During the Renaissance, Europe was ablaze with all-out war for a century and a half until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, allegedly for religious reasons, Martin Luther’s Reformation or Henry VIII’s Anglicanism amongst others, more prosaically for economic and social reasons. Francis Fukuyama, in his latest essay, “Liberalism and its discontents”, posits the rise of liberalism in the 17th century was one key idea to stop the bloodshed and, eventually, a cornerstone for the 18th century Enlightenment and the subsequent Industrial Revolution, the starting point in the massive use of fossil energy for three centuries, allowing humanity (well, the Western part of it, at the beginning) to rise out of a millennium-old stagnation into an amazing growth, but with awesome long-term consequences for the planet.
This ambitious and brilliant book cannot be easily summarized. Still, Francis Fukuyama also defines liberalism as the basis for politics aimed at improving real life, to bring peace and security to all, in essence managing diversity and plurality of beliefs, which implies individualism rather than communitarianism, promoting equal chances and tolerance, and, last but not least, based on trust in science-based progress and methodology, so essential to most of us.
Three centuries and a half later, aren’t we again living the perilous passage from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, religious sectarianism being replaced by the existential question of how to replace fossil energy (a.k.a. “the blood of globalization”), at the very heart of our short, full of sound and furor, Anthropocene civilization, so as to help us, on our only planet, adapt to a change in the climate that scientists describe as apocalyptical, another religious reference.
Most of these experts rightfully insist “we”, collectively, as polluters, regulators that allowed pollution, consumers, have been procrastinating for too long in the face of an obvious global warming, theorized by Svante Arrhenius as soon as 1896, and, therefore, “we” are now confronted to a vital (opposite of lethal, isn’t it?) urgency to act. But the political regimes of the major, past and present, contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, based on elections, more or less democratic, are inextricably linked to the liberal philosophy or its close avatars, where concertation, deliberation, persuasion, checks & balances, are prominent features, which require time and patience to address any big issue, especially when it is holistic and global in nature.
On top of that, on the economic front, war has raged in the previous century between communism, priority to production, and neo-liberalism, priority to consumer well-being (proxy: lowest prices), the latter having won, sure helping so many of humans to get out of poverty across the world, the positive side of the coin, but also generating a frenzy of production to meet better off customer’s insatiable, often superfluous, demands, the negative side of this proverbial coin. Last, but not least, human knowledge is now so deep, compared to what was known in the 17th or 18th century, that controversies on hyper-precise subjects can be raging for years between just a handful of respectable hyper-specialized scientists, the layman mostly understanding nothing of the said subjects: think about Indirect Land Use Change, so fundamental to the acceptability of first-generation biofuels.
Anathema and mud-slinging on social networks have replaced the priest’s heated homilies against the heretics. And, even if the climate impact on our future has now been a subject of serious academic studies for some time, 21st century “religious” wars are really about revisiting the late 20th century Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations into a clash of the various solutions vying for the replacement of fossil energy, THE major game changer for our Anthropocene civilization, as said above: social thinkers and philosophers talk of “shallow” (techno-based) vs “deep” ecology, “conciliatory” (with productivism) vs “radical” ecology, “correcting” vs “paradigmatical” ecology, “government” vs “autonomous” (libertarian?) ecology, all these oppositions summarized in the big existential and philosophical question “is humanity apart of and against the rest of Mother Nature or part and parcel of Her?”.
If I were an adept of conspiracy theories, I would look for the hidden agendas for each zealous supporter or worshipper of any of these solutions, trying to find the equivalent of the clergy wealth the 16th century European kings were coveting under the cloak of unreconcilable religious creeds: I am not and will allow myself to believe self-righteousness, blinders or short-sightedness mostly explain the heated exchanges.
But the key interrogation remains: How to quickly get out of this cacophony and quickly define and, more importantly, execute a global and pragmatic plan to reduce GHG emissions, in a reasonable timeframe? Who will be the Locke and Hobbes of this century? Well, in this era where information freely flows, citizens can be much better educated and informed of the ins and outs regarding the challenges of our times, if they want to be fairly informed, and we may not absolutely need such providential thinkers.
Quite the contrary, we should trust our (democratic) institutions to find the middle way, conjuring innovative and diverse sustainable solutions, while ensuring social justice, that is providing fair and equal access for all to affordable goods and services, possibly with some frugality: within sustainability lie the notions of transition, compensation and resilience, in essence simultaneously allowing to live now and to allow the future generations also to live. In the various formats of the Green Deals, proposed on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, one can find an echo to Rousseau’s “Social Contract”, one of the fundamental texts that led to so many political and social changes around the end of the 18th century.
Readers of this newsletter are highly educated and/or have managing or leadership responsibilities: we should, collectively, engage in, a minima strongly support, our political process, helping to defend the plurality and complementarity of solutions, refusing modern avatars of communitarianism, the necessity to leave no-one behind, the faith in the scientific method to honestly bring forward the pros and cons of the diverse pathways, accepting controversy as part of a fair debate, hoping we will not have to resort to the ancient trial by ordeal, in order to lead us, as soon as practicably possible and as painlessly as possible, out of this climate crisis.
Individual contributions may be too small to change the situation, but, collectively, these contributions, in act or in speech, do matter: after all, liberalism and democracy, the worst systems, excepting for all the others, are based on individual implication, we are actors, not pure consumers.
Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP).