I am delighted to be speaking at the Battle of Ideas weekend at the Barbican Centre in London on 22 and 23 October 2016. On the Saturday I will be speaking on a panel on the super-rich and on the Sunday on the debate about social inequality. I will post more details at a later date. Alternatively you can check out the Battle of Ideas website. The whole festival is well worth attending.

Book recommendation

26 Jul 2016

Those who know German would do well to read Zeitgeisterjagd (Hunting the Zeitgeist) by Matthias Heitmann. The German author explores the dire consequences of the spirit of the times we live in. Risk aversion has infused public and private life to such an extent that we think of ourselves as unable to act upon the world. This ultimately renders us incapable of overcoming the challenges that face us. The result? We have become unfree.

The book was reviewed by Maren Thom in English on spiked in October 2015.

Readers in the UK can buy the book on Amazon here.

 

The following is a blog post I wrote on behavioural economics for the Institute of Economic Affairs website.

Anyone who has what might be called an instinct for freedom is likely to baulk at being dictated to by experts. A fundamental liberal principle is that individuals should have the autonomy to make their own decisions about how to run their own lives.

This insight goes back at least to the eighteenth century. Immanuel Kant, one of the greatest German philosophers, spelt it out in 1784 in an essay entitled Was ist Aufklärung? [What is Enlightenment?]: “If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on – then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me.”

Overall the passage sounds strikingly contemporary. In the early twenty-first century we are plagued with self-proclaimed experts telling us how to do everything from eating healthily to parenting. The main difference with Kant’s day is that we do not have to pay for guidance from above, or at least not directly. We are bombarded with unsolicited advice.

However, there is a key clause in Kant’s comment that it is easy to miss. His argument hinges on the assumption that individuals are capable of thinking for themselves. But what if that premise is false? What if ordinary people, those who are not experts, are incapable of thinking rationally?

That is the starting point for the edifice of the burgeoning field of behavioural economics. Many of its proponents, such as Dan Ariely of Duke University, state bluntly that they view humans are irrational. The more sophisticated ones, such as Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate at Princeton, talk more guardedly of ‘bounded rationality’. Either way the assumption is that the human thinking process is fundamentally flawed.

One way this argument is sometimes is expressed is the claim that humans are more like Homer Simpson than Mr Spock. Most people, in this view, are essentially idiotic and ignorant rather than logical calculating machines as epitomised by the Star Trek character. (Although fans of the science fiction franchise will know that Spock is actually torn between human emotion and Vulcan reason).

Whatever metaphor is used it should be clear that if the claim of irrationality is true it undermines one of the foundations of mainstream economics. From a behavioural perspective it is wrong to view consumers as primarily driven by rational considerations. From this premise it is a short step to explain financial crises and economic downturns as essentially bouts of irrationality. The conclusion normally drawn is that experts should play a central role in directing economic activity.

It is important to recognise that such claims should not be rejected simply because they lead to objectionable conclusions. If the assumption of irrationality is true then, whether we like it or not, it should be accepted. The key question is whether it is indeed correct. There are at least three reasons to question it.

First, the claim of irrationality is often based on a caricature of orthodox economics. Even the most ardent mainstream economists do not generally claim that humans always act as perfect robotic calculators. People do not systematically weigh up the costs and benefits of every minute decision they ever make.

In reality, the mainstream claim is that an assumption of a broad rationality should be the starting point for building a model of how the economy works. It does not preclude people from ever feeling emotions, making mistakes or miscalculating on the spur of the moment. Moreover, outside the economic sphere, say in relation to love or family life, people often make decisions on grounds other than economic rationality.

It is also common for behaviouralists to assert irrationality rather than to prove it. For example, in a BBC Horizondocumentary Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel laureate, gave the working habits of New York taxi drivers as an example of irrational behaviour. His claim was that everyone wants taxis on rainy days but on sunny days fares are hard to find. So, he argued, taxi drivers should logically spend lots of time driving on rainy days when it is easy to find passengers. Sunny days, when there are fewer passengers around, are the best time for drivers to take time off. But in reality many drivers do the opposite. They work long hours on slow sunny days while knocking off early when it is rainy and busy. Rather than thinking about how best to maximise their income they simply aim to earn a set amount every day. Once they hit their target they go home.

Anyone who takes the trouble to talk to taxi drivers or even to think about the question will realise things are not so simple. Some drivers say that, contrary to Kahneman’s claim, there can be fewer people around when it is raining. For example, a potential passenger who is thinking of going out for a meal might decide to eat at home instead if the weather is wet. Other drivers claim that passengers tend to want to go on less lucrative shorter journeys, rather than long trips, when it is raining.

