On Twitter, the (superb) biographer and philosopher Ray Monk asks:
The question isn’t why are Just Stop Oil protesters so terrified and desperate, it is why aren’t we all terrified and desperate?
Periodically, I try to answer questions like these, although I fear I make myself less popular every time I do. Some people will say that I “deny the science” when I disagree with what some scientists say about non-scientific matters. We are all entitled to “deny the science”, of course, but I insist that I am doing nothing of the sort here. Quite the opposite: I embrace science with greater gusto than others, by bringing evolutionary theory to bear on climate change and human nature, as well as accepting the main scientific claims of climate science.
First, let’s see what we can agree on. There is little doubt that the concentration of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere has been steadily increasing over the past few centuries. And there is little doubt that that causes an increase in the earth’s average temperature.
Although there will be local variations, an overall increase in temperature is associated with an overall increase in humidity, because warmer air can absorb more water vapour. (The driest place on earth — Antarctica — is also the coldest.)
This will undoubtedly cause problems for many. Farming practices will have to adapt. There may be more flooding. There will be more extreme heatwaves. Inevitably, it will cost lives. Changing circumstances means adapting to new conditions, which is always inconvenient, and often dangerous.
But that’s probably where our agreement ends. Because I think there will be winners as well as losers with the new dispensation. I just mentioned that climate change will inevitably cost lives. But the alternative would inevitably cost lives as well. When we speak of people “dying of heat”, we don’t mean they burn to death or die of thirst. Nearly all of them are people with compromised cardiovascular systems that have been put under increased stress by extremes of temperature. And at present, more people die of the cold than of the heat. Even if this changes — even if eventually more people die of the heat than of the cold — it doesn’t follow that more people die as a whole. But even if they do, everybody has to die of something, and dying of heat might be better than dying of the many alternatives. If food is expensive, people die of hunger. If food is cheap, people die of obesity. If someone miraculously manages to avoid death by heat, death by cold, death by hunger, death by obesity, or death at the hands of another one of the countless hazards that are supposed to make our times so perilous, they will still inevitably die of something else — a disease, or an accident, or some combined plurality of the last two that we label “old age”.
So, to take a first stab at answering Ray Monk’s question, I submit that terror and desperation in the face of climate change are not as appropriate as widely assumed. It has some good aspects. The earth has been visibly greening over the decades, as plant growth is promoted by higher temperatures, greater humidity, and more abundant CO2. The earth as a whole has been mimicking conditions that market gardeners create with rational reflection to boost crop yields. If more of the earth’s surface can sustain plant life, on the face of it that is a good thing, is it not?
All of this is no doubt familiar. We can agree that change isn’t always change for the worse. Yet the prospect of change per se seems to inspire terror and despair in some. Why?
I think the ancient Greek philosophical injunction to “know thyself” is relevant here (as almost everywhere else). Some habits of thought and inclination are so nearly universal among humans that we might say that are part of human nature. And unless we take the trouble to identify them and try to forestall their baleful effects, we will be led into error.
One such habit is that of — in effect — assuming death is somehow avoidable. We have already touched on this idea in the form of an assumption that “if X happens, then many will die, so we must try to avoid X happening”. But the alternative to X may well involve more deaths, or worse deaths, than X itself. The prospect of one’s own death is so distasteful that many of us simply refuse to think about it. We want to change the subject, and focus on something else. Which brings me to my next near-universal human habit of thought.
Humans almost universally believe that there is a “beginning of time” — the subject of a huge variety of supposed explanations from creation myths to scientific theories of the Big Bang. This usually goes hand-in-hand with a mirror-image expectation that there’s also an “end of the world” waiting in the wings, which is more or less nigh. Combined with the refusal to confront the natural inevitability of one’s own individual death, this tends to inspire a supernatural sense of dread. It’s as if a perfectly natural distaste on the part of individuals for the prospect of their own death makes them reluctant to think about it in naturalistic, proportional way, so it emerges instead as an uncanny sort of thing for everyone to fear en masse. Instead of talking about “my death” (an inevitable and unavoidable occurrence in the life of every individual) the focus shifts to “our death” (a large-scale catastrophe that can supposedly be averted by mass action).
A third human habit involves an almost irresistible feeling that nature is designed. Since prehistoric times, most of the human population of the world has believed that nature has a conscious designer, i.e. God. But even atheists like myself who have given up belief in God are still subject to the habitual feeling that purpose is everywhere. I think that is because “man is a religious animal”: as a species we are inclined to ritual and superstition, and all the rest of it, even if we don’t actually believe in God.
Some aspects of nature do serve a purpose, and they have been shaped to serve that purpose. In that sense they are designed: not by a conscious God, but by mindless Darwinian selection. This is design as it occurs in Daniel Dennett’s “design stance”: it is useful for prediction and explanation to treat some things as having a purpose, and to assume that they are working optimally to achieve that purpose. (Aristotle’s “final cause” is much the same idea.) The organs of a living organism’s body are designed in this sense. The purpose of the heart is to pump blood; the purpose of the lungs is to oxygenate the blood; the purpose of the kidneys is to filter the blood; and so on. The normal working behaviour of these organs can be predicted (and up to a point, explained as well) with reference to their purposes. Only when they go wrong do we fall back on “physical stance” explanations.
Organs like these work together within each organism, like meshing cogwheels. Something similar can sometimes be found between species of organisms. For example, some living things (such as clownfish and sea anemones, bees and bee orchids) have symbiotic relationships. Some of these are very species-specific, others less so, especially if they are parasitic (a cat flea will drink the blood of a human if it can’t find a cat, or indeed if it can find a cat). Depending on the exclusivity of the dependence, relations between these species of organisms can be understood as being designed, although again by an entirely mindless designer.
But such cases aside, for the most part relations between species of organism are not “designed” in any sense at all. Nature is red in tooth and claw, and it’s more a chaotic free-for-all than a system of meshing cogwheels. The strategy is blind opportunism rather than cooperation.
Now we are in a position to answer Ray Monk’s question more fully. Things that are designed to work together like organs can fail. They are like parts of a machine that can break. But things that are not designed to work together can’t fail. If one part drops out, another part drops in to take up the slack. If greenfinches are wiped out by disease, sparrows crowd in to eat the food that is left by the absent greenfinches.
Recent decades have seen increasing talk of ecosystems, and in some ways that is a good thing: it has raised awareness of the evils of pollution, and environmental damage of the sort that harms plants and animals. But in other ways it is a bad thing: it has promoted the false impression that the natural world is much more of a system than it really is.
Ray Monk might appreciate that this is a Wittgensteinian point. The word ‘system’ is being used out of context to refer to what is more like a chaotic free-for-all than a set of meshing cogs. This is a case of “language going on holiday”.
Once we are held captive by the picture of the living things on earth forming a system of designed components, it is hard to resist the idea that the system can break. It might fail. Its apparent fragility causes anxiety. And here’s where panic and hysteria set in. People become terrified and desperate because a combination of natural human weaknesses inspires a supernatural dread of “the end of the world”.
But there’s much less to fear than that. Most species are engaged in mindless competition. Where the population of one species drops, the population of another species almost inevitably rises. That’s life. And it involves death.