The epistemic problem with any denialism is a complete shutting down of any consideration of evidence or argument that threatens the denialist’s position. Politically, the best to be hoped for is marginalization of the denialist position. That has (largely) worked against Holocaust deniers. Climate change deniers, on the other hand….
First, let’s face the hard reality concerning politics, climate change, and the American way of life. Accepting some form of climate change (caused by humans, and damaging to humans) – and I do – Americans collectively are not going to change their way of life radically – not on any level. Pockets of Americans will make some efforts at doing what they can for the environment (sometimes seriously, sometimes as mere gesture), and the media will hype recycling and Earth Day, and politicians will position themselves along a spectrum from doing nothing to doing not very much, as long as it doesn’t interfere with commerce and doesn’t cost a lot of money.
But Americans will continue driving cars (they really don’t care if cars run on gas, electricity or blood); they will continue to demand products packaged in non-biodegradable plastic and cellophane, they will continue to insist on increasing economic growth through new, non-environmentally friendly industries. And they will keep voting for politicians who will continue to do not very much.
Environmental concern began as a ‘bandwagon’ issue, but it has progressed well into consensus. There’s one problem – it’s probably too late. Climate change denialists are still given ‘equal-time’ by news media, and we still pretend there’s something to debate. There’s too much money and too much power, and too many cultural biases, invested in making only gradual and incremental improvements – if at all.
That suggests to me that we may need different conversations about our future – not about what we could do to stop climate change from happening, but what we will need to do in order to survive.
Now, let’s go back in time, to the 1960s: polio, tuberculosis, measles, all coming under control. Nuclear power is considered ‘clean and safe,’ synthetic drugs make people feel good, and a man walks on the moon by the end of the decade. Homes are now filled with electronic toys. Who could possibly doubt that science would continue to make our world a better and happier place? It was in this environment that a few intellectuals began beating the environmental drum. But while their books sell well, they are deemed outsiders in various fields, and completely ignored by by businessmen and politicians.
In the 1970s, the story takes a radical turn – to the worse. New age popularizers jump on the environmentalist bandwagon; that actually leads to the marginalization of the concerns. A wave of fundamentalist Christian revivalism generates a Religious Right committed to science denial at multiple levels. In 1980, Americans elect a president who would consult astrologers on national policy.
Worse still, as the story continues, the benefits of science begin to unravel – the over-use of antibiotics generates germs resistant to them. The over-use of happy drugs leads to corrosive narcotic subcultures. The electronic toys isolate us from our neighbors, tearing little holes in the social fabric. The media realizes that any information they distribute in sound bytes will be believed by someone somewhere, true or not – and this makes information itself a commodity (again, true or not). Meanwhile, the academy begins falling into conflicting camps; rather than the detached disinterest shown to disagreeable colleagues, or the collegial debates that we saw in the ’50s and ’60s. we now have open turf-war, between various disciplines and between various theories within the disciplines. And some of these theories are looking pretty strange – e.g., string theory (which can’t be demonstrated empirically), genetic hybridization (which is empirically validated, productive, but raises all kinds of unsettling questions). Even well-read intellectuals are now confronted with ideas they poorly understand, that seem contentious within their fields, that have difficult and not well-understood ethical implications.
But at the same time, many quite intelligent people discovered the secret of the relationship between science and technology – namely, that there is no necessary relationship. Recent evidence for this is unsettling: Jihadi John the executioner is a former computer programmer, the next in line to be caliph of ISIS apparently formerly taught physics. That’s not expected from scientists; but technicians need not be scientists. That means our cellophane-packaged electronic toys (and new weapons and new pollutants, etc.) are now science independent.
Scientists studying climate, weather patterns, ecological change are now pretty much in consensus that climate change is happening, and that it originates from human activities. And they have suggestions concerning what we can do about it.
Intellectuals concerned with the environment rely heavily on the consensus of environmental scientists with access to the information, the theories, the constructs of various ecological trajectories, to argue for realistic responses to an environment undergoing the most radical change in recorded history. But we have to do this in a world where the sciences are now considered suspect by a large portion of the population.
That is the hard reality in which this conversation takes place.
Unfortunately, ‘denialism,’ as a cultural phenomenon, presents along a spectrum. There’s the obvious troll shouting ‘you effing librul commies!’ Then there’s a more sophisticated argument, derived either from premises held to be themselves unarguable, or from interpreting evidence to preference. That’s harder to unravel and argue against – but at least it’s an argument. Finally we enter an interesting grey area – efforts at moderation that attempt to clarify the debate, but may obfuscate it by not admitting limitations between opposing positions: there may simply be no common ground between the two positions. And one will be right; and one will be wrong.
However, there are indeed extremes on both sides that we should best avoid. I remarked the attachment to environmentalism by New Agers for a reason: yes, the spectrum proceeds to the left, to activists who don’t recognize the political complexities of the issue.
Nonetheless, there just has developed a scientific consensus on the issue of climate change. The specifics are open to criticism, the general trend simply is not.
We’ve several interesting issues here, that require some philosophic detachment in order to consider clearly. 1) the nature of scientific consensus; 2) how this is addressed publicly for political purposes; 3) how negotiations between differing positions on such consensus are best negotiated. Only after these questions are addressed, can we then turn to the actual debate.
However, emotions run high. Why? My guess is that a) radical change threatens our way of life; and b) radical change cannot yet adequately account for our way of life; c) radical change may be the only change that can resolve the problem. Finally, (d) mediations and moderations offer hope, but they may be as impractical – and as difficult to argue – as radical change.
None of this is anything we like.
I’ve sounded the toll of the bell: I don’t think there is much going to be done about this issue, and the muddle found in the public debate indicates why that might be. Philosophic considerations of the future need to address the result of this. But I’m also aware that philosophy is, as reflection on what we know, essentially a backwards’ glance – as Hegel wrote, “the owl of Minerva flies at dusk.”
There’s worth in that. I doubt that the discussion we’re having will change any minds. But perhaps it can help us understand the nature of mind in its social, historical setting.
Of course, much of what is said here concerns other forms of denialism as well…. Make of it what you will. The planet seems doomed, in any event.