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In case after case, it takes very little work to identify the habits and lifestyle choices that are dragging our civilization to ruin, and only a few moments of clear thinking to realize that the way to avert an ugly future has to begin with giving up those habits and lifestyle choices. It’s not just that they refuse to take it, for whatever reason; it’s that they don’t seem to be able to wrap their brains around the idea at all.
That incomprehension isn’t something that the movements to save industrial civilization from itself have yet really grappled with.
Again, this is basic common sense, but you’ll find any number of people doing their level best to evade it these days.
Check out any other issue where the survival of industrial society is at stake, and you’ll see the same thing.
In due time, somebody succeeds in solving some key problem the old paradigm couldn’t address, their achievement by and large becomes the new paradigm, and the cycle begins anew.
We’ll be discussing Kuhn and his book, , a great deal in posts to come, as it points out some of the crucial reasons why science remains stuck in so many unproductive ruts in our time.
The problem isn’t knowledge, then; it’s not ethics, and it’s not will. Some decades ago, in a book far more often cited than read, historian of science Thomas Kuhn pointed out the role of paradigms in the process of scientific research.
Among those activists who’ve grasped the failure of earnest explanation, the next step is usually to frame the discussion in ethical terms: if only they can get people to see that what they’re doing is wrong, they think, people will change their ways and everything will be fine. There are complex reasons for that, reaching back to the broader failure of ethics as currently understood to have much of an effect on human behavior—a theme we’ll be discussing at some length in later posts.
I started off discussing what I thought was the straightforward point that you can’t fuel infinite economic growth by drawing down a finite resource base. It did to me, too, but it nonetheless fielded a remarkable amount of pushback.
A great many people seemed to be unable to get their minds around the fact that each ton of coal, barrel of petroleum, or cubic foot of natural gas burned to fuel their lifestyles really does go away forever.
Yet even those who have convinced themselves that the fate of the Earth is a moral issue of compelling importance seem, by and large, to be unable to go from that ethical realization to the obvious next step of giving up habits and lifestyle choices that actively harm the global ecosystem. Among those few climate activists who have grasped the failure of knowledge and ethics, it’s common to hear the difficulty framed as a matter of will: if only they can find some way to motivate people to do what’s necessary, they think, people will change their ways and everything will be fine.
That hasn’t worked any better than the other two notions.