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Political theory in a closed world: Reflections on William Ophuls, liberalism and abundance.


This paper takes as a starting point William Ophul's claim that the last 450 years amount to an 'era of exception' in terms of resource availability. Ophuls suggests that it is no accident that this exceptional era of abundance coincides with the birth and development of liberalism--that liberalism, in other words, would not/could not have occurred without the conditions provided by this era of exception. Some of the ways in which this suggestion might be critically examined are discussed, and attention is drawn to one of its more interesting implications: if liberalism depends on abundance, what kind of political theory do we need if we are entering a new era of scarcity ('peak oil/peak everything')?


Ophuls, closed world, political theory


William Ophuls is widely regarded as one of the betes noires of environmental political theory. He published his best-known book, Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity, around the time of the debate set off by the Limits to Growth report in the early 1970s. He was one of a number of theorists, mostly based in North America, who argued that the changes in behaviour required for the creation of a sustainable society were so drastic that they would not be undertaken voluntarily. This led him to the conclusion that some degree of coercion was a precondition for sustainability, and thus he and those who thought (and think) like him came to be regarded as 'eco-authoritarians'.

And this, of course, is what gives him bete noire status in environmental circles. Conscious of a somewhat chequered history as far as democracy is concerned, particularly in the early part of the twentieth century when 'nature politics' was more likely to be associated with the right than the left (Bramwell 1989), environmental activists have banged the democracy drum, and some very interesting academic work has been done on the relationship between sustainability and democracy, and objective and process (Doherty and de Geus, 1996; Minteer and Pepperman Taylor, 2002; Paehlke, 2003). The main thrust of this practice and this enquiry has been to try to show how the relationship between sustainability and democracy is--or can be--mutually supportive. Thus theorists like William Ophuls are regarded as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. So why begin this article with references to his work? Because hidden away in his work is an issue of even bigger moment than his critique of the possibility of a democratic environmentalism

In response to the waves of democratic theorising in and around the green movement and its academic commentators, and as a reaction to criticisms of his own work, Ophuls published a form of rejoinder (some would see it as a recanting), called Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity Revisited: The Unraveling of the American Dream (Ophuls and Boyan, 1992). My aim here is not to discuss the success or failure of the revisions Ophuls tries out. Something else is apparent in Ophuls' 'Revisited' text: it is not just democracy that Ophuls finds problematic--he sets his sights higher and draws his net wider:
In brief, liberal democracy as we know it--that is, our theory or
"paradigm" of politics ... is doomed by ecological scarcity; we need a
completely new political philosophy and set of political institutions.
Moreover, it appears that the basic principles of modern industrial
civilization are also incompatible with ecological scarcity and that
the whole ideology of modernity growing out of the Enlightenment,
especially such central tenets as individualism, may no longer be
viable. (Ophuls and Boyan, 1992: 3)

Here we have a whole series of very big targets: liberal democracy, modern industrial civilisation, and the 'whole ideology of modernity'. This in itself is not too unusual: we are used to radical and all-embracing green critiques that locate the blame for our environmental ills at what we might call the 'paradigm level'--the level of 'the Enlightenment', for example. (1) What is interesting about Ophuls' position is that he gives the 'our theory, or "paradigm"' of politics --liberal democracy--a sort of material basis, or material precondition: abundance (2). Moreover, he clearly views the material preconditions that 'enabled' liberalism to be exceptional, in the sense of unusual, time-limited, and quite possibly not repeatable. In turn this raises the possibility that liberalism, far from being a historical achievement that will always be with us, is built on conditions that are temporary. And this raises the further question: if the conditions are temporary, is liberalism temporary? Or to put the question in a more pointed way, can liberalism's achievements--relative pluralism, the rule of law and so on--survive the possible ending of the conditions that 'made' it possible?

Much has been written about the relationship between liberalism and the politics of the environment (for an excellent account and exploration of this relationship see Wissenburg 1998), but the question of the possible 'material conditions' for liberalism has received relatively little attention. Discussion has generally revolved around what we might call the 'compatibility' question, as commentators have tested the ideological commitments of liberalism and ecologism against one another to determine points of definite difference and potential contact (Dobson, 2007: 149-158). The points of reference for this discussion tend to be whether the liberty that liberals usually espouse is compatible with restraints often associated with green politics; the contrast between the individualism of liberalism and the more collectivist and relational ideology of ecologism; debates over the nature and possibility of conceptions of the 'Good Life'; and the role of rights (human, animal, future generations). Perhaps the most relevant aspect of this debate for the purposes of this article, though, is the observation that there are many liberalisms (just as there are many ecologisms). Ophuls is writing about the liberalism of John Locke, as we will see below, but it is important to remember that it was another liberal --John Stuart Mill--who in 1848 wrote about the 'stationary state' economy (Mill, 1848: book 4 chapter 6):
I cannot, therefore, regard the stationary state of capital and wealth
with the unaffected aversion so generally manifested towards it by
political economists of the old school. I am inclined to believe that
it would be, on the whole, a very considerable improvement on our
present condition. I confess I am not charmed with the ideal of life
held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is
that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing,
and treading on each other's heels, which form the existing type of
social life, are the most desirable lot of human kind, or anything but
the disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress.

