The common sense of climate change
Counteracting cynicism about our future with a little
understanding - and a glass half full
- A Passion for Sapiens
The understandability principle
The Understandability Principle may actually be the dumbest and simplest idea you’ve never heard of. In the meantime it’s my dumb idea and until I’ve finally decided it’s too dumb, it goes something like this:
- 1) All things that happen, happen for a causal reason.
- 2) This expectation that all things that happen have identifiable causes, means their occurrence is conceivably ‘understandable’ - there must be a reason for them - even if the causes are currently beyond, or forever beyond, our understanding.[Note 1]
- 3) The understandability principle includes all subjective forces and any phenomena not explicitly quantifiable or reducible, e.g. moral developments, value systems, subtle individual character traits, etc as causal factors.
- 4) From this point of view, because, ultimately, everything has an actual causal origin, everything is happening exactly the way it can reasonably be expected to. Nothing that happens or exists can be seen as ultimately incomprehensible, impossible, or violating the rules of existence.
This idea works nice and well in a cloud of hydrogen gas in a vacuum. One particle bounces off another according to physics, simples. This idea may appear to face problems in the face of agency, but I think it makes sense. For example, a corrupt official at a police station. The official doesn’t have to be corrupt and probably knows he or she shouldn’t be corrupt. It’s his or her choice. The fact that she has the ability to make a moral choice means corruption is always an adjacent possibility. Also, the context that individual has emerged out of: e.g. It could be their family or personal life story, the nature of their work, their local culture, the economy, the history of humanity in it’s entirety, the inherited evolutionary adaptions of being a mammal or animal, or the 4 billion year history of being any living thing with it’s core and ancient survival drives, which are built into every cell of the officer in question - may help understand how someone could justify to themselves to corrupt action. Understanding it’s origin doesn’t make the corruption OK, or correct by non-corrupt standards, just generally identifiable in it’s origin. Also, this conception of an identifiable origin also doesn’t make the officer’s next decision predictable, just not ultimately incomprehensible.
From the point of view of The Understandability Principle everything is happening in the way you can reasonably expect it to, all things considered. All self-organisational, emergent, disruptive, historical and current forces, and natural phenomena make some kind of emergent sense – even if we can’t see it yet.
For many, a pervading cynicism about the human world can be caused by the belief that it is wild, unpredictable, crazy, and out of our control. It can be quite stunning to us that despite obvious problems, collectively we will continue to do things that clearly no longer make sense or are just wrong. Witnessing this can lead to profound frustration and anger - and in a world presently full of apocalyptic visions of our future it seems real frustration can turn into real hopelessness and nihilistic cynicism.
However, placing any human problem into this context of understandability helps to take the edge off any presumed basis for cynicism. Knowing a problem has identifiable, causal origins can take the fear, heat and incomprehensibility out of it and create a foundation of a calm uncynical constructive response. Taking this broad position creates the grounds for a magnanimous non-violent patience. I believe understandability, and the belief in the potential understandability of any thing, is the foundation of a realistic, constructive and authentic optimism - as I shall hopefully demonstrate in this article.
When it comes to the global environmental problems caused by Human beings – we know enough to see the base causes are very very understandable...
The Survival Drive
Homo sapiens have emerged out of an ancient context. There are actually a few large scale contexts we can consider here:
- Biological: We are the direct descendants of the first living things that survived 4 billion years ago during possibly the most hazardous period in our planet’s history.
- Animalian: We are the direct descendants of the first Animals that lived 542 million years ago (Cambrian explosion).
- Mammalian: We are the direct descendants of the first Mammals that lived 200-167 million years ago.
- Homo Sapiens: We are the descendants of the first Humans that lived 200,000 years ago (anatomically modern Homo Sapiens).
In all of these era there has been one critical value to every organism: to survive and thrive as much as possible. Those organisms with the greatest drive and capacity to survive are the organisms and species that nature will select as viable. The survival drives are essentially: don’t be dead, control one’s environment to meet one’s needs, and reproduce as best as possible.
When was the last time a self reflective mammalian species...had global wide industrial revolution and accidentally geoengineered an entire biosphere? That would of course be, never... .
The survival drives are strongest in the ones that survive, and the ones that survive have been surviving for 4 billion years. The drive from all those survivors are hard wired into our very cells. We are the direct ancestors of the very first living things on this planet that survived in the harshest and wildest conditions this planet may ever experienced, plus several major extinction events. We are hard wired to not be dead as much as possible. So, like all other organisms with survival drives, we act out of them.
As the inheritors of these truly ancient well honed survival drives, human history has understandably evolved upon them, emerged out of them. These drives combined with the extraordinary power Homo Sapiens are endowed with - excellent eyesight, intelligence, free hands, speech and language and evolving culture and technology - have enabled us to customarily self organise environments to our needs often at the expense of other species and ecosystems.
All organisms organise their environment to some degree or another to suit their needs, (e.g. making nests, making seeds wrapped in fruit to encourage other to take them, leaving scents, making friends, howling, etc). Humans also do this as is our right. I of course agree we need to mediate our impact for good ethical and moral reasons. But many seem to think that because we have created environmental problems there’s something fundamentally wrong with us. That’s not reasonable. Our very capacity to control and self organise our environment is the basis for our success as a species so far. The base survival drives - constantly reinforced by evolutionary selection - have only encouraged this success. We have been moulded by the same evolutionary forces that all species are moulded by.
Based upon our own history, we have a pretty good idea what happens when you give a middling mammalian omnivore bipedalism, excellent eyesight, the power of speech and language, a large brain and hands [Note 2]. I believe if we gave, for example, rabbits or possums the same capacities - judging by the number of times we have almost invented an industrial revolution [Note 3]they would also eventually – still acting out of basic survival drives, reproduce extensively and eventually invent an industrial revolution - in hindsight, industrial revolutions are no brainers if you have a large population all wanting to live well - and emit heaps of CO2. At a certain point they would realise they had geoengineered global warming completely by accident, and there they are, just where we are now – discovering it is happening and wondering what to do.
