Tag Archives: despair

About that shift in consciousness we so urgently need

Upon seeing these poll results, a friend commented that most people who voted for “shift in consciousness” probably think that others, and not they themselves, have yet to make the shift. If he is right, the “shift” vote comes from people who think of themselves as already having crossed over to the other side. But have they — have we? 

Just what “consciousness” in this case means, or what the “shift” might require of us, remains unclear; and one weakness of this poll (it has many, as Joanna Boehnert and others were right to point out) is that it does not specify what that shift might involve.

I’ve seen people toss the phrase around, and included it here hoping to get a better sense of what they mean by it. Are we talking about widespread public awareness of climate risk, or the knowledge that human activity has caused the climate to change, or the conviction that we can — and must — do something about it? Are we talking about hope? The defeat of climate despair? A new view of the world and our place in it? 

No matter how we may choose to define the shift, it would seem that we have to continue to root out denial, as John Rehm suggested. To be effective, any “shift in consciousness” would at the very least require that people take responsibility. 

That in itself presents a formidable task, especially here in the United States, where an entire political party is dedicated to climate change denial. But it’s also a problem all over the place, everywhere we turn, if we think about how many of our everyday actions involve denial or willful blindness, and how easily our acts can contribute to “a set of acts” that together will cause harm (to borrow Parfit’s phrase). This is why, as Orla De Díez remarked, we have to design to make it “easier for people to behave more sustainably.” We can’t wait for some great awakening.

Acts and Sets of Acts

This passage in Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons (1984) deserves calling out, not least because it sets the stage for the arguments against climate change despair I reviewed in a previous post.

In small communities, it is a plausible claim that we cannot have harmed others if there is no one with an obvious complaint, or ground for resenting what we have done.

Until this century, most of mankind lived in small communities. What each did could affect only a few others. But conditions have now changed. Each of us can now, in countless ways, affect countless other people. We can have real though small effects on thousands or millions of people. When these effects are widely dispersed, they may be either trivial, or imperceptible. It now makes a great difference whether we continue to believe that we cannot have greatly harmed or benefited others unless there are people with obvious grounds for resentment or gratitude. While we continue to believe this, even if we care about effects on others, we may fail to solve many serious Prisoner’s Dilemmas. For the sake of small benefits to ourselves, or our families, each of us may deny others much greater total benefits, or impose on others much greater total harms. We may think this permissible because the effects on the others will either be trivial or imperceptible. If this is what we think, what we do will often be much worse for all of us.

If we cared sufficiently about effects on others, and changed our moral view, we would solve such problems. It is not enough to ask, ‘Will my act harm other people?’ Even if the answer is No, my act may still be wrong, because of its effects. The effects that it will have when it is considered on its own may not be its only relevant effects. I should ask, ‘Will my act be one of a set of acts that will together harm other people?’ The answer may be Yes. And the harm to others may be great. If this is so, I may be acting very wrongly…. We must accept this view if our concern for others is to yield solutions to most of the many Prisoner’s Dilemmas that we face: most of the many cases where, if each of us rather than none of us does what will be better for himself — or for his family, or those he loves — this will be worse, and often much worse, for everyone.

Hope of a Livable Human Future – Some Context

Hope keeps open a space for agency between the impossible and the fantastical; without it, the small window in time remaining for us to tackle climate change is already closed.

Catriona McKinnon’s 2014 paper “Climate Change: Against Despair” offers some philosophical framing for the totally unscientific liveable human future survey I conducted a while back. Recognizing “the instrumental value of hope in securing effective agency,” McKinnon argues that personal despair about tackling climate change through personal emissions is not justified, whether we take the position that our efforts will not be efficacious (“whatever I do will make no difference”) or the view that “I am unable to make a difference.”

The first of these positions creates a sorites paradox: if climate change is anthropogenic, then some individual acts must have contributed to it; so saying that whatever I do will make no difference commits me to a contradiction, which I ought to abandon. It’s enough for me to be uncertain what contribution my emissions make to climate change, as “uncertainty provides the context for hope rather than despair.”

To then say, as people often do, that whatever I do will not make anthropogenic climate change any worse than it already is, or that my personal emissions contribute imperceptibly to climate change, is only to rehearse the specious argument that “a large number of acts make a morally relevant difference, but each individual act makes no difference at all.”

