Only a philosophical revolution can save us from climate catastrophe

Recently I found myself turning up the heating in a room that I found insufferably warm to meet the needs of others. The problem was that I had left my own heating off all winter (except on extraordinary occasions) and my judgement was shot. This may seem to have precious little to do with Professor John Gray’s recent call for a respect for reality in the Great Global Warming Debate, but it strikes at Professor Gray’s own lack of realism in his war on idealism. In his recent book, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, Professor Gray makes the compelling case that modern, Enlightenment, utopian, political philosophies—from Stalinism to Neoconservatism—are the manifestation of repressed religious impulses, corrupted religion with their own delusional eschatologies. In his article Gray calls for all manner of groups to slaughter their sacred cows to deal with the looming climatic emergency but Gray’s own sacred cow remains mystifyingly intact at the end, and this is the elephantine cow that nearly everyone is walking around.

Not so David Strahan. His stunning The Last Oil Shock analyses the inevitable crunch that will happen when the rising demand for oil driven by economic growth can no longer be accommodated by rising oil production, when global oil production peaks, plateaus and declines. This has already happened in various regions around the world (including the USA and the UK) and so it will happen globally, with the credible estimates giving us less than ten years, if it hasn’t happened already (it probably only becoming apparent ‘in the rear view mirror’).

Strahan’s book draws attention to the work of Ayres and others that demonstrate that economic growth has been fuelled by the availability of cheap energy above all else. On aggregate technology has made the UK twice as efficient in 2003 as 1970, yet we are consuming over twice as much energy as in 1970. Indeed more efficient systems make consumption more attractive and drives it (Jevons’ paradox), in the same way that wider, faster roads attract more traffic, making them more clogged.

While technology will certainly be crucial to minimising the inevitable disruption attending this crunch, technological fixes by themselves are unlikely to achieve very much. (If anyone doubts this they will have to read Strahan’s book, as any attempts to condense this point here will be futile.) Can we wait for oil-production to peak and so force the reduction in CO2 emissions? No! If the problem isn’t managed, the natural limit to demand will likely trigger competition for resource and a panic switch to even dirtier technologies such as coal, accelerating the degeneration of the biosphere. Strahan’s analysis shows that the problem is very much worse than most people will admit. The issues are being avoided because the modern world is fuelled as much by confidence as by hydrocarbons, with far too much invested in the future to let anything as crass as reality intrude.

Gray himself starts his article by declaring that no ‘reasonable person’ would doubt either the fact of global warming or that it is being driven by human activity, yet he finishes:

Despite unstoppable global warming, a humanly liveable world is still worth striving for. But it requires a sustained capacity for realistic thinking, which is not the strong point of the environmental movement. Along with the political classes, greens are in denial. While there is no technical fix for the human condition, intelligent use of technology is indispensable in coping with environmental disruption that is now unavoidable. It would be ironic if, because of their irrational hostility to high-tech solutions, the greens were to end up as much a threat to the environment as George W Bush.

If no ‘reasonable person’ would deny that global warming is being driven by human activity then why shouldn’t an eminently reasonable person conclude that a reduction in human activity is called for, even if it can’t be achieved through technical means? If there is any one thing that Enlightenment thinking encourages it is to look for external solutions to problems rather than tackling them non-instrumentally. However we plainly need a philosophical revolution that sees the futility and sterility of seeking fulfilment through ever-increasing consumption and instead seeks fulfilment through self-development (and caring for the environment). Pre-Enlightenment norms—religious norms—have consistently taught us that happiness through materialistic means is a powerful delusion that must be systematically resisted. With the rise of happiness metrics, science is now saying the same thing—thanks to the work of the likes of Kasser and Malka & Chatman, we know that people who try to achieve happiness by pursuing materialistic goals tend to be more distressed than those that don’t (Oliver James summarizes the case in Chapter 2 of The Selfish Capitalist and associated articles). Note that there is no evidence at all to suggest that those compelled through poverty to be materialistic suffer from their materialism; the most acute dangers lies with those with a surplus of wealth who nevertheless continue to be driven by materialistic motives. The former, absolute materialism, is healthy as the materialism is addressing true needs; the latter, relative materialism, is trying to achieve fulfilment through acquiring ever more wealth, fame and reputation, a debilitating, stressful and unfulfilling treadmill (much as those in the First World tend to suffer poor physical health through eating too much rich food). And isn’t it those in the First World, making themselves sick and miserable through over-consumption, that are leading the destruction of the biosphere?

All those pre-Enlightenment systems of thought were and remain, to authentic practitioners, highly effective in turning their adherents away from pursuing fulfilment through material means, but they are also remarkably tenacious. Less than a fifth of the world’s population are secular/nonreligious/agnostic/atheist despite hundreds of years of being dismissed by great philosophers (as well as the not so great).

Should we not be slaughtering all of our sacred cows and attacking this global emergency with all means available: ancient wisdom and modern technology, secular philosophies and religious tradition, realism and idealism. Indeed a philosophical revolution is essential, being an essential prerequisite for the scientific and political solutions, as only then will we generate a sense of purpose and commit the resources the situation demands. If the first world were to commit itself to migrating rapidly towards the consumption patterns of the 1950s—when we were a great deal more healthy in almost every respect than today (see, e.g., Douthwaite)—then this would make the crisis much more manageable and who can seriously say that the lives of our parents weren’t worth living. We do have reason to believe however that our misery-inducing greed is making many of our children’s lives comparatively not worth living. For sure not everyone is well adapted to living in unheated houses, nor is it necessary, but the example illustrates that how the mind is set determines a great deal. By pooh-poohing such a revolution in attitudes and priorities our leading intellectuals obstruct a critical ingredient in escaping the modern materialistic bind.

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