Bearing Mill in mind, then, we need to be careful when drawing any conclusions about 'liberalism in general' from Ophuls' analysis. But this is to get ahead of ourselves a little. First we need to examine more closely the nature of Ophuls' argument, the better to look for ways of testing its strengths and weaknesses.


A key word in his analysis is 'scarcity'. Political paradigms previous to the era of plenty, says Ophuls, were driven by scarcity and the 'facts' it 'produced'. This is how Ophuls sees it: 'Except for a few relatively brief periods when for some reason the burden of scarcity was temporarily lifted, inequality, oppression, and conflict have been very prominent features of political life, merely waxing and waning slightly in response to the character of the rulers and other ephemeral factors' (Ophuls and Boyan, 1992: 190). This is not an especially original thought, and nor is it beyond questioning (scarcity need not be the only cause of violence, obviously, and violence can be present even where scarcity is not), but the main point is to set up the contrast with the alternative, 'exceptional', situation--the one we are living through now (and which, according to Ophuls, is coming to an end):
Our own era has been the longest and certainly the most important
exception. During roughly the last 450 years, the carrying capacity of
the globe (and especially of the highly developed nations) has been
markedly expanded, and several centuries of relative abundance have
completely transformed the face of the earth and made our societies and
our civilization what they are today--relatively open, egalitarian,
libertarian, and conflict-free. (Ophuls and Boyan, 1992: 190)

Ophuls establishes three points or markers here. The first is that he puts a date to what we might call 'The Age of Exception'--for him it started 450 years ago, which takes us back to around 1550. We will look at the potential significance of this date later. The second is his use of the word 'exception'. This marks out the 450-year period as something of an aberration and, moreover, something with a beginning and an end--rather than just a beginning without an end. The third point (which amounts to a claim) is that the advent of an age of abundance made possible the kind of societies in which 'we' live --'relatively open, egalitarian, libertarian, and conflict-free'. (Of course these descriptors are as much aspirational as real, but they serve Ophuls' purpose in that his point is that without abundance these characteristics would not have been realistically thinkable).

Ophuls pins down the origins of this 'new abundance', both as thought and as fact, in the 'discovery' of the New World: 'The causes of the four-century-long economic boom we have enjoyed are readily apparent: the European discovery and exploitation of the New World, Oceania, and other founts of virgin resources' (Ophuls and Boyan, 1992: 190), he writes. And once again he implies a causal relationship between the discovery of abundance in the New World and the opening up of social and political possibilities, since, 'Before the discovery of the New World, the population of Europe pressed hard on its means of subsistence, and as a result, European societies were politically, economically, and socially closed' (Ophuls and Boyan, 1992: 190; emphasis added). Once the New World was 'discovered', novel possibilities emerged:
with the opening up of a 'Great Frontier' in the New World, Europe
suddenly faced a seemingly limitless panorama of ecological riches. The
land available for cultivation was suddenly multiplied about five
times; vast stands of high-grade timber, a scarce commodity in Europe,
stretched as far as the eye could see; gold and silver were there for
the taking, and rich lodes of other metals lay ready for exploitation;
the introduction of the potato and other new food crops from the New
World boosted European agricultural production so sharply that the
population doubled between 1750 and 1850. This bonanza of found wealth
lifted the yoke of ecological scarcity and, coincidentally, created all
the peculiar institutions and values characteristic of modern
civilization--democracy, freedom, and individualism. (Ophuls and Boyan,
1992: 190-1)

Once again Ophuls makes a clear causal connection--though he calls it 'coincidental' here--between the bonanza of the New World and the characteristics of 'modern civilisation': democracy, freedom, individualism. (3)


This connection is then traced back by Ophuls to two of the key figures in the development of liberal political and economic theory, John Locke and Adam Smith. He writes that, 'the existence of such ecological abundance is an indispensable premise of the libertarian doctrines of John Locke and Adam Smith, the two thinkers whose work epitomise the modern bourgeois views of political economy on which all the institutions of open societies are based' (Ophuls and Boyan, 1992: 191). Ophuls claims that Locke's 'argument on property by appropriation is shot through with references to the wilderness of the New World, which only needed to be occupied and cultivated to be turned into property for any man who desired it. Locke's justification of original property and the natural right of a man to appropriate it from nature thus rests on cornucopian assumptions. There is always more left; society can therefore be libertarian' (Ophuls and Boyan, 1992: 191). Likewise, he says, 'Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776) is ... a manifesto for the attainment of political liberty through the economic exploitation of the found wealth of the Great Frontier' (Ophuls and Boyan, 1992: 191).

This interpretation of Locke and Smith amounts to the claim that their thinking would not have been possible without the 'ecological abundance' represented by the discovery of the New World. So we should expect to find this abundance in their texts, as it were. There is an implied question here, too: what happens if and when the conditions that made liberal thinking possible no longer obtain? Are democracy, freedom, individualism, the liberal rule of law and so on, in some sense dependent on conditions of abundance? If these conditions disappear, can these liberal aspirations/achievements survive?

