The End of the Enlightenment

A big hat tip to Gareth for pointing to the following article, published at The Conversation under a Creative Commons license, attribution, no derivatives (A-ND). To cover the attribution part, the author is David Schlosberg, Professor of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney.

One of the most interesting jobs of editors is writing the right headline for their respective audiences. So far this article has been published twice under two different banners, and I am adding a third title. It’s not the saddest title I’ve come up with for this article, but you’ll find it not inappropriate.

I don’t usually think climate bloggers should just republish each others’ articles. It just dilutes the whole product to no good end. “Do what you do best, and link to the rest.” But once in a while something important enough comes up that it makes sense to spread it around so everyone who might be interested will have a chance to read it.

This one is important.


In his introduction earlier this week, Gareth wrote:

This article by David Schlosberg, professor of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney was first published earlier today at The Conversation. It’s an excellent and forthright overview of the challenges we will face in coming to terms with the reality of climate change.


Image: Condorcet (by Jean-Baptiste Greuze) at the other end


THE END OF THE ENLIGHTENMENT

-or-

A Challenge to the Dream of Reason

-or-

We can’t prevent climate change, so what should we do?

David Schlosberg

Professor of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney

When thinking of the challenges we face in responding to climate change, it is time to admit that our political focus has been fairly narrow: limiting emissions and moving beyond carbon-based energy systems. For 30 years, prevention has been the stated goal of most political efforts, from UNFCCC negotiations to the recent carbon tax.

For anyone paying attention, it is clear that such efforts have not been enough. And now we have entered a new era in the human relationship with climate change, with a variety of broad and different challenges.

 

From prevention to adaptation

The first of our current challenges is to admit that we will not stop climate change. Prevention is no longer an option. The natural systems that regulate climate on the planet are already changing, and ecosystems that support us are shifting under our feet.

We will be a climate-challenged society for the foreseeable future, immersed in a long age of adaptation. What we might have to adapt to, what an adapted society might look like, and how we design a strategy to get there are all open questions.

One of the hopeful signs is that, even if many national governments are not preventing climate change, there is a growing concern for adaptation at the local level.

Climate change challenges the whole enlightenment project – the dream that reason leads us to uncover truths, and those truths lead to human progress and improvement.

 

A challenge to the dream of reason
We imagine we live in a rational, enlightened society. In such a place, experts would identify issues to be addressed, and goals to be reached, in response to our creation of climate change. Scientific knowledge would be respected and accepted (after peer review, of course), and policy would be fashioned in response.

The reality is that we frequently have direct intervention explicitly designed to break the link between knowledge and policy; we have seen just how easy it is for power to trump and corrupt knowledge, on a global scale. In fact, organised climate change denialists, and the political figures that support them, have done more to damage the ideals of the enlightenment than any so-called postmodern theorist.

The key adaptive challenge is to rebuild a constructive relationship between scientific expertise, the public, and policy development. It may be that the necessary engagement of scientific expertise with local knowledges and interests will help rebuild some hope of human progress.

 

How do we play fair?

Climate change will undermine many of the ecological foundations of our ability to provide for basic needs.

Clearly, one of the key challenges is going to be how the burden is distributed, and how we respond to the vulnerability of people to climatic shifts and adjustments – from drought and floods, to health issues ranging from disease to heatstroke, to food security, to environmental migrations.

Even more challenging, however, is the reality that our emissions undermine the environments of vulnerable people elsewhere: Bangladesh, the horn of Africa, small island states, New Orleans.

And, of course, our actions now – given the delay between emissions and impact – will harm people in the future. So our responsibilities of justice now extend over vast stretches of geography and time.

That’s a lot of ethical challenges to face up to – or not. So how might we begin to address the challenges of climate justice?

Importantly, local communities can be thoroughly involved in both mapping their own vulnerabilities and designing adaptation policies. Perceptions of vulnerability will differ across stakeholder groups – indigenous peoples, farmers, and tourism managers might have a different sense of what is made vulnerable through climate change.

Local participation and deliberation – basic rights themselves – can help us to understand and determine the distinct and local environmental needs of various communities, and so plan for adaptation.

