The “merchants of doubt” (merchantsofdoubt.org) have held us back as a species from a serious held-in-common understanding of – let alone an apposite acting on – the seriousness of the threat that comes from our breaching the limits to growth, especially that breach that is causing climate chaos. The greatest achievement of those merchants, philosophically speaking, however, has been convincing many of us that lack of certainty is a reason for inaction, an excuse for paralysis. On the contrary: lack of certainty can be precisely a reason for action: precautious action, to build down a threat. When that threat’s gravity comes precisely from a systemic inability to know and manage threats.
Let me explain this.
When one is in a system that one understands well, then lack of certainty as to what outcome is likely may be a reason to delay action. For example, say that you have a bag that (you know) contains 25 red balls and 25 black balls. Another person offers you a bet at “evens” on the ball you take next from the bag being black. You have no particular reason to take the bet; neither the outcome of getting a red nor that of getting a black is more probable than the other. You now take a ball from the bag: it happens to be red. The person offers you a bet again at “evens” on the ball you take next from the bag being black. Now this has become a good bet for you, other things being equal. You now have some helpful information, relative to the possible future situation that the person you are with is willing to gamble on: there are 24 red balls and 25 black balls left in the bag.
If there happens to be a “run” of red balls being picked – and provided that your knowledge about the initial distribution of balls is correct (for you might start to suppose that it isn’t, if red balls keep getting picked) – then you can start even to approach certainty that the next ball out will be black, making a bet at evens very good odds indeed (provided, as I say, that you really do know that there were 25 black balls in there in the first place, a belief which you might of course tend to start to question if red ball after red ball comes out of the bag).
How many situations in real life are like this? Offering the kind of certainty in terms of odds and calculable probabilities that a roulette wheel, often wrongly taken as an icon of uncertainty, offers (provided that you are confident that the casino has not “fixed” the wheel against you)? Virtually none. Virtually all life-situations are ones in which one’s knowledge of initial conditions is uncertain or patchy, and/or in which one cannot be certain of the effect of the action one is proposing to take (including of its “feedbacks” to affect the conditions of future “moves” one may make). Our lack of certainty with regard to the climate system, for instance, includes both of these features, in spades.
We do not fully understand the climate system; efforts we make to control and manipulate it have the potential for seriously bad, unanticipated consequences; throwing it out of kilter may produce powerful or uncontrollable “feedbacks”. This is not a reason for throwing caution to the winds, still less for giving up on trying (which would only facilitate the perpetuation of disastrous business-as-usual). It is itself a powerful reason for exercising caution. It is itself a powerful reason, that is, not to gamble in this situation of non-calculable odds, but instead to act so as to reduce our collective level of recklessness. The only thing it makes sense to do, under such circumstances, is, in other words, to seek systematically to build down risk and to reduce the causes of uncertainty. For as things stand we are acting at – beyond – the limits of our knowledge. As we enter further and further into uncharted territory – as we pump more and more atmospheric toxins into our collective life-support system – we build up uncertainty to yet more dangerous levels. We need to build it down, instead.
When you are uncertain, and there is a lot at stake, act so as meaningfully to reduce that uncertainty.
This is the meaning of the Precautionary Principle as applied to systems such as the climate system and to our destabilising of that system by the means of our injection of unprecedented quantities of greenhouse gases into it. The Precautionary Principle ought not to be applied too easily when there is no risk of ruin (i.e. in a situation where the “stakes” are not that high), or when there is no alternative but to risk ruin one way or another (i.e. in a tragic/“triage” situation). But when there is risk of ruin, and in particular when the risk of ruin is not calculable (not something one can actuarially bet upon) because of lack of knowledge of initial conditions or whatever (see above), and when there are viable alternatives, then the Precautionary Principle should be invoked. To veto paths that will increase uncertainty and that will increase risk of ruin. To point the way instead toward saner paths. Paths that build down uncertainty and risk-of-ruin.
Are there such paths available by means of geo-engineering schemes? No. Such schemes involve perhaps the ultimate hubristic lack of precaution (or, equally, of ethics). They attempt to manage the whole climate of the Earth, as if we could find some stable Archimedean point outside it. They are themselves a gigantic, unacceptable, unnecessary gamble: Rather than accepting that a sane – that the necessary – response to rising levels of pollution is to reduce those levels, would-be geo-engineers seek to raise up “protections” to “equal” or “balance” those pollutants. More pollutants; (more) mirrors in space to deflect the sun’s rays. Or such-like.