The reason why this is a live question rather than just an intellectual curiosity is given by the current debates around 'peak oil' and even 'peak everything' (Heinberg, 2007). There is a genuine sense of ecological limits pressing in and of things running out. As Heinberg says:
Nor does the matter [of scarcity] end with natural gas and coal. Once
one lifts one's eyes from the narrow path of daily survival activities
and starts scanning the horizon, a frightening array of peaks comes
into view. In the course of the present century we will see an end to
growth and a commencement of decline in all of these parameters:
* Population
* Grain production (total and per capita)
* Uranium production
* Climate stability
* Fresh water availability per capita
* Arable land in agricultural production
* Wild fish harvests
* Yearly extraction of some metals and minerals (Heinberg, 2007: 4)

If this sort of analysis is correct then as Ophuls says, 'the boom is now over' (Ophuls and Boyan, 1992: 192), and the conditions that enabled liberalism (on Ophuls' account) are under threat. Ophuls himself describes the possible consequences:
The found wealth of the Great Frontier has been all but exhausted ...
Thus a scarcity at least as intense as that prevailing in the premodern
era, however different it may be in important respects, is about to
replace abundance, and this will necessarily undercut the material
conditions that have created and sustained current ideas, institutions
and practices. Once relative abundance and wealth of opportunity are no
longer available to mitigate the harsh political dynamics of scarcity,
the pressures favoring greater inequality, oppression, and conflict
will build up, so that the return of scarcity portends the revival of
age-old political evils, for our descendants if not for ourselves. In
short, the golden age of individualism, liberty, and democracy (as
those terms are currently understood) is all but over. In many
important respects, we shall be obliged to return to something
resembling the premodern, closed polity. (Ophuls and Boyan, 1992: 192)

So the question that Ophuls poses, in a nutshell, is whether a closed world, in resource terms, brings in its train a closed society, in political terms. Is ecological scarcity an enemy of the open society that Popper missed (Popper, 1945)?


I should stress that I am not so interested here in the question that motivates Ophuls: viz. whether an authoritarian government will be required to encourage a reluctant populace to accept the strictures that will accompany a regime of resource scarcity. This seems to me to be less interesting than the question of what might happen to 'political culture' (let's call it that for the moment) under such conditions. The question, then, is not so much what governments would have to do, as what people would be prepared to accept. Would cosmopolitan sentiments survive--or have any chance of being incubated--under conditions of scarcity? As a rule of thumb I take cosmopolitanism, here and in my brief comments in the Conclusion, to refer to the notion that people are bound together by their common humanity, and that this entails duties of care which compete with (if not supersede) the duties following from more particularistic identifications with family, race, religion, class and so on.

One place where there have been treatments of this question is in the realm of fiction. In The Death of Grass (first published in 1956), for example, John Christopher tells the story of what happens when a virus that kills all species of grass sweeps the world. A group of people in England trek across the country towards sanctuary in the Lake District as law and order collapse. One of the characters, John, says near the beginning, 'The thing all you adult, sensitive people must bear in mind is that things are on your side at present--you live in a world where everything's in favour of being sensitive and civilized. But it's a precarious business' (Christopher, 2009: 20). This 'precariousness' is very much Ophuls' point. John is the outsider 'realist' but conditions move the rest of the group in his direction. Some of the most revealing dialogues take place in relation to that classic cosmopolitan testing-ground of whether distant strangers should count equally in the moral balance as close friends and relatives. Later on another character, Roger, says, 'We're in a new era ... or a very old one. Wide loyalties are civilised luxuries. Loyalties are going to be narrow from now on, and the narrower the fiercer' (Christopher, 2009: 49). The 'new ... old' here echoes Ophuls' idea of a hiatus in human history, in which the 'wide loyalties' of which Roger speaks are a temporary achievement, with a beginning and an end. Of all the casualties in The Death of Grass (and there are plenty) cosmopolitanism is the most prominent, as well as the most interesting from our point of view. Christopher charts the collapse of cosmopolitan sentiment under the stresses of resource scarcity, and Ophuls' point might be--precisely--that scarcity is, as Popper might have it, an enemy of the open society.

Ophuls himself certainly thinks that as the age of abundance comes to an end we must expect a return to a closed polity, and he is clear what such a political theory must look like:
scarcity in general erodes the material basis for the relatively benign
individualistic and democratic politics characteristic of the modern
industrial era. Ecological scarcity in particular seems to engender
overwhelming pressures toward political systems that are frankly
authoritarian by current standards, for there seems to be no other way
to check competitive overexploitation of resources and to ensure
competent direction of a complex society's affairs in accordance with
steady-state imperatives. Leviathan may be mitigated but not evaded.
(Ophuls and Boyan, 1992: 216)

Is Ophuls right that Leviathan is inevitable in a closed world? Or is a low-resource, low-energy cosmopolitanism possible?