Such adaptation strategies can help to address climate justice.

 

Governing complexity

For all of those conspiracy theorists who think climate change is a leftist conspiratorial plot to develop a UN-based world government – you have got to be kidding. The UNFCCC represents a failure of global governance on a scale we’ve never seen before.

We may be dealing with an issue with a level of complexity that human beings are simply not capable of addressing. Climate change will certainly challenge our adaptive abilities more than anything else the species has faced.

The issue represents a different kind of problem for governments. It will demand multi-scale, widely-distributed, networked, flexible, anticipatory, and adaptive responses on the part of governments from the global down to the local. Climate change will require a radical re-thinking of the very nature of governance, and the adoption of new forms.

 

We need to take a long, hard look at ourselves (and nature)

But the major challenge of climate change, of course, is whether or not we are capable of changing our currently destructive relationship with the rest of nature. Key here is the reality that, in bringing climate change upon ourselves, we have demonstrated that the very construction of how we immerse ourselves in the natural world, and how we provide for our basic needs, is simply not working.

In fact, our relationship with nature is undermining the lives we’ve constructed. We imagine ourselves removed from the systems and relationships that support us, and so cause these massive disruptions in the life processes around us.

Our continued refusal to recognise ourselves as animals embedded in ecosystems has resulted in the undermining of those systems that sustain us. That’s our key problem, our central challenge.

Thankfully, there are growing examples of alternatives, and of models for adapting to a climate-challenged society. Many groups and movements are rethinking and restructuring the ways we interact with the natural world as we provide for our basic needs – around sustainable energy, local food security, and even crafting and making.

These new materialist movements offer alternative ways of relating to the nonhuman systems that sustain us, and illustrate the possibility of redesigning and restructuring our everyday lives based in our immersion in natural systems. After 30 years of failing in our response to climate change, we may yet demonstrate that human beings still have the capacity to adapt.

 

Comments:

  1. Hmm, well, it seems quite general and not especially original. There are a number of non sequiturs, e.g. that local adaptation efforts will lead somehow to climate justice. How? The idea that the response to climate change constitutes in some way a fundamental challenge to the Enlightenment does seem to be new, to me anyway, but he makes no case for it.

    • +1 Bloom. This thing is confused, and IMO not constructive.

      > Prevention is no longer an option

      So we're supposed to give up on mitigation efforts? Should we be extolling pro-adaptation investment and outreach that's unaccompanied by GHG emissions cuts and doesn't mention that mitigation is cheaper and safer, and overall, of higher priority?
      (See: literal meaning vs. contextual meaning (link))

      Adaptation is buying a water filtration system for your house; mitigation is ensuring safe public drinking water.

    • "The idea that the response to climate change constitutes in some way a fundamental challenge to the Enlightenment does seem to be new, to me anyway, but he makes no case for it." (Steve Bloom)

      I find it rather trivial: Assuming that mankind harbors a shred of morality, then the present widespread relinquishing of science (and the tolerance of that) amounts to a monumental failure of the Enlightenment project.

      Schlosberg's crux is in the last section:

      But the major challenge of climate change, of course, is whether or not we are capable of changing our currently destructive relationship with the rest of nature. Key here is the reality that, in bringing climate change upon ourselves, we have demonstrated that the very construction of how we immerse ourselves in the natural world, and how we provide for our basic needs, is simply not working.

      We need a new Enlightenment! It is time to get rid of what I call Cartesian schizophrenia, i.e. the delusion that we are somehow something above or beyond Earth. Old Enlightenment is not innocent of this mental illness.

      Schizophrenically, there's one modern philosopher who first wrote the paradigm of Earth detached nihilist existentialism, "Time and Being", but shortly later gave the first (and stunningly prescient) diagnosis:

      Why is Earth keeping silent at this destruction? -- Martin Heidegger, Beiträge zur Philosophie (vom Ereignis), Nr. 155, ca. 1937. (a bit more text here)

      There aren't many "enlightened" philosophers who get it. Heidegger only sees it. His student Hans Jonas gets it: The main work is "The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology", 1966, better titled in German as "Organism and Freedom". This is perhaps the right Ansatz to cure the disease.

