Affluence and freedom: an environmental history of political ideas, by Pierre Charbonnier

It might have been appropriate to include the word “extractivism” in the title of this book. It is certainly at the heart of his project to discover the material basis of central ideas of modernity such as rights, autonomy and democracy (and the invention of “society” and “the economy”).

Pierre Charbonnier’s historical reading of these founding notions literally brings them back “to earth”. The result is an impressive, forensic analysis of the exploitation of people and places within and beyond Europe that made possible such liberal-capitalist ideas, written in a context where “We inherit of a world that no available political category is designed to handle, and therefore we are faced with a seemingly impossible task.

In modernity, nature is transformed from a realm of meaning into a storehouse of means. The economy dissociated itself from ecology, although in reality dependent on it – especially at the beginning of the modern period, which saw the birth of capitalism and imperialism. This is the price others pay for our freedom. As Charbonnier says: “Can autonomy be bought, a luxury that one can afford when one illegally takes advantage of the wealth of others?”

He goes on to examine what freedom looks like in a collapsing world. Here he wisely avoids both “angelic enthusiasm and dark end-time prophecies”, seeing dead ends both in the techno-optimistic “greening of business as usual” and in the apocalyptic of certain policies. green. Both offer fixed rather than open visions of a regenerative and sustainable future, and both lack a role for collective human action.

Charbonnier is inspired by the work of ecological economics. Orthodox neoclassical models at best offer an incomplete understanding of the human economy. Notions of wealth and freedom based on such models are unstable, as they resemble precise descriptions of a unicorn’s biology that are internally consistent but of limited use in the real world. The argument here is based on a critique not only of productivism but of “the very idea that the productive scheme is a good description of what is happening between the non-human environment and us”. This opens up the possibility of non-instrumental relationships to the world, a space that can include cultural, moral, aesthetic, educational, and even spiritual relationships. Charbonnier sketches a form of eco-socialism inspired by Karl Polanyi as the most promising way to achieve transformations beyond growth-obsessed and carbon-based capitalism. Struggles for freedom are now based on struggles for land.

Do Freedom and Democracy Require Wealth? While liberal democracy appears to be linked to the unevenly distributed economic growth produced by globalized capitalism, this does not necessarily mean that wealth is a prerequisite for other conceptualizations of freedom, autonomy and democracy. Ultimately, as many environmental thinkers and activists point out, what we need is not mastery of nature, but rather collective (and ideally democratically determined) mastery of our relationship with nature. This means, according to Charbonnier, that “the autonomy project is now based on the fastest possible elimination of [the] wealth mechanisms ”. I stayed with the thought that what we need is not just a reframing of autonomy, but a more serious engagement with human vulnerability and dependence as constitutive of the beings that we are.

John Barry is Professor of Green Political Economy and Co-Director of the Center for Sustainability, Equality and Climate Action, Queen’s University, Belfast.

Affluence and Freedom: An Environmental History of Political Ideas
By Pierre Charbonnier, translated by Andrew Brown
Polity Press, 328 pages, £ 54.18 and £ 19.99
ISBN 9781509543717 and 9781509543724
Posted on July 2, 2021

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