It is also likely that many drivers have set expenses to pay, whether it is for food or housing, every week. To be sure of meeting their commitments they may need to drive whatever the weather. On a sunny day they may decide they cannot afford to risk waiting for more lucrative rainy days to come along. The weather itself is uncertain.

In such cases there is probably no perfect solution which is right in all circumstances. It is likely the correct answer will vary according to particular local conditions and individual needs. The key point is that it is wrong to simply assume that taxi drivers who work long hours in sunny weather are behaving irrationally. They may have rational reasons for driving when they do. Indeed they are likely to know a great deal more about how they run their own lives than even the most eminent professor.

Finally, the claim that economic downturns can simply be explained as bouts of irrational behaviour is crass. Such arguments tend to be based on simplistic assumptions. Often financial turmoil is treated as more-or-less synonymous with trouble in the real economy when the relationship between the two is complex.

In addition, it is wrong to see economies as mere collections of individual consumers. Modern economies are complex entities with large numbers of producers as well as consumers. Understanding weaknesses on the productive side of the economy involves examining such factors as low levels of business investment and profitability. The difficulties economies face demand careful examination rather than assertions that they are manifestations of market madness.

Indeed it is a rich irony that it is often experts, who in many cases are sympathetic to behavioural economics, who have exacerbated economic problems. For instance, there is a reasonable case that some central banks contributed to the 2008-9 financial crisis by pursuing an overly loose monetary policy beforehand. Low interest rates contributed to the creation of the financial bubble before the market crash. And, this leads to a fundamental issue. Those who use behaviourial economics often suggest that it implies a greater role for regulators or the state to “nudge” us in the right direction. But, are not regulators subject to behaviourial biases too? Perhaps, for example, they systematically over-estimate their ability to perfect markets.

Behavioural economics should be seen as part of a broader assault on reason that goes back to at least the nineteenth century. It attacks the primary liberal value of individual freedom on the spurious grounds that people are incapable of thinking clearly for themselves. On this basis is opens the way for both illiberal policy conclusions and flawed economics.

Think Conference

28 Jun 2016

Delighted to be talking on two panels at the Think Confererence in London this coming weekend. Do come along if you can.

This is the original (unedited) version of my latest book review for the Financial Times.

Although Yuval Levin is a self-avowed conservative he takes aim at both sides of the US political divide in this perceptive work. The former White House staffer under President George W Bush sees both progressives and conservatives as wallowing in an unhealthy nostalgia. The Fractured Republic argues eloquently that striving for a better future means desisting from romanticising the past.

Republicans, in Levin’s view, tend to hark back to 1981. In the first full year of the Ronald Reagan presidency the conservative president set about implementing free market reforms in earnest.

The nostalgia of the Democrats, in contrast, harks back to the Great Society of 1965. That was the high point of the campaign against poverty and racial injustice implemented by the administration of Lyndon B Johnson.

Neither side, Levin argues, has the answer to the most contemporary problems in the US. The left is too wedded to statism and the right too often favours a hyper-individualism. Neither, in his view, is up to the tackling the central challenge of America’s fractured society. Both social order and economic security have been weakened. A dysfunctional political system is ill-equipped to tackle these problems.

Many leading American thinkers share Levin’s preoccupation with acute social divisions although each has their own particular take on it. Robert Putnam, a Harvard academic, has bemoaned the decline of social capital in US society. Bill Bishop, a prominent journalist, has used demographic data to show Americans increasingly choose to live with like-minded neighbours. Charles Murray, a conservative thinker, has bemoaned how a powerful upper class has separated itself from the rest of society.

For Democrats, and those who more generally define themselves as progressive, economic inequality is generally central to this concern. They criticise an ostentatious super-rich for separating itself from the rest of society.

Levin accepts that high inequality is a reality but is surely right to argue that it is an effect rather than a cause. The wealthy, for instance, have benefitted from the booming of the financial sector and financial assets over the years. But to see this trend as the main reason for America’s fracturing is misleading.

Conservatives also identify a growing social divide but they tend to see it more in moral terms. Levin is influenced by Charles Murray’s argument on the growing gap between those with a university education and those without. It is perhaps not surprising that college graduates suffer lower unemployment. But they also tend to have significantly higher marriage rates, lower divorce rates and more religious commitment. For the right, cultural disintegration and polarisation, rather than economic inequality, are the key concerns.

Although Levin is critical of both conservatives and progressives he argues that the right is better able to come up with a solutions. His solution is a reinvigoration of what he calls mediating institutions in society: a strengthening of community life. As a self-professed conservative it is not surprising that he sees the family as playing a central role in achieving this task. But he also argues for increased importance to be attached to liberal education (as opposed to vocational learning) and greater civic engagement. Above all he emphasises the importance of religious institutions as he sees these as a direct challenge to the age of fracture.

