What will become of us?
There is a strange sense of inevitability these days, the idea that the world is careening along a trajectory not under human control.
It’s a travesty of the philosophical underpinnings of modern free societies.
The idea of the social contract presumes that societies can manage a sort of collective will, that widely held ideals can be woven into the structure of daily lives, that the world can be designed rather than merely endured.
Where does this sense of helplessness come from?
Perhaps it comes from a peculiar vision of economics as a pure science (like astronomy) rather than an applied science (like engineering or medicine). In astronomy, we predict what will happen to a star or a planet. In engineering, we prescribe how to build a bridge.
In economics, the tradition is to predict what will happen to aggregate human behavior, not to recommend courses of action. Economics aggregates individual decisions, but tends to shy away from recommending collective decisions. Some economists simply advise against collective decisions altogether.
But the earth sciences and biological sciences tell us with confidence that in the absence of wise collective decisions, matters are going to get progressively worse. We are beginning to see signs that these grim predictions are coming to fruition.
Oddly, though, the earth sciences and biological sciences have a comparable bias. The world expects these sciences to make recommendations, or prescriptions, and yet the environmental sciences have a tradition of making mere observations and analyses or predictions.
We need applied disciplines of economics and earth sciences, and we need ways to translate their findings into competent public policy.
Indeed, we need these things desperately.
Recent events have demonstrated beyond doubt that we lack applied sciences of the earth system, even as ideas of geoengineering are seriously broached as near-future fallbacks to our present-day shortsightedness.
We must get beyond blame.
The mainstream press adamantly refuses to nucleate the sort of discussion we need. Public relations specialists urge us to dumb our message down. A new social contract fails to emerge, because there is no place for it to come together. Social consensus is replaced by finger-pointing.
The press tries to set itself up as referee in the blame game. But the press is not the referee. It is the ball.
While partisan discussions are easy enough to find, venues which can not just tolerate respectful disagreement but actually thrive upon it are especially rare.
Let’s make one.
As Sartre observed, “the future is not yet written”.
It is time for us to start writing it. We cannot do so if we limit the discussion by imposing the interests of any particular culture or interest or institution. We need to take the discussions that the cleverest of us occasionally manage to have over beer at midnight, and put them front and center, into the public sphere. A cold, hard look at the present and the future can be frightening, but it also can be exhilarating. It is time for us to be willing to say what mustn’t be said, and consider doing what mustn’t be done. This is no time for an excess of propriety. But the time for blame and recriminations is over. We can’t afford them anymore. Let’s move on.
Let’s look reality in the face and decide what needs to be done.