Green Liberalism

Marcel Wissenburg; London: UCL Press, 1998; ISBN 1-85728-848-3 (HB) 1-85728-849-1 (PB)

UCL Press website
Available from

Green LiberalismRadical ecologists have argued that our liberal democratic institutions cannot ensure and support fundamental solutions to the compete range of environmental problems that we would be facing right now, problems ranging from pollution and scarcity to overpopulation and overconsumption. In this book I argue that if there is anything environmentally wrong with liberal democracy, it is not the political theory behind it. Liberalism as a political philosophy (not to be confused with the ideology of political parties or factions in any national context) is quite well capable of absorbing green concerns and ideas. Equality of citizens; distributive fairness and the liberty to live one's life according to one's own plan of life and conception of the good — the three core notions of liberalism — all allow and even prescribe environmentally benign behavior.

Following the environmental movement's agenda, I describe what a liberal environmental ethics might look like and how liberalism can address environmental issues in political and policy terms. In order to 'green' liberalism, we do not have to conceive of nature as having intrinsic value; it is enough to recognize its external or instrumental value to individuals that can be conscious of harm and benefit — which, to some extent, includes animals. Greening liberalism does, however, require a thorough reconstruction of our understanding of moral and legal rights, in particular a rejection of the idea of absolute property rights and the acceptance of a so-called restraint principle that severely limits our freedom to abuse nature and natural resources. As for environmental policies, I distinguish three main roads towards sustainability: control of the demand side or consumption, control of the supply side or production; and control of the distribution process. I argue that there is very little that liberal institutions can legitimately do about demand side control: this strategy must boil down to controlling population growth in order to be truly effective, but that is incompatible with individual liberty. Policies aimed at creating an environmentally just scheme for the distribution of resources and products at global or local levels are possible but can only offer short-term relief. Only supply-side control (more efficient production techniques, curbs on overproduction and overexploitation etc.) can be both compatible with liberalism and offer viable long-term solutions.

In the end, we have to conclude that liberal democracy is compatible with but cannot guarantee sustainability — no more nor less than any other political system. That is, a sustainable liberal democratic society is possible but it need not be a beautiful place to live in: on a worst-case scenario, it could evolve into a global Manhattan without the Park and still be sustainable. The book therefore ends with an investigation into some other factors that may contribute to (un)sustainability: the genesis of individual tastes and preferences, and economic liberalism.


Green Liberalism has been reviewed extensively:

  • Anonymous, De Gelderlander 26 June 1998
  • Michael Mason in Policy Studies 1998/19, p. 164
  • Meira Hanson, in Green Politics Newsletter 1999 nr. 14
  • Robyn Eckersley in Journal of Environmental Politics and Planning, 1999/1, p. 261-2
  • Piers Stephens in Environmental Politics 1999/8, p. 355-7
  • John Barry in Political Studies 2000/48, p. 588
  • Roger White in Journal of Politics 2000/62, p. 284-5
  • Markku Oksanen in Environmental Values 2001 (forthcoming).

Here’s Raul Campusano Droguett from the Universidad del Desarrollo explaining on Chilean TV (actually, local TV in Santiago) that Green Liberalism is one of the four most indispensible books for anyone interested in Environmental Law. Makes me feel humble.




  1. Introduction
  2. Preferences
  3. Rights
  4. Democracy
  5. Equality
  6. Liberty
  7. An overview


  1. Introduction
  2. Metaphysics — nature and the universe
  3. Ethics — humans in nature
  4. Politics — the shape of a green society
  5. Policies
  6. Compatibility


  1. Introduction
  2. Classical and sensualist liberalism
  3. The greening of liberalism
  4. The green problems of liberalism
  5. AIDS, Women and Deforestation
  6. Intermezzo


  1. Intrinsic and external value
  2. In the eyes of the beholder
  3. Substitutability
  4. Inclusion and exclusion


  1. Spheres of rights
  2. The restraint principle
  3. the savings principle and the restraint principle


  1. Strategies of sustainability
  2. The idea of a sustainable population
  3. Procreative rights
  4. The attribution of procreative rights
  5. Alternative strategies and parameters


  1. Introduction
  2. Internal justice
  3. 'International' justice
  4. Intergenerational justice
  5. Interspecies justice
  6. Dynamics and uncertainty


  1. Tactics
  2. Green technology
  3. Biodiversity and policy diversity
  4. The shape of things to come


  1. The limits of sustainability
  2. Relaxing conditions, strengthening ties
  3. Economic liberalism
  4. Deliberative democracy and the last taboo
  5. Concluding remarks



Please note: The "Available from" links on this page are provided in association with  Please contact them directly if you have any questions regarding their products or services.