      That nature does not care, one way or the other, is the true abyss. -- Hans Jonas, op. cit., essay 9.

  2. The atavistic part of me hopes that before we change our behavior for the better we first deliver some viscerally satisfying, old fashioned, vindictive, pointless punishment to the folks who ensured we shot past timely mitigation and straight on to coerced full-blown adaptation.

  3. The Auklärung would be a good idea:

    > [W]e do have clear indications that the way is now being opened for men to proceed freely in this direction and that the obstacles to general enlightenment--to their release from their self-imposed immaturity--are gradually diminishing.

    http://www.english.upenn.edu/~mgamer/Etexts/kant.html

  4. I have doubts about both the diagnosis and the cure embodied in this essay.
    There is a long tradition of opposition to the discoveries that emerged from rational research. Established interests have always resisted science based advances, hand washing and the cause of cholera in medicine would be simple examples. I am unconvinced this essay makes a good case for the present methods of undermining science that may influence policy or behavior are any more effective than past obstructionist actions.

    Secondly there is a sort of Arcadian invocation of 'Nature' with which we have apparently fallen out of harmony.
    Since the development of agriculture the ecology which supplies our basic food needs has been a human managed system. How WELL managed is open to debate, but the idea there is some original Natural system that we can return to and ensure stability and sustainability is not supported by historical evidence. The complex web of agricultural and pastoral systems that large civilizations develop to feed large populations have been domesticated versions of 'Natural' ecologies for millennia.

    • On the first point, there is surely an argument that there have been past post-enlightenment periods of the ascendancy of bullshit, and that our era is not unique in that regard. But ours is a period that can ill-afford it. Coming right on the heels of an era when science was universally celebrated, highly regarded, and broadly respected, it is especially striking, and given the emergencies which our past successes have foisted upon us, especially ill-timed. If it was arguably as severe in the past, it at least has never been comparably tragic.

      On the second, as a follower of Bill Cronon I acknowledge what you are saying. There is a romantic view of a human balance with nature that is purely fantasy given a human population in excess of a billion, never mind ten. I don't subscribe to the Wendell Berry view of the world, despite my admiration of his poetry. We're not all going to abandon our machines and make do with steel ploughs and draft horses.

      I did not read the essay that way; it wasn't some romantic pantheism to say we are "out of balance with nature"; it's a simple, valid quantitative assertion. Geochemical cycles that had been closed are now out of balance with consequences implicit for literally millennia to come. The breaking of the carbon cycle, with its dual threats of climate disruption and ocean desertification, is merely the most familiar to our particular group. The nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, sheer habitat loss, widespread exchanges of exotic species, and general vulnerability to infectious diseases are also on the docket, never mind our previous century's horsemen of war, anarchy, and totalitarianism which still lurk.

      To suggest indifference to the rationalist, tolerant, and inventive philosophy of the founders of modern civilization in general and of the United States in particular at a time like this to me sounds like more window dressing for letting moneyed private interests do the deciding. If that is what you are saying, it's already amply demonstrated that such a program will not work.

      I think what I find striking about this essay is simply that we are conceding far too many memes to the forces of decay. "Sound science", "climate realism", "skepticism", and so on seem to be just the beginning. They have misappropriated no less than Thomas Jefferson. (They try to forget old Ben Franklin of course, as he liked the French a bit too much.)

      It is time that the enlightenment heritage of rationalism, human dignity, and a very limited role for religion in public affairs be reclaimed from people who are using it as a shroud to hide and excuse massive and disastrous greed and plunder.

    • izen,

      I agree that Schlosberg's thesis may not be well-argued. But -- and that's a very big 'but' -- it's dangerous to suggest that we just need to keep doing the usual things and wait for the Truth to magically Come Out.

      -- frank

    • Frank says it. Plus, this time the psychopathology of denial is stronger. It is of the same strength I've watched with Auschwitz denial. (20y of debating buddies of my grandpa here in Barvaria. Alas these subjects of study are long dead. Would be interesting what they would have "thought" about AGW.) This is about the ego and the pride of Homo S "Sapiens". We can't be that evil and stupid. Ergo, AGW can't be.

