There's a long-running debate within climate activism about whether to concentrate on individual changes or more systemic ones. Should we spend time encouraging ordinary people to change their lifestyles, or pressure the government to improve things from the top? I've written before about how much we should worry about our personal carbon footprints, but I want to look at it from another angle now.
First, a related issue which I think is analogous.
Imagine your society has some important job which needs doing, something that's too big for one person to handle on their own. Looking after the elderly population, building a mass transit system, teaching children - anything that's generally considered a good thing.
How do you achieve it? How do you fund it?
One way is charity - entirely voluntary. Anyone who wants to donate their money or time can do so; those who don't want to don't have to.
The alternative is some form of taxation or public service. This involves everyone contributing something. It may vary according to people's means, but it's near-universal and compulsory.
I've been thinking about which of these is fairer and which is more effective.
A right-leaning libertarian might be against any kind of compulsion, possibly against all taxation. They might argue that it's fine to ask someone to contribute to donate to your charity, but completely wrong to compel them to donate. Even moreso if you threatened to imprison them if they don't contribute.
Those who favour a bigger, more involved state might point out that the best way to get important things done which benefit everyone is for everyone to contribute. If everyone benefits from the project it's fair that everyone should contribute.
When considering these issues you can end up asking some big philosophical questions about positive and negative rights. What is more important - a person's right to choose how they spend all of their money, or another's right to live in a fair and equitable society where everyone who can contribute does so?
On the one hand the voluntary nature of charity increases one kind of freedom.
On the other, allowing people to avoid contributing to something from which everyone, themselves included, benefits doesn't seem fair.
For a concrete example, in the UK the NHS is a popular institution that has come under increasing strain due to underfunding, the pandemic and creeping privatisation. Partly in response to these issues, there has been a growth in the fundraising of NHS Charities Together. In some ways this is a good thing; people care about a health service that is free at the point of use and supports everyone who needs it. However, it is possible to see how charity funding of the NHS could eventually replace funding through general taxation. Even with enthusiastic backers, it's unlikely that the current level of service could be maintained on voluntary contributions alone. So we'd end up with a much diminished service and more people feeling they needed private healthcare. A lot of people simply wouldn't be able to afford healthcare and would suffer ill health due to the diminished service. This would likely increase inequality and make all those problems worse. The richest in society, while they may be able to afford private healthcare, still benefit from a functioning society and a workforce kept somewhat healthy by a charity to which they might have made no contribution.
Charity is like a tax that selfish people don't have to pay.
Oh, yes. I've been meaning to get back to that!
Last year, while doing some volunteer tree planting, I got chatting with a guy about environmental issues. He told me,
"I don't want to give up eating meat. I want the goverment to force me to give it up."
That seemed odd - why would he want his choice taken away?
But I realised what he meant. If the government forced him to give up meat, they would presumably force everyone else to do the same, which would have a far greater effect. For the sake of argument we can substitute "give up meat" for "limit flying" or "divest from fossil fuels".
Yes, this takes away individual freedom in the short term. Some people will be disappointed to have lifestyle changes forced on them. On the other hand this mandated collective action is fairer - why should it fall to the most benevolent and selfless individuals to make the effort? An effort that likely won't be enough.
An optional, individual approach might make sense if climate change were a minority interest, something for tree huggers and polar bear fans.
But it's not.
Unfortunately climate change is an exitential threat - something which will affect all of us, the young especially. We can't opt out of living on Earth - everyone needs this planet and everyone affects it, some more than others. Our fates are bound together, whether we like it or not.
Making action on climate optional, only for those especially interested and motivated to act, would mean failing to make sufficient changes to limit the disaster. Such changes have to be decided collectively which preferably means by a democratically elected government or representative citizen's assembly which can make binding recommendations. We must consider the needs of those least able to adapt - a just transition. It will also require government to provide much of the means and infrastructure to live more sustainably.
We can worry about limiting people's freedom with lifestyle changes, but failure to address the climate crisis will severely limit people's freedom and indeed, their lives. Like an underfunded health service relying on charity, voluntary climate action risks being ineffective with catastrophic consequences.
If society is a collective project it has to start from some sort of agreement to collaborate. We can and must discuss the details of that collaboration so that it is as fair as possible, but none of us can be allowed to opt out and no one should be without a voice. Working together has always been essential to humanity's great achievements and it has never been more important.
What is more important - a person's right to choose how they spend all of their money, or another's right to live in a fair and equitable society where everyone who can contribute does so?
Charity is like a tax that selfish people don't have to pay
Making action on climate optional... would mean failing to make sufficient changes to limit the disaster