poverty due to environmental degradation (Spash 2002, p. 9). As Baylis and Smith note, “the prospects for overcoming (environmental problems) could be expected to be greatly improved if there is a strong hierarchical authority capable of taking decisions and enforcing them on dissenting groups…However, there is no world government with the power or authority to impose rules on the use of global commons” (2001, p. 460). The consequence of this is that responsibility for legislation and enforcement is split between many sovereign states who are all, as previously outlined, acting in the interest of a specific set of constituents and therefore looking to free-ride.

The Shortcomings of Representative Democracy

In addition to the fact that democracy is selective in responding only to those constituents within its borders, one problematic feature of representative democracy as it exists today is that it often responds only to the beliefs and needs of the majority, and indeed occasionally only those of the minority, leaving a large population whose interests have been violated by the state. Because in a representative democracy all decision making power is given to elected individuals (Shearman and Smith 2007, p. 77), as Hindmoor notes, for politicians seeking re-election, certain costs such as confronting climate change are beyond their political horizon, because doing so will impede economic growth, and economic competency is key to reelection, as voters are typically most interested in issues that that directly affect their finances (2006, p. 89). Further to this, because political parties are elected to government because the sum total of their policies is preferred to another party, it is also entirely possible that on certain issues including those relating to the environment, the elected government’s policy does not reflect the will of the people. An example of this is the case of Tasmanian forests, which according to polls, most Tasmanians wish to preserve (Shearman and Smith 2007, p. 81). Both major political parties in Tasmania, however, support their destruction for export of woodchips. The current party was elected because of other aspects of its platform, whilst the Green party, who is against the destruction of the forests, did not gain power because of components of its platform that do not attract votes (Shearman and Smith 2007, p. 81). Hence, “in terms of the future needs of the world, in Tasmania, representative democracy is the means whereby environmental destruction is planned and executed against the will of the people” (Shearman and Smith 2007, p. 90). This is just one example of a failing within this type of democracy that contributes to anthropogenic climate change and is replicated in representative democracies across the world.

Mechanisms for Confronting Climate Change

Climate change mitigation schemes being promoted in both national and international arenas are generally neo-liberal in character, putting primary focus on market mechanisms, and demonstrating that “proponents of neo-liberalism have been successful in presenting their ideas as rational, objective and universally beneficial to the extent that ‘there is no alternative’” (Paloni and Zanardi 2006, p. 125). Measures such as carbon pricing, and emissions trading schemes where an overall emissions limit is set and actors are allowed to trade permits for emissions (Newel and Paterson 2010, p. 24-25), are examples of market-based mechanisms designed to reduce GHG emissions with the least disruption to ‘business-as-usual’. Support for such policies is reflected, for example, is the Australian Garnaut Climate Change Review, which recommends policies and policy frameworks for mitigating climate change, and favours for Australia the adoption of a well-designed emissions trading scheme (Garnaut 2008, p. 299).

In his article, “allocating ecological space”, Steve Vanderheiden offers a more radical potential solution for protecting ecological space; one that is not simply a market mechanism, but still purportedly safeguards individual liberal autonomy, in a way which better ensures that every person’s liberty and autonomy is protected (Shearman and Smith 2007, p. 259). Vanderheiden asserts that “aggregate ecological space is finite and threatened by current patterns of over-approporiation, yielding imperatives to fairly allocate that space among various claimants, present and future” (Vanderheiden 2009). He states that since almost all human actions, including eating, breathing and commuting, make de facto claims on ecological space, which potentially deprive others of the ecological space necessary to pursue their good, limiting our actions and choices by allocating ecological space is a matter of justice: “the scarcity of ecological space need not undermine the classical liberal conception of freedom as autonomy and indeed the allocation of ecological space defines the sphere in which persons can make the kind of autonomous choices that liberalism celebrates” (Vanderheiden 2009). Vanderheiden therefore advocates for an average ecological footprint of 1.1 hectares per person, noting that we are currently at a deficit of 0.4 hectares per person (2009).

Market Mechanisms and Allocating Ecological Space as Ethically Problematic

Despite the possibility, as outlined above, that the concept of allocating ecological space would make significant inroads into achieving certain ideals of distributive justice, making it easier for all people to access the resources to establish adequate well-being, the idea of dividing land is still a method of control which presents several difficulties. This essay will acknowledge that there are practical and logistical concerns with the idea of allocating ecological space – including controversies over how to decide who gets what land, and the expenses of controlling such controversies – but will limit itself to elucidating some of the ethical difficulties with allocating ecological space as a concept. One of Vanderheiden’s claims in his essay is that the notion of liberal autonomy predates the notion of environmental conservation (Vanderheiden 2009). This point is simply indefensible, although there may be truth in a narrower claim that Western philosophical ideas of liberty as propagated by Mill in the nineteenth century predate any concern with anthropogenic climate change. Beyond this, however, there are many examples of indigenous and subsistence communities and cultures that have practiced for thousands of years (and where possible continue to practice) environmental conservation through caring and reciprocal relationships with the land and its resources. Examples of this can be found in many of the Aboriginal tribes of Australia such as the Aranda and Walpiri people (Salleh 2009, p. 93):
“The interfunctioning quality of central Australian epistemology means that there is a direct engagement and relationship between the people of a community and their environment…the relationship with the land is one of responsibility which is characterized by ritual maintenance, knowledge of resources and areas where food may or may not be harvested. Intimate and detailed knowledge is integral to the sustenance of the land, and in turn, to the culture. Plants, animals, rocks, the nature of the landscape and soil, its watercourses, and the people all play a part in the interfunctioning system.”

