1 August 2019

Why Greta Thunberg’s ‘Old World’ environmentalism misses the mark

By Blythe Edwards

Sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has recently announced that she will cross the Atlantic in an open-cockpit racing yacht in mid-August. Well done to her for eschewing the hypocrisy of Jetsetting elites, who preach carbon abstinence for the masses whilst racing back to an Extinction Rebellion protest in a first-class cabin.

However, Thunberg’s embrace of outdated transportation epitomises the fundamental problem with the green movement – its assumption that solutions lie in the pre-industrial past rather than an innovative, capitalist future.

Spurred in part by earnest and well-meaning activists like Thunberg, the climate change movement has been infused with catastrophising, scare-mongering rhetoric intended to shock the public into action.

Influential New York Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has warned that US millennials fear “the world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change”. In the US, the broadly written ‘Green New Deal’ championed by AOC has been adopted by almost all Democratic presidential contenders in their policy platforms.

On this side of the pond, the Extinction Rebellion protest disrupted traffic in major UK cities, bringing some of the busiest routes in London to a standstill for over 11 days. Similar to the US Green New Deal, the Extinction Rebellion demands are ambitious, but the means they propose to achieve them are either abstract or completely unrealistic – for instance the demand that the UK becomes a net zero carbon economy by 2025.

Past experience should warn us to reject these utopian solutions. While perhaps well-intentioned, these ideas are far from benign. As with the ideology which underpins most socialist movements, many green activists idealise an economy restructured around centrally planned lines and collectivist goals.

Every centrally designed society in history has failed. In Cambodia, perhaps the most horrifically realised attempt to design an agrarian socialist society, Pol Pot’s forcible de-urbanisation killed a quarter of the country’s population. We shouldn’t trust our future to all-powerful top-down planners.

Even the less radical proposals would have significant negative and regressive implications for the lives of real people, especially in the Global South, which is rapidly rising out of poverty largely on the back of inexpensive carbon-based energy.

Capitalism has been the greatest poverty reducer in all of human history. Between 1981 and 2013, as the Soviet Union crumbled, China’s economy liberalised and free markets spread, extreme poverty plummeted from 42% of the global population to just 10.7%, alongside corresponding improvements in longevity and quality of life.

To flippantly reject these advances would be asinine. It would plunge us all into a darker world – one where transatlantic voyages like Thunberg’s would take a dangerous and uncomfortable 14 days rather than eight hours – and would only be accessible to the richest and most powerful.

We have a choice to make. To really tackle climate change, we must think rationally about finding sustainable solutions. Thankfully, the dichotomy between improving the environment and economic growth is utterly false. Capitalism, perhaps counter-intuitively, is by far the best system to adapt to and solve our environmental dilemma.

For one thing, capitalism is singular among economic systems in its ability to spur innovation by unleashing the power of human ingenuity. Unlike a centrally managed economy, a dynamic market economy is a powerful engine for change, allowing competition to sieve through thousands of bottom-up solutions. Competitive capitalism is the only system well suited to the kind problem-solving adaptation we need.

What’s more, socialist governments have a horrifying record on the environment compared to their pro-capitalist counterparts. This stems from both their structural deficiencies, which entail little respect for property rights and an inability to respond to complex problems, as well as their high poverty rates, which lead to prioritisation of short-term fixes over environmental sustainability.

For instance, the massive environmental degradation of Mao’s Great Leap Forward only significantly declined once China began to liberalise its economy by introducing the price mechanism and property rights. Countries invest more in the environment as they grow richer and property rights are secured.

Entrepreneurs are developing technologies which will be best equipped to competitively tackle environmental damage. These include increasingly efficient wind and solar energy, atmospheric carbon-capture technology, genetically modified plants which require less water and grow food on less land, and more efficient and safer nuclear power. Let the free market economy encourage those technological breakthroughs and provide feedback on which work and which don’t.

Most of us are committed to a cleaner and greener planet. That is not in dispute. The debate should not be about conviction, but about the best way to find solutions.

Reactionary fantasies of reverting to a pre-industrialised ideal are deeply misguided. The demonisation of capitalism and free markets will only hold us back from achieving our goal of a sustainable and flourishing future. Now more than ever, the powerful engine of free-market capitalism, competition, and price signalling is needed so that we invest our limited resources wisely.

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Blythe Edwards is an intern at the Institute of Economic Affairs