Before we broach this question (or rather the series of questions that it brings in its train) I should say something about terminology here--especially 'open world', 'open society', 'closed world', 'closed society'. I will be using the term 'open world' to describe a world that is believed to contain to all intents and purposes unlimited resources. The ecological economist Herman Daly uses the term 'empty world' to describe the same kind of context and phenomenon, and I shall do the same from time to time. 'Closed world' refers to the opposite of this--a world in which aspirations regarding levels of production and consumption are tempered by a belief in the existence of 'natural' limits. This is in contrast to limits that are produced by the way society is organised or the technology it possesses. To illustrate the difference, Daly offers this well-known example:
the annual fish catch is now limited by the natural capital of fish
populations in the sea and no longer by the man-made capital of fishing
boats. Weak sustainability would suggest that the lack of fish can be
dealt with by building more fishing boats. Strong sustainability
recognizes that more fishing boats are useless if there are too few
fish in the ocean and insists that catches must be limited to ensure
maintenance of adequate fish populations for tomorrow's fishers.
(Daly, 2005: 103)

In this example, technology in the form of fishing boats was able to overcome scarcity by catching more fish more quickly. Technology can certainly play a role in making resources stretch further than they have in the past through efficiency gains, but the view that technology can be used to absolutely decouple environmental degradation and economic growth is very much in dispute (Jackson, 2009: 67-86). Sooner or later the constraints imposed on the productive process by the 'finite planet' of the subtitle of Jackson's book come into play, and limits can no longer be overcome by technological advances. This is the 'strong sustainability' referred to by Daly in the quotation above. Daly uses the term 'full world' as opposed to 'closed world' to describe this situation, and occasionally I shall do the same.

The phrase 'open society' is intended to capture certain stated aspirations of liberalism, such as toleration, 'negative' freedom (in Berlin's sense), formal equality, the rule of law. A 'closed society', in these terms, is one in which these aspirations do not go unchallenged and may be regarded as less important than other aspirations, such as survival.

The reference to Daly, here, is significant for other reasons too. This is because economics has paid much more attention to the distinction between, and implications of, full worlds and empty worlds than political theory. Economics has its critiques of empty world scenarios and has articulated its full world alternatives to a degree that political theory has not even begun to imagine. So much political theorising is done as if scarcity was only ever a local and contingent problem--and this is reflected in the fact that scarcity-thinking is confined to a relatively small and relatively independent field of political theorising: social and distributive justice. The task for political theory is arguably the same as that which Daly outlines for economics: 'As the world becomes full of us and our stuff, it becomes empty of what was here before. To deal with this new pattern of scarcity, scientists need to develop a "full world" economics to replace our traditional "empty world" economics' (Daly, 2005: 102). What might a 'full world' political theory look like?


So Ophuls makes a number of distinct yet related claims:

1. that the ' age of abundance' is a historical exception that is coming to an end

2. that this age of abundance in some sense made liberal thinking and practice possible

3. that there is evidence for this in the work of key liberal theorists such as Locke and Smith

4. that as the age of abundance comes to an end we must expect a return to a closed polity

In a full treatment, each of these claims needs to be tested and this is no easy task, not least because each of them operates in different disciplinary domains. The first claim relies on evidence from history and resource economics, the second and third on evidence from political theory, and the last one from a range of disciplines ranging from history to anthropology to futurology (possibly).

In what remains of this article I will focus on the third of these claims, with special reference to John Locke and the role that scarcity and abundance play in his political theory. Is there, as Ophuls claims, evidence for the importance of the 'open world' in his theorising? More broadly, if Ophuls is right about the influence of this open world on political theory then we might also expect to see a shift in the aspirations people had as the open world and its possibilities became known to them. It would presumably be rather like the effect the discovery of a new and accessible planet, full of resources, would have on our mindset today. So to conclude I will then have a cursory look at the historical evidence for a shift in expectations regarding consumption possibilities. First I will look at Locke's work (or at least one very small part of it) for evidence that might support or undermine Ophuls' claim.


The most often cited part of Locke's work in this context is the chapter on property in his Two Treatises of Government. Ophuls himself makes this reading of Locke:
Locke (1690, paras. 27-29) justifies the institution of property by
saying that it derives from the mixture of a man's labor with the
original commons of nature. But he continually emphasizes that for one
man to make part of what is the common heritage of mankind his own
property does not work to the disadvantage of other men. Why? Because
"there was still enough and as good left; and more than the yet
unprovided could use" (para. 33). (Ophuls and Boyan, 1992: 191)

In fact this is a very schematic reading of Locke, which, while not wholly inaccurate, is not at all a full picture of his theory of property. Ophuls is right to say that the mechanism through which common property becomes private property is labour. He is also right to say that at one stage of Locke's argument, at least, the role of the 'open world' is that it provides the background legitimating condition for the appropriation of property. This is because the acquisition of property is legitimate as long as 'enough and as good' is left for others--and this condition is best fulfilled in an 'open world' of, to all intents and purposes, unlimited resources. But Locke is in fact equivocal about the role of the 'open world' in his theory. Far from being the condition for capitalist accumulation, on one reading of his work it actually inhibits it.

This is how it works. Locke asks us to imagine an 'island, separate from all possible commerce with the rest of the world, wherein there were but an hundred families, but there were sheep, horses and cows, with other useful animals, wholesome fruits, and land enough for corn for a hundred thousand times as many, but nothing in the island, either because of its commonness, or perishableness, fit to supply the place of money' (Locke, Section 48). This, in other words, is a place of plenty--an 'open world' of in principle unlimited resources, with more than enough for everybody.

