Faith in Rationality and Progress: Collective Blind Spot #1

As I watched reports of the Arctic wildfires this summer and witnessed the climate protests of the fall, I wondered: are we finally nearing that long-anticipated, long-dreaded point of collective reckoning? Will the world’s sights and sounds force our guts to feel what our intellect has long held in ghostly form? Humans have messed the earth up badly, and destruction is easier than healing, which is a truth basic enough to make it into nursery rhyme:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

At the personal level, many of us are stepping back and asking ourselves, “how did we get here?” I hope a collective version of this process begins very soon, which has got me thinking.

When I step back to look at my Western culture, which has created technological miracles but has also destroyed other cultures and seems to be on the brink of destroying itself, I’m struck by three shared cultural beliefs that we cling to: our extreme faith in analytical rationality, our strong ideas about individuality, and our obsession with equality (the last one is confronting, however bear with me on this: this is not about ignoring injustice or poverty). These beliefs all come out of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment era of which our culture is proud—but these particular ideas do not feel so enlightened these days. In this second post in our series on blind spots, I will look at our faith in rationality as it interacts with climate.

Is excessive faith in rationality a big part of our climate predicament? On the one hand, many might say “no,” given the number of people that seem determined to ignore science and dismiss the many scientists sounding alarms. However, this strange response is likely connected to the fact that our culture actually places too much faith in rationality and its famed products — technology, science, and profit-driven business.

Consider, just for starters, the most common objections to calls for climate activism that claim that our concerns about the future are overblown because we actually don’t know for certain exactly how our weather systems will change, what the consequences will be, or how long the process will take. At the base of this objection is an extreme form of scientism, a belief that science should always provide us with exact answers. Scientism is an ideology fueled by the attachment to feelings of certainty and control that we humans enjoy while we pace around on the large island of order that, over millennia, our society has managed to dam off from the waters of chaos. And here I refer to our houses and computers and cars that travel on very flat roads and all the other things that function exactly like they’re supposed to almost all the time, down to perfect, red spherical tomatoes available at all times of the year.

It would be nice indeed if we could act now with total certainty about the future that we are seeking to avoid, but we just can’t. Climate science by its nature cannot be precise. In classic scientific experiments that result in neat and certain formulas, we are able to isolate and control one example out of a larger group of very similar entities (for example, a pure form of a particular substance, like carbon), and we can identify rules that apply to other similar entities out there in the world (such as the characteristics of carbon). Then we can use these rules to predict and control the many similar entities that are out there, waiting to be manipulated. Climate science does not rely on the results of experiments done within the artificial conditions of laboratories, and it describes only one very large, very messy thing, the Earth, which is itself a system that we are unable to isolate or to copy.

We can run experiments on this system, and we are certainly doing so with carbon emissions, but the experimental results that will tell us exactly what will happen to the Earth if we let it warm by 2 degrees Celsius will only come after the planet has warmed by 2 degrees Celsius — and by then, it will be too late. The idea that we can get a perfect scientific model before this all-too-real experiment runs its course seems to be a fantasy driven by our excessive faith in rationality.

The Earth is often likened to a single organism, so our situation is a bit like discovering a single exotic animal from the Amazon, one that we will never be able to replace, one that is unlike any other animal that we know of. We know the animal will stay healthy under certain conditions — the ones in which it has always thrived. But we run experiments on it and measure its internal processes by scraping a few pieces off of the animal and looking at them in the microscope. The results of our experiments, combined with our understanding of basic science, lead us to suspect that the creature will react badly if we change its conditions, but we persist in running the experiment, because we aren’t absolutely sure. We certainly recognize signs that the life form is not responding well to what we are doing, but, because we don’t know for sure yet exactly what will happen to the creature, we decide not to panic.

This example sounds insane, because it is. Obviously, if we wanted to preserve a life form in a healthy state, we would stop the experiments immediately. But we don’t always see this as clearly in life, because, in the case of climate change, the experiments that are being run on the Earth are highly pleasurable to humans.

Instead, we expect to be able to determine exactly when we will need to act to save the organism (the Earth), or how to cure it even after deeply damaging it, or how exactly we might attempt to replace it. Interest in such scientific knowledge is great, but expectation of or obsession with this kind of knowledge is off the mark. Sometimes you have to look at the big picture, sense the tradeoffs, accept your inevitable ignorance, and simply act based on your best judgement, which is frustratingly subjective. Plainly, we should have cut emissions long ago. We must do so drastically now.

There are many reasons why we cannot seem to act despite the consequences of inaction, but in the next two parts of this series, I will highlight two. One is an ideology of extreme individualism which has convinced us that we can and should live independently, ruling out collective action. And second, more controversially, we are utterly attached to a misguided definition of equality, which, although it has been effective in fighting oppression and inhumanity, is now in danger of becoming inflexible dogma. The attachment to certain beliefs about equality can sometimes translate into dangerous discord during any attempt to discuss the pressing social issues before us, including those of the climate debate.

Blind Spots is our new series exploring the collective blind spots of our society. We invite you to read An introduction to our collective blind spots and check the previous blind spot events we organized Blind Spots #1: The Knowledge Economy, the Progressive Project and the Future of Britain with Roberto Unger and Blind Spots #2: Returning to Mystery, Saving Ourselves.