Ideology or common sense?

It has been several weeks since my last blog. This lack of writing has had nothing to do with a lack of will or interest, and everything to do with a lack of time: It’s been a particularly busy few weeks. This is a shame because I genuinely like writing these blogs. I find the act of trying to write something coherent a great way to not only clarify and structure my own thinking, but often to actually creates ideas. I wish I could say the same about my relationship social media. I’m really struggling to find the motivation to become engaged with Twitter at the moment, let alone Facebook.

To be honest I really only ‘do’ Twitter and Facebook because I’ve been persuaded that, as a politician, I need to. Most of the time I’m happy tweeting, and sometimes even enjoy it. But at the moment, for some reason, I’m struggling. Facebook, on the other hand, is always a chore, and I doubt that even at the best of times I use it effectively. Perhaps I need some training on how to.

One of the local groups that I’ve joined on Facebook is ‘Bridport Political Banter’. A week or so ago I posted a link to George Monbiot’s article on Capitalism and climate change. I knew, of course, that there would be a reaction from what come across as the right wing police of the group, and I knew that there would be no discussion or debate about Monbiot’s argument. In this respect I was not disappointed. But what I found so frustrating on this particular occasion was the simple dismissal of his argument as left wing ideology. For some reason ‘ideology’ always seems to be the go to demon that condemns the views of people we disagree with, whilst our own views (being the right ones) are assumed to be ideologically free. I would suggest otherwise – that everyone’s views are derived from their own ideology.

Ideology is, of course, a heavily debated term in political philosophy. My own take on it is to see it as that background ‘world-view’ that we all possess, as that general mental structure that we use to bring various thoughts, feelings and experiences together into a coherent whole, that allows us to make sense of our world. My point is simply that all of us have an ideology or world-view. We need it in order to give our lives meaning. But we only ever seem be critical of other people’s world-view. We rarely, if ever, analyse or question our own. Why? Why are we always so certain that our own views are spot on, and that anyone holding different views is wrong? Why do we often regard our own thinking as just plain common sense, whilst those of our political opponents as misguided?

I like Antonio Gramsci’s take on this. In the words of Kate Crehan, in his Prison Notebooks the Italian Marxist views common sense as “that comforting set of certainties in which we feel at home, and that we absorb, often unconsciously, from the world we inhabit. These are the basic realities we use to explain that world.” And this, in a nutshell, describes the problem we are all up against. We all grow up in a particular social context, and tend to absorb the views of those people who are part of our particular social context. Most of us need to feel part of this context, of our particular community, because most of us need to feel that we belong to something bigger than us. But particular social contexts vary. A young person growing up in a community where most parents have been to university and where there is an expectation that they will do the same will have a different common sense view of the world to a young person growing up on an inner city estate controlled by rival gangs and to parents who place little value in education, who in turn will have a different common sense view of the world to those young people born to rich parents and educated through the public school system. Each young person will have a different common sense take on the world. Who’s right?

Which brings me to the elephant in the room. COP26, the United Nations conference on the climate that has just closed in Glasgow. Why isn’t this the main topic of this blog you may well ask. After all, I am a Green Party politician. Well, the truth is I never had a great deal of hope that the necessary national powers would agree to take the necessary action, let alone to go away and take those actions. It would take an unrealistic level of optimism, for example, to expect global politicians to agree to end the use of fossil fuels by a particular date when the fossil fuel industry had a larger representation at the conference than any individual country. The problem is again one of common sense or ideology. For the vast majority of the politicians at the conference the basic tenants of capitalism form their basic background world view. The need to grow their national (and personal) wealth is the basic starting point for all decisions. Until we start discussing alternative measures of national (and personal) success I genuinely fear for the future of humans on this planet.

Our market economy: the solution or the problem?

No doubt in an attempt to bolster its green credentials in advance of the UN climate conference starting in Glasgow at the weekend, last week the Government published its ‘Net Zero Strategy’. Whilst this strategy aims to achieve many worthwhile outcomes, it is fundamentally flawed. Why? Because it is embedded within and built upon an economic model that measures its success in terms of economic growth. In his forward, the PM asserts that “over the last three decades we have already reduced our emissions by 44 per cent – while growing our economy by over 75 per cent – and this strategy sets out our plan for going the rest of the way.” This no doubt sounds good, as it is intended to, but when analysed the shine quickly fades.

For one thing, the 44% reduction in carbon emissions does not include emissions associated with international aviation nor those associated with the UK consumption of goods and services imported from overseas. This means that the emissions associated with approximately one third of the goods and services we consume are not taken into account. But worse is the relentless pursuit of growth, growth that is fuelled by the constant imperative to consume: to consume stuff we didn’t know we needed; stuff to replace other stuff that is made to appear out-of-fashion; stuff we then need to spend more resources and energy disposing of.

