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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Climate Change and the Limits of Reason v.2

Climate Change and the Limits of Reason

I must have read through a few thousands comments on the Guardian's Comment is Free (...but facts are sacred) site about global warming/ climate change. They are very repetitive. One group of posters do their best to deny that its happening or claim it is natural rather than man-made. Another group rebut the denialist claims. Over and over again.

The argument isn't really about the science of climate change. It is about what we will have to do to slow it down (let alone halt it). For the past 200 years, economic growth has involved industrial development powered by fossil fuels. Starting back in the early seventies environmentalists suggested there might be limits to growth and a branch of the counterculture got interested in designing wind generators and the like. The word 'sustainable' wasn't used then, but the aim was to create a no/low growth self-sufficient 'steady state' society and economy

These attempts were dismissed from the right and the left. The right rejected any limits to the growth of the capitalist economy. The left saw the moves as regressive – as a return to the subsistence economy of feudalism rather than progress to socialism. These old limits to growth themes have returned again in the political aspect of the 'what do we do about climate change' debate.

The complications can be traced back to the Enlightenment, to the Age of Reason. This eighteenth century advance preceded the industrial revolution, but it was the advantage industrialisation gave Europe which globalised the Enlightenment. Reason became embedded in science and technology not just philosophy and so created a continuing cycle of industrial progress which overcame all obstacles to growth. Harnessed to the boom and bust dynamic of capitalism, there seemed no limits to endless growth – even to many Marxists...

In this model, science became just one more source for further growth. Science was the leading edge of Reason, discovering fresh knowledge which technology could then convert into further growth, new products to sell. But now it seems that Reason (through science) has hit a real limit, has found the edge of the world as we know it. This has created a challenge.

For the Age of Reason, for the Enlightenment project to survive, expansion must end -otherwise there will be a collapse into chaos. There has to be a recognition, a realisation that we have not been living in an Age of Reason but in an Age of Unreason, in a spectacularly unenlightened society.

Living in a world of illusions, of false consciousness.

Part two

False consciousness is a bit of a tricky subject. Does it mean that there is a 'truthful' consciousness kicking around somewhere waiting to be discovered? If there is, how do you know it is truthful and not just a different type of falseness? Maybe it is best just to say that all forms of consciousness are approximations of a consciousness which is indistinguishable from reality.

But... that could imply an un- (or pre) conscious existence in state of nature, where 'nature' is physical reality as it was before human culture emerged. There is a paradox here. Myth is assumed to be the first form of human culture. The first humans lived within a 'dreamtime', yet that dreamtime was contained within an entirely natural world within which our ancestors had to survive with minimal tools, with a minimal physical culture. If their mythical version of the world was entirely fantastic, how could they have survived? There must have been evolutionary survival pressure to ensure that their myths and dreams could be mapped onto reality.

Fast forward many thousands of years to eighteenth century Scotland. Here the age of reason /Scottish Enlightenment overlapped and was intimately entwined with an agricultural revolution. The agricultural improvers were scathing about the ignorance and superstitions embedded in existing farming practice. But the existing ways of farming were not entirely irrational. They had evolved through trial and error to cope with local conditions and constraints.

Until the technology had been developed to produce small cast iron ploughs which could be drawn by one or two horses, the big medieval, mainly wooden, plough was used. This required a team of several oxen to pull it, which in turn required several ploughmen rather than one ploughman to manage it. Thus its use was more labour intensive, so each arable farm had to support several families. Until tile drainage was developed, the only way to grow crops in wet and boggy Scotland was to plant them on long, self-draining mounds of earth called rigs.

These (and related constraints, e.g. lack of decent roads and bridges) created a circular subsistence/ self-sufficient economy. Most people lived on the land, producing only slightly more food than they required to live on so they could grow their crops. Thus there was not enough surplus to support a large non-agricultural population. But since there wasn't a large non-agricultural population there was no ready market for any increase in agricultural production. The early (pre-1760ies) improvers were able to increase production, but since there was not (yet) enough demand for more oats etc, the cost of making the improvements which increased production bankrupted them.

So although the improvers approach to farming may have been (marginally) more scientifically rational, it was not economically rational. Even after 1760, when the main wave of improvement began, it was not driven by economic rationality. Rather, the next wave of improvers were often merchants who had made their fortunes through the first wave of Britain's colonial/imperial expansion in India and north America. By spending their fortunes on their newly bought estates, they were trying to 'improve' or civilise themselves by becoming gentlemen farmers. It was only after 1790, when the Napoleonic wars pushed food prices up, that agricultural improvement made economic sense. By this time the industrial revolution was well under way. This had the effect of stimulating the technological development of agriculture and economic demand for food to support a large non-agricultural population.

Writers at this time (the 1790ies), for example in the Old Statistical Account of Scotland, were scathing about the primitive state of agriculture and manufacturing in early eighteenth century Scotland. Yet when the New Statistical Account of Scotland was compiled 50 years later, the level of improvement achieved before 1800 was often dismissed as minimal...


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