Back To The Future

A report in today’s online edition of the Guardian (03.11.17) warns that “Hundreds of millions of urban dwellers around the world face their cities being inundated by rising seawaters if latest UN warnings that the world is on course for 3C of global warming come true.” Before you read on, please stop and attempt to imagine just how many people that is. Hundreds of millions!

This estimate is based on three degrees of warming melting sufficient ice for sea levels to rise up to two metres. A rise of ‘only’ fifty centimetres would submerge 10% of Bangladesh. A two metre rise would result in many major cities across the world, including Miami and Shanghai, being submerged. Where are all the residents of these now underwater cities going to move to? If we think that we have global immigration problems now, what will it be like when this almost unimaginable number of people start to look for places of relative safety to move their families to? Or, more pertinently, why are we not taking this threat far more seriously and being far more proactive in taking preventative action – now? Part of the problem are the time scales involved. According to the UN scientists, we are on course to hit three degrees of warming by the end of the century – and we are just not very good at dealing with such a temporal distance.

During the course of their evolutionary history, humans have never had to deal with such long range predictions. Consequently, as Antony Giddens points out in his The Politics of Climate Change, “People find it hard to give the same level of reality to the future as they do to the present”. This is a phenomenon that social psychologists term ‘future discounting’. It means that a small reward or risk possibly impacting on our lives tomorrow is of far greater significance than a larger reward or risk that is likely have an impact next year, and that next year’s potential reward or risk is of far greater consequence than any that might have an impact in ten or twenty years time. The future seems to gradually fade away into ever increasing obscurity, loosing both focus and reality. So, how can we bring the future into some degree of focus?

It is at this point that I have a problem. I face a paradox in my thinking. According to one fork of my dilemma, I am forced to accept that life is inherently uncertain. All life, and social life in particular, is highly interdependent, highly complex and very dynamic. Following complexity science, this means that, because of the sheer scale of connectivity and the number of feedback loops involved, novel features and phenomena should be expected but accurate predictions should not. In fact, the only certainty is that we should expect unexpected. In terms of the accuracy in predicting the future you only need look at the claims that have been made by ‘futurist’ television programmes (like Tomorrow’s World), together with those contained in science fiction films and novels, to realise just how difficult (if not down right impossible) it is. Whilst on the other hand, how many of the technologies that have really changed our lives (like the internet and mobile phones / computers) were actually predicted?

But according to the other fork of my dilemma, I just can’t avoid the belief that ignoring the views of 97% of climate scientists, whose claims are based on solid empirical evidence, and whose predictions are often expressed in terms of probability rather than certainty, is not just poor risk management, but is unethical in the extreme. One area of ethics that is insufficiently discussed is our responsibility to future generations. Surely we have a moral obligation to our grandchildren, our great grandchildren, and all the generations that follow? An obligation to have not allowed huge areas of habitable space and food growing land to be consumed by the oceans? An obligation to have not allowed mean global temperatures to have risen to such an extent that the amount of land with a climate capable of supporting human life has been reduced to a tiny percentage of the Earth’s surface? No, ignoring these predictions is unethical in the extreme. But how do we overcome our predisposition to future discounting? How do make the predictions for ninety year’s time feel real and relevant?

One way forward would be to return the past, to ancient Athens and the ethics and politics of Aristotle. In his ethics, Aristotle argued that when we act we do so to achieve some end that we consider to be good, and that when we examine these various ends we quickly discover that they are not just ends in themselves, but means to some further end, some greater good. This process can be continued until we arrive at the greatest good. This good he named eudaimonia, a term that has often been translated as happiness, but is more accurately translated as flourishing. Likewise, in his politics he argued states are partnerships formed with the aim of achieving some good, and that “the partnerships that [are] most authoritative of all…aim at the most authoritative good of all.” Collective eudaimonia.

In these terms our political partnerships are about working together to achieve the flourishing of human life. This is the greatest good, and the final end of any number of personal means and ends relationships. If we could develop a common conception of what flourishing would entail for the whole of human life on Earth we would have a Common Good that would provide the end point and goal of all our individual stories. It would unite these stories into a common narrative and make the future seem a very real concept, one that has both a rational and emotional dimension and establishes an ethical commitment to future generations.

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