Collective blind spot #2: individualism

I started off this series of four blogs by first introducing the three major cultural attachments that Art Earth Tech has been taking as a theme this last year —rationality, individuality, and equality — and the blind spots that these attachments create. Next, I made the case that our religious faith in rationality stalls action on climate. Persistent faith that rational inquiry is just about to come up with a technological fix is one well known problem but just as important is the notion that we can understand the climate crisis precisely, and that very good models of the climate are possible and necessary for action. This leads to time wasted waiting for firmer scientific consensus and clearer answers, when really none are possible.

Though we have known it is “time for action” for decades, our culture of individualism has made political action almost impossible. Reducing carbon emissions is clearly technically possible, there are straightforward ways of doing this — we could put a high price on carbon for example. But such measures have been politically impossible because they affect the individual’s ability to choose to buy what they want. We are allergic to this idea, because we have been told we can “do it my way” that there is a sphere of individual choice that is a natural and even sacred space. The belief that we are entitled to live our own lives, doing our own thing, without interference from anybody, is quite dear to us. Libertarianism is basically this sentiment turned into a political creed; it claims to advance freedom by forbidding us to write laws.

Of course, this is silly. Humans share space and lives — as George Bernhard Shaw said, “A Smoker and a Non-Smoker do not have the same rights on train car” and so laws like banning smoking emissions make sense. Our choices interfere with other’s choices, and we avoid acceptance of this only through clinging to the dogmatic insistence that we live independent lives. The climate crisis is basically a global version of Shaw’s train car dilemma with carbon playing the role of smoke. But unlike in the train car, the greatest polluters are feeling the effects the least (scientific projections are that some homes mostly near the equator, will be uninhabitable within decades) and future generations’ choices are restricted by our choices — the second-hand smoke just builds up in the air for millennia.

It is worth noting that the US is the most famously and fiercely individualistic nation on earth, and it is the only place in which libertarianism is taken seriously. This is not a coincidence. By preventing the US from taking part in global solutions, political parties who are most rigidly built around ideas of individual freedom, especially US Republicans, have essentially stopped global action on climate. Their ideas are not foreign to the rest of us, they are just more extreme. The language of the collective “interfering” with the individuals only really makes sense if we assume that there is some natural state of freedom that individuals exist in. If there ever were such a state, it was as a hunter gatherer in a forest. Societies that are technically advanced like ours depend on governments and laws.

Libertarianism is the belief that, essentially, we don’t need a government because individuals acting on their own will solve problems. Libertarians, even more than others, promote technology (e.g. Bitcoin) as the solution to our problems because if individual inventors acting alone can solve our problems no government is necessary. If an inventor can, through a heroic act of brilliance, make clean energy cheaper than high-carbon energy then no government is necessary. And so libertarian individualists embrace technological solutions to collective problems.

Though enhancing the rights of the individual has done great things (I am quite happy to move where I want and be free of an arranged marriage) the climate crisis shows how this good idea has become a new and absurd faith.

*Blind Spots is our new series exploring the collective blind spots of our society. We invite you to read An introduction to our collective blind spots and Collective blind spot #1: faith in rationality and progress

Please also check the previous blind spot events we organized Blind Spots #1: The Knowledge Economy, the Progressive Project and the Future of Britain with Roberto Unger and Blind Spots #2: Returning to Mystery, Saving Ourselves*.

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