"[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?