Environmental catastrophism

by | Feb 17, 2008 | Articles, New Generation Society

The New Generation Society’s Kennedy Lecture aimed to embrace the kind of challenge that its namesake laid before the world nearly half a century ago.

“Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.”

President John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, Washington DC, 20th January 1961

In short, by pursuing humanity’s common interests, the New Generation could transcend its differences.

Enter Sir Crispin, who brings to this lecture as many years experience of dealing with the World’s problems as have passed since Kennedy’s speech. He is someone we might like to turn to for sober reflection on the issues that the next generation faces. He is an authority on many subjects, from the scientific to the political. So how do the words of the two men compare?

In order to look forward, we have to look backwards, Sir Crispin tells us: past Kennedy and his vision of the world, and past history, to the birth of the universe. From this perspective, life on earth is “limited, ephemeral and precarious”, and humans necessarily more so. From this perspective, we can observe that subtle changes to the ‘fragile balance’ of interdependent relationships between organisms and geological processes have caused precipitous changes in both. And from this perspective, we are interfering with that natural order’s ability to achieve the balance on which the whole system depends. We are “tipping the system”, he says, and, quoting Al Gore, this is a “planetary emergency”. Therefore we must either alter the way we live our lives or expect a precipitous change in consequence. This scientific perspective creates the imperatives that New Generation must respond to.

But what a very different science this is to Kennedy’s. Where Kennedy talked about conquering deserts, Sir Crispin cautions against upsetting the fragile balance of nature. Where Kennedy urged the world to encourage the arts and commerce, Sir Crispin warns us that we have to entirely rethink economics, and that the ‘consumerist bonanza’ of the twentieth century is over. And where Kennedy hoped to inspire humanity with the idea of eradicating disease, Sir Crispin appears to regard disease as an inevitable consequence of our incautious meddling.

In order to respond to the crisis we face, Sir Crispin tells us there is a need for a new form of governance, and an entirely new philosophy. Humanity’s technological advances have generated such perilous unintended consequences that international legal frameworks to compel governments to ration consumption, and limit individual behaviour are necessary, he says. Leaving such important matters to conventional politics is not an option; politics is too easily influenced by the petty self-interests of human nature. This all seems to suggest that our moral, political and economic thinking should be integrated with, and mediated by, our scientific understanding of the planet. Already, the idea that moral actions are transmitted through the ‘biosphere’ has captured moral and political imaginations. Taking an ‘unnecessary’ journey is frequently depicted as an act of violence against future generations for the environmental impact it will cause. George Monbiot, for example, claims that flying across the Atlantic is the moral equivalent of child abuse.

This way of viewing humanity and its relationship with the natural world is legitimised by appeals to scientific truth. But the consequence is that arguments such as Sir Crispin’s desire to end consumerism are framed in terms of its effects on the planet, not because there exists the possibility of a more meaningful culture than one that celebrates material indulgence for its own sake. Right and wrong can no longer be discussed in human terms, but by appeals to natural science. And putting science at the centre of our moral and political understanding means that grand political visions which demand that we surrender material and political liberty go unchallenged on human terms. The language of politics is kept outside the realm of public discussion. It is instead issued by climate simulations running on computers, verified by select committees of qualified scientists.

Kennedy’s political vision – for better or worse – won him legitimacy and authority. Science was the means by which the New Generation could transcend their differences. Sir Crispin’s view of science limits the imagination and aspirations of the new New Generation. Kennedy asked us to contemplate exploring the stars, Sir Crispin says we must aspire to minimise our impact, lower our expectations, and mediate our aspirations.

During Kennedy’s short administration, the world saw how easily a conflict might escalate to atomic war. Since that time, the politics of the world have changed, and it no longer divides so easily into East and West. But, correspondingly, competing visions for the future have also collapsed, with the consequence that leaders and thinkers have struggled to find ways of making their roles legitimate. In response to this widespread disengagement from politics, the imagination unleashed during the Cuban Missile Crisis has been captured and exploited in order to elicit public sympathy for political campaigns in a variety of ways best summed up as ‘the politics of fear’. Climate change is our looming nuclear holocaust; our world war; the tyranny under which we labour. The Kyoto Protocol is our Cuban missile crisis. The very latest IPPC Assessment Report is our Little Red Book, our Das Kapital, our Bill of Rights.

We should not let claims to scientific truth put us off subjecting Sir Crispin’s call for a new form of governance and eco-centric philosophy to the scrutiny and challenge that all political ideas need. We need to establish whether his vision is a means to solving a problem that actually exists, or is an end in itself. Indeed, the science supporting Sir Crispin’s lecture is not uncontroversial, even amongst the climate science “consensus”. Professor Mike Hulme from the UK’s Tyndall Centre, for example, says of such politics: ‘The language of catastrophe is not the language of science … To state that climate change will be “catastrophic” hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science.’

Climate change is the defining issue of our time, but only because there are so few perspectives on offer to see through the world through. But the challenge facing the New Generation is not environmental catastrophe, but environmental catastrophism. We need to form a new way of looking at the world that isn’t so unremittingly negative about human achievements and to see ourselves as more than simply parasites, viruses, or a cancer infecting a dying planet. The New Generation should look forward to the future – not fear it – and look back through history, not to revise its horrors, but to reignite its passion and to create a history fit for the next New Generation.


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