This emphasis on mediating institutions is in line with his support for what he calls a modernised politics of subsidiarity. That is the idea that key decisions should be made as close to the community level as reasonably possible.

Despite the many insights in Levin’s work there are good reasons to call some of his key insights into questions. For example, there is a lot of emphasis on institutions but much less on the ideas needed to develop a common outlook.

It is also arguable that the widespread concern about inequality is driven by factors other than economic ones. At least in part it seems to reflect an insecurity within the elite itself. It no longer has confidence in its own ability to cohere society.

Nevertheless the Fractured Republic should be require reading for all those trying to understand the contemporary US.

Spiked has published my review of the new book by Yanis Varoufakis.

Yanis Varoufakis is one of those infuriating people who says one thing one minute and contradicts it the next. The former Greek finance minister has savaged the European Union for undermining national sovereignty, but he actively campaigns against Brexit. He has censured the EU for being too centralised, but he calls for more integration. And he has condemned the EU’s second-rate technocracy before then proposing his own technocratic plan to ease its economic problems.

His latest book, And The Weak Suffer What They Must?, is plagued by similar inconsistencies. It presents itself as a history of attempts to move towards a common European currency from the 1970s to the outbreak of the Greek financial crisis in 2010. However, it often seems to be more of an attempt to give intellectual kudos to his new role as a campaigning celebrity. Thankfully, the book provides some insights into the many weaknesses and inconsistencies in his worldview.

Before considering his arguments on Brexit, it is only reasonable to examine his account of monetary history. There is of course nothing inherently wrong with writing about the move towards monetary union in Europe, but his account is riddled with analytical flaws. He clearly has more charisma than the average finance minister – not a high benchmark – but he is lacking in intellectual rigour.

Contrary to what might be assumed, there is little on the real economy in Varoufakis’s book. For example, his account of the 1971 ‘Nixon shock’, when the fixed exchange rate between the dollar and other currencies broke down, does not properly explain why it happened. His focus is on the interactions between the politicians and officials involved in the process. There is little understanding of how the US economy’s relative decline meant it no longer had sufficient strength to maintain the dollar peg.

Strangely, Varoufakis puts a heavy emphasis on the Nixon shock to help explain the emergence of the Eurozone crisis in 2009. The thrust of his argument is that those who favoured closer alignment of currencies in Europe should have learned more from the US experience. Those who designed the dollar peg back in the 1940s were, he argues, imbued with the wisdom of Keynesian economics. But however clever they were, there were immense practical problems in imposing a common currency on diverse national economies. Even aligning some of the main European currencies more closely, before the advent of the Euro, proved difficult.

Varoufakis also has a poor understanding of the EU itself. He often talks about the organisation as if it existed as far back as the 1950s, though occasionally, and correctly, he reminds us that it only came into existence following the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. That was when what had been primarily a trading bloc, the European Economic Community, was transformed into an alliance with a much wider political remit.

Strangely, he says little about German reunification. Yet the creation of the EU was in large part a reaction to the emergence of a united Germany at the end of the Cold War: other European countries were intent on building institutions that would help curb German power.

The final key weakness is that a focus on currencies is a poor way to analyse broader questions of democracy and sovereignty. There clearly is some connection, in that the advent of the Euro entailed a severe constraint on the national sovereignty of those countries which joined the monetary bloc. For one thing, interest rates are set by the European Central Bank rather than national central banks. But to understand the EU’s democratic deficit, including for those countries not in the Eurozone, demands a wider canvas.

The main merit of Varoufakis’s book is that, at least inadvertently, it gives some insight into how he manages to square so many circles. Read it carefully and it becomes apparent that his objection is not to technocracy itself, but to ‘second-rate’ or ‘clueless and inefficient’ technocrats. His preference is for what he would presumably class as ‘first-rate’ technocrats: people with Keynesian views similar to his. Indeed, the heroes of the book are Keynesian-inclined politicians and officials of the 1950s and 1960s.

Another striking feature – for what is meant to be a book about currencies – is Varoufakis’s preoccupation with fascism. He mentions the far-right a lot, with numerous references to Nazism, Greece’s Golden Dawn party and France’s Front National. His preoccupation also comes through in his parallel between the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and the Eurozone bailouts. The idea is that the Treaty of Versailles created the basis for the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920s by imposing tough conditions on Germany, and the punitive Eurozone bailouts, he suggests, could have a similar effect across Europe.

It is this fear of far-right influence that is perhaps the overarching characteristic of his political outlook. It was explicit in the ‘London Declaration’ that was organised by his recently formed Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 and signed by several other leftist luminaries. The nub of its argument is that: ‘Brexit would strengthen nationalism and xenophobia in Britain and across Europe, sowing conflict, strengthening toxic politics and accelerating an economic crisis that will drag all of us down. Being outside the EU will not insulate us from this fate.’

