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.
This is a text (in German) of a recent interview with me from Novo magazin on economic growth. It was conducted by Marco Visscher. The original longer version appeared in Dutch in Oneworld magazine. The headline can be translated as “sustainability hinders growth”.
Mehr Wirtschaftswachstum ist nötig, um die Lebensbedingungen der Menschen zu verbessern, besonders in armen Ländern. Dabei wirkt sich der modische Nachhaltigkeitsgedanke lähmend aus.
Marco Visscher: Im vergangenen September wurden in New York bei der UN-Vollversammlung die Nachhaltigen Entwicklungsziele unterzeichnet, die Nachfolger der Millenniums-Entwicklungsziele. Kritiker finden diese Weltziele zu ehrgeizig.
Daniel Ben-Ami: Zu ehrgeizig? Das Gegenteil ist wahr. Ein Haufen Technokraten hat eine ganze Reihe eng definierter Zielstellungen formuliert, die jeder Ambition den Weg versperren. Die UNO spricht von der Beendigung extremer Armut. Niemand soll im Jahr 2030 noch von weniger als 1,25 US-Dollar leben müssen. Schön, aber wenn man nur einen einzigen Cent mehr verdient? Sollen wir uns damit zufrieden geben? Außerdem bedeutet Überwindung von Armut eine ganz andere Zielstellung als dafür zu sorgen, dass alle Menschen in armen Ländern genauso reich und wohlhabend werden können wie wir.
Der Name sagt schon alles: Ziele für eine „nachhaltige“ Entwicklung fördern nicht das Wachstum, sondern beschränken es. Entwicklung scheint nur erlaubt zu sein, wenn sie auf „grüne“, nachhaltige Weise erfolgt. Der bahnbrechende Brundtland-Bericht von 1987, wo dieser Begriff eingeführt wurde, sprach von „den Bedürfnissen der heutigen Generation“, mit besonderer Betonung der essentiellsten Grundbedürfnisse der Allerärmsten. Sind denn die Bedürfnisse, die über Obdach und Kleidung hinausgehen, etwa unwichtig? Wer Entwicklung nur nachhaltig möchte, setzt nicht die Wünsche der Bevölkerung an die erste Stelle, sondern Umweltbelange. Diesen „Weltverbesserern“ zufolge wäre es besser, weniger zu konsumieren. So teilt man verblümt mit, dass der materielle Wohlstand all der Milliarden Menschen, die weniger haben als wir, nicht als erstrebenswert gilt.
Kann die Erde überhaupt so viel Wohlstand verkraften?
Das muss man sehen. Umweltprobleme werden oft überschätzt, unser Talent, Lösungen dafür zu finden, hingegen oft unterschätzt. Warnungen, dass uns die Ressourcen ausgehen, hören wir schon seit Jahrzehnten. Stattdessen nehmen die Reserven zu oder wir stoßen auf bessere und günstigere Alternativen. Die Wissenschaft kann nicht diktieren, auf welche Weise wir die Umwelt schonen oder wie wir mit Klimaveränderung umgehen sollen; das sind politische Fragen, die in eine demokratische Debatte gehören. Meiner Meinung nach liegt es auf der Hand, dass eine technologisch fortgeschrittene Wohlstandsgesellschaft angemessener mit den Folgen der Klimaveränderungen umgehen und sich besser um die Umwelt kümmern kann.
Fortschritt geht oftmals mit Umweltschäden einher.
Bedauerlicherweise trifft das zu. Aber die Erfahrung zeigt gleichermaßen, dass Wirtschaftswachstum die Möglichkeit bietet, die Schäden zu reparieren. Vor noch nicht mal zwei Generationen war die Themse in London ein dreckiger Fluss, der Erkrankungen auslösen konnte. Umfangreichen Maßnahmen sei Dank ist sie nun sauber und viel mehr Fische schwimmen darin; Vergleichbares gilt für den Rhein. Diese Maßnahmen hätte man nie ergriffen, wenn wir nicht wohlhabender geworden wären. Ab einem bestimmten Wohlstandsniveau machen wir uns Sorgen um die Natur und scheuen die Kosten nicht, uns besser um sie kümmern.
