Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Acting in the dark: climate change and the paralysis of novelty

"[B]eing compelled to make decisions in a situation which remains opaque is our basic condition. [...] We find ourselves constantly in the position of having to decide about matters that will fundamentally affect our lives, but without a proper foundation in knowledge."

- Slavoj Žižek, First as Tregedy, then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), 63.

We nearly always act in situations on incomplete or insecure knowledge. We have to do things before we truly know what they mean. Sometimes, this feeling is more acute than others. How is it possible to get married when one has never experienced making such a promise before? How can one have a child while ignorant of how it will affect your life? How can we baptise those who don't yet really know what the way of the cross entails?

The novelty of these situations is personal rather than social. We marry without personal knowledge of what exclusive lifelong commitment means. Yet we do so on trust since we have witnessed others (perhaps our own parents, perhaps some other role model) who live out the blessings and struggles of this reality before us. We may not have firsthand knowledge of the delights and despair associated with raising a child, but perhaps we are already an uncle, or a cousin, or a godfather or in some way know a little of what this has meant for others.

But what about social actions that are historically novel? How is it possible to will a new social situation that has never before been experienced, not just by me, but by anyone? And how is it possible to make political and social decisions in a situation of incomplete and contested knowledge?

That is exactly where we find ourselves today with climate change. Whether we choose to do nothing (or the equivalent of doing nothing through greenwash and weak agreements) and so continue the novelty of our present carbon experiment, or whether we choose to make widespread and untested changes to our global economy, we cannot but choose historical novelty. Our knowledge, based in the science and our estimations of what is thinkable economically and politically, is far from complete. Scientific models can give some sense of likely climate outcomes, or at least a current best estimation of various risks (which should not be sneezed at). Economic models represent some of our best guesses about the costs of action (and inaction!). Political discussion seeks to find the best solutions that it is possible to implement (though it is important not to shut down the possibility of new possibilities opening up due to radical political action: the abolition of slavery or universal suffrage would have been unthinkable economically and politically without decades of more and less radical protest). But we are still left with educated guesses taken on trust in the individuals and institutions offering them.

This could be paralysing. But it need not be. The stakes are high; the debate is heated and complex. But how is possible to seek the best options without sticking our head in the sand or waiting until our knowledge is complete? What beliefs and practices keep open such a space for careful deliberation under high pressure?


Mike W said...

thanks byron, this distinction should make it easier for developed countries to accept responsibility without being overwhelmed by guilt. Maybe cheerful repentance and forgiveness are the practices we need. Also some account or story of human agency where human action has been a good thing. I'm torn in two directions for how to deal with the paralysis. Part of me says, get very focussed and fix the problem you know you have (climate change). The other part longs for leaders who will stand up and present a vision of the future where this crisis has helped us to make the world a better place (addressing the imbalance of poverty for example).

Mike Bull said...


Though I agree with your post, we are not as ignorant as we make out. Or if we are, we are willfully ignorant of the way God works in history. Although we are certainly required to develop wisdom (and I think this process of tough decisions is crucial in God's plan), we are given enough info to be obedient.

To clarify how God works, see my post today:


How many Christians are familiar with this stuff? How many Bible colleges teach it? Very few. Almost none. And yet it is the very fabric of the Bible.


Anonymous said...

[Jeremy Halcrow said:]

Hi Byron,

Your point that action / inaction on climate change are equivalent in terms of being 'historically novel' experiments is very well made.

Good tool for unpacking the rhetoric around 'caution' and 'risk' presented by anti-warming side.

byron smith said...

Mike W - repentance and forgiveness are too often neglected concepts in political discourse.

Mike Bull - I'm not saying that we are entirely ignorant, nor that knowledge is irrelevant or seeking it is a distraction. Far from it! As you point out, knowledge of God's actions and ways is crucial and we see in Christ the heart and hands of God.

What I am saying is simply that in many of our important decisions, we don't know all the relevant information beforehand and have to act nonetheless.

Jeremy - yes, that was part of the goal of this post. Language of risk is often very one-sided in implying that my course of action is risk-free. No course of action is ever risk-free and an obsession will safety will not do us much good.

Anonymous said...

I would suggest that the problems that we face altogether in 2010 and beyond are seemingly so overwhelming that no-one really has a clue as to what to do.

Problems which are in one way or another all inter-related, and all of which have been created by the ruling/dominant paradigm.

An invisible paradigm of which we are completely unaware and in which we are ALL trapped, including ALL of those that presume to be religious.

These two references provide a unique Understanding of the crisis we face and how/why the old ways will not and can not work (because they INEVITABLY created the crisis in the first place--and hold it in place too).



Plus a related reference re how we are "educated" to be incapable of being responsible for our presence and actions in the world---our entire "culture" is based on this Taboo.


byron smith said...

Perhaps acting in the gloom might have been a better title. I didn't mean to imply that we have no knowledge, simply that we have incomplete knowledge. Here is a good brief summary of different levels of uncertainty in the debates over climate.

byron smith said...

ABC: Climate change: are you willing to take the risk? An interesting piece on acting on partial knowledge.

byron smith said...

Climate uncertainties: David Roberts outlines three kinds of uncertainty and explains why all three will remain (at least to some extent) no matter how good our science gets.

byron smith said...

David Roberts: We don’t, and can’t, know how much it will cost to tackle climate change.

"Climate change thrusts upon us the question of what kind of world we want, what we care about, what kind of ancestors we want to be. Long-term modelling attempts to give those decisions a scientific sheen, but it’s an illusion. Economics cannot make those decisions for us. They are up to us, and no matter what decisions we make, we are leaping into the unknown."

David Roberts explains why cost-benefit analyses of climate policy are basically meaningless. He doesn't even touch on two deeper problems with such analyses: discount rate (what is the future worth?) and incommensurability (not everything has a price).

Nonetheless, this piece is quite devastating to any attempt to put a price on climate policies and is a cogent warning against the tendency to substitute economics for ethics.