Then Locke asks a crucial question, the answer to which potentially undermines Ophuls' claim regarding the role that the open world plays in making possible unlimited accumulation in Locke's theory. Under these conditions, asks Locke, 'what reason could any one have there to enlarge his possessions beyond the use of his family, and a plentiful supply to its consumption, either in what their own industry produced, or they could barter for like perishable, useful commodities, with others?' (Locke, Section 48). In other words, under open world conditions there is little incentive to accumulate beyond what is necessary for a comfortable, independent life.

Earlier in the chapter under discussion Locke shows how, in an open world, appropriation of private property need not impinge on the capacity of others to enjoy the fruits of the earth simply because there is so much to go round: 'no man's labour could subdue, or appropriate all; nor could his enjoyment consume more than a small part; so that it was impossible for any man, this way, to intrench upon the right of another, or acquire to himself a property, to the prejudice of his neighbour, who would still have room for as good, and as large a possession (after the other had taken out his) as before it was appropriated.' (Locke, Section 36)

In this scenario, the open world is the context in which the accumulation of private property is at once legitimated and (unfortunately for Ophuls) limited. In this sense, the open world is the context within something like a Jeffersonian decentralised republicanism can be practised--and if Greens have to choose between Locke and Jefferson, they will usually plump for the latter. So, far from being the context for the capitalist engine of unlimited and unsustainable growth the open world is--if Locke is right--in fact more likely to lead to limited production and consumption.

Locke says that two further conditions are required, either together or independently, for accumulation and trade to be incentivised. The first is suggested by his reference, in the quotation above, to the lack of anything 'either because of its commonness, or perishableness, fit to supply the place of money'. So money is the first thing that is missing:
this I dare boldly affirm, that the same rule of propriety, (viz.) that
every man should have as much as he could make use of, would hold still
in the world, without straitening any body; since there is land enough
in the world to suffice double the inhabitants, had not the invention
of money, and the tacit agreement of men to put a value on it,
introduced (by consent) larger possessions, and a right to them.
(Locke, Section 36)

The reason why the advent of money legitimises extra accumulation is because Locke's 'perishability' criterion is not transgressed. In the context of a discussion about a farmer who gathers acorns and grows apples and plums, Locke reiterates the point that accumulation is legitimate as long as the thing accumulated does not perish or go to waste: 'if he ... bartered away plums, that would have rotted in a week, for nuts that would last good for his eating a whole year, he did no injury; he wasted not the common stock; destroyed no part of the portion of goods that belonged to others, so long as nothing perished uselessly in his hands' (Locke, Section 46). So the more durable the thing accumulated is, the more of it can be legitimately accumulated:
[A]gain, if he would give his nuts for a piece of metal, pleased with
its colour; or exchange his sheep for shells, or wool for a sparkling
pebble or a diamond, and keep those by him all his life he invaded not
the right of others, he might heap up as much of these durable things
as he pleased; the exceeding of the bounds of his just property not
lying in the largeness of his possession, but the perishing of any
thing uselessly in it. (Locke, Section 46)

So one can legitimately have as much money (metal) as one can accumulate, since the limits on legitimate possession are given not by how much one has, but by the degree to which what one has is perishable. Now the circle is complete and the engine of capitalist accumulation is well-fuelled, fired up and ready to go: 'Find out something that hath the use and value of money amongst his neighbours, you shall see the same man will begin presently to enlarge his possessions' (Locke, Section 49).

After money, the second thing that changed was that the earth got fuller: 'Men, at first, for the most part, contented themselves with what unassisted nature offered to their necessities: and though afterwards, in some parts of the world, (where the increase of people and stock, with the use of money, had made land scarce, and so of some value) the several communities settled the bounds of their distinct territories, and by laws within themselves regulated the properties of the private men of their society' (Locke, Section 45; emphasis added). Limits on space bring people into contact one another, land and goods get scarce, trade is made more likely.

On the face of it, then, Ophuls' reading of Locke does not quite hold up. Ophuls wants Locke's 'open world' scenario to be the driver for unlimited acquisition. Recall what Ophuls says in this connection: 'Locke's justification of original property and the natural right of a man to appropriate it from nature thus rests on cornucopian assumptions' (Ophuls and Boyan, 1992: 191). We can now see that this is not quite right. In fact, Locke's justification for property ownership is based on the (Lockean) fact that, 'every man has a property in his own person', thus,' [T]he labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his' (Locke, Section 27). So the right to appropriate nature does not rest on cornucopian assumptions, as Ophuls believes, but on the fact that one legitimately possesses one's own body, and therefore the fruits of its labour.

At root, in any case, it is not at all clear that Locke is making cornucopian assumptions. In fact he often contrasts a part-imagined past of an empty, open world with (his) present which is fuller, more 'closed'. Thus he talks of, 'the first ages of the world, when men were more in danger to be lost, by wandering from their company, in the then vast wilderness of the earth' (Locke, Section 36; emphasis added). This suggests that the present (Locke's present) is no longer a 'vast wilderness' in which people can easily get lost, but is rather a fuller world, relatively replete with people, things, contact.