If we are serious about reducing our carbon emissions we need to consume less stuff. End of. It is as simple as that. The manufacture of any product results in some amount of carbon being emitted. We need to start asking ourselves which of these products we actually need, and which we simply buy to appear fashionable or to impress others. The problem is that our current economic model is grounded in consumption. If we stopped consuming our economies would stop growing, and the presiding government would be blamed for mismanaging the economy. An alternative economic model could be based on population wellbeing – perhaps based on some measure of the degree to which the population is healthy, have warm and secure homes, sufficient food, are free from crime, abuse or hate, and, most importantly, are not exploiting their natural environment.

One way to adjust the current economic model would be through the introduction of a carbon tax. Currently many of the ‘costs’ of producing a consumer item are not included in the price – the carbon emitted during its production and by its shipping half way round the world for example. If these costs were included the consumer market would better reflect the realities of production. To be fair, the ‘Net Zero Strategy’ does hint at this. In the Executive Summary (p16) the 2nd of 4 Key Principles says “we will ensure the biggest polluters pay the most for the transition through fair carbon pricing.” But, and this is a very big but indeed, I can find no reference to a carbon tax in any part of the 368 page document.

One of the other consequences of having this strategy imbedded within the model of a market economy is the belief that, given the right incentive, the market will find the necessary solutions and that direct government action would simply get in the way. Hence a large part of the strategy is given over to investing sums of public money in various policy areas (net zero bus and rail travel or clean maritime vessels and zero emission flights) in the belief that private companies will use this money to create the desired solutions (together with their necessary profits of course).

An alternative would be for the government to take a lead and directly deliver what’s needed. So rather than simply proposing a date for when all new cars will need to be fully emission free (2030) and investing in public transport to enable half of journeys in towns and cities to be walked or cycled by 2030, why not bring all public transport back into public ownership with the aim of making it both a cheaper and more convenient option than using a private vehicle. Even a zero emission car has a carbon footprint, not least of which as a result of the steel used in its manufacture. And when you consider that most cars spend most of their time not being used, wouldn’t it make sense to try and find ways of living without them?

Another area that needs far more radical action is the building sector. Rather than simply saying that no new gas boilers will be sold after 2035 and offering a small number (compared to what will actually be needed) of grants for boiler upgrades and fuel pumps, the government, through revised planning guidelines, needs to be legislating for all new buildings to be built to the highest energy efficiency standards, and offering encouragement and help for all (not just a few) existing homes to be retrofitted to the highest standards possible.

The bottom line here is that the market economy is part of the problem, not part of the solution – and the government just doesn’t see it. As Michael E. Mann points out in his new book The New Climate War, “Seventy-one per cent of global emissions come from the same hundred companies.” I just can’t believe that with a few nudges in the form of relatively small sums of government investment these large global companies are going to stop prioritising profit and the wealth of their directors and CEOs over the wellbeing of the Earth and its citizens.

Reflections on the week past

Reading Chris Loder’s column in last week’s Bridport News has left me a little confused. On the one hand it’s given me hope. His criticism of supermarket chains as “defenders of corporate greed” leads me to suspect that our MP may be a rarity amongst Conservative MPs – someone who does not support a neo-liberal free market economy. It is, after all, the open competitive nature of our market economy that allows these supermarket chains to saturate the market and devour most locally based small businesses.

It’s also reassuring that our MP recognises that the “cost of cheap food is nature.” One way to redress this, of course, would be to impose some restrictions and controls on our market economy. Perhaps the introduction of a carbon tax? Such a tax would allow many of the externalities, those costs which are paid by nature but not directly by the consumer, to be absorbed into the market price of goods. For example, the price of foods transported from the other side of the world would include the cost of removing the carbon deposited into the atmosphere from their transportation. This would make these foods much more expensive and locally produced foods much more competitive.

But on the other hand I get the strong impression that he is simply playing to the local farming community, trying very hard to develop the ‘son of a farmer’ image, someone who’s fighting their corner. I also get the strong impression that he is ambitious regarding his career in the Conservative Party. Such ambition would be incompatible with being a critic of the free market economy. I’m struggling to imagine him rocking the boat regarding any Conservative orthodoxy

I’m pleased though that our MP will be attending the Transport Day of the COP26 Climate Summit. However, if he is serious about mitigating the worst effects of our climate emergency perhaps he will also support a carbon tax on air travel; perhaps he will be advocating for public transport to be made easier and cheaper than driving by car; perhaps he will be calling for public transport to be nationalised and regarded as a not for profit public service?

