A Discussion on Conditional Optimism Regarding Climate Change:
Four CACOR Members Offer Their Perspectives
Just after the beginning of 2020, I was interested to find an internet link had been provided by one of my colleagues in the Canadian Association for the Club of Rome (CACOR). Our group has been studying the state of global civilization, with particular emphasis on the situation in Canada, and how we might resolve many of our major issues through policies and programs in government and industry, and behaviours within households.
The link came from Vox and the article there was written by David Roberts, a writer on energy and climate change. The article was entitled The case for “conditional optimism” on climate change: Limiting the damage requires rapid, radical change—but such changes have happened before.
The link was circulated with CACOR’s climate group by Bill Pugsley, who asked How “screwed” are we?
The article is several pages long and includes some graphics, and I trust the reader may peruse it. I thought the most important part was several sentences at the end.
…I’m with Schröder and Storm that, contra Grubb, market developments will never be enough. “Radical change within a limited time span is what we need,” they write, “and this needs collective action and a strong directional thrust which ‘markets’ or ‘private agents’ alone are unable to provide.”
But [sic] rapid change is not just possible in technology. It is also possible in politics. In both domains, there are “tipping points” after which change accelerates, rendering the once implausible inevitable.
We are rarely able to predict those tipping points. Relying on them can seem like hoping for miracles. But [sic] our history is replete with miraculously rapid changes. They have happened; they can happen again. And [sic] the more we envision them, and work toward them, the more likely they become.
What other choice is there?
Shortly after the link was circulated, Ruben Nelson replied to Bill and the rest of the group with the following observations.
- I agree with David Roberts that “Is there hope?” is not a well-formed question. I also admire the structure of his piece and the clarity of his arguments. It is a nice piece that draws logical conclusions from his premises. Sadly, as I shall explain, some of his premises are wrong-headed.
- Therefore, as I see things his case for conditional optimism is too weak to be taken seriously. (This does not mean that such a case cannot be made, just that he does not make it. Nor does anyone else with whom I am familiar, but that is a different issue.)
- Roberts, along with far too many folks (certainly a plurality) seems to assume that CO2 feeding climate disruption is all that stands between us and long-term success as modern cultures. Would that this is the case, but it is not. I expect if he were called on this issue, he would acknowledge the complexity of our present condition, but in this piece he is silent on the many other dimensions of the complex living messes to which we are slowly awakening. By doing this he feeds the dominant myth that climate disruption is our only existential challenge.
- As is the also the case with far too many today, Roberts’ focus is primarily on technological “solutions”—“saviours.” He appears to be looking for an ancient Greek Deus ex machina. At least it is the case that the validity of the case he making rests on the possibility of there being a “logistic substitution” of some of yet to be invented technology. Quite apart for the issue of whether such a technology will become available, he is silent on the role played by human consciousness, culture, and forms of civilization in our present situation and future. His silence on this matter appears to imply that in his view there is nothing in the nature of our modern/industrial cultures that will inhibit our future, as long as we get the technology right. Here, too, his line of thinking is with the majority in our culture, even a majority in sustainability work, but on this issue he is wrong-headed. In saying this I do acknowledge that, just as it takes years of training to learn to make reliable sense of strata of rocks or a log of a well, it takes training to learn to see the interpenetration of human cultures, consciousness, and technologies. Happily, there is a more than a century of sustained work, mostly in the humanities, that explores the interpenetration of human consciousness/cultures and human technologies. The net lesson is that you cannot have one without the other; that our common modern way of seeing them as logically separate is just one of the many illusions of modern consciousness/cultures. In short, even the invention and widespread use of a “silver bullet” technology that deals with CO2 is insufficient grounding for “conditional optimism.”
- To compound our difficulties, if we were willing to acknowledge that human consciousness, cultures, and forms of civilization must be added into our considerations, what we find is that there are no examples of whole cultures, much less whole forms of civilization, changing their very nature in an exponential manner. As things stand today, no one even has much more than a vague idea of what such a rapid change might entail. Yes, I acknowledge that in our history as human beings there have been profound alterations in what I have come to call human “forms of civilization” (e.g., small group nomadic indigenous cultures are a different form of civilization from that of small town settled agriculture-based cultures and both of these from any of our modern cultures). However, all such form of civilization transitions, at least for those cultures that pioneered the process of transformation, were slow (spread over centuries, if not millennia), local/regional in scope, unconscious, and optional processes.
- My point is that whatever Roberts has in mind when he talks of the need for and possibility of “rapid” “non-linear change,” it is not the kind of change that we now need to avoid collapse. What we need, as persons who live in cultures that exemplify a form of civilization, is to learn to transcend ourselves at every level at which we live—personal to civilizational—openly, consciously, rapidly, and universally. Since this idea is not yet even an idea in good currency, much less on the agenda of any significant institution, I am inclined to doubt that conditional optimism is warranted. Sorry, but as of today, no significant group is even tasked with this work, let alone making headway with it. Johan Schot’s new work on Deep Transitions is getting a bit closer, but even he appears to be deeply trapped in the myths, categories, and logics of our modern cultures, especially the version protected and peddled by the academy.