On the other hand, perhaps Locke's most striking and aphoristic expression of the empty and open world, and the place where Ophuls' interpretation of him is best supported, is his affirmation that 'in the beginning all the world was America' (Locke, Section 49). This lends some support to Ophuls' contention that Locke was struck by the emptiness and openness that the 'discovery' of America brought in its train, because it implies that America in the mid seventeenth century had the same characteristics as the world at the beginning of time--open and empty. Yet the full sentence reads as follows: 'Thus in the beginning all the world was America, and more so than that is now; for no such thing as money was any where known'' (Locke, Section 49; emphasis added).

What are we to make of this italicised qualification? On the one hand it looks as though Locke is drawing a distinction between the beginning of the world and (his) contemporary America, thereby undermining the apparent cornucopian similarity between the two. On the other hand, Ophuls might argue that Locke has presented us here with a 'perfect storm' of legitimate unlimited acquisition. Note that the difference between seventeenth century America and 'the beginning of the world' is not that the latter was empty while the former is full, but that in the former there is a means of exchange called money, while in the latter there was not. And we know that for Locke money amounts to the mechanism or medium that legitimates unlimited acquisition. So his description of America combines the means of unlimited acquisition with the potential for acquiring unlimitedly.

How are we to summarise this brief analysis of Locke? Does his chapter on property support Ophuls' claim that Locke's theory rests on cornucopian assumptions? A close anaylsis of Locke's text suggests that the open world idea plays two roles in his work, in tension with one another. On the one hand, in an open, empty world Locke's 'enough and as good' proviso will always hold, since however much property (in the most general sense) any one individual possesses, there will always be enough to go round. On the other hand, though, Locke says that in an open, empty world there is no incentive for anyone to possess any more property than s/he needs for comfortable subsistence. So while an open and empty world provides the possibility for limitless consumption, its 'structure' militates against it. In fact it is only as the world 'fills up' that the mechanisms that prompt what we might call 'over-consumption' come into play--specifically trade, and that which makes it possible, i.e. relatively unperishable goods (e.g. money in the form of metal). This latter means that Locke's 'non-perishability' constraint on possessions will always be met--metal/money does not perish.

So the ideal scenario for legitimate and unlimited acquisition appears to be a relatively open and empty world in which money as a means of exchange exists. Does this sound like the America of Locke's acquaintance? Might it be, as Ophuls suggests, that Locke did indeed have a very particular place with very particular characteristics in mind as he was working up his theory of property? The evidence from this short chapter in Two Treatises of Government suggests that he might. One mystery remains though: why did not Locke see that even if his perishability constraint would not be transgressed in this scenario, his 'enough and as good' probably would? Perhaps this, finally, is where Ophuls has got it right--the relatively open world of America that Locke had in mind was the perfect combination of real-life circumstances, where the existence of money and resources made unlimited acquisition both legitimate and possible.


If Ophuls is right about his 450-year long period of exception then we might expect to find evidence of changing aspirations in people in its early to mid stages--aspirations generated to some degree by the dawning awareness of an open world scenario. Keith Thomas, the doyen of early modern historians, quite recently published his The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfillment in Early Modern England, in which he discusses the changing nature of fulfillment during the period 1530-1780 (Thomas, 2009: 4). The 1530 date coincides pretty much exactly with when Ophuls' period of exception begins, so one might expect something of the open world mentality to have begun to affect people's aspirations and behaviour during the period Thomas discusses.

Significantly, the opening chapter of Thomas's book is called 'Fulfillment in an Age of Limited Possibilities', and a key section of that chapter is called The Constraints of the Age'. The themes of limitation and constraint recur in Thomas's description of life in the mid-sixteenth century England. He contrasts 'present-day notions of human fulfillment', which 'place a high value upon the realization of each person's distinctive capabilities and desires', with early modern aspirations:
It need hardly be said that these present-day notions of human
fulfillment were largely alien to the thinking of the early modern
period. The material circumstances of the time placed huge limits on
the scope for individual choice. Many of the 'basic capabilities' which
modern Western philosophers regard as prerequisites of a satisfactory
life were totally out of the reach of most people. Poverty, ill health,
and premature death stunted innumerable lives. The idea that every
person was endowed with unique capacities which could be cultivated and
developed was only embryonic. So too was the notion that people should
be allowed to choose their own goals and direction in life. Social
roles and norms of behaviour were strictly prescribed and freedom of
human action was often very limited. (Thomas, 2009: 13)

Of course we cannot conclude from this that the reason for these limited aspirations was a world of limited resources, and at no point in Thomas's book does he seek either to confirm or deny that hypothesis. He does, though point to a developing change in world view: 'During the early modern period an ideology legitimizing the quest for personal advancement can be seen taking shape' (Thomas, 2009: 30). This 'personal advancement' took many forms, one of which--interestingly for us--was 'acquisitiveness' (Thomas, 2009: 111). In the pre-early modern period, writes Thomas, 'acquisitiveness had yet to find its ideological justification' (Thomas, 2009: 111), but by the end of the period he is discussing things have changed dramatically:
In the early modern period, there took place a vast expansion in the
range and quantity of commodities available for purchase. Merely to
list some of the goods which were rare or non-existent in the early
sixteenth century but commonplace by the mid-eighteenth is to give
some idea of the change: tobacco, sugar, coffee, and tea; books,
clocks, looking-glasses, forks, porcelain, pictures, and newspapers;
coaches and sedan chairs, wallpaper, curtains, and cushions; glass
windows and drinking vessels, mahogany and upholstered furniture.
(Thomas, 2009: 118)

