Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Wars on climate change versus revolutions to address climate change

Posted 31 Oct 2016 / 0

The New York TimesWe Don’t Need a ‘War’ on Climate Change, We Need a Revolution

I am excited about this opinion piece by my friend and colleague Eric S. Godoy. He and his co-author Aaron Jaffe are absolutely right: as much as we might “fight” to “capture” the right metaphor for the “battle” against climate change, “war” is not the rhetorical answer that we are looking for. Their piece nicely explains the historical pull of making struggles that aren’t wars into wars: from wars of drugs to wars on poverty, when we fear that we might lack the true resolve needed to get after a problem, we try to turn it into a war.

From an evolutionary perspective, there’s a good reason people make this rhetorical leap to war. War has a clear enemy, a deeply primal enemy that our ancestors have likely always faced. As our societies have moved from smaller to larger scales, only the scale of war has changed: we have moved from worrying about defending ourselves from the other small band of humans nearby to making sure that our massive national coalition doesn’t fall prey to any other massive national coalition on the globe. While many of us have a critique of wars between nations that would have likely been an unrealistic luxury back when our small tribe was similarly threatened, it is remarkable how well the “war instinct” translates from our small-scale origins into our large-scale present-day realities.

But defending our small groups against other small groups wasn’t the only conflict our species evolved to deal with. In many ways the biggest threat to our existence was internal conflict. If fair conditions were not maintained within our social group, or if infighting or mutual exploitation came to dominate our small bands, we were in big survival trouble. Not only might we be unable to obtain the material resources needed to survive, we might also face attack from more unified nearby groups of humans. You can see in our disdain for unfairness and love of retribution on social transgressors the deeply evolved need we have for a fair, well-self-regulated social group. This instinct to maintain fairness in our own groups is seemingly at least as strong as our instinct to go to war with other groups. In fact, when we go to war with other groups the first expectation is that every member of the group will do what’s best for the group rather than for themselves.

So, as Godoy and Jaffe suggest, why aren’t we very good at mobilizing this fairness instinct in addressing the very real existential challenge of climate change? What seems to be happening, as I can see it, is that the “fairness” instinct just does not scale up as well as the “war” instinct. Now that we live in these massive coalitions of people we ought to be applying a social justice framework at a grand scale — just as we have successfully applied a war-against-others framework at very large scales — but it turns out we are pretty bad at scaling up fairness. It’s easy to understand why, at least to some degree. In “war against others”, the more anonymous the other, the better: best not to recognize the humanity of one’s enemies. But internal policing of fairness within a group requires a strong degree of empathy for those who might be exploited, and it is harder to have empathy for people whose existence is only an abstract notion.

The temporal nature of the climate change threat is not aiding us either. Climate change harm done now will mostly harm future generations, so we have to apply our sense of what’s fair across time as well as space in order to address climate change. While there are certainly some precedents of human cultures that took this “generational approach” to fairness, we are undeniably working out some major kinks in how we assess our impacts on future generations.

I like the revolution idea, but let’s be clear about what the revolution is about. The struggle to save humanity from the catastrophic climate change that it has brought upon itself does not just require bringing a radical notion of social justice to the forefront of our priorities. It is also going to require that we massively scale up our instinctual sense of fairness within our social group. If we can’t make everyone on the globe — plus future, unborn generations — part of our circle of fairness, we’ll likely doom our descendants to the same small-scale conflicts between thinly-distributed populations that typified the life of our ancestors.

kelly_pogo_earthdayWalt Kelly’s classic 1971 Pogo commentary on pollution makes the “war against us” metaphor hard to take seriously
A Major Post, Activism, Anthropogenic Change, Articles, Climate Change, Cooperation, Environmental Justice, Ethics, Evolutionary Psychology, Human Evolution, Mismatch theory, Philosophy, Public Outreach, Public Policy, School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Social Dilemmas

Leave a Reply