The best way to help the environment? Look to neoliberalism, not statism

Connor Axiotes

September 28, 2018

Neoliberals are often accused of caring about profits and little else. A lot can be said about the market’s inability to satisfy desires for consumer goods without damaging the environment and its inhabitants. But as neoliberals, we believe it is possible to make people wealthier and happier while creating a world that is cleaner and better than the one which we inherited. And we believe that the potent mix of individual liberty and freedom of choice is the best way to achieve it. We don’t believe it because of some abstract philosophy, but because the evidence shows us it works. 

Neoliberalism is the most effective way of mitigating environmental problems and fixing the problems caused by industrialisation. Simon Kuznets provided an interesting and relevant narrative (through his Kuznets curve) that, initially, significant environmental damage precedes economic growth, as an economy transitions from a pre-industrialised to an industrialised one. Or rather, as people make the trade-off of being able to feed their families over keeping their city free from car pollution. 

He then explains that as an economy enters a period of high growth so too will it enter a period advantageous to the environment. This theory has borne out in practice. As the UK has become richer, our general concern for the environment has increased, and our technological ability to amend the damage has also improved. 

And I stress “our”. These are behaviours that have come about without state intervention. Does charity require state intervention? No. And the richer our society gets, the more compassionate it gets. Indeed, last year, the total amount given to charity increased to £10.3 billion.

That’s separate, too, from the billions in good work done by firms, outreach, employment and purchase choices which reflect people’s personal preferences – which, again, as they get richer tend to incorporate more empathy.

London Fashion Week has just banned all real animal fur at its latest event; our most popular high street food outlets offer packaging with limited plastic and environmentally-friendly sourced products, and two-thirds of Nike clothing and footwear now use recycled polyester and other materials. These are consumer-driven pressures, producing consumer-driven outcomes.

On the other hand, the Government introduced 5p charges to plastic bags in order to decrease their demand on the grounds that they are bad for the environment. The Government would be much happier if these bags were, say, replaced with paper ones. However, paper bags have a much higher carbon footprint than plastic bags and would need to be reused at least three times to avoid having a higher impact. And cotton bags (the likes of which your local bookshop loves to give out) would have to be used 327 times more than a plastic bag to balance the carbon footprint it creates.

If the Government does want to get involved in environmental damage control, it should be through pragmatic consumption taxes, such as a carbon tax. Not an arbitrary ban on whatever is unfashionable at the time. 

Indeed, we should be replacing much of our existing climate legislation with a single carbon tax. A tax levied on fossil fuels at key choke points would see more competitive firms decrease their carbon emissions. This also creates incentives for more environmentally friendly, renewable energy companies to enter the market. 

A research paper by Dr Madsen Pirie and Jamie Hollywood of the Adam Smith Institute highlighted the huge environmental benefits that lab-grown meat could unearth. The footprint of commercial lab-grown meat would be 99 per cent lower than for normal animal husbandry. The reality is that we are wasting land raising animals, all the while our rents pile up and our air pollution gets worse as pesticides spew out. Not just pesticides either. Animals contribute around 14.5 per cent of all total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. So, this technical solution has come about because of the need to make meat production more efficient. By proxy, the environment stands to benefit massively. 

Environmental betterment is not a goal of neoliberalism, it is the resultant by-product. As people become wealthier – as they rapidly and consistently have over the last century – their thoughts have more easily been kept occupied by those things that they truly care about. As Peter Singer explained, altruism began as a genetically based drive to protect one’s own, but it has developed into a consciously chosen ethic with an expanding circle of moral concern. 

People have been able to move away from their urgent needs – namely to provide for themselves and their family. They are now able to devote time and energy to the world around them. It is the reason why we say charity begins at home.

It is why boycotting animal-unfriendly products and using environmentally safer ones is as prevalent now as it ever has been. But, once again, it is worth stressing that these advances are market-based rather than diktats prescribed by government – as most key technological leaps forward tend to be. Indeed, if you look throughout history, the greatest scientific, medical and engineering feats were all founded outside the remit of government. 

Neoliberal environmentalism is the organic, spontaneous method that ensures the welfare of animals will significantly increase over time. Finally, the inexcusable horrors we put the Earth’s animals through will cease – horrors I think we will look back on in disgust.


Written by Connor Axiotes

Connor Axiotes is deputy editor of 1828 and a policy analyst at the British Conservation Alliance.


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