This gets to the crux of the problem with his politics. For all his talk of democracy, he shares the elite’s contempt for the mass of the population. His fear is that if the public is granted too much freedom, then there’s no telling what they might do with it. In the patronising view of Varoufakis and his ilk, there is a high chance that the public’s inherent bigotry would become overwhelming if they were given too much democratic leeway.

Varoufakis’s alternative is essentially an EU run by Keynesian technocrats. Instead of a conservative-dominated EU, his preference is for a supposedly enlightened one, governed by a clique of old leftists and greens. So he achieves the remarkable feat of redefining democracy from government by the people to rule over the public by experts such as himself.

Novo has published a German translation of my spiked article on “beware of greens in progressive clothing”.

Die Umweltbewegung hat ein düsteres Menschenbild. Sie bevorzugt die unberührte Natur gegenüber dem menschlichen Leben. Kein Versuch, die Tatsachen zu verdrehen, wird davon ablenken können.

Man kann das Verhältnis zwischen Mensch und Natur auf zwei grundsätzlich verschiedene Weisen verstehen. Entweder sollten Menschen die Natur zu ihrem eigenen Vorteil umgestalten oder sie sollten natürliche Grenzen respektieren.

Die erste Sichtweise ist auf den brillanten englischen Philosophen, Staatsmann und Wissenschaftler Francis Bacon (1561–1626) zurückführen. Bacon führte die Position der Aufklärung ein, wonach der Mensch die Natur beherrschen sollte. Hiermit ist nicht gemeint – wie es Grüne manchmal unterstellen –, die Natur zu zerstören, sondern sie für die Zwecke des Menschen nutzbar zu machen.

Viele Schlüsselfiguren der Aufklärung, darunter die französischen Enzyklopädisten Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert und Denis Diderot, erkannten den entscheidenden Beitrag, den Bacon für die Moderne geleistet hatte. Der deutsche Philosoph Immanuel Kant bejubelte Bacon im Vorwort zu seiner „Kritik der reinen Vernunft“.

Es lässt sich überzeugend argumentieren, dass es Bacon war, der die Weichen für den Fortschrittsgedanken stellte. In seiner Studie „The Idea of Progress“ von 1920 vertrat der irische Historiker John Bagnell Bury die Position: „Bei Bacon ist der eigentliche Zweck der Naturerforschung nicht die Befriedigung der spekulativen Neugier, wie es für die alten Griechen der Fall war. Es geht ihm vielmehr um die Herrschaft des Menschen über die Natur und dass diese möglich sei, vorausgesetzt, der Mensch findet neue Methoden, die Probleme anzugehen.“

Rückblickend hatten Bacons Unterstützer die Bedeutung seiner Erkenntnisse richtig erkannt. Mit der Neugestaltung und Nutzbarmachung der Natur zu unserem eigenen Vorteil haben wir eine viel wohlhabendere Gesellschaft geschaffen. Das ganze Spektrum von Flugzeugen, Autos, Computern, Elektrizitätsleitungen, Krankenhäusern, Schulen, Eisenbahnen, Straßen, Telefonen, Universitäten etc. wäre anders kaum denkbar. Trotzdem ist der Name Francis Bacon weitgehend in Vergessenheit geraten. Mit Ausnahme grüner und feministischer Autoren, die ihn als Verfechter einer Vergewaltigung der Natur verhöhnen.

Tatsächlich gingen mit Massenwohlstand und wirtschaftlichem Fortschritt enorme Vorteile für die Menschheit einher. Diese Verbesserung ließe sich an vielen Beispielen belegen, das auffälligste ist sicher die durchschnittliche Lebenserwartung. Lag sie im Jahr 1800 noch bei 30 Jahren, so steht sie heute bei weit über 70 Jahren. Allein diese Steigerung – wir sprechen von einem globalen Durchschnitt – entlarvt die Behauptung, nur Wohlhabende hätten von dieser Entwicklung profitiert, als Lüge. Ein Durchschnitt von rund 40 zusätzlichen Jahren ist eine erhebliche Errungenschaft, ein Grund zum Feiern.

Und doch ist die Auffassung, der Mensch solle die Vorherrschaft über die Natur anstreben, aus der Mode gekommen. Seit den 1970er-Jahren hat sich ein alternatives Verständnis der Beziehung zwischen Mensch und Natur durchgesetzt. Dieser Idee zufolge soll der Mensch durch natürliche Grenzen umzäunt werden, und wird er dies nicht, werden wir alle möglichen schrecklichen Folgen zu spüren bekommen.