When was the last time a self reflective mammalian species (or any for that matter) had a global wide industrial revolution and accidentally geoengineered an entire biosphere? That would of course be, never, until now. It really is a very understandable mistake. From that point of view everything is actually fundamentally OK. We’re not some kind of demon ecodeath race of planet killers. We’re just, very understandably, ecologically stupid when it comes to managing the gaseous composition of an entire planetary biosphere. Again, why? because no one’s done it before, that’s why. I mean, who knew?
I would go so far as to say industrial global warming was probably always going to happen sooner or later. Cynicism based on the fact that it’s happening is misplaced. We are hard wired to act out of mammalian survival drives and with capacities that make us dominant and, up until now, inadvertently high impact, globally.
Those survival drives are ancient and very difficult to subvert quickly. They need to be subdued, augmented and superseded with new values and foundations for what is considered a successful life. We’re not rendered invalid because of this problem, it’s understandable. We only become nonviable if we cannot succeed in overcoming it. I believe we will overcome it - it’s just a matter of time.
Actually, a totally amazing response
We didn’t know what carbon dioxide was until 1754. We didn’t have any modern word for ‘ecology’ until 1866. It seems the first real concerns about human made climate change were raised by Swedish scientist, Svante Arrhenius in 1896, and again more seriously in the 1930’s. By the late 1980’s we had extremely strong evidence for human made global warming. Since the mid 90’s the terms ‘CO2 emissions’, ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ have become household terms.
A concerted attempt to deal with global warming has only been underway for something on 20-30 years. Considering these short timescales from discovery to internationally coordinated action and in the context of our extensive history of never having to deal with it before - our response to global warming has been sensational, amazing, magnificent, incredible, spectacular.
We should be deeply proud of how much we’ve achieved in such a short period. Whilst not forgetting we are under a huge time pressure to respond, I don’t think we should be so down on ourselves. The scope of action that’s taken place in such a short timeframe provides every reason to believe we can and will inevitably solve these issues.
Climate change: the best kind of problem
There is clearly a desperate need for us to create an ecologically intelligent civilisation. It’s a demand, a desperate need and a huge opportunity for us to do something truly new. We have the opportunity to realise the potential of self reflective civilisation and innovate a sustainable ecomergence with our biosphere.
Stress can facilitate evolution [Note 4] and in every crisis is an opportunity to innovate a new response. A global crisis is an opportunity to innovate in a big way. In this way, global warming may actually be the best kind of problem we could possibly have, because our success in dealing with it could be the making of us. In comprehensively solving these issues we become not only a viable sustainable species, but a truly great one. Again, we really are not defined by this problem - it’s an accidental and understandable problem. We are defined by our success in dealing with it.
Assuming we just need to make a few tweaks to our CO2 emissions doesn’t even begin to assess the nature of the task. The onus is on us to create a new post-survivalistic ecologically intelligent species of civilisation. We need to radically develop our culture and values. That means consciously out-selecting our heavily and naturally selected survival instincts with better, consciously selected cultural modes and attitudes. We need to innovate our core values, our reasons for being, our work, our organisational structures, our humanity itself, in fundamental ways. This is no small thing. It has no precedent. It may take a long time. This is what One Future is for, so please stay tuned.
In the end it would seem we have two fundamental options in the face of our little problem: give up in glib cynical futility with half baked responses, or strive to innovate a self reflective and ecologically intelligent, beautiful and sustainable civilisation. What a prize! That would truly be a great leap forward. We have everything to play for and it can be the greatest of adventures knowing we can be innovators of Human at this extraordinary moment in history.
- Note 1.
The Understandability Principle is my own tweak on the Principle of Causality to accommodate all things we don’t know about and those things that are presently largely unquantifiable e.g individual subjective preferences and consciousness in general, as also critical causal components of what make things happen in the universe. Due to the nature of emergent creativity, it may well be impossible to predict the adjacent creative and emergent possibilities in a complex system through reducing it to its parts – so attempting to identify the causes that could make something understandable may need to occur via the convenience of hindsight. Go to reference in main text
- Note 2.
I purposely didn’t suggest giving cats or dogs bipedalism and big brains, etc. Apparently, after extensive Googling, it appears top predators e.g. Hyenas, Wolves, Lions, are the only types of species that purposely limit their numbers. They do this to not overwhelm their food supply and simultaneously avoid a larger weakend population. Things may have gone differently if we were descended from top carnivores rather than middling omnivores. Go to reference in main text
- Note 3.
Before the industrial revolution started in Europe during the 1700’s, it seems there were a couple of moments in history when it may have happened. A design for a working steam engine called an Aeopile was found described in the great library of Alexandria by Hero around 40AD - a bronze ball that one could fill with water, when heated from underneath let, it let out jets of steam on it’s side that allowed it to spin on the axel it hung from. Attaching it to something to do work would have made it a steam engine.
China during the Song Dynasty had advanced metallurgy and steel smelting, canals, complex water wheel machines and a whole renaissance thing going on. Apparently they didn’t have a middle class to drive things forward, yet. Then they were wiped out by barbarians.
The monks of Rievaulx Abbey in England were experimenting with blast furnaces when they were evicted by Henry VIII in 1538. Go to reference in main text
- Note 4.
A point of view regularly espoused by Elisabet Sahtouris. In all systems, material, chemical, biological or cultural, stress demands a response and provides direct impetus for change and development. For example, consider the immense innovation that took place under the duress of the second world war. Go to reference in main text