- In saying this, I do not mean to be heard to say that a case cannot be made for what I characterize as a post-despair hope. All I am saying is that it has not been made yet by anyone with whom I am familiar. If you know of a case that convinces you, I would welcome being directed to the work.
Bill replied as follows.
Thank you Ruben for looking at this and your thoughtful comments.
- As you say, “there are no examples of whole cultures, much less whole forms of civilization, changing their very nature in an exponential manner,” and that is true if not a cause for despair.
- In a way, the IPCC and the way it was created with political heads of state meeting at the annual Conferences of Parties should have produced mechanisms and action plans to take charge of this in a cooperative manner, but it hasn’t yet (I say optimistically). I would fault the lack of leadership internationally combined with the collective will of the public at large which we saw last during and after World War II—many have said that this is the only way to come to grips with climate change and all that is needed to be done.
- I can’t help but think that effective leadership from half a dozen countries could still turn this around—USA, China, Russia, EU—if they put the priority needed to the task.
- Let’s hope even if hope is not what the world needs at this point
After reading what Ruben had written, another of our colleagues, Gordon Kubanek, advised us that the Dark Mountain Project and others see our current civilization as in its collapse phase, and thus the only real—but also optimistic option—is to imagine what culture can come after ours. Thus, the focus is not on trying to save what we have, but rather to create new social forms and new ways of thinking of self. He quoted this from the Dark Mountain Project:
“Those who witness extreme social collapse at first hand seldom describe any deep revelation about the truths of human existence. What they do mention, if asked, is their surprise at how easy it is to die.”
After much reflection on the foregoing ideas of my three colleagues, it occurred to me that we need common understanding on just what an existential challenge for humanity entails. It seems to me we can consider any situation that would wipe out more than 90% of us constitutes a challenge to our continued existence. Of all the problems we face—poverty, famine, malnutrition, inequality, disease, and aging, to name but a few—there are only two I can identify as existential threats within our control: unlimited nuclear war and climate change.
As it happens, others have considered this topic. For example:
Stefanie Spear named ten: global climate change, loss of biodiversity, bee decline, bat decline, pandemic, biological or nuclear terrorism, super volcanoes, asteroid impacts, rise of the machine, and zombie apocalypse. (Loss of biodiversity, bees, and bats, seem to me essentially the same issue—threats to ecosystem functions on which we depend for food, water, and materials—while super volcanoes and asteroid impacts are, at least now, beyond our control, and the zombies she mentions can be included with pandemics, bringing her list also to five.)
Richard Benson, in an article for Wired, said researchers at Cambridge University’s Study of Existential Risk (CESR) had come up with a list of ten threats, too: artificial intelligence, bio-hacking, killer robots, nuclear war, climate change, food shortage, asteroid impact, loss of reality associated with quantum physics, a particle accelerator destroying the universe, a tyrannical ruler. (While AI and robots can be consolidated, and asteroid and physics are beyond our control, the last three are new and interesting.)
It seems to me that only unlimited nuclear war and climate change are threats that we are actually likely to face this century. As we actually have evidence of what nuclear war does to us and other life forms, it ought to be straightforward for us to prevent it. Indeed, we’ve given much attention to the matter and succeeded in doing so for about seven decades.
Surely, specialist heavily involved with such things as disease control and robotics will continue to controlling threats, even if they may not be existential.
That leaves us with climate change. From scientific study we know it is happening, that it is because of our activities, and what we must do to limit the scope and effects of the change we have initiated. From my perspective, this is the one big threat over which we could exert control if we so choose. It will take efforts, perhaps even sacrifices, from all governments, corporations, and households for us to succeed. However, I’m worried that we are not up to the challenge.
Why? There are many reasons. Here are my top five:
- We often seem not to learn from experience.
- We often hold views clearly false views, despite being able to see the evidence.
- We tend to view self-interest and societal interest as separate.
- Advertising had proven to be a very powerful influence on behaviour, and money buys the best advertising.
- The climate is exhibiting lags between emissions and measurable effects, and emissions are long-lasting.
The result? I see little, if any, reason for optimism and a great need for new thinking.
I am a retired environmental scientist. https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2018/12/28/18156094/conditional-optimism-climate-change Accessed 18 January 2020. Mr. Pugsley is a retired scientist interested in hydrometeorology, climate research, aviation weather forecasting, automated observing networks, and the impacts of air pollution on health.  Mr. Nelson is the Executive Director of Foresight Canada (www.foresightcanada.com). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Mr. Kubanek is an engineer, member of the Society of St. Francis, beekeeper, and writer. https://dark-mountain.net/about/manifesto/ Accessed 18 January 2020. https://theconversation.com/the-five-biggest-threats-to-human-existence-27053 https://www.ecowatch.com/10-biggest-threats-to-human-existence-1881939902.html https://www.wired.co.uk/article/10-threats-civilisation-ai-asteroid-tyrannical-leader?utm_source=fark&utm_medium=website&utm_content=link&ICID=ref_fark Accessed 19 January 2020.