Reading the great 20th century philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy has made me wonder once again about the motivation of the Koch brothers and other ultra-rich who oppose environmental regulation and global warming.
I’m thinking specifically about Russell’s analysis of John Locke’s ethical doctrines. In Russell’s probably accurate version of Locke, all individuals seek pleasure. But individuals can distinguish between immediate and future pleasure and sometimes value the future pleasure more and so forego current pleasure. I’ll quote the part that applies specifically to the ultra-wealthy opponents of global warming and environmental regulations: “Since it is only in the long run that, according to Locke, self-interest and the general interest coincide, it becomes more important that men should be guided, as far as possible, by their long term interests.”
The long-term interest of all of us is to avoid the economic, demographic and societal upheaval that diminishing resources and climate change could cause. But let’s face it, the ultra wealthy will inherit the earth since they control most of its natural and human-made resources. In a real sense, the merging of everyone’s individual self-interest into the long-term community interest of protecting the environment puts everyone to work pursuing the best interests of those who own most of what constitutes the environment.
For much of recorded history, the ultra-rich held their wealth in land and the commitment of others to work the land for them. When society disintegrated, which happened with some frequency, they could hire a militia and protect their own land. In fact, I’ve just described much of European history from the 9th to 15th centuries C.E.
But today, the ultra-rich hold most of their wealth in numbers on computers stored by financial institutions. They depend on governments to protect their property. They can’t hide any more from a threat to the basic stability of society such as massive shortages of fuel and food, a pandemic or a series of weather-related disasters that displace millions. If society disintegrates, they go under, too.
David and Charles Koch and their wealthy buddies run their businesses and manage their investments rationally, using scientific principles in their factories, research facilities, mines, fields and computer rooms. If they didn’t believe in science, then they would be out of business. They know that we are running out of many natural resources. They know that we are pumping too much carbon into the environment. They are used to acting on much less overwhelming evidence than what exists in support of the idea that human activity if causing the earth to warm in a way that could harm every living creature.
Why do these ultra-wealthy persist in opposing the very fact of global warming, greater environmental regulations and development of alternative technologies? Because it takes money out of their pockets in the short term. It’s all short term and no long term, even though acting in the long term helps them and their families more than it helps anyone else.
I have only two explanations for such irrational behavior, both of which I think Bertrand Russell would endorse:
1. They are true believers in a god who protects the human race and will provide a miracle or provide an answer to save us.
2. They are cynical, unethical rogues who don’t care about the future of their families or humankind, but only want to maximize their own current pleasure and extend their own wealth.
In either case, the fact that people exist who will not pursue the best interests of society even when it helps them and their families more than anyone else makes a good argument for limiting the power that any individual has over the course of events. And in the 21st century, that means limiting wealth and income, and therefore the ability to impress irrational and self-destructive views on everyone else through making campaign contributions, advertising on issues, setting up foundations and lobbying.