Unknowing is the sanest approach to the climate crisis

If you read one thing during COP26, make it Valerie Iles’ paper, We’re Only Human. Her brief overview of the climate crisis offers useful frameworks for assessing the confusing proposals and counter-proposals to reduce humans’ heating up of the planet. So it provides a timely lodestone for making sense of whatever emerges from the UN conference on saving the world.

But it’s also a masterly exploration of how the way humans know the world is a poor foundation for comprehending how quickly and comprehensively we’re ruining it. How we understand the world is shaped by what it was like when we were born into it. Iles argues that it is changing at such an exponential rate that our thought constructs are scarcely able to conceptualise the speed at which reality is changing. 68 per cent of all carbon emissions have occurred in just my lifetime (60 years). In just the last seven decades, the population of humans in the world has tripled. In the context of the millennia of the planet’s existence, the impacts of these changes are unfathomable. In order to think ourselves out of the crisis we’ve created, we could try to unknow many of the things we hold to be true. Iles suggests a few ways to start.

She identifies six causes of climate change:

  1. The industrialisation of food production that has destroyed ecosystems. We have trashed the soil and the sea. There may be only a few decades of harvest left.
  2. Population growth that has outstripped the carrying capacity of the planet. The laws of physics mean the population needs to be brought back within the limits of biodiversity. Educating and empowerig girls in the Global South could achieve this without coercion within a century.
  3. Energy use that is causing overproduction and overconsumption, fuelling waste on a massive scale. The use of non-renewable resources in one day is equivalent to the level the Earth’s natural systems would use in one year. The amount of waste per person is roughly equivalent to the mass of one small car every four years. Energy use and waste are distributed unequally, meaning the rich are consuming the lion’s share of resources.
  4. Our destruction of nature that threatens the collapse of the Earth’s plenum. The Earth is an interconnected, interdependent living system. A plenum is a space of which every part is full of interacting matter. Earth’s plenum is so complex, it will not respond predictably to human interventions. Much of our destruction of species and habitats has also happened within my lifetime.
  5. Our assumption of supremacy over other species that puts us in a fundamentally exploitative relationship with the environment of which we are a part. We have lost our sense of reciprocity to, kinship with and gratitude towards nature. This encourages techno-managerialist orientations – stealing resources – even to fixing the climate crisis.
  6. The dominant economic model, capitalism, that is planet-destroying. It is fixated with growth which involves the capture or destruction of part of the natural world, the exploitation of countries with less bargaining power and/or people forced to work on low wages. An alternative, steady-state economy would: maintain the health of ecosystems; extract renewable resources at a rate no faster than they can be regenerated; consume non-renewable resources at a rate no faster than they can be replaced by renewable substitutes; deposit waste no faster than it can be assimilated.

Iles proposes assessing responses to climate change against these six causes. Ideally, proposals should address all six of the causes or address some and not harm others. If they continue to harm any of the causes, she argues that they should be opposed.

If you think this sounds outlandish, Iles identifies thinking traps which prevent us from seeing clearly on climate change. One of these is confusing complex problems with complicated ones.

In this, she draws on systems thinkers from the 1960s and ’70s including Russell Ackoff, who distinguished between puzzles, problems and messes. A mess is a complex system of interacting problems and puzzles in which we can only take a step forward, see what happens and then decide our next step. This is described as “muddling through”. I call it unknowing.

To have any impact on climate change, unknowing would encourage us to stop viewing it as a complicated problem amenable to a linear technical fix. Even referring to it as climate change is part of this thinking trap since, as the six causes described above illustrate, it is part of an interlocking set of factors which threaten the whole of the Earth’s environment. As Iles argues, the Earth’s plenum is so complex that unknowing is the only sensible orientation:

Earth’s climate is not a tidy puzzle with solutions that will deliver reliable consequences. Some aspects of it are problems, where we are pretty sure that some ways forward will work better than others. But, in essence, it is the most highly complex system, the messiest mess, we can imagine. Indeed a large part of the problem is that we can’t really imagine it, it is essentially unknowable. We certainly will not be able to intervene and be confident of the result of our interventions. It requires us to ‘muddle through’, tentatively and humbly trying all sorts of different approaches, approaches which safeguard and do not threaten the full plenum of life. We will need overarching ethics and principles, all offered thoughtfully and implemented sensitively, reviewed and rethought. A strictly adhered to, technology-based, rigid master plan would lead to disaster.

Iles points out that we would benefit from very different knowhow from that offered by the experts who are currently in the ascendancy – financiers, the tech sector, managerialists. “We must not,” she says, “be seduced by ideas from people whose skills lie primarily in those areas.” These are the people who shape the common sense, the received wisdom, of our age. If you find yourself recoiling from Iles’ analysis, consider to what extent your views are reflections simply of the received wisdom, the way of knowing that got us into this mess.

What if we were to listen to new voices who can advocate for the whole-Earth ecology beyond the system of capitalist economics and fossil fuel driven growth? One of those might be Jason Hickel, whose book Less is More advocates degrowth as an antidote to unconstrained plundering of natural resources. This sounds like an outlandish proposal when considered from within the mindset of our current economic arrangements. But it makes more sense when considered from the perspective of the adaptations required of humans if we are to live sustainably alongside other life forms on Earth. It would be wise to work out how to do this not just out of altruism for the Earth’s ecology but because human life itself depends on it.

