For Bowdoin students, the phrase “the common good” is quite familiar. We find a version of the phrase in the Offer of the College—“cooperate with others for common ends.” On our way to class every day we pass by the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good, named in honor of the first president of the College who said that “literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good;” President Barry Mills and Former Maine Senator George Mitchell have given speeches at the College about the common good; in September, 472 of us participated in our annual Common Good Day. The reminders go on.
We are also very familiar with the environmental movement. We see “Dan the Can” collecting recycling at our varsity basketball games; a banner in Smith Union reminds us that Bowdoin is currently leading the NESCAC “Recycle Mania” standings; around campus, posters reiterate Bowdoin’s commitment to become carbon-neutral by the year 2020, and the following appears in Bowdoin’s “Environmental Mission Statement:” “As educators, scholars, and citizens long dedicated to the common good and privileged to ‘count Nature a familiar acquaintance,’ we, the members of the Bowdoin community, pledge ourselves and our efforts to this cause and to a just and sustainable future.” (Note how the phrase “the common good” pops up once again.)
Bowdoin students, however, won’t remain at the College for very long. Soon (whether in a few months or a few years), we will re-enter a society dominated by a political system that has not held itself to its obligations to secure a manageable future. We will soon find ourselves embroiled in a political narrative that has, by and large, failed to adequately acknowledge the findings of climate scientists.
In a recent article covering a leaked draft report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations panel of climate experts, The New York Times reported that “another 15 years of failure to limit carbon emissions could make the problem virtually impossible to solve with current technologies, experts found. A delay would most likely force future generations to develop the ability to suck greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and store them underground to preserve the livability of the planet, the report found. But it is not clear whether such technologies will ever exist at the necessary scale, and even if they do, the approach would probably be wildly expensive compared with taking steps now to slow emissions.”
Our political system, however, is also at an unprecedented impasse, and is unlikely to pass necessary legislation any time soon. Passing this legislation would require a great mobilization of our political will and a commitment to expanding our political interests to a global scale.
Although the College has sought to teach us to learn, serve and lead for the common good, the ideology of liberal democracy and the free exercise of liberty does not reserve a place for this notion. If we trace back liberal philosophy’s origins to John Locke, we find an espousal of what we can call the harm principle: we are all free to do whatever we please as long as we do not harm others. Liberalism’s infamous critic, Karl Marx, wrote that this understanding of liberty limits us to exist as “isolated monads,” withdrawn into ourselves. For Marx, liberal philosophy locates our freedom in isolation from others, rather than in community.
We need not be Marxists, however, to take a critique of liberalism seriously. That is, if we want our politics to do more than serve the ideology of self-affirmation of freedom to no common end, and, to take seriously our obligations to future generations, we will have to act radically and urgently.
The Yale economist William Nordhaus argued in his recent book, “The Climate Casino,” that we need a carbon tax (and that we needed it yesterday, according to the IPCC); however, our liberal ideology is very unfriendly to taxation. Moreover, in 2010, Congress failed to pass a cap-and-trade system, similar in some respects to a carbon tax, and today, we find ourselves at an even greater partisan deadlock.
The task of generating the enormous political will required for necessary environmental legislation falls squarely on the shoulders of our generation. And to rise up to that immense demand as we enter into American society, we ought to bring with us Bowdoin’s championing of the common good.
Evan Gershkovich is a member of the Class of 2014.