  5. @- Michael Tobis
    "On the first point, there is surely an argument that there have been past post-enlightenment periods of the ascendancy of bullshit, and that our era is not unique in that regard. But ours is a period that can ill-afford it. Coming right on the heels of an era when science was universally celebrated, highly regarded, and broadly respected, it is especially striking, and given the emergencies which our past successes have foisted upon us, especially ill-timed."

    I am always dubious of claims that it is much worse now than it was at some past 'golden age'. The past is rarely better, just different.
    But I would agree that the very advances in the dissemination of information made possible by modern technology have been exploited with those with motives to obstruct change to inseminate the public discourse with disinformation!
    But I think there may be a more profound reason for the diminution in the celebration, regard and broad respect in which science is held.
    Its a matter of diminishing, and negative returns.
    Scientific progress has delivered the 'low hanging fruit' of replacing human and horse power with fossil fuel. That along with chemistry and electricity have given us vastly improved agricultural production, distribution, medicines, materials, and information technology. Even such beneficial advances were often a hard sell at the time. When science delivers a message that such past advances carry significant risks and any future advances will be much more expensive with a smaller return, it is unsurprising the authority which science has commanded in the past is reduced.

    @- "To suggest indifference to the rationalist, tolerant, and inventive philosophy of the founders of modern civilization in general and of the United States in particular at a time like this to me sounds like more window dressing for letting moneyed private interests do the deciding. If that is what you are saying, it’s already amply demonstrated that such a program will not work."

    I did not intend to suggest such a thing...
    I suspect that my attempts at brevity has as so often compromised the lucidity...-grin-
    The clear harm that present actions are causing to the various biochemical processes as modern societies attempt to sustain business as usual in the face of finite resources and damage to the sustainable agricultural infrastructure will have to addressed by rational and inventive methodologies. The alternative is societal collapse as present actions become too expensive, or impossible in the face of rising costs or physical reality. Because science has used up its best 'cards' in providing the internal combustion engine, electricity and chemistry and is reduced to warning of the problems (and vague promises that fusion power is just 20 years away,) it is unlikely to have the credibility to overcome entrenched interests.
    I see no prospect of a political movement which would command the sort of authority to overcome those local, parochial and short-term interest either. Not in the present global media memeosphere where competing voices negate any claims to general legitimacy. I fear that mitigation is off the agenda and emergency adaption will be the order of the day.
    I only hope that it is led by "the enlightenment heritage of rationalism, human dignity, and a very limited role for religion in public affairs"

    • izen, first you said that global warming denialism isn't very serious and therefore we don't need to do anything. Now you're saying that global warming denialism is extremely serious and therefore we can't do anything. You may want to consider rethinking your line of reasoning.

      -- frank

  6. @-Frankswifthack
    "izen, first you said that global warming denialism isn’t very serious and therefore we don’t need to do anything. Now you’re saying that global warming denialism is extremely serious and therefore we can’t do anything. You may want to consider rethinking your line of reasoning."

    I have gone back and carefully re-read what I posted and I am unable to find ANYTHING about global warming denialism, or it's severity as a problem.
    Perhaps you have read into my comments something that I did not intend.

    I still doubt the analysis of the problem put forward by the 'End of the Enlightenment' essay and the rather vague solution it advances. That does not mean that I regard the shift in the agenda imposed by the organised denialist groups as unimportant or unopposable.
    But I do think there are other reasons why science has lost some of the legitimacy it commanded in the past.
    I do not think that anything other than radicals improved management of our agricultural and energy production systems has any chanced of solving the problem.
    But I see no political authority that has the power to impose those changes in the face of business and established interest groups. Regulatory capture happened several decades ago in most modern societies where such changes would be needed.

    If you think I have put forward an inconsistent or flawed picture of denialism perhaps you could quote directly the passages and clarify my error.

    Izen

  7. Pingback: Schlosberg illustrates fallacy of ‘expert’ reasoning | Minority Reports


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