Last Thursday saw a full meeting of Dorset Council. Fortunately this one was far less cantankerous than the last, and we managed to get through all our business in a reasonable time without falling into chaos. During the ‘Questions from Councillors’ I asked two questions to the portfolio holder for planning. The first was:

A recent report from the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee concludes:
“The scale of the challenge to retrofit existing homes to tackle the climate crisis is enormous. Energy efficiency is a precursor to the transition to low carbon heat, so action must be taken in the 2020s to set homes on a decarbonisation trajectory to meet our net zero targets.” In Bridport, and other parts of Dorset, many of these existing homes have had requests to install energy efficiency measures, including the installation of double glazing, refused by our planning system because they are listed buildings. These listed buildings are nothing grand. Many are simple terraced houses that have been occupied by generations of working families, and the installation of double glazing would “lead to less than substantial harm” to their significance as a heritage asset. Could I have an assurance that the new Dorset Local Plan will take a different attitude to listed building consent and positively encourage the retrofitting of energy efficiency measures?

The issue of energy efficiency in general, but the installation of double glazing in particular, in listed buildings is fast becoming a personal campaign. Whereas most home owners are free to install double glazing if they have not already done so, and install solar panels on their roofs to generate electricity, those who happen to live in listed building have to apply for permission through the planning system – permission that is often refused on the advice of the conservation officer. The national planning guidelines on this are less than clear cut and require conservation officers to balance one guideline against another. In the absence of stronger wording in support of energy efficiency measures in listed buildings from the government I plan to argue that Dorset Council makes its case in the new Local Plan. My question was in effect the opening move in this campaign. I was not surprised at the bland and non-committal answer I received.

Green Ethics Part 4

I have used my previous three blogs to work through and outline an approach to green ethics that has been fermenting in my mind for several years. A week last Thursday I had an opportunity to present these ideas to a public audience at a local ‘Green Ethics’ event held as part of Bridport’s ‘Great Big Green Week’ – a series of events aimed at bringing the public’s attention to the up and coming UN climate conference (COP26) in Glasgow. The discussion that followed my talk, together with an informal debrief down the pub afterwards, has prompted some further thoughts, a few of which I will sketch out in this blog.

My comments on empathy probably provoked more reaction than anything else I said, including the question of whether it was ‘right’ to empathise with someone who was obviously acting against your own moral code – say someone who prioritised the accumulation of personal wealth above all else, or even (my example) thinks nothing of hurting someone else to satiate their own personal desires. Answering this becomes harder the greater the public distaste for the crime, but, yes, I probably would argue that attempting to empathise with someone who has done something you find abhorrent is a good response. To empathise is not to agree or condone. It is simply an attempt to see and feel the offence from the perspective of the offender. This could have a variety of effects. It could generate a degree of sympathy for the offender because you understand an aspect of their behaviour, some mitigating circumstance, that was otherwise hidden. Conversely it may reveal a darkness that makes you want to punish them even more severely. Either way, on balance, I think the attempt to empathise to be of value, though I do accept that for some offences the darkness revealed may be too much for many of us to deal with.

Some members of the audience expressed a desire for the introduction of clear rules or laws that would limit our behaviour with regards to our carbon emissions, for example: couples being limited to having two children or people being limited to one flight every five years. I am torn about how to respond to this. In many ways I agree. I certainly think that there should be more top-down ‘guidance’ from the government on the lines of the compulsory wearing of seat-belts in cars and the banning of smoking in public spaces. We could all (and I do mean all – every single one of us, no exceptions for power or wealth) be limited to so many flying miles per year, or be subject to some other form of carbon rationing. On the other hand I often think that the imposition of hard rules prevents us developing good judgement, what Aristotle termed phronesis or practical wisdom. As I argued in the first of this series of blogs, there is no definitive reference point that makes something absolutely right or wrong – there are always nuances. The same applies to rules or laws. As a senior officer in the Fire Service once said to me, rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools. Such practical wisdom requires space to grow.

