Truth, Action and Climate Change

One of the main tenets of Jamesian pragmatism is the idea that truth is created through action. No statement, this argument goes, is a priori true. Statements only become true when they cause us to act. For example, my belief that a chair can support my weight causes me to sit in it. It is through this action that the statement “the chair can support my weight” becomes true.

This simple method of judging truth can prove quite disruptive. Consider Wild Bill. This is a cantankerous old man whom I used to sit next to on the bus. He claimed to believe that a certain type of honey cures cancer. The pharmaceutical companies are suppressing this fact, he said. But did Bill actually believe that “honey cures cancer” was a true statement? I would argue that he did not. If he would have believed the truth of this statement he would have acted upon it, for example by consuming large amounts of honey or marketing honey to cancer patients. What Bill was doing was a pathological sort of verbalization. Professing this certain belief was doing something for him (supporting his sense of himself as a “subject who knows” perhaps). A Jamesian analysis reveals the hollow nature of his claim.

I think about Wild Bill a lot when considering the current discourse around climate change. Take for example this recent Rolling Stone article. It ties together a lot of disparate facts about heat waves and the behavior of walruses to make a claim that “our climate change nightmares are already here.” Certainly, this sort of alarmist, quasi-apocalyptic discourse appeals to many people (which is why, of course, Rolling Stone is running the article). Does anyone actually believe these apocalyptic claims about melting icecaps and a ten-foot sea level rise though?

No. When viewed from a Jamesian perspective, most of the people who profess a belief in the certainty of radical climate change do not believe their own claims. Very few people, for example, are selling their property in New York or Miami, or investing their kid’s college fund in businesses that stand to gain from global warming. Like Wild Bill, they are not willing to act on their supposed beliefs. This lack of action marks their claims as mere verbalizations, not truth claims per se.

The above analysis has a couple of interesting consequences. First, it helps explain why the left has had so much trouble convincing mainstream America that climate change is a serious problem. If supposed climate change believers don’t even believe, how can they possibly hope to persuade skeptics?

It also makes one wonder what work this apocalyptic discourse is doing for its adherents. What benefit do climate change evangelicals gain from their claims of impending doom? I think clearly there is a social aspect– people purport to hold these beliefs to fit in, gain status in their communities, etc.

Given the prevalence of this apocalyptic discourse though, and the unthinking intensity with which many subjects cling to it, there’s likely something more at work. Perhaps apocalyptic discourse acts as a sort of guilt-release mechanism. Modern bourgeois subjects feel a deep unease about the way they live. To profess to believe that the world is coming to an end because of their Subaru and air conditioning and air travel somehow relives them of this guilt. Such a pathology is interesting to consider. Especially if you’re an apocalypse-prone subject!

Pool Table v. Lava Lamp

Would you say that the interaction among people, objects and ideas is more like balls on a pool table or the goo inside a lava lamp? I know this seems like an esoteric question. Hang with me though. The answer you give is really important.

In my last post I wrote about pragmatist philosophy. One element of this way of thinking is an emphasis on the interconnected nature of experience. This isn’t to say that “all is one”– the world is certainly made up of lots of different kinds of stuff– but instead, that all is relational, dynamic. People and ideas and objects, as William James says, exist in a state of constant flux. They’re always changing, always influencing each other in new, unpredictable ways. In other words, to James and John Dewey and myself, the world looks like the goo inside a lava lamp– everything in constant motion, effecting change, but at the same time, being changed.

Of course, not everyone is a pragmatist. Some thinkers view people, objects and ideas as separate, self-contained entities. Things exist as they are. Good is good, dog is dog, Bob is Bob. When they come into contact, one thing can affect another, for example, Bob can pet dog, but change isn’t necessarily mutual. There’s a certain consistency to things, which means that given enough time (and computing power) courses can be charted, consequences mapped. In other words, for these thinkers human experience is like a pool table– a world of cause and effect, solid objects and straight lines.

I know this is some heady stuff. It’s not just metaphysical speculation though. For example, consider the case of Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 best-seller The Population Bomb. Ehrlich claimed that by the mid-1970s the world was going to run out of food. He wanted to put sterilants in water and cut off India from foreign aid (because the Indians were all going to starve anyway). Ehrlich is a respected figure; his claims were reasonable, based on statistics and historical data.

Of course, nothing Ehrlich predicted came to pass. Food supplies have increased, while almost universally, population growth rates have declined. Where did Ehrlich go wrong? In my opinion, his predictions were off because he failed to see the world as a dynamic system. Humans, unlike numbers in an equation, change in response to their environment. In this case, scientists discovered new agriculture methods. Women stopped having so many children. In short, people, objects and ideas influenced each other and began to interact in new, unpredictable ways. They didn’t just bounce around like balls on a pool table.

The case of the defused population bomb is just one example of the dangers of static, atomistic thinking. Our world is in constant flux. Whether writing poetry or predicting the apocalypse, we should keep this in mind.