Nach diesem allgemeinen Muster erzielen wir Fortschritte. Wir machen etwas, um ein Problem zu lösen. Unsere Lösungen lassen wieder neue Probleme entstehen, und die lösen wir dann erneut. Wir erfinden z.B. das Auto, um mobiler zu werden und irgendwann treten dann Probleme wie Abgasbelastung auf. Taugen diese Probleme als Argument gegen die Erfindung und den Bau von Autos? Wohl kaum. Es zeigt sich dabei einfach, dass Fortschritt als interaktiver Prozess verläuft.
Sind Sie dann der Meinung, dass die Chinesen die Luftverschmutzung als unvermeidliche Nebenwirkung des Wirtschaftswachstums hinnehmen müssen?
Diese Abwägung ist Sache der Chinesen. In China besteht bei der Luftqualität ein großes Problem. Gleichzeitig konnten in den letzten 30, 40 Jahren erhebliche Fortschritte verzeichnet werden: besseres Essen, mehr Gesundheit, längeres Leben, bessere Bildung, mehr Besitz, mehr Reisen. Das alles haben die Chinesen der billigen Energie aus den Steinkohlekraftwerken zu verdanken. Denkbar wäre, dass die Chinesen bei all diesen Verbesserungen ihres täglichen Lebens die zeitweilig schlechte Luft in Kauf nehmen. Diese Möglichkeit scheinen die Wachstumsskeptiker zu übersehen.
Um wen handelt es sich bei diesen Wachstumsskeptikern?
In den „zivilisierten“ Kreisen der Gesellschaft ist Wachstumsskepsis mittlerweile weit verbreitet, fürchte ich. Unter Wachstumsskepsis verstehe ich das Problematisieren von Wirtschaftswachstum, das ständige Betonen seiner negativen Aspekte und das Ignorieren seiner positiven Seiten. Wachstumsskepsis findet sich bei allen, die sich auf Gebieten wie Umwelt und Nachhaltigkeit engagieren. Sie findet sich bei allen, die sich „links“ oder progressiv nennen. Sie findet sich bei braven, anständigen Kommentatoren und Journalisten. Und sie findet sich unter Politikern und Staatslenkern, die sich darin wiederum durch modische UN-Berichte gestützt fühlen. Am traurigsten finde ich, wie die Wachstumsskepsis unter Sozialisten zugeschlagen hat. Historisch betrachtet ging es der linken, progressiven Politik gerade nicht darum, sondern um die Verbesserung des Lebensstandards der Unterschicht.
Linke Politiker werden doch nicht so weit gehen, dass sie Wirtschaftswachstum verteufeln?
Das stimmt, es gibt kaum jemanden, der sich gegen Wirtschaftswachstum ausspricht. Man hört jedoch immer ein Wenn und Aber. Ich bin für Wirtschaftswachstum, heißt es etwa, aber wir müssen doch die Umwelt schützen. Aber Geld macht doch nicht glücklich. Aber es darf nicht zu höherer Ungleichheit führen. Das ähnelt unserem Denken über Meinungsfreiheit. Niemand ist offiziell dagegen, aber ständig werden Vorbehalte gegen Meinungen ins Feld geführt, die andere beleidigen oder kränken.
Wo Sie zunehmende Ungleichheit ansprechen – machen Sie sich darüber Sorgen?
Die Ungleichheit kann zwar zunehmen, aber das scheint mir ein akzeptabler Nebeneffekt zu sein, wenn der Lebensstandard der Massen steigt – und das ist unverkennbar der Fall.
Zum Abschluss: Wie können wir Wirtschaftswachstum erzielen?
Das muss jedes Land selbst bestimmen. Aber meines Erachtens bilden unser mangelnder Ehrgeiz und unsere Umweltsorgen die größten Hindernisse. Arme Länder geraten unter politischen und moralischen Druck von außen, auf Großprojekte im Straßenbau, bei Staudämmen und in der industriellen Landwirtschaft zu verzichten und sich stattdessen auf Kleinmaßnahmen zu konzentrieren: Biobauern, Mikrokredite, Solaröfen. Fortschritt bewirkt man hingegen, indem man natürliche Grenzen überschreitet und moralische Einwände in Frage stellt.
Nachhaltigkeit bremst Wachstum. Ob man sich jetzt als grün oder als links definiert: Wachstumsskepsis ist äußerst konservativ. Die ganze Vorstellung, man müsse sich im Interesse künftiger Generationen zurückhalten, geht auf den irischen Philosophen und Politiker Edmund Burke zurück, den Begründer des Konservatismus im 18. Jahrhundert. Dasselbe Festklammern am Bewährten und derselbe Argwohn gegen soziale Veränderung spiegeln sich im heutigen Gerede über Nachhaltigkeit wider.
