Problems of Knowledge and Survival: Democracy, Reason and the Anthropocene

The philosopher Bertrand Russell throughout his long life, both philosophical and public, was very much interested in the nature of knowledge, how it is that we acquire knowledge of the natural world, but also of the paradoxes of knowledge and logic one of which bears his name.  Although Russell did not articulate it systematically his political activism to no small degree was shaped by what we might term “Russell’s Problem,” a problem of knowledge and survival.  What type of political order is appropriate to a species of advanced scientific and technological prowess? It is that problem of knowledge, society and survival that underpinned his anti nuclear activism, and it the problem that must underpin our thinking about the global ecological crisis for the relation of knowledge to society lies at the core of humanity’s most pressing concerns of which our place in nature is surely one. 

Russell’s Problem also underpins another problem of knowledge and society what Chomsky referred to as problems of knowledge and freedom. There we are interested in the appropriate political order befitting a creative species. It is our faculty of creativity that underpins our advanced systems of knowledge and our advanced instruments of technology. Here we are interested in problems of knowledge and survival,but a thorough and systematic account would show that both are deeply related.  

The relationship of knowledge to society also forms one of the central arguments for democracy,for it is argued democracy has a greater propensity to lead to rational outcomes as compared to more elite systems of rule. The idea being that the public is more apt to process information in the public interest than an elite system which is more liable to do so for private interests. Democracy is more likely also to promote the moral good given that decision making in a democratic society resides in the hands of moral agents, rather than amoral ones such as, say, the state or the corporation. Assuming this be true, when democratic polities adopt irrational policies we have ourselves a paradox, and like with all paradoxes, that invites explanation. The greater the consequences of irrationality the greater the paradox and the greater the requirement for explanation. 

That is precisely the case with climate change. 

That such is the case was further underscored by the latest report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which reported that global greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced by 25% by 2030 to keep global warming to no greater than 2 degrees C above pre industrial levels. However, a 2 degrees C target provides too high a risk of dangerous climate change scientists warn so 2 degrees C has become a ceiling which no rational society would approach let alone trespass. The reasoned response is to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C,given the chasm separating 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees in their effects on life and civilisation discussed with alarming detail in the IPCC report, and to do this, the report argued, requires reducing emissions by 50% by 2030.

Our best science is telling us that this is the bottom line on climate change mitigation. This is knowledge that is in our possession, and so it was that the Paris agreement, the first to set a global warming target that includes both developed and developing countries, adopted 1.5 degrees C as its benchmark. But,and a big but it has proven to be, the Paris agreement was nonbinding, one key reason for this was the Republican controlled United States Senate which would have voted against a binding agreement, and so emissions have continued to rise. In the 2000s emissions grew 3% a year, but from 2010 to 2016 emissions growth slowed. However, from 2017 the pace has again quickened. In 2017 emissions grew by 1.7% and the 2018 figure looks set to be 2%. The International Energy Agency, furthermore, has shown that to keep warming to 2 degrees C, let alone the 1.5 degrees C target, we cannot afford to build any extra fossil fuel emitting infrastructure, transportation vehicles, industries and power plants. Building more will take us over the key 2 degrees C benchmark. Indeed, current Paris agreement commitments put us on a trajectory for plus 3 degrees C warming which is simply catastrophic. 

We know that we are marching toward the precipice yet off we march all the same. 

It should be stressed that global warming is just part of an overall, integrated, global ecological crisis. Another, equally disturbing, sign of this is the loss of biodiversity toward which climate change contributes but which, for the time being, is not the leading contributor. Deforestation, desertification, habitat loss, urbanisation, over fishing, all these in addition to climate change are leading to a rate of extinction greater than the background rate of extinction so much so that biologists are increasingly calling the loss of biodiversity a sixth mass extinction of life on Earth. Large animals are bearing the brunt of the biodiversity crisis with significant species loss at the top end of the food chain. When life is stressed evolution has the tendency to downsize organisms and so we now constitute both a geological and an evolutionary force. There is a logic to that as geological forces acting on a planetary scale alter the trajectory of evolution. It is projected that the greatest contribution that climate change will make awaits in the future, in the second half of the century when it shall be the leading contributor to biodiversity loss. 

This combination, with the emphasis hitherto on our effect on Earth systems rather than evolution, has seen geologists refer to our current era as “the Anthropocene” which, interestingly for our purposes, has been defined by some as the era when “scientific thought became a geological force.”   