What made this change possible? Is there any evidence that the opening up of America and the ensuing open world scenario had anything to do with it? Thomas does mention the influence of trade: 'These changes were made possible by the growth of international trade with Europe, Asia, and America, and the manufacture of new products at home, often thanks to the immigration of foreign craftsmen' (Thomas, 2009: 119). He also refers to a developing ideology connecting vanity, esteem, luxury, and consumption for its own sake: vanity was a powerful force. Adam Smith would conclude that the desire to better one's condition did not arise out of physical needs, for they were strictly limited. It sprang from the desire for esteem' (Thomas, 2009: 121).

Thomas expresses surprise at this: 'What a contrast between this new acceptance of limitless desire and the sixteenth-century doctrine that needs were fixed and that superfluities should be given away!' (Thomas, 2009: 142). He asks what could have caused such a change: 'How did the belief in the desirability of ever more wealth and possessions come to supersede the older notion that riches were a spiritual danger and their pursuit an unworthy preoccupation?' (Thomas, 2009: 142). Aware that Tawney and others have explained this through religion--for instance the Puritan project of turning wealth creation from drudgery into a moral duty--Thomas says that, 'To explain how moneymaking came to be thought a desirable human objective, we have to look beyond Puritanism' (Thomas, 2009: 142). He offers a number of alternative legitimating ideas--such as that the pursuit of selfish interests might increase the welfare of everybody--but does not consider the context within which such legitimating ideas might even begin to make sense. Would the 'belief in the desirability of ever more wealth and possessions' have been thinkable outside of an increasingly cornucopian context? This is a speculative question at present, but if some link could be demonstrated between an increasing and general awareness that the world is 'open' and 'empty' (in Daly's sense), and the 'new acceptance of limitless desire' for acquisition and consumption that marked the early modern period in England, then this would lend some credence to Ophuls' claims regarding the effect of the lifting of the burden of scarcity brought about by the 'discovery' of the New World.

Thomas offers a tantalising prospect in this regard when he notes that:
Unattached young men between the ages of 15 and 24 were the largest
single category of emigrants to America in the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries. When in 1655 Oliver Cromwell sought to encourage
emigration to Jamaica, he offered 20 acres of land to any male aged 12
and upwards. In the later seventeenth century there were children of
11, 12, and 13 who put their marks to contracts of indentured servitude
in the New World. Many of the several hundred thousand men and women
who emigrated to America from England and Wales in the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries were motivated by a desire for personal
independence. (Thomas, 2009: 34)

What stories might these emigrants have sent home? What stories might they have returned with? Might there have been a transmission of cornucopian impressions back to the home country? For many early emigrants from Britain it is clear that life was as brutal and poor in the New World as it had been in the Old: 'For those whose expectations of earning a living in London, Bristol, and other port towns quickly faded as they tramped the streets in a vain attempt to find work, the colonies provided a final gamble in the search for subsistence' (Horn, 1998: 36). Emigrants such as these were pushed to the New World by bad conditions in Britain rather than by the promise of boundless wealth in the Americas. The majority of them were illiterate, too, so they would have been unable to send stories--good or bad--back to Britain.

Yet for others, particularly by the middle of the eighteenth century, the journey to America 'represented fresh opportunities and new horizons' (Horn, 1998: 51)--and some of them sent tempting reports home. One Dr Roderick Gordon wrote that, 'pity it is that thousands of my country people should stay starving art (sic.) home when they may live here in peace and plenty' (Horn, 1998: 51), while John Rae said that, 'nothing would give me more satisfaction than to be the means of bringing my friends to this country of Freedom' (Horn, 1998: 51). Horn himself sums up the experience of these migrants thus:
America before the Revolution was described as a 'paradise' where
newcomers 'had naught to do but pluck and eat'. If not paradise, the
New World ... offered the prospect to hundreds of thousands of British
emigrants of a better future for themselves and their families and a
lifestyle in the colonies that would have been impossible at home'.
(Horn, 1998: 51)


This has evidently been a cursory examination of a large question--the degree to which the hegemonic ideology of modern capitalism, liberalism, is under threat from the possible disappearance of the material conditions that made it possible. There is certainly some support in Locke for the view that a relatively open world (or at least its conceptualisation) is a condition for liberalism. If Ophuls is right, a range of possibilities open up, none of which is friendly to cosmopolitan liberalism. There is Ophuls' own brand of Platonism, with society run by the 'best pilots'. Then there is the future sketched by Stephen Quilley. Quilley points out that there never has been a low-energy cosmopolitanism, and so it is a fantasy to expect cosmopolitanism to survive the energy descent that looks likely as fossil fuels run out (2011: 76). A possible outcome of an unmanaged descent is violence, either of the low-level sort displayed in Howard Kunstler's World made by Hand (2008) or the more dramatic post-oil violence of Helen Simpson's short story, 'Diary of an interesting year':
If we run out of beans I think he might kill me for food. There were
warnings about it on the news a while back. This one wouldn't think
twice. I'm just meat on legs to him. He bit me all over last night,
hard. I'm covered in bite marks. I was literally licking my wounds
afterwards when I remembered how nice the taste of blood is, how I miss
it. Strength. Calves' liver for iron. How I haven't had a period in
ages ... (Simpson, 2011: 125)

As Quilley points out, one prefiguring version of post-oil life, the Transition Town movement, 'remains obdurately disinclined to focus on the problem of violence' (2011: 77), and this is true of the degrowth movement too (see, for example, Latouche, 2010), as well as of the green movement more generally.