Geo-engineering is a new nightmare-product of technophilia (or, more generally, of the love of machines, which is never a wise love if it really is a love). It goes further even than Heidegger envisaged possible, in his epochal reflections on technology. Heidegger spoke of us conceptualising the whole Earth as nothing but a “standing-reserve” of “resources”: as, in essence, one giant petrol station.
Geo-engineering says: Yes, and to keep the petrol station running at full capacity, we will also take on the role of managing its (our) entire life-support system. We will forget or ignore the collective incarnate wisdom of organisms and ecosystems, we will pretend that we are not a part of what we seek now to manage (we will pretend, that is, that we don’t have to worry about the workability/fallibility/knock-ons/behavioural-alterations that our geo-engineering schemes are or may/will create), and instead we will “engineer” the planet for our own short-term benefit, moreover on a non-existent evidence-base. (For what could be a genuine “evidence-base” for experiments that incorporate the entire planetary system?) Such reckless “Prometheanism” has one salutary effect, however: it does at least concentrate the minds of citizens. That powerful forces are starting to contemplate the ultimate insanity of geo-engineering, powerfully impresses on ordinary people that the climate threat and other breaches of the natural limits to growth are real.
Of course, the real reason for most of the interest in geo-engineering by those promoting geo-engineering schemes is to provide us with (having the sense of) a “reprieve” (on the concept of which, see Sartre’s important novel, of that name). With, that is, the sense that we don’t actually have to do anything to change our ways; we don’t actually have to alter our reckless “business as usual” growthism, etc. That we can literally master the Earth’s systems and engineer the entire planet; that we can engineer our way out of any situation however foolish or however avoidably created. This is very bad reasoning; but good psychology if you aren’t prepared to try acting with courage or resolution, and good business if you can get it.
We ought to act precautiously, given that it is possible for us to do so. The “excuse” for inaction offered by the prospect (thankfully remote, actually) of workable geo-engineering projects ought to be firmly rejected. The salutary effect of it even being considered can be embraced, and turned into the needful resolution and commitment to saving our planetary future.
Some say that luckily we are experiencing a natural balancing effect; that, in other words, we don’t have to do anything, not even geo-engineer. “Global dimming” is happening to counter-balance global over-heat. (“Global dimming” is the tendency of the sun’s rays to hit us less powerfully as our atmosphere gets stocked with more fine particles of smog, etc.)
But note again how fundamentally unprecautious trusting to this effect, this “fortuitous/accidental geo-engineering”, is. We stoke our atmosphere with greenhouse gases, and happen to stoke it at the same time with fine particles that reduce visibility, hoping that the two will balance each other out. But we are creating a more and more novel situation that we do not understand and are increasingly unlikely to be able to control. Meanwhile, views become poorer, respiratory diseases increase, etc. What if we decide one day, as many in China for instance are saying, sensibly, we already need to decide, that we need to get serious about starting to clean up our atmosphere (i.e. reduce the production of smog particles, etc.), reducing the causes of global dimming? Doing so will then (now) appear dangerous, inasmuch as it threatens to release a new burst of planetary (over-)heating. We will be in the absurd situation that attempting to clean up our air (as occurred “involuntarily” with the grounding of all flights after September 11 2001, for example, with startling short-term temperature-raising consequences) will be a dangerous act. We will have become locked into a cycle of accidental and deliberate interventions, trying to manage and preserve an unstable and unsatisfactory equilibrium. Just as is the case with geo-engineering schemes.
Whether one trusts to geo-engineering or to global dimming, one is trusting something not deserving of our trust. Trusting either is at best like playing Russian Roulette and fooling oneself into thinking that doing so is safe because one has stuffed a hanky down the barrel of the gun. (At best!: because actually the situation is far less calculable than good old Russian Roulette is.)
