The Transformation of Environmental Thinking in Liberal Societies

Is there an insurmountable conflict between environmental protection and the liberal state philosophy? Do we have to choose between a sustainable future and our (personal and social) freedom?

My research project for the International Doctorate Program “Rethinking Environment” addresses the possibility of transforming liberal thinking since the 17th century in the course of the climate crisis. I want to show how liberal views on nature and the resulting (environmental) ethics evolved and how they are based on contradictions and misleading, normative concepts. This reveals a fundamentally erroneous understanding of human history and nature, locking people into a mental corset and thereby aggravating the problem. It can also be understood as a double relationship, which dialectically dissolves the newly won freedom.

In doing so, I make a fundamental distinction within the liberal discourse between two different philosophies: a perfectionist and a non-perfectionist one. As a next step, I deal with the question of human individuality. Afterward, I analyze the central weak points in liberalism regarding the climate question, including the liberal view of nature, the imperative of neutrality, and liberal ethics in its form (as contract ethics and utilitarianism).  Accordingly, liberal thinking will be confronted in my research with alternative concepts within and without the liberal discourse. The purpose is to investigate the possibility of transforming this kind of tension between individual freedom, sociality, and environmental protection.

Methodologically, I choose a historical approach, which shows the philosophical history of fundamental liberal convictions. In doing so, I intend to work out the weak points resulting from these convictions on the solution of the climate question. The leitmotif of such an analysis should be the concept of political theology. Otherwise, the interdisciplinary project uses a hermeneutic approach to draw on insights from political science, environmental ethics, sociology, and philosophy.

Felix Treutner is a Ph.D. student at the Rachel Carson Center, LMU Munich. Contact: