The politics of prudence; or, how I learned to stop worrying about climate change and love therapeutic nihilism

Frankenstorm Sandy, currently ravaging the northeastern US, is testament enough to the predictable unpredictability inherent in global warming. What I mean by “predictable unpredictability” is something like the following: though we cannot know exactly how individual weather systems in particular regions will change in response to the overall alterations in climatic patterns caused by human activity, meteorologists have an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how certain climate patterns influence specific kinds of weather patterns and events.

For example, links have recently been made between extreme and extremely prolonged weather events in the US and the loss of sea ice in the Arctic, which is itself due to human activity altering the global atmosphere. Stu Ostro, senior meteorologist at the National Weather Service, is outspoken in his attempts to draw attention to how uncannily apparently “deviant” weather events of the past decade cohere with predictions about climatic changes and the best available knowledge of how climate influences weather. So climate scientists are increasingly on board with drawing these kinds of connections and rhetorically labeling certain events as caused, at least in part, by global warming.

Climate change policy, however, still seems arrested in a state of deadlock.

To whit: it did not come up once during the three debates between presidential candidates, nor did it in the vice presidential candidate debate. Climate change itself was obliquely mentioned (and then, only in hushed, glossy tones), but no discussion was ever held about implementing policies to mitigate global warming, or even about the possibility of such policies in the next four-year presidential term.

I want to put forth a hypothesis about why this might be so. This hypothesis concerns a particular ethical decision making strategy that appears to have taken hold of the policy process in this country: therapeutic nihilism, which demands full scientific understanding of the situation at hand before any intervention is permitted.

Therapeutic nihilism, in the sense in which I mean it, is essentially the principle of precaution taken to the extreme. We ought to be prudent, it recommends, wherever our intervention or manipulation of large-scale, complex systems is likely to result in both intended and unintended consequences (which, a strong therapeutic nihilism may argue, is every situation involving large-scale and complex systems), but prudent to the degree that unless the dimensions of the system and the potential effects of the intervention are known completely and exactly, we ought to choose not to intervene.

This is similar, I think, to the politics of tobacco and pollution that Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway detail in their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt. The tagline gives a good indication of this policy stance: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Vested industrial interests, in other words, rhetorically polluted the political and policy arena in order to stall or outright preclude any policy measures designed to address issues such as the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica or the dangers of tobacco smoking.

Gene Hargrove, resident environmental philosopher at UNT and one of the founders of the field of Environmental Ethics, details the history of therapeutic nihilism in his book Foundations of Environmental Ethics. Physicians in 19th century Vienna began recommending a course of non-action in cases where a particular disease and/or its proper treatment were unknown to medical science, lest they make the disease worse or cause the patient undue pain or other harm. Rather, they argued that it was better to wait to see if the disease would resolve naturally – that is, if the patient’s immune system would ultimately kill it – or, in the event of the patient’s demise, study the symptoms and effects in the hopes of one day finding a cure.

Hargrove also relates the history of how this medicinal practice found its way into environmental policy, particularly concerning intervention in wilderness areas for the purposes of land or game management (in national parks, for example), and outlines a number of reasons why, even though such an approach to environmental policymaking is pragmatically acceptable for the time being (though I do not agree with this assertion), it will be problematic in the future.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I have not actually learned to love therapeutic nihilism (nor, for that matter, have I ceased worrying about climate change). Rather, I want to extend Hargrove’s historical analysis to say that therapeutic nihilism is not simply an epistemic argument regarding policymaking strategy – that is, an argument concerning what we know and how – but is also (and more disturbingly) an ethical strategy on the basis of which policy decisions are made when there is an ethical choice at stake. It is a moral position.

There are, for example, a myriad of ethical dimensions requiring committing to a particular moral choice, or position, regarding responding to climate change: what obligations, if any, do we have to future generations that will be more severely impacted by climate change, and our decisions about it in the present? Should governments fund costly high-risk-moderate-reward geoengineering projects? How much responsibility should be borne by those who emit the most greenhouse gases? Are cap and trade policies viable if, in the course of reducing emissions, the gap between rich and poor widens? Should green companies be given favorable economic and/or regulatory treatment over companies that have high emissions? More traditional approaches to such ethical questions would perhaps employ cost-benefit analyses to decide among various options which is more (economically) viable, or may employ a strictly utilitarian logic in determining who benefits most by which policies or decisions. Or, others may invoke notions of egalitarian justice: ensuring the equal and wholesale protection of basic human rights, political participation, legal representation, multiculturalism, etc, for all persons everywhere.

The implicit ethical claim here is that every human being ought to be allowed to flourish insofar as their basic human rights are not infringed upon by the unfair distribution of goods, services, or political participation; or by institutionalized discrimination; or through circumstances that are beyond their immediate control, but are being perpetuated by systems that are within human control (i.e., the global economy, or an oppressive political regime). By the same rationale, one can identify that the implicit ethical claim of therapeutic nihilism is that extreme precaution ought to be the primary principle of action when making choices that have potentially negative outcomes in addition to benefits, particularly concerning interventions in complex systems like the economy or global climatic patterns.

But what’s the problem? Prudence is, after all, a virtue.

I don’t disagree that prudence is a virtue. As I see it, though, the problem is that therapeutic nihilism is often, when it comes to highly charged debates such as climate change, wielded as a political weapon against action. It is a wholly different ethical approach from the ones listed above in that it effectively advocating non-action, no matter what the cost. In historical Vienna, the cost was human lives; regarding climate change, the cost is the possibility of continued human civilization on this planet. If we strip away all of the contention about non-anthropocentric value in nature as a justification for caring about the existence of other species, the reason climate change is so alarming is that it threatens the extinction of human civilization. That is something about which we are intimately concerned, and that is what is really at stake in climate change policy. Therapeutic nihilism, however, misses the point of this “cost” in its stringent, axiomatic advocacy of non-action.

Non-action, however, is still a choice. By choosing not to act (or politically stonewalling action), one is making a positive choice to allow the current state of affairs to continue unimpeded. Regarding climate change, such an approach would eventually be catastrophic for the majority of the world’s species – including, of course, human beings.

Extreme prudence, then, is not always the best policy. In the language of philosophy, this means that prudence is not an unconditional (or absolute) good – and in some cases it may actually be unethical. Climate change, I argue, is one such case. So the challenge now is to find general, guiding principles (“rules of thumb”) that work in spite of the lack of comprehensive and certain knowledge of causes and effects regarding climate change. That we do not know perfectly what changes will be wrought upon the world from a shifting climate, or exactly what the effects of our efforts to forestall catastrophic climatic changes, does not mean that we do not have a good idea and reasonable (as opposed to exact) estimates of the effects both of changes in the climate and what effects our actions to mitigate them will likely have.

What this amounts to is constructing a description of how climate change is affecting the world currently, and acting on the basis of principles which allow for action in the present, rather than waiting for predictions to become accurate enough to form a basis for making policies to mitigate future effects. Were I to don my cynical hat, I would say that predictions of the sort that would be ideal for making definitive, long-term policies will never exist, no matter how much time scientists are given to study the phenomenon; probability and exactitude are mutually exclusive categories. Nietzsche was thinking about this same kind of situation almost a century and a half ago. He described it as the essential ambiguity of existence.

Of course, outlining such principles requires a basis in the latest knowledge – knowledge, for example, of the distributed effects of current climatic changes across difference regions of the world scientifically, politically, legally, socially, and culturally. I argue, however, that the timeframe in which we have to act, that is, the amount of time we have before the effects of global warming become unmanageable (presuming, that is, that they are at least somewhat manageable now), is sufficiently narrow as to make the therapeutic nihilism approach of waiting for the accumulation of precise and accurate knowledge of the whole system in play unfeasible as a policy response to the scale and scope of global warming. But it is more than simply unfeasible; it is highly immoral.

Fortunately, some climate scientists have already begun thinking through such general, guiding principles to help reduce our carbon emissions. Dr. Kevin Anderson, for example, of the Tyndall Center at the University of Manchester (one of the world’s leading climate research centers) has suggested that rather than focusing regulations and legislation at supply-side carbon emissions reduction (such as emissions by factories and manufacturing plants, power stations, and transport of fuels), demand-side changes (changes in products consumed directly by the public that are the result of those supply chains) are not only much more feasible for accomplishing immediate reductions, but also can accomplish reductions without relying on new technological advances – or the promise of them. Anderson notes as an example that the Audi A2 3-litre emits 75 grams of carbon per kilometer travelled, which is well below the UK national average of 175g/km. He estimates that existing automobile technologies can be leveraged with appropriate regulations establishing emissions limits to reduce carbon emissions in the UK about 50% by 2020; to that add campaigns to promote carpooling and conservative vehicle use, and his estimate climbs to about 70% reduction.

Daniel Sarewitz has identified a related and analogously puzzling policy phenomenon, which he calls an “excess of objectivity”: for every “objective” scientific (or other) expert one can marshal to support one’s policy claim, there is another expert one can draw upon to support the exact opposite. Sarewitz ascribes this to the fact that scientific information relevant to policy making always involves interpreting the relevant data, and that the scientific community contains far more diversity of interpretation than many would like to believe. In other words, there is never complete consensus in science, and this is readily evident regarding climate change. Though a deficit of knowledge may be a legitimate explanation for why a pause is necessary when it comes to designing and enforcing public policy, it is by no means an excuse for the intransigence of climate change policy; that is, the stalling may be explained by a lack of scientific consensus, but this does not absolve the policy process – and, importantly, those involved – of the moral obligation to act.

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3 Responses to The politics of prudence; or, how I learned to stop worrying about climate change and love therapeutic nihilism

  1. Pingback: The politics of prudence; or, how I learned to stop worrying about climate change and love therapeutic nihilism | csid | Reason & Existenz

  2. Mahdi says:

    Good grip, Kelli!
    Interestingly CNN bans ‘Frankenstorm’ term for Hurricane Sandy because the “term is not appropriate for a storm that’s already killed more than 20 people,” That is acceptable but I think it also reflects how they (un)intentionally are saying that the storm is not a (wicked and devil) product of human activity. And it is all natural!

  3. Paul Goris says:

    Dear Kelli,

    Your article touches upon one of the key philosophical questions surrounding climate change: why are we so conspicuously slow in dealing with it given the amount of scientific evidence around? The other crucial philosophical question, as I see it, is what is causing global warming in the first place.

    As it turns out, both questions are intimately related and can be brought back to one and the same root cause: our culture’s flawed philosophy on the relation between life and death. It is our blatant dissociation of both sides of the same cosmic coin that not only results in an excess of life (now leading to an excess of death through global warming), but also in an otherwise unexplainable refusal to address it (“therapeutic nihilism”) .

    What follows is an extract from the book that I have recently published entitled “The Fire of Life. A Philosophy of Global Warming” and that deals precisely with the question why we prefer to turn to therapeutic nihilism:

    In its long history of facing imminent disasters, humanity’s remarkable lack of action faced with what may well become its most daunting menace, stands unique and unprecedented. Take the test and question a random person about what is causing global warming. The likely and correct answer is an increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases, especially in carbon dioxide. Next inquire as to what is causing this increase. Most respondents will again correctly pinpoint human economic activity as the culprit. But ask the question why, despite this awareness, we stubbornly continue with activities which we know will exact a terrible price on future generations…then the answer becomes evasive and self-vindicating. What we then hear is a slate of rational arguments justifying the irrational, ranging from “it is too early to take action” to “it is already too late” or “I would like to but I cannot”. All arguments serve as long as they defend the simply indefensible fact that we condone activities that are very likely – and not with hindsight – to amount to murder-in-slow-motion. All of them are what Norwegian play writer Hendrik Ibsen has called “vital lies”, comfortable stories that we make up to mask uncomfortable facts. All of them are responses that can be grouped under the labels “denial” or even “cognitive dissonance”, that remarkable mental trick whereby we simply eradicate the more inconvenient of two dissonant convictions. Invariably, the firm belief that climate change is true loses against the sobering awareness that tackling it will imply life-transformative action. The most puzzling and scary thing about climate change is not the phenomenon itself. It is our ongoing propensity to act as if nothing is going on even while we know that we may be jeopardising the future lives of our offspring.
    This attitude of what the French call “après nous le déluge” is so remarkable that it deserves a closer look. In fact, faced with a pending danger of existential proportions, it should be our first task to figure out why exactly we are so notoriously slow in taking it seriously. It quickly dawns that this is a complex and multi-faceted issue, involving factors of very diverse nature and origin. The prospect of efficiently tackling an issue like global warming hits against a hard wall composed of economic considerations, social inhibitors and psychological barriers. None of these, however, offers a convincing explanation.
    It is true that climate change is a slow killer and its catastrophic effects are mostly situated in the long term, thereby hindering people’s ability to get really engaged. It is true, also biologically speaking, that a near threat has more chances of waking up our innate survival instincts and triggering immediate response than one deceivingly remote. Nothing more telling in this respect than the comparison with the swift mobilisation of all national forces and energy of countries like the US and UK in the early days of their involvement in the Second World War. But, upon a closer look, this is not a real obstacle. If a young mother finds that the baby shampoo it is using may expose its child to an increased risk of cancer in, say, thirty years, she will immediately take remedial action. The same happened when late twentieth century science discovered that the use of so-called CFCs was depleting the ozone layer in the earth’s atmosphere. Although the real detrimental effect was still a few decades off, it only took a few years before the use was completely prohibited. Not so with climate change, even if the timeframe of urgency is similar.
    Daniel Goleman has put forward another thesis in his recent book entitled Ecological Intelligence. He argues that our hesitation and slowness in adapting our behaviour or making difficult and painful ecological choices has first of all to do with a lack of adequate information on the consequences of our actions on the earth’s ecosystem. He hopes that, once there will be radical transparency on ecological cause and effect, a psychological evolution will follow in its wake and bring consumers and producers alike to change their choices. He must surely be living on a different planet to me. Never in history has an imminent ecological threat been more meticulously documented and reported than global warming. The information is there, voluminous and detailed. The science is unequivocal and brings the absolute certainty that prospects are only getting gloomier as time passes by. We cannot deny awareness. We are perfectly able to compare the CO2 emissions of any new car we buy. We all know the huge carbon footprint connected with buying a plane ticket to our favored holiday destination. Nevertheless, the presence of monstrous gas-guzzling SUVs in our streets keeps rising uninhibited. In most cases, you will have noted, these are driven by young mothers with small children safely strapped to the spacious backseats. And grandparents and grandchildren alike keep on boarding the ever increasing fleets of tourist charter planes. No, the true knot must be situated elsewhere.
    Some will refer to the fact that climate science is still not unanimous in identifying the root causes driving global warming and that there is not yet full consensus. But when is science, our trusted ally in modern civilisation’s “march of progress” through history, ever 100% certain of anything? Since when is a scientific consensus required before taking action? More generally, since when do we need 100% certainty that a risk will manifest itself before taking out adequate insurance? Again, we must look elsewhere to explain our conspicuous collective inertia in the face of rapidly approaching evil.
    Incidentally, we may just have stumbled over something crucial here. Ecological challenges such as climate change are indeed a collective problem which we can only solve by concerted action. Individual actions have only a very marginal impact. This surely inhibits our incentive of doing something, certainly if there is a real chance that the rest of the herd will not follow suit. Those individuals changing their behaviour first, are required to take an immediate loss with no certainty of any reward. If there are no green subsidies to compensate the cost, this results in a truly different situation than the one where a mother is learning about the presence of carcinogenic substances in her child’s shampoo. In the latter case, success of individual action (reward) is ensured, wholly independent as it is from what other mothers might be doing with their shampoo.
    Here we may have hit the surface of the true reason why global warming is such a tough nut to crack: our inability and unwillingness to take a loss if there is no immediate reward, even when it could save our children. To really understand this point, I must carefully define what I mean by “loss” and what does not qualify as such. The cost of an insurance policy is not a loss. We are perfectly willing to pay an insurance premium in exchange for covering an uncertain risk. Neither can the “task” of changing shampoo to cover an uncertain risk be deemed a loss. Loss is something that really hurts and it hurts because it cuts deeply in an individual’s life capital. Each of us is owner of a life capital and its accompanying life potential. Life is not only meant here in the biological sense, but also socially, economically, even politically. The size of this war chest of life capital is different for each individual, as it depends on factors such as health, wealth, class, age, sex, birth place, residence and so on.
    Whatever this size, all of us have one thing in common: we absolutely dislike any depletion of this treasure of life if there is no certainty of return. This is the loss we hate and attempt to avoid at all cost: the loss in terms of life that feels like equal or near to suffering partial death, the loss that forces us to mourn, even if it just means foregoing a cherished opportunity. If this kind of loss is inevitable, we will always choose for the least painful option. We will choose and prefer the prospect and risk of a bigger but distant and long-term loss over the certainty of a smaller but immediate and short-term loss.
    Goleman’s radical transparency proposal may work perfectly well when selfish interests and altruistic motives are aligned. Who does not want to buy healthy food for himself and his family if he is well-informed, certainly if this is also good for the environment? But it is not because a label warns us that the oceans’ tuna stock is nearing fatal depletion that people cease flocking to sushi bars as long as these are allowed to stay open. The same applies to issues of climate change. The ecological efficiency of Goleman’s transparency project begins to unravel as soon as necessary ecological choices become painful. The problem with asking an individual to change his consumerist behaviour to avoid climate change is that we are in fact asking him to take a certain and immediate loss in order to avoid an uncertain and remote risk. In circumstances where the cost is certain but the benefit is not, the individual will opt for running the long-term risk. The benefit (if at all) is simply not deemed worth the sacrifice. All of this makes perfect psychological sense.

    This brings me to the most startling finding of all. It is clear that, for any climate action to make a tangible difference, it must be taken collectively. In a democracy, it requires at least 50 per cent of the voters to push through any rule obliging the rest of the herd to follow. This surely constitutes an additional hurdle to address the climate problem and I will return to this issue later. At this point, it suffices to say that history offers plenty of examples where a concerned, motivated and vociferous minority succeeded in moving the silent democratic majority to accept meaningful change. We cannot but notice that until today, in all Western democracies, it remains eerily silent.
    A prominent politician of my own country once exclaimed in exasperation that he perfectly knows how to stop global warming, but does not know how to get re-elected afterwards. You cannot blame politicians for stonewalling on climate change when their constituency does not give them any incentive, well on the contrary. Where are the concerned mothers and grandmothers when their politicians are debating climate policy and need their moral support and vocal backing? Why are the ecological suffragettes of our days not blocking the access doors of the Houses of Parliament or the United Nations building in New York? Have we ever seen one single mother persistently pleading the climate case of her children? One might be tempted to think they are just too busy driving them to school in their SUVs.
    The justification that is often given for this inaction is that it requires the whole world to make a difference and that, without having the Chinese on board, all we would do will just mean “useless” sacrifice. But why do we call this sacrifice “useless”? This is simply because there is no guarantee that we will get something in return in terms of effectively bringing a positive change to the fate of our progeny. But since when does sacrifice for which you get a guaranteed return constitute true sacrifice? Did the millions and millions of young soldiers who gave their lives for their country in history’s countless wars have any certainty that it would bring success? Whilst they gave their lives, we are now talking about the prospect of only giving up some elements of our extravagant Western lifestyle.
    The dark reality that stares us in the face is that we are simply not willing to make a true sacrifice for the future wellbeing of our own flesh and blood. The maximum that we are willing to concede is a bargain: a quid pro quo exchange between giving up and being compensated. But then we can no longer pretend that we are ready to accept a loss. If it goes faster to save a bank than the climate, the real reason is simple: saving a bank avoids incurring immediate losses, saving the climate does exactly the opposite. It is a deeply unsettling thought, but we must be honest and face it. Why is there no interest in climate action among mothers even when science is adamant and most of them know perfectly well that the future will hold a lot of climate misery in store if they do not act swiftly? Because they do not want to take a loss, even if this means accepting the risk of a much larger loss for their children.

