Science and green strategy

One of the more useful soundbites about our financial predicament is ‘you can’t get out of a debt problem by increasing the amount of your debt’. As with any useful maxim, there are times when it might be wrong – I think there are occasions when it might make sense to increase debt in order to solve problems, eg as part of a general restructuring – but as a rule of thumb, it seems pretty good to me.

I want to argue that there is a similar maxim that applies to our present ecological predicament, one that is thrown up by our crashing in to the Limits to Growth. The maxim is this ‘you can’t get out of an idolisation of science problem by making more appeals to science’. I write about what the ‘idolisation of science problem’ is in my book, but put succinctly, I see the root problem in our culture as a blindness towards questions of value and a consequent neglect of the development of wisdom. That is, I see our culture as institutionally apathistic, and I see the principal presenting symptom of that lack of wisdom being the excess valuation given to whatever ‘science’ might say.

For those who understand the nature of the Limits to Growth – call them the ‘greens’ for now – there is an irreducible element of scientific understanding inherent in the perspective. Information about pollution and resource limits is largely a matter of science. What we are to do in the light of that information, however, is not. It is a matter of human discernment, for which science is trivially irrelevant. Worse than that, the subordination of wider human understandings to the narrow scientism that dominates our culture is itself one of the principal obstacles that need to be overcome

I have written before about the ‘climate screech’ which I see as one of the problems of contemporary green advocacy. The predicament that we are in, which the greens understand, is so much wider and deeper than the question of global warming, on which I continue to become increasingly sceptical. If we are to enable people to shift their understandings, their patterns of life, away from our present unwise paths, we will not be able to do so by continuing, to all intents and purposes, to insist in our advocacy on the primacy of “science”. Science says X, therefore we must do Y. This is a path that is doomed to failure, not least because science changes its mind on a regular basis, and greens who married the scientific consensus of the late 1980s are now finding themselves widows – and the necessary political arguments have been lost.

I believe that those who advocate green courses of action – a wiser and more responsible stewardship of this planet – need to do a great deal of soul-searching to understand why it is that the emphasis upon global warming has been such a political failure, and why the continued screeching is having such a counter-productive impact upon the wider green movement. To my mind it seems clear that we cannot get out of a crisis caused by too much science by simply increasing the amount of science on which we rely.

In the meantime I am looking forward to taking part in the Dark Mountain festival next month. This is a group that really ‘gets it’.

10 thoughts on “Science and green strategy

  1. Since “the narrow scientism that dominates our culture is itself one of the principal obstacles …” to human progress generally, summarises my whole agenda, you know I agree with you Sam.

    • And this too “the root problem in our culture [is] a blindness towards questions of value and a consequent neglect of the development of wisdom”. Absolutely.

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  3. I found the manifesto of the Dark Mountain group at the link you posted and it’s an text book example of romanticism. Do you have any other similar links? (I’m exploring romanticism at the moment).

    • Gavin – I do actually read your stuff (RL is making interaction more complicated than it has been) but this thing about Romanticism is something I want to take on – probably over the weekend. (In brief, Dark Mountain has romantic elements, but I need to spell out the ways in which I am not a romantic)

  4. Hi, nice piece, thank you, but it is vague to me in places. I want to know more clearly about certain ideas presented. You say, “Science says X, therefore we must do Y.”

    Can you say then more about: “nformation about pollution and resource limits is largely a matter of science. What we are to do in the light of that information, however, is not. It is a matter of human discernment, for which science is trivially irrelevant.”

    So, say, for example, it is discovered that a factory is spewing harmful levels of aluminum into the air. This is your “X.” Science says to limit that amount by adding filters, for example; this is your “Y.” So then, how is science trivially irrelevant here? Or are you referring to some other issue which my example does not speak to? I want to understand.

    And, what do you mean by “screeching” in this phrase?

    “and why the continued screeching is having such a counter-productive impact upon the wider green movement. ”

    And what “counter-productive impact upon the wider green movement” are you referring to?

    I really like this piece and am frustrated at not understanding it as well as I’d like to.

    Thanks….Jack

    • Hi Jack – click on the embedded links, especially for the ‘screech’ point. If you click on the tag ‘science’ at the end of the post, you’ll discover a lot more background (of course, you could always just read my book!)
      As for the x…Y point – it is simply that the assessment of ‘harm’ is not a scientific question, it is a value judgement – so we need to develop our capacity to make such judgements, ie cultivate the virtue of *phronesis*. Glad to have you here.

      • Thank you. If you could respond directly to my questions, I’d appreciate that. I will click on the links but am backlogged with links to review, as I imagine you are.

        Thanks for X and Y, sounds like a philosophy of science issue you are bringing up, but if you could respond directly to the example I gave, it seems that science as a logistic also weighs in?

        I’d love to read your book, but I have 27 here at my side waiting for me as well as my own in the final phases of edit. :)

        Thank you.

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