Simpson's is one possible post-oil future, as is Kunstler's. Neither of them is 'cosmopolitan', and nor is Ophuls'. In truth we do not know whether a Tow energy' cosmopolitanism' is possible, but the fact that there has never been one (Quilley, 2011) is surely not sufficient reason to conclude that we will not see one in the future. Humans are historical as well as natural creatures, and the difference between the past and the present in this context is that we have had the experience of cosmopolitanism, in theory if not in practice. Can this so easily be lost? The task for environmental political theory now is to take up Ophuls' challenge and to examine the conditions for the possibility of a socially just post-oil future.


Bramwell, A. 1989. Ecology in the 20th Century. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Christopher, John 2009. The Death of Grass. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Daly, Herman. 2005. 'Economics in a full world'. Scientific American, September.

Dobson, Andrew. 2007. Green Political Thought (4th edition). London: Routledge.

Doherty, B. and de Geus, M. (eds.) 1996. Democracy and Green Political Thought: Sustainability, Rights and Citizenship. London: Routledge.

Heinberg, R. 2007. Peak Everything: Waking up to the Century of Declines. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers.

Horn, J. 1998. 'British Disapora', inPJ. Marshall (ed.), The Eighteenth Century, Oxford History of the British Empire, Vol 2. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Jackson, Tim. 2009. Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite planet. Abingdon: Earthscan.

Kunstler, Howard. 2008. World Made by Hand: A Novel. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Latouche, Serge. 2010. Farewell to Growth. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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Minteer, B. and R. Pepperman Taylor (eds.) 2002. Democracy and the Claims of Nature: Critical Perspectives for a New Century. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Ophuls, W. with Stephen A. Boyan, Jr. 1992. Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity Revisited: the unraveling of the American dream. WH Freeman and Company, New York.

Paehlke, R. 2003. Democracy's Dilemma: Environment, Social Equity and the Global Economy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Popper, K. 1945. The Open Society and its Enemies, Vols 1 and 2. London: Routledge.

Quilley, S. 2011. 'Entropy, the anthroposphere and the ecology of civilization: An essay on the problem of "liberalism in one village" in the long view'. The Sociological Review 59 (Issue Supplement si, June): 65-90

Simpson, H. 2011. In-Flight Entertainment. London: Vintage Books.

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Wissenburg, Marcel. 1998. Green Liberalism: The Free and the Green Society. London: UCL Press.


School of Politics, International Relations and Philosophy Keele University Keele, Staffordshire ST5 5BG, UK


(1.) Ophuls himself uses the paradigm language:

Because political paradigms have the same kind of internal consistency as scientific theories, the process of political change is analogous to scientific change. Most scientific inquiry--so-called normal science--aims at routine puzzle solving under the conceptual umbrella of a fundamental scientific theory or paradigm (Kuhn 1970), like the famous DNA or double-helix model of gene replication in molecular biology. As long as such basic (and partly metaphysical) theories are successful in solving the puzzles thrown up by nature, allowing normal science to make apparent progress, all is well. However, once the puzzles can no longer be solved and disturbing anomalies resist all efforts to incorporate them into normal theory, then the community of scientists sharing this paradigm is ripe for revolution. (Ophuls and Boyan, 1992: 4)

Ophuls' point is that liberalism was the paradigm shift 250 years ago, and it depended on changed 'facts'--the 'fact' of an open and empty world. This made possible a new way of thinking.

(2.) I am grateful to an anonymous referee for pointing out that there is a psychological dimension to the issue of consumption and production as well as a material one, and that this implies that there are psychological barriers to establishing a 'low energy cosmopolitanism'. This is absolutely right, but the literature on environment-related behaviour is vast and expanding and it would not be possible to do it justice here. In general this literature is grounded in actually-existing circumstances and the expectation of ongoing economic growth. The counterfactual challenge that Ophuls offers is to consider the psychology of the 'closed world' (see below) rather than the open one in which we (supposedly) live today. A full exploration of this would, though, require both more space and a different talent to mine.

3. The nature of the causal relationship Ophuls believes exists between the discovery of the New World and the birth of liberalism and its aspirations needs clarifiying. He does not mean here 'coincidental' in the sense that there is no causal connection between them. Everything else he says suggests such a causal connection--although whether he thinks abundance is a sufficient condition for liberal thought or just a necessary one, is not clear. He obviously does think, though, that as the age of abundance ends, liberalism's achievements are under threat.
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Author:Dobson, Andrew
Publication:Environmental Values
Article Type:Essay
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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