I like it when people on the right are forthright about the implications of their beliefs, because it helps reassure me that I’m not crazy. So in a way, I’m grateful that Brendan O’Neill has published “Why shouldn’t Brazilians burn down trees?” in Spiked, because it is a good way to show how the logic of libertarianism works and why it’s so deadly.

O’Neill first argues that the forest fires currently burning in the Amazon don’t matter. He supports this arguments with two points: (1) While the number of fires is indeed the highest on record, records have only been kept for six years and (2) while NASA has confirmed that the number of fires is indeed unusually high, the overall amount of fire is “slightly below average.” But of course, neither of those address the critical question of whether deforestation in the Amazon does, in fact, pose dangerous consequences for the planet. O’Neill does not quote or deal with the recent Intercept report on Amazon’s fires and deforestation, which lays out the stakes: 

Scientists warn that losing another fifth of Brazil’s rainforest will trigger the feedback loop known as dieback, in which the forest begins to dry out and burn in a cascading system collapse, beyond the reach of any subsequent human intervention or regret. This would release a doomsday bomb of stored carbon, disappear the cloud vapor that consumes the sun’s radiation before it can be absorbed as heat, and shrivel the rivers in the basin and in the sky. The catastrophic loss of another fifth of Brazil’s rainforest could happen within one generation. It’s happened before. It’s happening now.

O’Neill presents the situation as one of Western environmentalists exhibiting an “elitist and authoritarian attitude,” even a kind of “colonial arrogance,” toward Brazil, by objecting that Brazil is “us[ing] its resources as it sees fit.” O’Neill defends Jair Bolsonaro, saying that the Brazlian president merely “had the gall to suggest that the eco-sanctification of the entire rainforest ran counter to Brazil’s own need to develop – via agriculture, logging, urban expansion, and so on – and therefore a better balance would have to be struck between protecting ecosystems and achieving economic growth.” O’Neill concludes:

Bolsonaro often argued that Brazil’s economic development was being stymied by ‘the world’s affection for the Amazon’. He said that companies interested in clearing parts of the rainforest would be allowed to do so. That he won the presidency suggests many Brazilians share his view that the Amazon has been sanctified at the expense of Brazilian growth and Brazilian sovereignty. And on this they are right, and the rich Western greens telling them to stop being so dumb and irrational are wrong… Brazil is either a sovereign nation or it isn’t. If it is a sovereign nation, then it has every right to pursue economic growth as it sees fit. The rainforest belongs to Brazilians. A Brazilian approach that boosts economic development while keeping a close eye on the natural environment sounds like a good one. But it horrifies Western greens who are allergic to any kind of meaningful economic development. Under the guise of environmentalism they are pursuing the ugly old colonial goal of subjugating non-Western nations to their rules and diktats. And that’s far more horrifying than a few fires in the Amazon.

First, it’s worth noting that, while O’Neill claims to speak on behalf of Brazilians against arrogant “Western” environmentalists, he’s only able to do so by presenting Jair Bolsonaro as the authentic environmental voice of a unified Brazilian populace. In fact, much of the outcry against rainforest destruction is coming from Brazilians themselves. Here’s José Sarney Filho, who served as environmental minister after previous governments: “We are watching them deconstruct everything we’ve put together… We’re talking about biodiversity, life, forests … the Amazon has an incredibly important role in global warming. It’s the world’s air conditioner; it regulates rain for the entire continent.” Here’s Marina Silva, another previous environmental minister, on the country’s “environmental emergency”: “Bolsonaro won the election with his anti-environment, anti-human rights and anti-indigenous discourse and on taking office he has transformed these words into deeds,” said Silva, who oversaw a significant reduction in deforestation while minister from 2003 until 2008. “These policies cannot be allowed to prosper.” And the head of Brazil’s space research institute was fired by the government after arguing that satellite data showed deforestation was more serious than the administration claimed. 

Particular outcry has come from indigeneous people, whose livelihoods are being threatened by a right-wing administration that has made clear it sees the Amazon’s native people as an inconvenience to be removed if their interests conflict with those of agribusiness corporations. The Intercept’s reporting profiled many of these people and quoted one chief saying: “His project for the Amazon is agribusiness. Unless he is stopped, he’ll run over our rights and allow a giant invasion of the forest. The land grabs are not new, but it’s become a question of life and death.” O’Neill, then, shares Bolsonaro’s view that “Brazilian” does not include indigenous Brazilians, whose interests are considered economically worthless.

I find O’Neill’s article especially illuminating, though, because it shows us a kind of reasoning that is very common to libertarian thinking more generally, and we can see from it precisely why it’s so important to reject libertarianism if humanity is going to have a hope of saving itself from planetary destruction. 

Consider the idea of “sovereignty.” O’Neill takes “Westerners” to task because they don’t think Brazil should be allowed to “use its resources as it sees fit.” Here, he is taking a fairly classic libertarian “property rights” framework. What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours, I get to decide what to do with what’s mine, and who are you to interfere or tell me what to do? As usual, the “property rights” in question are defended selectively. The United States was seized in illegitimate conquest from its native population, but the property rights that matter are those of the heirs of the thieves. Likewise, tribal sovereignty of Amazonian peoples does not matter, the sovereignty of “Brazil” matters.