The video recording of my Berlin Salon debate on “Do we need economic growth?” is now online.
The audio recording of my Berlin Salon debate on “Do we need economic growth?” is now online. It turned out to be a fiery exchange in places.
I will be debating “Do we need economic growth?” at the Berlin Salon on the evening of 7 April. The discussion is in English and entrance is free. More details are available here.
This is the text of my recent book review on tax havens for ft.com
One of the biggest potential rifts in modern societies is that between great wealth and democracy. The ideals of formal equality, such as equal rights and one vote for every adult, are widely accepted. On the other hand, there is an influential school of thought that argues gross economic inequalities can undermine democratic societies.
The contemporary critics are not generally akin to the socialists of yesteryear. They are not arguing for the abolition of capitalism or the creation of a classless society. Their call is essentially for new forms of regulation of existing societies. Prominent supporters of this approach include many members of what called by called the technocratic elite. These are technical experts with close ties to government and top universities.
Gabriel Zucman’s The Hidden Wealth of Nations (Chicago Press, 2015) fits into this tradition. The assistant professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, makes a case for much tighter regulation of tax havens. In his view, offshore centres such as Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands enable the super-rich to evade paying their rightful share of tax. Given his background it is not surprising that his case is firmly grounded in data.
If that was all it was it would be an interesting and relatively accessible technical study of tax havens. The problem lies in some of the grand claims made for it. In a foreword to the book, Thomas Piketty, one of the world’s best-known experts on inequality and Zucman’s PhD supervisor, suggests his protégé’s work is an important contribution to understanding one of the main threats to democracy. Piketty goes on to argue that what makes it particularly significant is its grounding in data and solutions rather than just abstract principles.
To be fair to Zucman, his book should first be examined in its own terms. It is to his credit that he has written a new book in clear English (translated from the original French) rather than simply tweak his doctorate. For anyone who follows finance it should prove relatively accessible.
The author also provides a useful thumbnail sketch of the history of tax havens. The backdrop to this story is the transformation in the nature of wealth. By the mid-19th century, financial wealth (such as shares and bonds) had taken over from land ownership as the main form of assets held by the rich in the industrialised nations. But it was not until the 1920s, when the main countries started levying taxes on large fortunes, that Switzerland emerged as an important offshore financial centre. But it was not until the 1980s that new centres of wealth management emerged including London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Jersey, Luxembourg and the Bahamas.
Zucman also makes a valiant attempt to estimate the amount of assets held in tax havens. He comes up with a conservative estimate for the cost of global tax evasion of 8 per cent of the financial wealth of households. That is equivalent to about 1 per cent of the total revenues raised by governments worldwide. He uses various means to come up with this total including the discrepancy between assets and liabilities in the international investments positions of countries. On a global level, these should theoretically be equal but in practice there always seem to be more liabilities than assets. This “hole” is the point of departure for Zucman’s estimate of the illicit wealth held in offshore centres.
In the final part of the book he proposes measures to deal with this problem. These include the creation of a global financial register so there is a centralised record of the ownership of assets. Zucman also favours sanctions against uncooperative territories. Such measures are explicitly meant to complement Piketty’s proposal for a global wealth tax.
The problem with the book is precisely what Zucman and Piketty see as its greatest strength: its emphasis on data. Estimating the extent of offshore wealth is fine but it cannot resolve or even identify the fundamental problems the world is facing. Even a perfect estimate of this figure would not answer the question of what should be done about it. That is a political and moral question.
This narrow approach also sidesteps what are arguably far more important questions, for example, the social power that arguably accompanies the ownership of substantial productive capacity – or the role that an intrusive state can play in undermining individual freedom.
Such questions belong in the realm of abstract principles, and in politics, rather than technical economics.
Yesterday the Financial Times published two book reviews by me: a piece on Dark Money by Susan Mayer and another on The Hidden Wealth of Nations by Gabriel Zucman.The text of the former, a study of the Koch brothers and their influence on American politics, appears below. I will upload the text of the other book at a later date.