This line of argument also suggests a way out of the despairing point of view that I am unable to make a difference. If we concede that personal emissions make some difference, or that it’s false that no personal emissions make any difference, “then if a person were to try to reduce her carbon footprint, and not give up, then she could succeed with respect to making a difference on climate change.”

Again, it may be impossible to tell whether my activity will tend to make a difference, or much of a difference, but the important point is that I would be unjustified in saying I am unable to make any difference. So in this case, “what despair amounts to…is the judgement that I can make no difference because I am unwilling to make a difference.” If I am unwilling to do what I can do about climate change, if I am ready to give up, then I should be prepared to argue — I am not sure how — that I am not obliged to do what I can and that personal despair should in my everyday life override moral considerations.

Hope Yet? A Survey on the Livable Human Future

I just conducted a completely unscientific survey on Twitter, asking whether we human beings have a livable future here on earth. The polling lasted twenty-four hours. Sixty-two people weighed in.

Here are the results, for your consideration.

The results were undoubtedly skewed by the way I worded the question and by the kind of people who follow me on Twitter and who are drawn to these issues. I’d put the question this way in an earlier exchange about the livable human future with Professor Sarah Lilly Heidt, and when creating the survey I didn’t fuss over it too much. I really just wanted to get a rough sense of the mood out there, and I figured the three choices (no hope, we’ll manage, and we will thrive) would do the trick.

Of course, if I could do the whole thing over — which I would love to do, on a much grander scale — I wouldn’t frame the issue in terms of despair, and I would like to drill down a little further to get at attitudes behind the answers.

Despair in Paris

The New York Times ran an article recently on the failure of another utopian scheme: Vélib’, the Parisian bike sharing and rental program, which has recently come up against “a prosaic reality”:

Many of the specially designed bikes, which, when the system’s startup and maintenance expenses are included, cost $3,500 each, are showing up on black markets in Eastern Europe and northern Africa. Many others are being spirited away for urban joy rides, then ditched by roadsides, their wheels bent and tires stripped.

With 80 percent of the initial 20,600 bicycles stolen or damaged, the program’s organizers have had to hire several hundred people just to fix them. And along with the dent in the city-subsidized budget has been a blow to the Parisian psyche.

“The Vélib’” wrote the French paper Le Monde, “was aimed at civilizing city travel. It has increased incivilities.” The failures of the bike scheme remind Parisians of other incivilities, like car burnings in the banlieues. This helps explain Parisian despair. The collapse of the Commune in the 19th century, the barricades of ’68, now this?

The real question is whether there are lessons for the rest of us in all this. One has to do with scale. The exorbitant $3500 price tag is just one outward indication that the Vélib’ was created at the wrong scale. No one ever denied that Utopia would come at a price; but only in a centralized, government-run scheme could bicycles for everyday use cost $3500. The Vélib’ was doomed by grand ambitions, engineered and administered from the top down, with the government developing a scheme for good living and well being and then expecting human beings to conform to it.

Scale matters. How much greater the chances of success if, say, a household, or an apartment building, or even a city block, decided to pool their bikes, or buy some cheap used bikes, and then gave everybody a set of locks that opened with identical keys. The smaller scale experiment may not have had the same civilizing influence that the Vélib’ promised to have, and it could never have turned all of Paris green, but it probably would have worked.

Imagine a thief trying to steal a bicycle from an apartment building or a block where everybody had a stake in keeping the bikes available and maintained. Or imagine if someone within one of these smaller communities decided to turn the bikes for a profit on the black market. There would at least be a good chance of deterring or catching the thief; shame and other forms of punishment also work best within families and very small, close communities.

The Parisian experiment reveals a deep flaw — in the experiment, because it was conducted on such a grand scale, but also in human nature; and the latter flaw should have been taken into account when constructing the experiment in the first place.

I know there are some people who will take issue with that last point, and say that what I am calling human nature is a social construct. Change the society, and what you took to be human nature will change with it. The trouble with this view is not just that it meets an objection to social engineering by calling for more social engineering, which means putting someone — who? — in charge of Hope and Change; the problem is also that it imagines we can step outside of history to do all this engineering, and then somehow populate our brave new world with creatures untainted by history — as if there is a place that is really no place, a utopia.

But our lot is this imperfect world. No amount of engineering — social, scientific, or social scientific — will ever restore us to grace. That’s no cause for despair; it’s just a reminder that theory has its limits.