Dieser Gedanke wird meistens auf den britischen Ökonom Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) zurückgeführt. Laut Malthus äußern sich die natürlichen Grenzen in Form der Überbevölkerung. In seinem Essay „On the Principle of Population“ von 1798 verteidigte er die These, dass wir entweder die menschliche Bevölkerung kontrollieren müssten oder Hungersnöte und Krieg die Folgen wären. Malthus’ Werk hat seit jeher Konservative, Pessimisten und Misanthropen beeinflusst.

Dabei war seine Argumentation nicht sonderlich originell. Schon vor ihm war die Idee, der Mensch sei an natürliche Grenzen gebunden, durchaus populär. Prominenz erreichte Malthus jedoch dadurch, dass seine Schriften eine direkte Antithese zum Optimismus von Aufklärern wie Nicolas de Condorcet, William Godwin und Adam Smith darstellten. Malthus versuchte den Glauben an die Vernunft zu untergraben sowie den Pessimismus zu verteidigen, als sich dieser in der Defensive befand.

Malthus’ Vorhersagen haben sich in den letzten zwei Jahrhunderten als bemerkenswert falsch herausgestellt. Die Weltbevölkerung ist um das Siebenfache größer als die Population zu Malthus’ Zeiten und es geht der Menschheit besser als früher. Obgleich die Welt weit von der Perfektion entfernt ist, lebt der Mensch im Schnitt länger und gesünder als jemals zuvor. Unter diesen Umständen sollte es nicht überraschen, dass sich Malthusianer seit eineinhalb Jahrhunderten in Erklärungsnot befinden.

Bedauerlicherweise erleben ähnliche Ideen in modifizierter Gestalt seit den 1960er-Jahren eine Renaissance. Diesmal liegt die Betonung weniger auf dem Begriff der „Überbevölkerung“ (auch wenn dieser Gedanke nicht verschwunden ist) als auf dem des „Überkonsums“. Die grüne Bewegung hat die Idee der natürlichen Grenzen in einer geringfügig anderen Verkleidung neu erfunden.

Diese Vorstellung lässt sich nicht auf eine Gruppe von NGOs oder selbsternannten grünen Parteien begrenzen. Vielmehr war sie in den 1970er-Jahren unter westlichen Regierungen und internationalen Organisationen zum Mainstream avanciert. Geführt wird die Diskussion unter dem Banner der „Nachhaltigkeit“, was im Grunde ein Codewort für „ewige Entbehrung“ ist. Von diesem Standpunkt aus belächeln die Grüngesinnten den Massenkonsum und wollen der ökonomischen Entwicklung ärmerer Länder zum Wohle der Umwelt Einhalt gebieten.

Humboldt als Umweltaktivist

Eines der Hauptziele von Andrea Wulfs äußerst positiv rezipierten Buch „The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World“ 1 besteht darin, die Geschichte des grünen Denkens umzuschreiben. Das soll mit Verweis auf den deutschen Wissenschaftler Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) geschehen, der eine attraktivere historische Figur als Malthus ist.

Humboldt war möglicherweise der bekannteste Entdeckungsreisende und Wissenschaftler seiner Zeit. Seine Popularität war mit der Napoleons vergleichbar. Er traf und beeinflusste eine atemberaubende Reihe historischer Figuren: Von Goethe und Schiller über den US-Präsidenten Thomas Jefferson bis zum südamerikanischen Revolutionär Simón Bolívar. In seiner Autobiografie hielt Charles Darwin Humboldt zugute, in ihm die Leidenschaft für die Naturwissenschaften entfacht zu haben. Humboldt ist der Nachwelt am besten bekannt für seine sechs Jahre dauernde Expedition durch Lateinamerika. Bei dieser führte er, trotz vieler Rückschläge, eine systematische botanische Studie zehntausender Pflanzen durch. Darüber hinaus war er ein überzeugter Gegner von Kolonialismus und Sklaverei.

Wäre Wulfs Buch eine reine Biografie einer zu Unrecht vernachlässigten historischen Persönlichkeit, würde es all die Anerkennung verdienen. Die vielen Fans des Buches scheinen jedoch das eigentliche unkluge Ziel des Buches entweder zu ignorieren oder dessen Bedeutung zu unterschätzen. Denn im Prolog des Werkes macht es sich die Autorin zur Aufgabe, „zu verstehen, warum wir über die natürliche Welt so denken, wie wir es tun“. In dieser Hinsicht ist das Buch ein Fehlschlag. Zu diesem Zwecke hätte sie sich nicht auf Humboldt fokussieren, sondern sich kritisch mit den sich wandelnden Sichtweisen auf die Natur beschäftigen müssen. Auf einer fundamentaleren Ebene führt die Diskussion über Humboldts Leben zu einer Vernachlässigung grüner Ideen, die schon vor ihm existiert haben.