To many of their critics they are almost evil incarnate. The fabulously wealthy industrialists, Charles and David Koch, are accused of corrupting US politics for the benefit of the super-rich and the detriment of ordinary Americans. They have, in this view, promoted a dense web of pro-free market organisations in an attempt to distort political debate to further their own narrow commercial ends.
Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Random House) is essentially a dossier written for those who share that perspective. Jane Mayer, who has worked as an investigative journalist for The New Yorker for more than two decades, has written an exhaustive study of the brothers’ attempt to influence public opinion. There is little if any attempt to persuade the non-partisan.
No doubt most if not all of what Mayer says is true. Indeed, in outline at least, much of it is uncontentious: the Koch brothers are fabulously wealthy (about $43bn each, according to the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires); they have long used part of their wealth to support think-tanks; and they have close connections with like-minded billionaires. Mayer dubs this network the “Kochtopus” to describe its many-tentacled approach.
In recent years, the brothers have come to play a more central role in influencing US electoral politics. In practice, this has meant supporting candidates who are on what could be defined as the radical right of the Republican party.
Dark Money is for those who want more detail. It outlines the family’s history including a guilt-by-association revelation that the brothers’ father Fred, the founder of the dynasty, had business links with Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. It explores how the brothers moved from a position of keeping a distance from mainstream politics — in 1980, David stood as the Libertarian party candidate to be vice-president of the US — to close involvement. It also outlines the numerous organisations and individuals through which the Koch brothers promote their world view.
For the non-partisan reader, the obvious question is likely to be one of double standards. Although there is no doubt that the Kochs support conservative causes (at least if that term is misleadingly defined to include libertarianism) what about the wealthy backers of liberal movements (in the American sense)?
Dark Money addresses this objection several times but only in passing. Mayer mentions that Barack Obama and the Clintons have received substantial financial backing from Wall Street titans. She also points to George Soros as an example of a billionaire who has supported many liberal causes. Her riposte is that the conservatives spend much more in the aggregate to influence the political process and they are more secretive.
The more interesting question is the exact nature of Mayer’s objection to the Kochs. A careful reading of the book makes this clear. Fundamentally, she seems to be suggesting that it is that the brothers influence politics in order to pursue their own commercial interests. Their promotion of free market ideas is, in her view, designed to benefit their business. But this begs the question of what she expects them to do. It would certainly be perverse to argue they should campaign against their own interests.
There is a long history of political realism, going back to ancient Greece, that sees politics as fundamentally a question of interests. The organised political sphere in a democracy provides a forum in which competing interests can be peacefully resolved.
Mayer does not explicitly spell out an alternative in Dark Money but her preferences are clear. She makes numerous references to the disinterested views of highly educated experts on subjects ranging from economics to climate change. Yet the public often dislikes such experts for good reason. These functionaries are frequently wrong, a possibility Mayer naively discounts, and they all too often take a disdainful view of the mass of the population.
If conservative billionaires such as the Kochs or Donald Trump are enjoying political success it is because their opponents fail to offer an inspiring vision. Rather than obsessing over the influence of the super-rich, the critics should reflect on their own failure to project an alternative.
This is the text of my article published on spiked on 2 March.
There are two main ways in which the relationship between man and nature can be understood. Some contend that humans should reshape the natural world for their own benefit, while others argue that humanity should respect natural limits.
The first view can be traced to Francis Bacon (1561-1626). The brilliant English philosopher, statesman and scientist ushered in the Enlightenment view that humans should seek to dominate nature. By this he did not mean that nature should be destroyed, as is sometimes alleged by greens, but rather harnessed to meet human needs.
Many key Enlightenment figures, including the French encyclopédistes Jean le Rond d’Alembert and Denis Diderot, recognised the key contribution Bacon made to modernity. Immanuel Kant, the great German Enlightenment philosopher, hailed Bacon in the preface to his Critique of Pure Reason (1781).
There is a strong argument that Bacon created the preconditions for the idea of progress. Writing in his classic study, The Idea of Progress (1920), John Bagnell Bury said that, for Bacon, ‘the true object… of the investigation of nature is not, as the Greek philosophers held, speculative satisfaction, but to establish the reign of man over nature; and this Bacon judged to be attainable, provided new methods of attacking the problems were introduced’.