On the way to the pub after the event, someone asked me whether green ethics requires hope? This threw me at first – but later it got me thinking. There have been times in recent months when I have thought there to be little hope for humans on this planet. As the sociologist Anthony Giddens has argued, we humans will not truly grasp the full implications of our climate and ecological emergency, and what we need to do and change, until the effects are well and truly ‘in our face’, but by then it will be too late to do anything about it. And even when it is ‘in our face’ far too many of us will still hold onto some misguided belief in progress and be waiting for the technological cavalry to come charging round the corner and save us. But perhaps hope is not the same as optimism. The standard philosophical account of ‘hope’ suggests that it is a compound attitude comprising of both a desire for a certain outcome and a belief that that outcome is possible. Note ‘possible’ not ‘likely’. So in terms of the outcomes that could be achieved by the approach to green ethics I have outlined, I certainly have a desire for them and also a belief that their achievement is possible. In this sense I have hope. But perhaps the more important point here is that this hope, this desire for a ‘green’ future and the belief that its achievement is possible, needs to be held by the majority of us. Without this hope we are well and truly on the path to extinction.

Green ethics – part 3

In my previous two blogs I have argued that, in terms of ethics, the way forward for humanity is through the development of certain character traits or good habits – habits that will support our flourishing as members of a global land community, character traits that will support the story of this same flourishing. But how do we develop these character traits? And, perhaps more importantly, what are they? I have been thinking this through now for about ten years, and have made several lists of suitable candidates, but here I’m just going to outline what I consider to be the three most important. But first a few words about their general development.

Aristotle termed the character traits he discussed ‘virtues’, and argued that we develop them through constant practice, through constant repetition, through establishing good habits. He never prescribed exactly what each virtue meant for each individual in a given situation, other than it was the avoidance of both excess and deficit, what he termed the golden mean. He recognised that “conduct has to do with individual cases, and that our statements must harmonize with the facts in these cases”, and that “a master of any art avoids excess and deficit, but seeks the intermediate and chooses this – the intermediate not in the object but relative to us”.

Let me illustrate what Aristotle means here with the first of my suggested character traits – empathy. By empathy I don’t simply mean feeling what another person feels, I mean a considered response to those feelings that lies between the two extremes of selflessness and selfishness, a mean point that we need to determine for ourselves relative to each social situation. Why? Because it involves a conscious attempt to put ourselves in the position of the other and to assess the situation from their perspective and, perhaps, to ask ‘what does the other person expect of me?’ For each social act it is impossible to describe that act as either right or wrong, but the habit of practicing empathy contributes to human flourishing because it makes vivid the expectations of the other through thought and feeling. Expectations, in both the senses of the word (what ‘should’ happen, what ‘will’ happen), are the relations that form human society and culture, they are the forces that cause it to change and grow, they are the forces that glue it together.

If empathy is the social glue that holds communities together, that brings out our interdependence on others, my suggested second character trait does something very similar with regards our relationship with other animals and our natural environment. Let me term this new habit ‘Ecopathy’. This is the developing trait of both feeling and understanding ourselves as ‘plain members of the land community’, as Aldo Leopold phrased it, of deeply appreciating our interdependence with all life. If we want to get scientific, it means developing an understanding of the dynamic complexity of life on this planet, and allowing this understanding to influence how we act in the daily dramas of our lives. In terms of Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’, perhaps it lies between the two extremes of our selfish exploitation of the planet, our thinking that we have dominion over other life forms, and the brutal fact that as a member of the land community we do need to eat, we will produce waste, and some of our actions will harm other members of the land community.

I have recently come to the realization that the outlook for humanity is bleak, very bleak, unless we start learning how to think. Yes, I know we all think we can think, we do it all the time, but I mean really think – not just have opinions. We need to develop the habit of thinking critically, of asking questions about what we hear and read, of looking for and evaluating the evidence that supports our opinions and beliefs, and (most importantly) being prepared to have other people challenge our opinions and not responding with a tirade of insults. For want of a better phrase, I am going to term this third character trait ‘good sense’. I use this phrase to purposely contrast it with the term ‘common sense’ which I equate to a herd mentality, the habit of simply following popular opinion. Perhaps the golden mean here is somewhere between a herd mentality and the arrogance of believing that any thought we have must be correct.

The three character traits that I’ve outlined above are by no means exhaustive, they are simply my top three. It is important to realise that there cannot be a definitive list of character traits, just as is it impossible to say, definitively, what the right or proper action is in any situation. It is impossible to say, therefore, what character traits we should be developing. In the same way as all the characters in good novel have different traits, we will all need to develop our own characters in our own way in response to our own unique circumstances, but we need to do so forever mindful of the story we are trying act out, and our dynamic interdependence on all other natural systems.

Green ethics – part 2

In last week’s post I very briefly outlined what I consider to be the problem with both the traditional approach to ethics (basing our ethical decisions on some non-existent definitive reference point) and the relatively recent consequentialist approach (making an impossible calculation as to the consequences of any action). Instead I suggested that an approach based on the methodology of Aristotle (one that focuses on the development of good habits and character traits in order to flourish as a citizen within a community) may well provide the route to the development of an effective Green Ethics. A different way to think through the importance of habits and character traits is through an appreciation of the importance of narrative or story telling in human life, and especially its role in supplying meaning and purpose to our lives.