The only actual form of solution, as I’ve said, is to build down greenhouse gases and other pollutants together. To allow biodiverse ecosystems and other natural systems to manifest their powers again. To start gradually to return to a situation closer to a natural equilibrium. (Roughly this is the aim of 350.org.) Further elements of this building down, this backing away from a situation of endemic and geometrically accelerating uncertainty, include, crucially, the restoration of natural biodiverse ecosystems. The more we damage or deplete the Amazon rainforest, for instance, the more we stoke uncertainty, and create the risk of unanticipatable or uncontrollable novelties, feedbacks, blowbacks. The more we rewild, returning the Amazon (and much more) to something like the state it was in a generation ago at least, the more we build down that uncertainty.
Some philosophers will question the use of the term “natural” in the previous paragraph. They will suggest that “everything is natural”, and that it is natural for humankind to do what it does (including destroying the ecosphere?). I beg to differ. Of course there is a role for such a use of the term “natural” as these philosophers recommend. Wittgenstein, for instance, sometimes uses the term that way, helpfully: “natural” as opposed to “supernatural”/metaphysical. “Natural” as opposed to a fantasy of something otherwise. But there is also a vital role for (preserving) the use of the term “natural” according to which it is opposed to “man-made”. Or at least: some such uses. Relevant uses for present purposes are especially these: those uses that distinguish between something that has been tried out over and over again (by “Mother Nature”), and something that is radically new (such as: pumping the atmosphere full of CO2 or of CFCs; or, putting mirrors up in space; or again, taking a gene from a fish and putting it into a tomato: see below, for a little more on this point).
It is a gross and potentially disastrous piece of philosophic crudity to obliterate the distinction between restoring the balance of nature and obliterating it. Calling everything that we do equally “natural” is tantamount to justifying ecocide (which is moreover equivalent to slow collective suicide).
Across a vast range of possible actions, acting more rather than less in accord with nature is wise, and acting otherwise is not. Nature in this sense can be roughly equated with a decent degree of certainty. It is in the final analysis in this sense unnatural to act so as to create radical new uncertainties: even though making such a mistake as this is something that human beings have done again and again, at “frontier” moments in our history (and pre-history: see on this the fascinating account of our destructions of much of the world’s mega-fauna, in Tim Flannery’s major work The Future-Eaters). Again and again we have painfully learnt to return to a more natural, balanced ecocentric way of living. The problem now is that we cannot afford to make further such vast mistakes – because they may be made at the global scale (think of the ozone hole, the first clear example of this in human history), as well as potentially being effectively irrevocable (think of nuclear disaster/holocaust, for example; or of James Hansen’s “Venusian scenario” for dangerous climate change boiling off the oceans), and because they are happening so quickly (in the terms of natural history, the speed at which we are eating into the Amazon rainforest or “growing” (repeatedly doubling the size of) the economy are unprecedentedly rapid). If we eat the future again, now, as we are currently doing, then our doing so may this time be terminal. Not just for many creatures, as is already the case, but for our own civilisation.
This means that it is now essential that we achieve comprehension of – and act upon – sound and deep risk-management. I have argued that that equates to Precaution, the building down of risk of ruin, and of uncertainty. An attitude and actions of some humility.
Anything less, at this time, manifests a failure of biophilia (the love of life).
Finally, I should like to note my belief as to what this means. It means that the matters under discussion in the article you have just read are about the most consequential of any facing humanity at the present time. And that philosophers have, obviously, a unique role in these discussions. This is why I am focusing my work at this time in this area. I am already fortunate enough to be collaborating, in this work, with others who are similarly concerned. Nassim N Taleb and I are working together on these matters, with regard to the unprecautious nature of genetic engineering (which resembles geo-engineering in this regard); with regard to how to frame the Precautionary Principle itself for our time; and with regard to the way in which religious faith/practice can offer a useful “spontaneous” form of protection against unprecautious thought/action. See his article in this Forum for an indicator of the nature of his thinking in this area, which is greatly influencing my own. And Phil Hutchinson and I too are industriously joint-working on these matters: see for instance our joint piece, again on GM food, in the previous issue of tpm; and our forthcoming peer-reviewed articles on precaution as a fundamental and neglected feature of medical practice. (Think for instance of the utterly reckless over-use of antibiotics over the past generation.)
If you are thinking the same way, then please join in with our efforts. The world needs precautious thinking, applied with regard to climate, with regard to novel technologies, with regard to medicine, and more, to counter the tidal wave of quick money, thoughtlessness and short-termist stupidity that is propelling us as a species into danger-zones greater than we have ever previously encountered.