In retrospect, Bacon’s supporters were right to recognise the importance of his insights. By reshaping and harnessing nature for our own benefit, we have created a far more prosperous society. It is hard to imagine the whole panoply of aircraft, cars, computers, electricity grids, hospitals, schools, railways, roads, telephones, universities and the like without it. Yet Bacon is virtually forgotten, except by the green and feminist authors who deride him for allegedly advocating the rape of nature.
In fact, mass prosperity and economic progress have brought enormous benefits to humanity. There are many ways in which this improvement can be measured, but perhaps the most striking is average life expectancy. It has increased from about 30 in 1800 to over 70 today. That increase alone – which it should be remembered is a global average – gives the lie to the claim that only the wealthy have benefited from mass affluence. An average of over 40 extra years of life is a considerable feat, worthy of huge celebration.
Yet this view that humans should strive to dominate nature has fallen out of favour. Since the 1970s, an alternative conception of man’s relationship to nature has become dominant. This perspective holds that humans should be constrained by natural limits. If they do not accept such limitations, so the argument goes, we will suffer all sorts of nasty consequences.
Historically, this view was most commonly associated with Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). For Malthus, these limits were expressed in the form of overpopulation. His Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798, argued that if the human population was not kept in check, then there would be famine and war. Malthus’s essay has influenced conservatives, miserablists and misanthropes ever since.
As it happens, Malthus’s argument was not original. Many had argued before him that humans were constrained by natural limits. He gained prominence because his views were a direct riposte to the optimism of Enlightenment thinkers such as Nicolas de Condorcet, William Godwin and Adam Smith. He restated the case for pessimism when it was on the defensive, and sought to undermine faith in the power of human reason.
Over the past two centuries, Malthus’s predictions of doom have fared terribly. The global population is over seven times the size it was in his day, and yet people are far better off. Although the world is far from perfect, the average person lives a longer, better and healthier life than ever before. Under such circumstances it should not be a surprise that Malthusians have been on the defensive for over a century and a half.
Sadly, similar ideas have come to the fore again, albeit in a modified form, since the 1960s. The emphasis this time around is not so much on population – although that preoccupation has not disappeared – but the idea of overconsumption. Contemporary green thinking has reinvented the idea of a natural limit in a slightly different guise.
This notion is not confined to campaigning groups or self-proclaimed green political parties. Since the 1970s, it has become mainstream among Western governments and international organisations. Often the discussion is posed in terms of the need for sustainability – essentially a codeword for permanent austerity. From this starting point, the green-minded deride popular consumption and argue that the economic development of poor countries needs to be constrained for the sake of the environment.
One of the main goals of Andrea Wulf’s widely acclaimed The Invention of Nature is to rewrite the history of green thinking with the dashing Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) as its founder. Although he is little-known in the English-speaking world – or at least he was until Wulf’s book became a bestseller – the German scientist and explorer was a much more attractive figure than Malthus.
He was perhaps the best-known scientist of his age – comparable in fame to Napoleon – and a renowned explorer. He met and influenced a tremendous range of historical figures, including German literary giants such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, US president Thomas Jefferson, and the South American revolutionary Simón Bolívar. Charles Darwin, writing in his autobiography, credited Humboldt with giving him the ‘burning zeal’ to study the natural sciences. Humboldt’s best-known expedition was a six-year trip to Latin America, where, despite facing many hardships, he did a systematic botanical study of tens of thousands of plants in the region. Humboldt was also staunchly anti-slavery and opposed to colonialism.
If Wulf’s book was a straightforward biography of an unfairly neglected historical figure, it would deserve all of the plaudits. But its many admirers seem either to ignore or fail to recognise the significance of the ill-advised second goal the author set herself. In the prologue, she states that she aims to ‘understand why we think as we do about the natural world’. But, in that respect, the book is a failure. For one thing, to achieve that objective it would be necessary to write an entirely different book. Rather than focus on Humboldt, she would need to examine critically the changing perspectives of the natural world. On an even more basic level, the discussion of Humboldt’s life leads to a neglect of green ideas that existed before him.
The main focus of Wulf’s study is what Humboldt called his Naturgemälde (which can be roughly translated as his ‘painting of nature’). This was a sketch drawn by Humboldt that showed that nature was a complex web in which everything is connected. In that respect, it anticipated the idea that contemporary greens sometimes refer to as Gaia.