One of the paradoxes of human life is both our need for meaning and purpose, and, in any definitive sense, its complete absence. Through both experience and shared knowledge humans are able to make good rough and ready predictions as to what to expect during their day to day activities, an evolved ability that gives them a good evolutionary advantage over animals of much greater strength and speed. However, not everything we expect to happen (in both ‘will’ and ‘should’ senses of ‘expect’) is supported by evidence based knowledge. We fill in the gaps, join the dots, by creating stories. Doing so makes it much easier for our ‘knowledge’ to be passed on to future generations – for the simple reason that it makes sense of what otherwise could be a disparate collection of expectations. Whilst this general process applies to all aspects of human life, it applies particularly so to ethics where, as discussed last week, objective reference points just do not exist.

Take the example of truth telling. Experience over the span of human evolution has shown that in practical terms, within particular communities, human society functions better if individual members can trust each other, and that this trust is dependent on members telling the truth. It’s not necessary for this truth telling to be 100%, in fact there may well be occasions when ‘the greater good’ is best served by the full truth being withheld. But how can this experience be passed on the young members of the community other than through them being told they need to tell the truth? And the easiest way to respond to the inevitable ‘why?’ is to feed this imperative into a story that, as well as explaining how they should behave, explains where they have come from and what their purpose is. Enter the role of religion. Religious myths have, over the course of human history, served the purpose of supplying the ‘grand narrative’ to human existence. But, whereas science, and particularly evolutionary science, now provides an evidence based explanation to our existence, religion still has a grip on the ethical explanation. This needs to change.

Religion myths, then, were arguably the first stories – certainly the first ‘grand narratives’. But the fundamental use of story exists at the personal level as well. We each have a ‘self narrative’, a story that we tell ourselves and others that links our various experiences together into a coherent whole and provides a personal meaning and purpose to our life. As Will Storr points out in his book Selfie, “To make a successful story, a self needs a mission. It needs a plot”. And, as our personal experience of stories will testify, successful stories need a variety of characters – they need good guys, heroes; they need bad guys, the villains; and they need victims. These various characters will also have their associated character traits, those aspects of their usual behaviour that identifies them, that we use when describing them to others. Our grand narratives, those that make sense of our tribe, community, or nation, also make use of characters and character traits, but in a much more abstract way.

The story we need to start telling is the story of human survival. This is the story of stories, the grandest of narratives. It is the story of how humans, though ignorance of their origins, created many false myths, especially the myth that they were special and separate from the rest of nature – that other animals and the land itself (what Aldo Leopold terms ‘the land community’) were there for human exploitation. It is the story of how, as a chapter in this story, humans found a use for the fossilised remains of forests that existed before the emergence of human life, and that in burning this fuel to power their economy they nearly released so much stored carbon back into the atmosphere that human life became untenable. It is the story of how, at the last minute, humans realised that they were plain members of the land community and started to behave accordingly. It is the story of how humans changed their character traits – but in what way? What traits of character, what habits of behaviour will facilitate our survival?

Green ethics – part 1

This will be the first of a three part blog that sketches out a green approach to ethics. I have been working on the various ideas that I hope will come together by doing this off-and-on for some time, but a conversation I had last week has not only promoted these ideas to the top of my thinking, it has also brought various different ideas together. The three most significant questions / areas of thinking that I’m trying to pull together in my mind are: Could the methodology used by Aristotle in his ‘virtue ethics’ help us respond to our climate and ecological emergency? How would an understanding of our use of narrative help in our response to the need for political, economic and social reforms? To what extent are poor thinking skills, particularly the ability to think critically, contributing factors in the problems we face? I will sketch out the first of these in this blog, with the other two following in successive weeks. Hopefully the vague idea I have on how these strands fit together will crystalise in the process.

The central question for any approach to ethics is, given a particular situation, how should we act? The dominant answer in the West for most of the last two and a half thousand years has been “in accordance with a definitive notion of ‘the Good’”. According to this traditional approach ‘the Good’ transcends human experience but exists for our guidance. For Plato ‘the Good’ existed as an ideal Form and was absolute, timeless and unchangeable. Whilst any good that humans did on Earth was but a shadow the Good, Plato argued that we could get closer and closer to the Good through philosophical practice. This approach was adopted by western religion where the Good became the word of God. God’s commands on how to act in any situation were either presented by divine revelation (the Sermon on the Mount) or through an intermediary who, through an inner voice, directly heard his voice.