There are significant differences between Western attitudes towards land ownership, where property is “disconnected, purchased with money, (and) located anywhere”, and indigenous perspectives on property, where “an intimate relationship between land and people is maintained by personal presence, ritual maintenance, and indigenous reasoning, land cannot be purchased and it has a pre-determined location” (Salleh 2009, p. 93-94).

Examples of cultures with different ways of relating to the earth should serve as a reminder that it is not fair or reasonable to assume universal applicability of Western ideas, including both the concept of dividing ecological space equally amongst the earth’s inhabitants, and carbon schemes such as taxes and emissions trading. Allocating land cannot apply easily to nomadic tribes, for example, and the concept of allocating land to the millions of people living in developing countries in poverty – when through disproportionate emissions of greenhouse gases alone, developed and industrialised countries “have imposed climate changes on (these developing countries) greater than the latter’s foreign debt” (Salleh 2009, p. 6) – seems hypocritical, impractical, and highly ethically problematic. This critique of the idea of allocating ecological space can be extrapolated to neo-liberal methods of combating climate change, such as the market mechanisms of carbon taxation and emissions trading, with marginalized voices from the South being particularly skeptical these methods, which they see as further entrenching them within a system that oppresses and takes advantage of them. According to Salleh, “The global system of capitalist patriarchal economics understands the conservation of biodiversity and climate change in terms of enclosures, and more recently, marketable commodities” and therefore environmental conservation has become yet another opportunity for the colonization of Third World resources” (2009, p. 199). Market mechanisms for mitigating climate change have been criticized for their ethical validity for similar reasons to the above critique of allocating ecological space, with the claim that, “selling (carbon dioxide) to mitigate carbon emissions, is a neo-colonial class and gender-biased practice that impacts on the ecology of poor countries, on their subsistence economics, and particularly on women” (Spash 2002, p. 205). These criticisms from voices on the periphery suggest that solutions to climate change that do not address the underlying issue of the Western privileging of individual liberty and autonomy are little more than band-aid solutions that further stifle and oppress alternative and more sustainable livelihoods.

Towards a Solution: Drawing on Eco-feminism

Eco-feminism draws parallels between the exploitation of women and the exploitation of nature, and argues that “the capitalist market is disembodied and disembedded, carved out of the totality of human existence within the natural world. An analysis of women’s work shows how this economy fails to acknowledge its true resource base, and how it is parasitical upon sustaining systems including the environment” and reproductive labor (Salleh 2009, p. 263). Nayak suggests that in moving forward in a way that undoes the ‘violence’ inherent in Western-style development, we must look to peasants or indigenous gatherers of the South, who demonstrate “a good metabolic fit between human needs and biological growth” (Nayak in Salleh 2009, p. 109). Eco-feminists advocate for a provisioning economy of sorts, which would start from the “embodiment and embeddedness of human lives, from the life of the body and the ecosystem, from women’s work and the vitality of the natural world” (Salleh 2009, p. 303). Methods of and attitudes towards work and consumption would be attuned to the human life-cycle and integrated with the dynamics of the body and the environment. (Salleh 2009, p. 264). Eco-feminist Susan Hawthorne uses the term ‘wild economics’ to draw together indigenous, feminist and ecological thinkers, amongst others, in a style of economics that holds complexity at its core: “The wild is a life-based concept. It is not containable and it is uncontrollable…the wild is also multiple, and can only be understood in relation to the things and processes around it. So context and relationship are critical to understanding the wild. The wild is multiple in the sense that biodiversity is multiple. It is multiversal, with no single centre” (2009, p. 98). In a ‘wild economics’, people question the view of ‘economic man’ as singular, universal, and thoroughly in control of ‘his life’, and instead there is movement towards “an open, discursive ecosystem” (Hawthorne 2009, p. 100). These ideas emerging from eco-feminist literature are broad and only loosely conceptualised, but they demonstrate that there is potential for new economic systems that are more inclusive, reflexive, and interdependent with ecology, and do not facilitate, so readily, anthropogenic climate change.


This essay has sought to demonstrate that anthropogenic climate change is facilitated by the West’s ethically unjustifiable privileging of the value of individual liberal autonomy, safeguarded by the unfortunate combination of a global capitalist economic system and national representative democracies. It has outlined briefly both the mainstream market mechanisms for mitigating climate change, and a more radical idea of allocating ecological space from Vanderheiden, but has criticized these approaches as unethical as they falsely assume universal applicability and contribute to a long legacy of colonial attitudes towards the environment, the global South, women, indigenous people and peasants. The essay concludes with a short introduction to eco-feminist suggestions for reconceptualising a complex and interconnected economics that values reciprocity in human relations with the environment. In the words of eco-feminist Hawthorne, on a new uncontainable and uncontrollable ‘wild’ economics, “one cannot predict the wild, and in this sense it has an unfettered freedom,” and perhaps this is the sort of freedom – quite apart from notions of individual liberal autonomy that are behind the unlimited growth patterns of today’s hegemonic capitalism and deficient democracy – that the earth and its people need.

Deanna Simpson was an undergraduate philosophy student when she submitted this piece three years ago.


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Shearman, D and Smith, J. 2007. The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy. Praeger: London.

Spash, Clive. 2002. Greenhouse Economics: Value and Ethics. New York: Routledge.

Vanderheiden, S. 2009. ‘Allocating Ecological Space’. Journal of Social Philosophy. 40: 257–275.

Photo by Jesse Orrico


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