Yet Wulf, rather than drawing out its significance, more or less asserts that this is a foundational idea for green thinking. She fails to point out that the claim that humans are merely part of nature, rather than playing a special role, is a key element of anti-humanism. From a green perspective, it is reasonable to see humans as fundamentally on a par with any other animal. Indeed, from this vantage point, humans can be seen as worse than any other animal as they are viewed as destroying the world’s natural balance. In this way, the idea that humans are simply a part of nature is just another way of arguing that humans should respect natural limits.
As it happens, Humboldt himself was an empiricist rather than someone with a broader interest in philosophical issues. His Naturgemälde was simply an attempt to describe nature as he saw it. Unlike Malthus, he did not draw out any overt political views from his conception of nature. Wulf is essentially reading history backwards when she classifies Humboldt as a green thinker.
This unfortunate tendency of projecting the present on to the past is also apparent in the several references she makes to climate change. She may be right in arguing that Humboldt was the first scientist to recognise that humans can alter the climate. However, this claim shows that she fails to recognise what is distinctive about the contemporary debate. Even most of those derided today as ‘climate deniers’ would accept that human action can modify the climate. The distinctive feature of the current green orthodoxy is that it contends that a rapacious humanity is laying the ground for catastrophic climate change. It overestimates the extent to which humans cause problems and underestimates our capacity to devise solutions.
The Invention of Nature therefore works as a fascinating biography, but it is a total failure in its second stated goal of exploring how humans understand the natural world. It is a misguided attempt to rewrite the history of green thinking with the adventurer and scientist Humboldt as its founder. It fails to understand what is distinctive about green thinking or appreciate that its intellectual antecedents predate Humboldt.
The multi-authored Ecomodernist Manifesto represents an alternative attempt to put a positive spin on environmentalism. Its writers concede that economic progress has brought enormous benefits, but contend that it is right to hold on to an environmentalist ideal.
To maintain this position, they essentially split the idea of natural limits in two. They argue that humans should reduce their impact on nature, but they do not need to live in harmony with it: ‘We affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonise with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.’
It is hard to see how such a position is tenable. Economic and social progress depend precisely on humanity increasing its impact on nature. We need to enhance our control over the natural world, rather than step back from it. Hunger, disease and even straightforward scarcity still present formidable challenges. Even tackling climate change, to the extent it is a problem, will demand enhancing the technological powers of humanity, not scaling back.
The Ecomodernist Manifesto’s writers attempt to square this circle by advocating what they call a ‘decoupling’ of human development from environmental impacts. That means allowing humans to flourish, while protecting nature at the same time. But couching the arguments in this way blurs a key distinction. It may be that humans decide, for example, that they want to leave some of the planet as wilderness. But that should be on the basis of what is in the interests of humanity, rather than a belief in the need to respect natural limits.
By couching the manifesto in such pragmatic terms the authors manage to avoid the overt miserablism of much green thinking. However, there are clear signs that anxiety about economic progress is lurking not far beneath the surface. For example, the manifesto talks of the need to bolster resource productivity – the efficiency with which raw materials are harnessed – but it avoids any mention of labour productivity. Yet it is labour productivity – the amount that can be produced for each hour or day of human labour – that is key to economic progress. To abolish scarcity on a global scale – in other words, to make everyone affluent – would require a huge boost to average levels of labour productivity.
A related problem is indicated by the references to alleviating poverty. At first sight, this seems unobjectionable. Who could be against such a goal? But the manifesto focuses on reducing the most extreme forms of material deprivation and, by implication, eschews the goal of prosperity for all.
Ecomodernism cannot work as a coherent vision because green thinking is fundamentally opposed to modernity. A truly modern vision has to be based around the needs of humanity. It makes no sense to talk about the planet – which, when it comes down to it, is basically just a lump of rock – as if it has its own independent interests. The planet is not, and cannot, be a conscious being.
The ecomodernists are simply trying to give green thinking a makeover. They are playing down its anti-human premises and blurring its negative consequences. They are repackaging a miserablist and misanthropic outlook in a bid to make it seem palatable.
Now, more than ever, it is important to insist on a humanist conception of the relationship between man and nature This means insisting that humans should not constrain their ambition and creativity for the sake of the natural world. On the contrary, we owe the enormous gains we have made to our success in bolstering our control over nature. If anything, we need to take this process even further, rather than scaling back.
Perhaps it is also time to rehabilitate the reputation of Francis Bacon and his immense contribution to modernity. Without his insight, that humans should strive to dominate nature, we would all be far worse off.
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