In later philosophy, Immanuel Kant in effect took the same position by arguing that we should only ever act according to those maxims we would wish to become universal laws – laws that are absolute, timeless and unchangeable. There are two main problems with these approaches to ethics: these absolute and universal maxims and commandments fail to appreciate the complexity of actual life (no act can be categorically right or wrong, good or bad); their transcendent reference points, be they an ideal Form or the voice of God, simply do not exist.

During the nineteenth century an alternative approach to ethics emerged – a consequentialist one. This started with the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham who basically argued that we should determine the goodness of an act by the amount of happiness produced; that the act which produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people is the right one to take. Later proponents modified this by differentiating rule utilitarianism from a focus on individual actions, an approach that argued that an action is right if it conforms to a rule that leads to the greatest good. Consequentialism more generally argues that the rightness or goodness of an act is determined by the consequences that result from it. Once again there are two main problems with this approach: the impossibility of determining the consequences of an act, let alone the amount of happiness produced (again, it fails to appreciate the complexity of life); and the later discovery by neuroscience that in actual fact the brain ‘decides’ what to do in any situation a fraction of a second before we consciously contemplate the act. This last point is potentially a lethal blow for ethics, with John Gray arguing that our attempts to be moral animals are futile.

There is, however, a way to rescue ethics, and that is through the conscious development of good habits. If we get into the habit of behaving in a certain way in a certain situation we tend to do so without thinking about it at the time. Most craft and sports skills are developed this way. The problem of determining which habits to develop however, which are good and desirable, which are bad and to be avoided, remains. This, I want to suggest, can be resolved by returning to the methodology of the philosopher who first focused on the importance of developing good habits – Aristotle.

Aristotle argued that whenever we act we do so in order to achieve what we take to be some good, and that that particular good is sought in order to achieve some further good. He went on to argue that we can follow this line of reasoning until we reach the end of the line where we find the greatest good. Aristotle termed this greatest good eudaimonia, a term that is often translated as ‘happiness’, but which can also be translated as ‘flourishing’.
For Aristotle this flourishing was always of an individual actor within society. Good habits, or good character traits were those that made you a good citizen, that allowed you to flourish within your community. I suggest that the some method can be extended to apply to humans as part of the land community, as Aldo Leopold called it. Good habits or good character traits are those that not only make an actor a good citizen within their community, but allows that community to flourish as part of a world community, that world community to flourish as part of a global land community, and that global land community to flourish as part of a global eco-sphere.

Is the alarm loud enough to wake us up?

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was published on Monday. According to the head of the United Nations, this devastating report is a ‘code red’ warning for humanity. And Alok Sharma, the UK minister who will preside over the UN climate summit in Glasgow in November, said “If ever there was going to be a wake-up call to the world when it comes to climate change, this report is it”. But will it be? What are the chances we just press the snooze button? What if the comfort of the bed we are currently lying in is just too familiar to get out of? The duvet too comfortable? The thought of all we have to do when we get up just too over-whelming?

The report, the sixth from the IPCC since 1988 and eight years in the making, found that human activity was “unequivocally” the cause of rapid changes to the Earth’s climate. These changes include the melting of polar ice caps and glaciers, the resultant rise in sea levels, and the increased frequency of extreme heatwaves, floods and droughts. The upshot of all this is that only rapid and drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decade can prevent climate breakdown – a breakdown that will render large parts of the Earth uninhabitable through either floods or extreme heat. The result of this will mean a major reduction in land available and capable of growing food, and a massive number of people fleeing their current homelands in order to find a place of relative safety. Ultimately, if nothing is done at all, the Earth will become uninhabitable to humans.

So, can we pull back from the brink? Probably the most pessimistic answer to this question is supplied by John Gray. In Straw Dogs he says that “the notion that human action can save themselves or the planet must be absurd.” His criticism is aimed the “doctrine of salvation” he terms humanism: “the belief that humankind can take charge of its destiny”; “the faith that through science humankind can know the truth – and so be free”. This pessimism is a critique of what he sees as the unfettered optimism associated with the humanist idea of “progress and enlightenment”. He admits that there has been progress in knowledge, that we know and understand more about the world we live in, but argues that there has been no progress in ethics. Science, he argues, “enables humans to satisfy their needs”, but it “does nothing to change them.” Bottom line here is that humans are just too needy; that our needs, particularly our material needs, could well be our Achilles Heel.