What would it take to normalise (or re-establish, as we used to think this way) a theory of being that sees humans as part of the living world? Instead of human supremacy, we would be guided by reciprocity in relation to the ecosystems with which we interact – never taking more than we need, giving back, and leaving the environment in a better state than we found it.

There might also be greater reciprocity between humans, so that – as a species as a whole – we could live more sustainably. While there is certainly a problem with the rate at which humans consume the Earth’s resources, a big part of the adverse impact of capitalist growth derives from how its proceeds are shared inequitably. Hickel argues that, with fair distribution, the amount of GDP per capita needed to sustain equitable social goals is relatively modest – considerably less than the global GDP that is currently achieved.

When I read critiques of the degrowth argument, I find them compelling. Noah Smith, for instance, points out that the scale of transformation would be unprecedented in human history:

Degrowth would… require deep changes in the entire way that the global economy works. Change happens, but not like that; implementing the kind of reallocation schemes that degrowthers throw around with abandon would require global economic planning that would put Gosplan to shame… In other words, it is abject fantasy.

Kelsey Piper argues that degrowth is not just implausibly ambitious but represents too big a challenge to the system for the purposes of tackling climate change.

But it is important to recognise that these are arguments that articulate the paradigm of the current system. Hickel is seeking to transcend it. It’s as if the debate is being conducted in two mutually incomprehensible languages. Hickel is indeed advocating an implausibly ambitious challenge to the system. But this is precisely because climate change isn’t some complicated technocratic problem that can be isolated and fixed from within the system that spawned it. Climate change, remember, is a mess. It is part of a series of interlinked ecological disruptions that also include loss of biodiversity and acidification of the oceans.

The debate around climate change quickly becomes polarised when the role of capitalism is questioned. But it would be naive to expect that humans living in reciprocity with the ecology can be achieved within the capitalist paradigm. It is possible to imagine that capitalism might achieve some kind of ecological sustainability through technological developments that allow it to continue to appropriate value to itself. But this would likely be achieved only by sacrificing the welfare of the mass of humanity. If you think this sounds too extreme, notice that the logic of it is already being played out in the migration crisis and the determination of the rich world to shut out populations who are on the move. It is also evident in the fashion for billionaires to buy bolt-holes from catastrophe in locations like New Zealand.

I’m not saying that change within the system isn’t worth advocating. Nor am I saying that degrowth is the answer (though I think it is likely to be part of it). I’m saying we should seek to free ourselves to imagine radically different futures. Yes, we should bank whatever sustainable mitigations can be achieved in the short to medium term. But we can also insist on our right to principled and challenging discussion of humanity’s long term stewardship of the environment.

Muddling through an unknowable mess requires pluralism, including propositions which challenge the system – “tentatively and humbly trying all sorts of different approaches,“ as Iles puts it.

In order to evaluate different proposals for responding to the ecological crisis, Iles identifies three mindsets which likely inform them:

  • Mindset 1: market-led approaches
  • Mindset 2: society-led approaches
  • Mindset 3: planet-led approaches

Mindset 1 people are inclined to accept human supremacy and to believe that human ingenuity will transcend the laws of physics. They will tend to propose solutions which involve the appropriation of more resources.

Mindset 2 people are more awake to blindspots but are still prone to human supremacy. They put great faith in government action and citizens assemblies. This is most likely the terrain of COP26. But let’s see.

Mindset 3 is a paradigm shift from the first two. It will entail overcoming helplessness and grief for what we have destroyed and orienting towards our place in the plenum.

We should accept that people inhabiting all three mindsets are addressing climate change in good faith. But those inhabiting Mindsets 1 and 2 may be constrained by what Iles calls thinking traps and I call their knowing. Mindset 1, for example, seems currently fixated on switching to battery power and renewable electricity so that our energy intensive lifestyles may continue. But this neglects how our lifestyles entail excessive consumption of resources more generally, which undermines the ecology. The switch to electric vehicles brings the prospect of a whole new despoiling of ecosystems, as well as child labour, in the race to mine the necessary minerals for batteries. There is a need to reduce energy use in total, not just make it more carbon neutral.

Insofar as proposals emanating from Mindsets 1 and 2 address some of the six causes of climate change and don’t harm others, they should be supported. But the implication of Iles’ analysis is that in the long run we should all be trying to think and see, at least more often, with Mindset 3 – abandoning our view of humans as supreme and learning to live more harmoniously as part of the ecology.

The politics of this do seem insurmountable. But that is because, for decades now, the benefits of what we have presumed to call progress have made us wilfully blind to its costs. It is incumbent on those who seek to rule out radical systemic change to demonstrate that our existing systems are able to bring the requisite urgency and creativity to addressing the nexus of environmental disruptions of which climate change is a part. This they have failed to do for decades. If radical transformation seems outlandish, so too is the prospect of continuing down our current path to certain catastrophe.

Faced with an unknowable and complex mess, it is implausible to expect that business as usual can offer enough of a solution, if at all. The invitation here is to soften the grip on our minds of the ways of thinking and living that have led us to this impasse. Let go of the thought constructs formed in a world that has already passed. We can reach for new discourses that empower us to leave the ecosystem in a better state than we find it. If ever there was a time and a project for unknowing, it is right now and the climate crisis.

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