    When we place the burden of a mountain of state debt on the shoulders of future generations, the cost for the latter will at worst be proportional to our gain and they may simply have to work somewhat harder than we did. In the case of global warming and other ecological doom scenarios, however, the cost-benefit relation gets hopelessly distorted. There is a huge disproportion between the little bonus of life we might lose by taking necessary climate action and the massive losses that our children and their grand-grand-children stand to incur if even the more moderate predictions about pending ecological disaster will be validated. What we are witnessing is simply dramatic. We are actually refusing to pay a small price, even if such collective act of altruism could be crucial to prevent serious risk to our descendents. What is this other than the sad equivalent of a herd of wildebeest that continues grazing while a pack of incoming predators is already within striking distance?
    Metaphorically speaking, when refusing to reduce the burden of ever-rising sovereign debt, a nation prefers to consume some more grass at the cost of less grass remaining for future generations. By comparison, when refusing to take climate action now, present-day parents and grandparents prefer the luxury of eating some additional grass over avoiding the risk of seeing their offspring being actually eaten alive! From a biological perspective, this is really something unheard of. Psychology seems to take the upper hand here over biology. The readiness to accept a loss is not only a part of life, it is the essence of life and an absolute necessity for life to go on. Sometimes you need to be able to take a loss in order to save an earlier or future gain. But psychology is here only the face of a deeper problem. What we will find, to our great surprise, is that the hidden root cause beneath our biologically unseen and insane behaviour is also the cause that triggered our current ecological predicament in the first place. And this problem is not so much psychological. It is philosophical.
    Biological evolution, the proclaimed blind motor of all life, is said to work on the premise of creatures seeking ways to maximise their procreative success and to allow their genes to be passed on to other organisms. This so-called “selfish” interest of our genes is held responsible for altruistic behaviour whereby the long-term welfare of offspring takes priority over the short-term interest of the parents. But then the awkward question pops up. Where is this selfish gene at the start of the twenty-first century? Why do parents and grandparents lose valuable time in ongoing stalemate and feet-dragging in the face of imminent climate disaster? How should we explain seemingly irrational behaviour that even overtakes what is presumed to be hard laws of biology? The beginning of an answer rests in acknowledging that such attitude is not so irrational after all. What we are dealing with is an odd and dangerous alliance between reason and instinct. If parents’ “unnatural” instinct is to inflate their own lives at the expense of that of their children, it is because reason convinces them to do so and heats up their biological drive for life until it becomes an all-consuming fire.
    It is not so much reason itself that is to blame, but the way we use our rational abilities. The problem is not simply that thinking overtakes or colours instinct. What matters is what and how we think and how this affects our choices and actions as a society. Most of us are quite willing to acknowledge the causal link between global warming and our economic behaviour. But we are reluctant to question the actions themselves and the cultural paradigm on which these are based. We tend to see global warming as the inevitable but manageable consequence of a unique and tested historic model that has proven its resilience and efficiency in creating peace and prosperity for an ever growing number of people. Nowhere are we ready to even consider that the problem might be the model itself and the underlying philosophy that nurtures and amplifies our most basic instinct to live and expand our lives.

    It is our passion for life that steers our civilisation to climb ever steeper heights of exuberant life and materialistic delight. But, as I will abundantly illustrate, it is historic philosophy that is to blame for driving this passion to previously unknown degrees of dangerous excess.

    The philosophical flaw at the root of global warming is extremely simple. Its bottom line amounts to just three words: too much life! As a culture, we are in the grips of an unprecedented lust for life.

    While every living creature is propelled by a natural will to survive, our current zeal for ever more life will be shown to be the product of a dangerously misguided philosophy of dissociation, a philosophy that glorifies life while demonising death instead of seeing both as necessary and inseparable sides of the same coin. The destructive fires of global warming that are poised to engulf our civilisation, so I will demonstrate, are but the reflection of this mental fire within that is dangerously raging out of control. The prospect of ruin and havoc that we are facing is the result of bad reasoning compounding what is basically selfish instinct. Their unholy alliance alone also explains why we continue to come up with all kinds of rational excuses for avoiding the hard decision to cut down our consumption of life and to voluntarily accept a certain degree of mitigation in order to preserve the wellbeing of our children and grand-children. If we consciously persist with such outrageous behaviour, it is because our culture’s dominant philosophy has persuaded us that there simply cannot be anything wrong in seeking ever more life and that doing so is a virtue rather than a vice. Our life-long and effective indoctrination breeds in each one of us a self-righteous feeling of entitlement to ever more life and explains why even mothers opt for “denial” of global warming and continue driving SUVs. The same flawed philosophy of life and death that drives us to desire ever more life not only lies at the root of global warming, but also prevents us from adequately dealing with it.

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