Generally, the Anthropocene is taken to have started around 1945-1965 with dispute about the proper marker for this. I quite like the marker attended by radionuclide signatures in the atmosphere and sedimentary rock layers due to atmospheric nuclear testing. It is appropriate that the onset of the nuclear age coincides with the Anthropocene as it appears that it is our cognitive capacities, which set us apart from the animal kingdom, that lies at the centre of the Anthropocene. The consummation of the nuclear age relied upon the prior elaboration of systems of knowledge in this case quantum mechanics and special relativity, both of which underpin the quantum field theory of the standard model, that represent the culmination of the scientific revolution (we also include general relativity into the mix of course). The ecological crisis should also be marked to about 1950 for that is when we saw a massive spike in economic growth, unlike any other in human history. That too has considerations of knowledge and society at the core, for economic growth involves the purposeful rearrangement of energy, material, social, and cognitive resources in ways that increase the market value of goods and services and it is our unique cognitive architecture that enables this.    

But this observation deepens the paradox from which we began. Should democracy tend to rational outcomes then the Anthropocene shouldn’t be a problem so long as we know that we are in the Anthropocene. Democracy would see us rationally adopt solutions to the challenges of the Anthropocene most especially if those solutions are readily available. In the case of climate change the solution is clear enough; a transition to clean energy technologies such as renewables.  If democracy cannot mitigate the Anthropocene then, someway or somehow, humans carry about themselves a deep flaw. No amount of democracy can do a flawed species good even as it approaches the moment of denouement. 

When did we come to know that we were in the Anthropocene? The most obvious date is when the International Geological Congress proclaimed the Anthropocene in 2016. I would argue that a better time is when the idea that man could affect Earth dynamics on a planetary scale entered widespread public consciousness, and I would argue that first happened when the idea that a nuclear war could lead to a nuclear winter reached public consciousness in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The interesting thing about this, from the standpoint of our paradox, is that this touched off a massive global peace movement that helped to end the cold war. The global movement to prevent catastrophic climate change is no different to that peace movement for at the climate movement’s foundation lies a moral concern for future generations. I, personally, regard it to be one and the same movement. There are implications here regarding responsibility and action, but I leave those aside for a subsequent discussion. 

The problem with the Anthropocene is that knowledge of it coincides with the onset of the neoliberal era, which constitutes an assault on both the public and democracy. That makes sense; to attack the public is to attack democracy, and to attack democracy is to attack the public. A good indicator of this is rising inequality. Aristotle drew a link between equality and democracy, not necessarily favourably we might add, and so we can reasonably infer that when inequality rises democracy is being subject to an assault. There are several ways that the neoliberal era represents an attack on democracy.

One of those relevant to us here is that with neoliberalism we see the rise to doctrinal dominance of a narrow conception of rationality through which policy is measured, that being economic rationality which is based on the view that the concept “the public” makes little to no sense. Under the prevailing doctrine what is good for corporate power and profit is good for society, and so any rational society would be governed by the logic of the market which concentrates political and economic power in corporate hands. If that is the dominant conception of the rational then policies that society considers to be rational will be framed according to it, and furthermore the real decisions over production, resource use, distribution and allocation would be left to the corporate sector. What is called politics becomes a spectacle with no bearing on policy. 

Naturally, corporations are not subject to the logic of the marketplace for they easily remember the public when circumstances require it. Rationality, understood as the economic variety,is for the little people. The Gods above are beyond rationality, so rightly are not constrained by its strictures. That view of rationality is something that had to be constructed and it was constructed and disseminated widely through corporate control of the public sphere. The Stern report on the economics of climate change, correctly, stated that climate change is the greatest example in history of a negative externality. Climate change demonstrates, just one example of many, that the conception of rationality that has underpinned discourse in the neoliberal era does not lead to rational social outcomes. Society has been allowed to process information in the neoliberal era with reference to a cognitive bias constructed in the interests of the rich and powerful. One can further see how the prevailing concept of rationality is rendered problematical by climate change when our best science, discussed above, informs us that we need to transform our energy, production, and transport systems far faster than what the prevailing doctrine of economic rationality allows. 