Der eigentliche Fokus von Wulfs Untersuchung gilt Humboldts „Naturgemälde“ aus den „Ideen zu einer Geographie der Pflanzen nebst einem Naturgemälde der Tropenländer“ (1805). Diese Skizze Humboldts zeigt, dass die Natur ein komplexes Netz ist, in dem alles mit allem zusammenhängt. In dieser Hinsicht nahm es die Idee vorweg, die zeitgenössische Umweltaktivisten gerne als „Gaia“ bezeichnen.

Anstatt die Bedeutung der Skizze herauszuarbeiten, behauptet Wulf schlicht, sie artikuliere einen grundlegenden Gedanken grünen Denkens. Doch die Behauptung, der Mensch sei ein Teil der Natur und spiele keine Sonderrolle, ist ein Schlüsselelement antihumanistischen Denkens. Und das blendet sie aus. Vor dem Hintergrund einer grünen Perspektive ist es einleuchtend, Menschen essenziell mit Tieren gleichzusetzen. So ist auch die Idee einzuordnen, der Mensch sei schlimmer als andere Lebewesen, da er das natürliche Gleichgewicht zerstört. Den Menschen als schlicht einen Teil der Natur zu sehen, ist nichts anderes, als für die Achtung natürlicher Grenzen zu argumentieren.

Tatsächlich war Humboldt eher Empirist als jemand mit einem weiteren philosophischen Interesse. Sein „Naturgemälde“ war schlicht ein Versuch, die Natur aus seiner Sicht zu beschreiben. Im Gegensatz zu Malthus leitete Humboldt keine unverhohlenen politischen Ansichten aus seinem Naturverständnis ab. Mit ihrer Klassifizierung von Humboldt als grünen Denker projiziert Wulf ein modernes Naturverständnis in eine frühere Epoche zurück.

Diese unerfreuliche Tendenz, aktuelle Auffassungen auf die Vergangenheit zu projizieren, findet sich auch in Wulfs Bezügen zum Klimawandel. Mit ihrer Feststellung, dass Humboldt zu den Ersten gehörte, die erkannten, dass Menschen einen Einfluss auf das Klima nehmen können, behält sie vielleicht Recht. Aber genau hierin liegt der Unterschied zu den aktuellen Debatten, den Wulf nicht erkennt. Selbst die heute abschätzig „Klimaleugner“ genannten Zeitgenossen würden akzeptieren, dass Menschen das Klima verändern können. Die heutige grüne Orthodoxie zeichnet sich hingegen durch die Behauptung aus, eine habgierige Menschheit steuere auf eine Klimakatastrophe zu. Der Grad der Problemerzeugung durch den Menschen wird über- und der die Fähigkeit zur Problemlösung wird unterschätzt.

„The Invention of Nature“ funktioniert als faszinierende Biografie, versagt aber am selbst auferlegten Ziel, das menschliche Verständnis der Natur zu untersuchen. Es ist ein fehlgeleiteter Versuch, die Geschichte des Öko-Denkens mit dem Abenteuer und Naturwissenschaftler Alexander von Humboldt als Begründer umzudeuten. Das Buch scheitert daran, das essenzielle Merkmal des grünen Denkens zu identifizieren und zu erkennen, dass die intellektuellen Vorläufer der Grünen vor Humboldt gelebt haben.

Der Ökomodernismus

Das von mehreren Autoren verfasste Ecomodernist Manifesto stellt einen alternativen Versuch dar, die Ökologie in einem positiven Licht erscheinen zu lassen. Seine Verfasser räumen ein, dass die wirtschaftliche Entwicklung gewaltige Fortschritte gebracht hat, aber sie wollen an einem ökologischen Ideal festhalten.

Zu diesem Zweck teilen sie natürlichen Grenzen in zwei Gruppen auf: So soll die Menschheit ihren Einfluss auf die Natur reduzieren, aber sie muss nicht mit der Natur in Harmonie leben: „Wir stehen zu einem alten ökologischen Ideal, nämlich dass die Menschheit ihren Einfluss auf die natürliche Umwelt begrenzen muss, um der Natur mehr Raum zu lassen, aber wir lehnen ein anderes Ideal ab, nämlich dass menschliche Gesellschaften mit der Natur harmonisieren müssten, um einen zukünftigen wirtschaftlichen und ökologischen Kollaps zu verhindern.“

Eine solche Position wird sich kaum aufrechterhalten lassen. Denn wirtschaftlicher und sozialer Fortschritt hängen exakt vom zunehmenden Einfluss des Menschen auf die Natur ab. Wir müssen unsere Kontrolle über die Natur ausdehnen, statt sie zu reduzieren. Hunger, Krankheit und sogar Knappheit sind immer noch große zu bewältigende Herausforderungen. Selbst dem Klimawandel in dem Maße, wie er tatsächlich ein Problem ist, angemessen entgegenzutreten bedeutet, die technischen Möglichkeiten des Menschen zu erweitern, nicht sie zurückzuschrauben.