But this whole “my property is mine to do as I see fit” framework only holds up if you fail to think about the most basic complications. If my “choice” to use my property one way ends up damaging the planet we all live in, then why should I get unilateral decision-making power? O’Neill poses the question: Is Brazil a sovereign nation, or isn’t it? As far as the Amazon goes, the answer should be: Of course it isn’t. Why should particular governments be allowed to destroy the great treasures of the earth that rightfully belong to all, just because they happen to have established territorial control over them by force?

Now, O’Neill does make one good argument, though it doesn’t lead to the conclusion he thinks it does. He writes: 

[There is] a colonialist view in which people in the developing world are presented as irresponsible and destructive, while Westerners, like the leader of France, are held up as the saviours of nature and mankind. This expresses one of the key ideas in the environmentalist movement – that the developing world cannot possibly industrialise and modernise as much as the West has, because if it does the planet will die… They cannot believe these idiot foreigners are defying green ideology and seeking the kind of progress we Westerners already enjoy.

It is absolutely correct that Westerners who think developing nations are the problem are being hypocritical and selfish. Any honest assessment of the reality of climate change has to deal with the fact that the United States and Europe are, between them, responsible for the bulk of cumulative fossil fuel emissions: 

(Because China’s emissions now outpace both, their share of the total has grown since this chart.) 

The implications of this are not talked about very much. The U.S. and Europe owe their prosperity in part to the burning of fossil fuels. Now, other countries want to become similarly prosperous, and are being told that they must restrict their emissions because of climate change. Understandably, they do not feel that is very fair.

The above chart actually shows that the United States and Europe have essentially stolen wealth from the rest of the world, by enriching themselves at the expense of the planet. As I have pointed out before, under a consistently-applied property rights framework, the burning of fossil fuels is a form of theft, because U.S. actions are increasing the value of our property while damaging other people’s. Libertarian property frameworks often end up being more about “justice of the stronger” than about property rights. For its role in causing catastrophic climate change, the United States should actually owe a giant sum of “reparations” (or, to use a less controversial term for the same thing, “compensatory damages”) to the rest of the world. (Just as, if we believed in property rights, we would obviously have made reparations to the descendants of slaves, who have suffered long-term consequences of a giant historical act of theft in the form of a vast present-day wealth gap.) We do not actually believe in property rights, though, so fossil fuel companies will not have to pay damages for their willfully deceptive destructive acts, and the U.S. will continue to insist that emission restrictions are “for thee, not for me.” 

It is right, then, that Brazil would have a legitimate complaint if it were to point out that nobody stops the United States from harming the rest of the world through destroying its natural resources, yet Brazil is expected to preserve the Amazon. However, the correct conclusion here is not, as O’Neill would have it, that every country should be free to pillage and destroy “as it sees fit,” but that there must be global decision-making on global problems, that an “individualistic” view simply doesn’t hold up when one country’s actions can so affect the fate of others.

Climate change as a problem is very difficult for many libertarians to deal with, because it poses a serious challenge to the individualistic view of property rights whereby I can simply “do as I please” so long as I am not committing an act of violence against you. I suspect this is why so many libertarians are such vehement climate change deniers. The late David Koch, in an interview, squirmed uncomfortably when asked about climate change, and merely mumbled that climates change. I found the same thing when I debated a free market conservative from the Cato Institute, who didn’t want to say what he thought about climate change except that he knew some people who thought it was all “chicken little stuff.” It’s difficult for them, because if the scientific consensus is correct, then under a libertarian theory of property rights, American free market capitalism as currently constituted is colossally destroying people’s property rights, and fossil fuel companies have got to go. If the science is accurate, unrestrained capitalism is inadequate to solve a problem, and massive government intervention is required, and since the libertarians will never admit that there are giant social problems that governments are needed to solve, the science must be obscured or denied.

It’s very sad to think about what the consequences of O’Neill’s position would be, if it were adopted widely. If we simply think that all countries can “do as they see fit” with their resources, and there should be no judgment of any kind, then there is nothing to object to when wealthy corporate interests chop down the entire rainforest. If it turns out to be profitable for a small number of people to impose misery on the vast majority, or to boil the earth, there is no actual way to object, because if the market did it it must be good.

The phrase “do as they see fit” is used to discourage actual inquiry into what is being done and what its effects are. Ah, you paternalistic imperialist, you want to prevent people from merely doing as they see fit with that which is theirs? But if we think a little harder, we can see that this conception of freedom is incoherent, that it boils down to letting people destroy things that aren’t theirs to begin with, and to hurt everyone else in order to enrich themselves. The libertarian idea of property and freedom is intolerable and must be resisted. After David Koch’s death, perhaps we can bury this poisonous fiction alongside him. 

If you appreciate our work, please consider making a donation, purchasing a subscription, or supporting our podcast on Patreon. Current Affairs is not for profit and carries no outside advertising. We are an independent media institution funded entirely by subscribers and small donors, and we depend on you in order to continue to produce high-quality work.