I would argue that this observation significantly contributes to climate change denial.It is not just the obvious interests of the fossil fuel industry, and the manner it has mobilised opinion and lobbied leaders and legislatures, that underpins climate change denial. These are sectional interests of capitalism,although a cheaper basis to the productive system is profitable for all to be sure. The concept of economic rationality that has been so assiduously used to advance the interests of corporate power and profit is of benefit to the capitalist class in toto and that is why climate change is problematical and why corporate control of the public sphere encourages climate change denial at worse or relative neglect at best. Climate change is not an issue that dominates the public sphere. In a rational society climate change would be front and centre in the public sphere and thereby public consciousness,not Trump’s tweets, Lionel Messi’s knee, or how to shape an arse or a six pack fit for Instagram. 

Neoliberal ideology and neoclassical economics are based on the view that no human invention, we must be careful to use the word “invention” in this context given the underlying metaphysics of the religion, can better process information to the rational benefit of society than the market. Those who would give democracy that status are wrong, which is one of the main reasons why neoliberals supported dictators such as Augusto Pinochet. The failure of Soviet central planning had the effect of entrenching that view further, but climate change and the Anthropocene tears that view to shreds.

That’s a problem for power and avarice. 

The system of capitalist production is not attuned to human needs nor wants. That is why the public relations industry constructs imagery, symbols, signs and the like through advertising. The idea being to create irrational consumers making irrational choices which is of course contrary to the prevailing doctrine of economic rationality which has informed consumers making rational choices. The production system is economically irrational, let alone irrational when viewed through other perspectives such as the ecological, in so much as a rational economic system should be designed to meet human needs and wants. Capitalist production is geared toward profit, and if that leads to a system of overproduction for shit people don’t want or need, which they are hoodwinked into consuming by an industry that rationally appeals to the irrational, and in doing so undermines the natural basis to life, then so be it. 

We have an economic system which leads to overproduction of consumables that people do not want nor need and which leads to an impact upon Earth and biological systems to the very risk of functional civilisation. It is our calling all this rational that has the Martians wallowing in laughter, with the real kicker coming when leading exponents of the doctrine are bestowed a prize for profundity by a Swedish royal academy. Not even Douglas Adams had imagination enough to include this in the Hitchhiker’s Guide

Neoliberalism also has the affect of encouraging irrational belief in society. When there is a rising prevalence in irrational belief a democratic society finds it that much more difficult to process information leading toward rational outcomes. One of the effects of what Karl Polanyi in a previous era called a “utopian project” to create a society based on a self regulating market was a rising incidence in irrational belief, something that helped smooth the path to fascism and Nazism. When a society is smashed either through war or through a conception of economic rationality based on the very idea that society doesn’t exist, so requiring its destruction as proof of concept alone, we then tend to see the rise of irrational belief systems amongst the victims as trust in institutions declines. The neoliberal era certainly has encouraged this process, much as Polanyi would have predicted, and that provides fertile soil for climate change denial promoted by the very elites responsible for unleashing the sledgehammer upon the social fabric. For example, climate change is said to be a plot to deindustrialise the West and that irrational belief can find ready ground in communities affected by deindustrialisation caused by the very same elites, armed with Ricardian conceptions of economic rationality of course, that promote the idea of the dastardly plot.   

These irrational beliefs have been supported by organised attempts to discredit climate change science using the ideas and theories of constructivist epistemology such as the sociology of science or the sociology of knowledge. Here we see social constructivist theories of science, in effect, being turned toward climate science specifically. There’s a certain symmetry to be had when antirational epistemological doctrines are used for irrational ends but which attend to the private interests of power, wealth and privilege for that is the social construction of “knowledge” precisely. 

The Anthropocene does not provide solace for the argument that democracy processes information in ways tending toward irrationality. It shows, to the contrary,that the prevailing ideas of rationality in the neoliberal era, with the championing of capitalist interests through a wilful attack on the public, have precluded democracy from addressing the causes and effects of the Anthropocene. The difficulty with democracy is that knowledge of the Anthropocene has come at a time when democracy has been subject to assault.

The investigation of the paradox, really a mere surface treatment if even that,thrown open by the relationship between the Anthropocene and democracy suggests a thesis. A cognitively advanced species, one would expect, would be a political animal. A political animal given to democratic forms would be less apt to be a destructive evolutionary force. The problem of the Anthropocene is the problem of the few ruling over the many. In our era that dynamic has taken the form of capitalism. Imagine if the USSR, a polluters paradise, won the cold war. We would still be in the Anthropocene, I would argue.  The problems of knowledge and survival are thereby easily encapsulated. Either all those affected by decision making participate in the making of decisions, the essence of anarchism, or Homo sapiens withers on the vine. In recognising this we are immediately drawn to the problems of knowledge and freedom. 

So long, and thanks for all the fish.