For Gray, humanism’s cardinal error, adopted from Christianity, is “the belief that humans are radically different from all other animals”, guided by our ability to use reason. On this point he sides with David Hume in arguing that reason is, and can only be, the hard pressed servant of the will – a will driven by our emotions, by our needs. Our intellects are not, as most of us believe, “impartial observers of the world but active participants in it”. In pressing this point Gray is only restating the point made by Aldo Leopold, one of the founding thinkers of the environmental movement. In his essay ‘The Land Ethic’ he argues that “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

The way to avoid the bleak future predicted by the IPCC report, therefore, may be through ethics rather than science, technology or reason. Perhaps we need to not only understand our being part of a land-community, a community of all living entities sharing a single environment, but start to feel this connection, and start to feed this connection into our ethical behaviour. We need to start understanding and appreciating the effect of our needs upon other members of the land-community. We need to understand, truly understand, that believing humanity to be something separate from the other life forms sharing this planet is an error; that all life is intrinsically linked and interdependent; and that believing these other life forms and the planet itself are there as a resource to satisfy our insatiable needs will lead to our extinction. But most of all we need to allow this new understanding to feed into our ethics. If we do this perhaps we can steer a path between the pessimism of Gray and the optimism of humanism and survive as a species a little while longer. But if we do, we will need to seriously curtail our consumerism and freely abandon many of those luxuries we associate with modern life.

The joy of philosophical discussion and pessimism

Philosophy has always been important to me. By philosophy I do not necessarily mean a body of knowledge, though that is inevitably picked up to some degree on the way. I mean instead asking questions: questions that resist an easy answer; questions that open up problems rather than close them down; questions that make you think. But above all, and increasingly so over the years, I value asking questions and discussing ideas with a group friends. It was a joy, therefore, when the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group met, in person, this week for the first time since the start of the pandemic. We’ve been meeting every month virtually through this strange time, but this has been nowhere near the same experience. So, seeing as our last on-line meeting discussed ‘Joy as an act of resistance’, we started our physical meetings off with a discussion of ‘Pessimism’.

Philosophical pessimism is generally regarded as a direct challenge to what John Gray (in Straw Dogs) terms humanism – that is, the belief in progress, the belief that “by using the new powers given to us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals”. Put another way, philosophical pessimism challenges the optimistic assumption that the future will be kind to us. Such an assumption is manifest in a blind belief in market led solutions, that if we allow economic markets to work in an unrestricted manner the invisible hand will work its magic to the benefit of all. It is also manifest in a blind belief in technological solutions to our climate crisis, an area where we witness many examples of what Roger Scrutton calls the ‘best-case fallacy’. This is where people adopt an uncritical attitude towards the best case scenario of any problem and believe that it will come about.

The future of human survival, let alone human well-being, faces many challenges: global pandemics, growing and deepening inequality, economic collapse, a resurgent religious fundamentalism, post-truth. But without doubt the biggest of these is a rapidly changing climate. Following innumerable severe weather events around the world which most scientists attribute to the rise of mean global temperatures, his last week saw one report in which scientists warn that greenhouse gas levels are already too high “for a manageable future for humanity.” Yet despite these warnings sufficient numbers of politicians grasp hold of some version of the ‘best-case fallacy’. They have faith, for example, that ‘carbon capture and storage’ will provide a technological solution to the critically high levels of carbon in our atmosphere – even though the technology has not been fully developed, let alone proven to work. Others have faith that hydrogen will be able to replace fossil fuels to power our privately owned transport obsessions. And all the time we hold onto this faith we do not consider other options. These technologies may prove effective. But they may not. In other words, optimism may lead to our demise, whereas pessimism would probably lead us to the best outcomes in the long-term – providing, of course, that it doesn’t drain us of the will to live.

So why do so many of us grasp hold of an uncritical optimism? Well one way of approaching such a question is through our use of narrative and through the links between pessimism and the absurd. For proponents of existentialism the absurd represents an intrinsic paradox to human existence: that humans have a deep need for meaning and purpose to their lives, but when sufficiently examined no such meaning and purpose can be found to exist. What humans tend to do, however, is to tell themselves and others stories. These stories are a mix of adopted, often religious myths that explain the place and future of a person’s tribe, nation or religion on this planet, and a personal narrative that assigns a place for the narrator within this grand-narrative. These narratives come complete with the usual mix of heroes, villains and victims. Within the grand-narratives these roles are often abstract, often assigned to other communities, social groups or religions, though occasionally an actual person can become the embodiment of a hero or villain (I’m thinking Donald Trump). Within our personal narratives these roles are assigned to the people we know. With regards to optimism, the key point is that we all tend to prefer stories with a happy ending.

