Recently I was thinking about how future societies might look back at our period of history and conceptualize the structural causes which made climate change such a difficult problem to solve. Assuming we don’t rectify climate change, and all the predicted catastrophes go off as (un?)expected, scholars and pundits will be looking for interesting ways to blame our generation for failing to act. But, due to our tendency to interpret the past in a fatalistic way, they will also be looking for ways to explain why we didn’t act – some will probably even look for reasons we couldn’t act.
Now, certainly many explanations will look to the nature of our political systems, and their inability to respond to long term or collective threats. Still others will look to the geo-political structure of nation states as such as having as its goal the production of profitable instability which pit humans against each other for the benefit of the few. That’s all very interesting – but another explanation interests me more: the idea that the developments of modern science somehow unleashed a power we could not control, and enabled rates of growth and ecological devastation which our cultures had no means to account for or check until it was too late.
Now don’t start jumping up and down, pointing and calling me a cook for blaming the downfall of the west on Science and Technology. Firstly – I’m not blaming anything on anything; I’m talking about possible explanations which might be made in the future of the present – I’m not saying they are true or false, but I am suggesting they will appear compelling to some. And I suppose I’m implying they may be convincing to people who aren’t idiots, so if that is too much for you, you can continue jumping up and down – but first just hear me out, ok?
I’m certainly not suggesting that Science is the cause of all our problems, and that we should return to some anachronistic pagan or pastoralist vision of the past. Rather, I think there is a serious point to be made about the increased power humans have over their surroundings as a result of the mathematical sciences and their influence on technology. We simply have more power, to do more work and change our natural environments more with the same amount of labour. This means we can do more good – grow more food, make more ipads, but it also means we can use up resources and cause ecological devastation at a much higher rate, and with a speed that doesn’t allow time to react.
Imagine a four year old child who has finding a gun in their parents underwear drawer. Is this event equivalent to any possible accident which might occur in the near future, now that they have found this noisy, powerful, not-actually-a-toy? Of course not, there is after all the chance that someone might find that they have the revolver and take it from them. (There is hopefully even a good chance that they couldn’t figure out how to operate the safety, but that is beside the point). And yet, if an accident does happen, we will certainly look back at this event as being an important moment in series of events which enabled the accident to occur.
Now think about the ways that humans affected their landscapes prior to the industrial revolution: farming, dredging, reclaiming land from the sea, mining. All of these were highly labour intensive, and remember, there were only a hundred million people in all of Europe in 1700, compared to more than 800 million today. During the same period that technological advancement has let us do more work with less labour, we’ve also seen un unprecedented increases in the labour supply. Does this mean we will inevitably wreak eight times, or an even greater multiplier of times, more devastation? No – not inevitably; the reality is much more complex.
Prior to industrialization there existed various political means to ensure social and political stability – religious, armies, nascent states, empires, and others. I don’t think anyone today would argue they worked terribly well – medieval history is a series of unprofitable wars, of barbaric racism, of deposed kings. And, their regulations didn’t work very well on the ecological front (possibly because ecology hadn’t been invented yet). For example, see this site near Nancy, in southern france, where heavy metals pollution has been linked to medieval mining.
However, environmental destruction (and, incidentally, also the quantity of destruction war could wrack) were limited in the pre-modern period both by the amount of labour available, and the efficiency of that labour given pre-industrial methods of modifying the land, mining, damming, forestry and agriculture, meant that environmental destruction we consider normal in the twentieth and twenty first centuries were simply outside the realm of possibility for earlier generations.
These transformations are easy for us to see, but I think they will be easier for future generations to see as having essentially fixed the shape of character of the problems we face, and our ability to respond to those problems. The problem from this vantage point is, in essence, not the need to respond to some particular ecological challenge (i.e. accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere at dangerous rates), but rather the inappropriate way societies are organized given the nature of ecological dangers. Nation states, mostly with monotheist religions, are apt at fighting off invasion and at maintaining moral fabrics which keep a measure of order and, usually, an appearance of justice which most can consider adequate enough not to engaged in armed insurrection. But none of the structures we have are capable of restricting the various industries mine through the earth and landscape to a sustainable rate. We’re forced to create new institutions, sometimes effective, sometimes ineffective, and sometimes an utter joke, to deal with these new threats – and we have to create them at times when institutional forces over value short term gains over long term stability, even long term wealth. If we don’t succeed in this task, I think there is a good chance that in retrospect it will appear impossible.
While I think such an explanation would be flawed, I think its potential believability is something we should take seriously, because if we don’t recognize the monumental difficulty any society is faced with when addressing not just new threats, but new kinds of threats produced by conditions which did not exist when that society was developing its mechanisms for responding to threats, then it probably is impossible. Only if we recognize the truth of the “inevitability” thesis can we recognize the depth of the reforms required, the extent of structural change which must become possible. Otherwise, the rise of modern science and the industrial revolution really will look like when the baby nation state found a revolver, packaged in a large satchel of cocaine.