Die Autoren des „Ecomodernist Manifesto“ versuchen sich an der Quadratur des Kreises, indem sie die menschliche Entwicklung von den Auswirkungen auf die Natur entkoppeln möchten. Sprich: Menschen sollen weiter prosperieren und dabei gleichzeitig auf den Naturschutz achten. Hier verwischen aber wichtige Unterschiede. Menschen sollten beispielsweise die Möglichkeit haben, einen Teil der Wildnis so zu belassen, wie er ist. Das sollte aber auf der Basis von menschlichen Interessen geschehen und nicht, um natürliche Grenzen zu respektieren.

Durch eine so pragmatische Herangehensweise vermeidet es das Manifest, demselben Negativismus zu erliegen wie das grüne Denken. Wie man an klaren Anzeichen erkennt, schlummert eine diffuse Furcht vor dem wirtschaftlichen Fortschritt jedoch nicht allzu tief unter der Oberfläche. So zum Beispiel, wenn die Rede davon ist, die Effizienz der Rohmaterialverarbeitung zu steigern, aber an keiner Stelle die Effizienz menschlicher Arbeit erwähnt wird. Denn die Arbeitsproduktivität – die Menge, die für jede Stunde oder jeden Tag menschlicher Arbeit produziert werden kann – ist der Schlüssel zum ökonomischen Fortschritt. Um weltweit Knappheit zu beseitigen und Wohlstand für alle zu erreichen, müsste die durchschnittliche Arbeitsproduktivität erheblich gesteigert werden.

Ein verwandtes Problem ist mit der im Manifest erwähnten Linderung der Armut verbunden. Auf den ersten Blick scheint die Forderung einwandfrei. Wer könnte sich schon dagegen aussprechen? Das Manifest konzentriert sich jedoch nur darauf, die extremsten Formen materieller Entbehrung zu beseitigen, statt materielle Erfüllung für alle Menschen anzustreben. Dadurch verzichtet es auf das Streben nach Wohlstand für alle.

Der Ökomodernismus kann als kohärente Vision nicht funktionieren, weil das grüne Denken im grundlegenden Widerspruch zur Moderne steht. Eine wirklich moderne Vision muss auf den Bedürfnissen des Menschen aufbauen. Eine Diskussion über den Planeten zu führen, als hätte er eigene Interessen und Bedürfnisse, ist sinnlos. Schließlich sprechen wir im Wesentlichen von einem Gesteinsklumpen, der die Sonne umkreist. Die Erde ist kein bewusstes Wesen und kann nie eines werden.

Die Ökomodernisten versuchen lediglich, dem grünen Denken einen neuen Anstrich zu verpassen. Sie relativieren seine anithumanistischen Prämissen und negativen Konsequenzen, sie verpacken seine misanthropischen Eigenschaften neu, um es schmackhafter zu machen.

Heute ist es wichtiger als je zuvor, auf einem humanistischen und aufklärerischen Verständnis der Mensch-Natur-Beziehung zu beharren. Damit geht einher, dass Menschen ihre Kreativität und Ambition nicht einer unangetasteten natürlichen Welt unterordnen sollten. Im Gegenteil verdanken wir unsere gewaltigen Fortschritte unserem Erfolg bei der Beherrschung der Natur. Wenn überhaupt, müssen wir diese Entwicklung fortsetzen und keinen Schritt zurückgehen.

Möglicherweise ist es auch an der Zeit, den Ruf von Francis Bacon zu rehabilitieren und seinen enormen Beitrag zur Moderne anzuerkennen. Ohne seine Erkenntnis, dass der Mensch nach der Beherrschung der Natur streben sollte, wären wir alle viel schlechter dran.

This is my latest comment for IPE magazine.

It is a tragedy that a basic truth has been forgotten. The world is going to need huge amounts more energy for everyone to achieve reasonable living standards.

Recent World Bank statistics on global poverty make sobering reading. The trend is improving over time, but, in 2012, there were still 896m people living on less than $1.90 a day. More than 2.1bn people were living on less than $3.10 a day.

For such people to enjoy Western living standards, it will be necessary for them to have levels of energy consumption on a par with the developed world. The same is true for the billions more who are not in dire poverty but whose income levels are still well below those of the West.

That means there is a moral imperative to strive for a world in which far more energy is produced. The alternative – whatever politically correct language it is dressed up in – means condemning billions to remain in poverty. That may be the preferred option of the West’s green-tinged elite, but it should not be acceptable to the rest of us.