There are, though, exceptions to our liking of happy endings. I’m thinking particularly of how many people enjoy a Shakespearean Tragedy, which usually ends with the death of the hero and most other characters. And many of us enjoy ambiguous endings to a film or drama series – though usually in the hope of a sequel that will resolve all the plot lines. But with regards to both our grand-narratives and personal stories perhaps we need to take a lesson from science. Complexity science, the science of dynamic systems (which we are all examples of), has shown that there is an inherent uncertainty to life. So why not start writing this uncertainty into our narratives, why not start embracing uncertainty rather than writing it out of the script. Rather than anticipate a happy ending (optimism), rather than anticipate a tragic ending (pessimism), why not treat life as a piece of improvised theatre in which the ending is uncertain? Why not develop our character through the performance of our lives fully accepting that the closing scenes have yet to be written?

Opportunities lost

At last week’s meeting of Dorset Council I found myself in a difficult situation. One of the principle items on the agenda was the Council’s Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) Strategy, which was finally ready for adoption. I didn’t want the Council to reject this strategy – it contains much to be valued, and it is surely better to have a strategy than not. But, and this is a big ‘but’, it lacks the vision, it lacks the ambition, and, most importantly, it lacks the sense of mission that I genuinely believe is necessary if we are going safeguard the wellbeing of current and future residents of Dorset.

For example, my original CEE motion to Council (which was referred to the cross-party panel that ‘advised’ on the creation of the strategy, and which has never been debated) called for the development of a Dorset wide transport strategy that discouraged car use, encouraged walking and cycling, and brought about drastically improved rail and bus services. This has not been addressed by the strategy. One way this could be achieved would be to develop an idea sketched out in the Royal Town and Planning Institute research paper ‘Net Zero Transport’, published earlier this year. This could develop Dorset into a network of eco-towns, towns with high levels of self-sufficiency that facilitate local living and the local economy, connected by a comprehensive public transport infrastructure.

Such an idea would require what the economist Marianna Mazzucato calls a mission-oriented approach, a way of thinking that “is about setting targets that are ambitious but also inspirational, [that are] able to catalyse innovation across multiple sectors and actors in the economy. It is about imagining a better future and organising public and private investments to achieve that future.” An approach like this would put the problem of achieving net zero living at the centre of a redesigned Dorset economy. That, I truly believe, is the level of vision and ambition we need to adopt. But sadly the strategy I voted with a very heavy heart to accept gets nowhere near such levels. The battle continues.

The other item which I was hoping to speak on was a motion from the Leader of the LibDem group calling for the Council change its model of governance. The current model is one where the main decisions are made by a cabinet of ten members selected by an elected leader. The motion called upon the Council to adopt a model where these decisions are made by a number of committees made up of members from all political groups in proportion to that group’s success at the previous election. For example: at the 2019 election 43 Conservative councillors were elected out of a total of 82 (52%); so rather than a 100% Conservative cabinet making the decisions, they would be made by committees containing only 52% Conservative councillors.

I wanted to voice my support for this motion on two grounds. First, from a philosophical perspective, because definitive answers or solutions to any problem simply do not exist. It is impossible to say, with an absolute sense of certainty, this is how things should be, and this is how we achieve it. There are no ideal models for human behaviour or relationships existing in some Platonic heaven, and due to the inherent uncertainty of all complex systems there is no guaranteed way of achieving any desired outcome. No, the only way to conduct our affairs is by listening to all perspectives. All views and opinions, reflecting the views of all the residents of Dorset, not just those of a small group of the majority party, need considering and debating. This is the only way to make important democratic decisions that affect the lives of those people living and working in Dorset.

Second, because one of the seven principles of public life (incorporated into our members Code of Conduct) is openness: “Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner.” I see no evidence of such openness from our current Cabinet system. When I have attended cabinet the vast majority of decisions have been unanimous – with no debate, no exploration of alternatives, no transparency of decision making at the actual meeting. The members of the cabinet are not unintelligent; they must have questions to ask; they must have differences of opinion; they must feel the need to at least challenge some of the reports they are presented with. But as none of this is evident at the cabinet meeting open to the public, press and other councillors I can only assume it is taking place behind closed doors. A healthy democracy requires these doors to be opened.

Sadly I never got an opportunity to make these arguments because the ‘debate’ quickly descended into farce. In fact it hardly deserves the name ‘debate’. None of the key issues were examined, none of the main arguments were made. My interpretation of events is that the Leader of the Council, sensing the real possibility of defeat, introduced an amendment that would have effectively kicked the issue in the long grass. Fortunately a yet further amendment was introduced, and supported by a majority of councillors, that will require the Council to decide this issue before the next elections in 2024. I think it really sad, and not good for democracy, that the opportunity to discuss, examine and debate these important issues was lost.