In the abstract, it does not matter where the energy comes from. The key criterion should be pragmatic – whatever works best. The priority should be to produce as much energy as cheaply and efficiently as possible.

In practice, at least in the short and medium term, the vast bulk will come from fossil fuels. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015, fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) accounted for 86% of world energy consumption in 2014 compared with less than 3% for all forms of renewables (wind, geothermal, solar, biomass and waste). That is despite a huge drive by many Western governments over many years to promote renewables and stigmatise fossil fuel use. It is also worth remembering that many environmental campaigners also reject nuclear energy (about 4% of global consumption) and hydroelectric power (about 7%).

Of course, it is impossible to say for certain what will happen in the more distant future. It could be that nuclear fusion – generating enormous amounts of energy by fusing hydrogen atoms together – will finally fulfil its promise. Or possibly solar energy will be harnessed on a much larger scale. Alternatively, an energy source barely recognised at present might come into its own.

What is certain, as things stand, we live in a world where billions of people live in a state of scarcity. That is a huge waste of human potential. It is not some hypothetical future catastrophe but one that is all too present and real. For the time being, at least, boosting energy production by all means available – including fossil fuels – is the truly moral choice.

 

My review of Jared Poley’s The Devil’s Riches: A modern history of greed was published in the Financial Times on Friday. The text follows below.

“Greed is good,” must be one of the most notorious lines in any Hollywood film. It has come to epitomise what are widely seen as the excesses of the super-rich in general and financiers in particular. The obsession with acquiring wealth is routinely blamed for many of the problems plaguing western societies.

Ironically, many remember Wall Street, the 1987 film from which the line came, as a celebration of excess. In fact, the goal of the director, Oliver Stone, was to do the opposite. The film was essentially a morality tale in which Gordon Gekko, the corporate raider who uttered the line, got his comeuppance.

The Devil’s Riches is an erudite attempt to put the idea of greed into its proper context. Jared Poley, an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, argues against the idea that greed has gradually become acceptable over time. The thrust of his argument is that the story is much more complicated.

More importantly, he makes a strong case that attitudes towards greed have played a central role in defining both the operation of capitalism and the views of its critics. What is considered a balanced view on the acquisition of wealth has varied considerably over time. Different outlooks — including liberalism, socialism and environmentalism — are also partly defined by their particular take on this question.

Poley is also insistent the meaning of greed — or near-synonyms such as avarice and covetousness — has changed substantially over the centuries. Those living in different eras have understood the concept in different ways.

Nevertheless, the first example given in Poley’s introduction has a contemporary resonance, despite dating from the 1420s. On Avarice by Poggio Bracciolini, a Renaissance humanist, tells the story of a conversation between three men at a dinner party. One of them, the host, argues that avarice is worse even than lust. Another claims that there are “collateral benefits of greed”. The final guest reaffirms the initial attack by arguing that greed is unnatural, “effeminising” and a form of self-enslavement.

So in the abstract it seems that the views expressed are not that different from contemporary ones. On the one hand, there are the critics of greed and, on the other, supporters claim that avarice can produce benefits.

But Poley is insistent the meaning of the term has to be understood in relation to its specific historical context. For example, in the Reformation of the 16th century, with the emergence of the Protestant church, the attack on greed was largely aimed at the existing church hierarchy.

Another important though subtle shift came in the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Bernard Mandeville, an Anglo-Dutch thinker, wrote about the topic in the 1720s in his famous The Fable of the Bees. In his view, avarice had a positive side as it provided the foundation for economic change. In 1726, Jonathan Swift voiced a similar view in Gulliver’s Travels. In a passage on the origin of money, Gulliver is quoted as arguing that spending can be a virtue.

Adam Smith, the most famous economic thinker of the 18th century, built on these ideas. Although Smith maintained the language of morality — he was, after all, the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments — his argument was that economic motivation can play a positive role if it is conducted assiduously. In The Wealth of Nations there is, he says, a clear line between self-interest and avarice.

From the 19th century onwards, the idea of greed went in many different directions. Not only did it inform several political outlooks but it was viewed in different ways by disciplines such as anthropology and sociology. Mainstream economics was unusual in that it often eschewed a moral stance towards greed. Contemporary economists tend to see themselves as focusing on understanding reality, rather than tackling morals.

The main weakness of The Devil’s Riches is its sketchy character. In about 200 pages it covers almost six centuries of intellectual history. As a result, its arguments are underdeveloped at times. Nevertheless, it is a thought-provoking study of a subject that is too often taken for granted, rather than subjected to critical examination.

I recently appeared on John Mills’ Talking Economics podcast with Chris Giles, the economics editor of the Financial Times, as the fellow guest. We discussed the British steel industry, tax havens and London’s economy.