The Stories We Tell on Climate Change
In a recent podcast, journalist Ezra Klein made the following comment about the climate change discourse:
I think there are two deep stories that are always implicit and sometimes explicit in this conversation.
So one is maybe let’s call it the ‘Christian story of dominion’, that man has control of nature, that nature was entrusted to us, but at any rate, that it is something that we act upon. We are trying to beat back the oceans, put out the fires, extract the lumber, pull up the oil, right? That nature’s somehow here for our extraction. And the question is, how much can we master and control it, and to what end?
There’s another story that I think has always been there, but has developed popularity particularly in recent years again, which is that this is hubris, that no matter what we do, we are subject to nature. You can live in your fancy house in California, and the fires still come for you, too. You can live in your fancy high rise in Miami, but the waves are going to come for you, too. And so that we are subject to nature, and this has all been a kind of misunderstanding of our relationship that’s going to end with tragic consequences. And obviously, those are two extremes, and people are between them.
What is the way we’re to characterize it?
These two stories paint fundamentally different pictures of our relationship with nature and the biosphere. Klein is asking what story we should be telling ourselves and our children.
First of all, why does it matter that we get this story right?
Stories are how we make sense of the world. If the problems we face today are the logical outcomes of a chain of past actions, our stories tell us what those actions were, why they happened, and how they led to what we have today. In so doing, our stories also implicitly define what should be done to solve the problems.
When we celebrate the minds of our greatest innovators, we celebrate not simply how they came up with a new idea, but rather how they were able to think about a problem in a new way. A change of perception unlocks new spaces of possible solutions. This is what it means to have an insight.
With Klein’s two stories come two different ways to think about the problem of climate change. Each story implicitly lays out a path forward for how the story can have a happy resolution. So perception very much matters.
Stories also create common purpose. As Klein observes, there is no common story to explain our climate change predicament, even among those who accept the scientific consensus. Without a common story, there is no common purpose. In societies that try to be democratic, gridlock at the level of purpose tends to result in gridlock at the level of action.
I can think of two possible reasons why there is no shared story. The first is that humans are so fundamentally irrational that there is no chance for them to ever agree on anything. The second is that both stories Klein describes are fundamentally flawed, and so is anything in between.
Let’s look at each story in turn, and consider if we’re not missing something.
The first story Klein calls the “Christian story of dominion”, probably because it can be traced back to Genesis:
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’
— Genesis 1:28
This passage gave humans the sense of moral mandate to act on God’s behalf, and to control the world in the way that God would. The idea gained popularity during the age of the Enlightenment, with the success of science. We see it in the writings of the enlightenment heroes. In 1620, Francis Bacon uses humans’ newfound knowledge to give the Genesis passage new significance, writing triumphantly: “Let the human race recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest.” In 1637, Rene Descartes takes it even further, proclaiming how “reason” and the scientific method might “render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature.”
This story casts humans as a force for good. Just as God created order out of chaos, humans create order out of chaos with their science and industry. The natural world is seen as something to be wrangled and brought into submission, and climate change is framed as another battle of “man versus nature”.
This story doesn’t jive with the intuition of the modern mind. For one thing, it’s been used to justify all sorts of “initiatives” that today we are no longer cool with. I’m thinking about colonial conquest, slavery, animal brutality, environmental destruction, and eugenics. There is something wrong with a narrative that can be used to justify almost anything. When we are taught a worldview that requires us to believe in the existence of something fundamentally unexplainable (like God, destiny, or whatever), our tendency is to fill-in-the-blank, and explain the unexplainable in whatever way suits our purposes. We should be suspicious of narratives like this, and I count it as a positive that this worldview has lost favor among those in my millennial generation.
Let’s try Klein’s second story, which says that no matter what we do, humanity is always subject to nature. A metaphor commonly used to express this worldview is the idea of “Spaceship Earth”. Physicist David Deutsch describes this concept in his book, The Beginning of Infinity:
Imagine a ‘generation ship’ — a spaceship on a journey so long that many generations of passengers live out their lives in transit… In the Spaceship Earth idea, that generation ship is a metaphor for the biosphere — the system of all living things on Earth and the regions they inhabit… Outside the spaceship, the universe is implacably hostile, but the interior is a vastly complex life-support system, capable of providing everything that the passengers need to thrive… But its capacity is finite: if we overload it, either by our sheer numbers or by adopting lifestyles too different from those that we evolved to live (the ones that it is ‘designed’ to support), it will break down. And, like the passengers on that spaceship, we get no second chances: if our lifestyle becomes too careless or profligate and we ruin our life-support system, we have nowhere else to go.
— David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity, 2011
The Spaceship Earth narrative often comes through in how my generation describes our climate predicament. Like a spaceship, we speak of the Earth having “limited resources”. We strive to live in a way that’s in “balance” with our biosphere, so as not to “overload” it. We worry about Earth’s “carrying capacity”. Our goal is to achieve “sustainability”, so that the biosphere can continue to “support” us.
This story casts humans as the villains. Originally provided with everything they needed to have a good life, humanity has aggressively appropriated more and more for itself. Like a cancerous growth, humanity has now reached a sort of “terminal stage”, putting in danger the “host” that has “sustained” it all this time.
But how true is it that the biosphere is our life-support system? And what do we mean when we say that we have “limited resources”?
Let’s go deeper into each question.
Question 1: How true is it that the biosphere is our life-support system?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “life-support system” as “an artificial or natural system that provides all or some of the items (such as oxygen, food, water, control of temperature and pressure, disposition of carbon dioxide and body wastes) necessary for maintaining life or health”.
By this definition, it appears at first glance that the biosphere would count as a life-support system, given it has all those items listed. But what about the over 99% of species that once existed but are now gone? When dinosaurs were alive, the biosphere must have felt like a life-support system to them, too. Evidently, dinosaurs, and the vast majority of species that ever lived, did not have what was necessary to maintain life and health.
If you run the numbers (more than 99% vs less than 1%), it seems that the biosphere has destroyed far more species than it has “supported”. Calling the biosphere a “life-support system” doesn’t seem to hold, unless you are comfortable with the circular argument, “the biosphere is a life-support system, but only for the tiny minority of life that was supported.”
Question 2: What does it mean when we say that we have “limited resources”?
When we think of resources, we tend to think of physical things, like water, land, minerals, and fossil fuels. By this reasoning, the resources we have is a direct function of what physical things we have access to. Given that there is a limited amount of physical things on the Earth, then it must be true that we have limited resources. But are we thinking about this the right way?
Consider water as a resource for power. To one group of people, water is a resource in the sense that it hydrates people so they could perform manual labor. To another group, water is a resource in the sense that it powers water mills for grinding grain. To yet another group, water is a resource in the sense that it powers hydro dams for electricity. To yet yet another group, water is a resource in the sense that it is used for nuclear fusion.
In this example, the amount of physical things is the same. The only difference is our level of knowledge.
When we use the word “resource”, we are implicitly making a statement about our ability to create new knowledge. When we claim to have “limited resources”, we are implicitly claiming that our ability to create new knowledge is fundamentally limited. Is this really true?
Within the narrative of “Spaceship Earth”, the fundamental limit of knowledge for any species is dictated by biological evolution. For example, we know there is a limit to what an ant can possibly understand about the world. This limit is probably related to the size of the ant’s brain, which is specified in the ant’s genes, which are formed through biological evolution. By the same token, a human brain also came to exist through biological evolution. Therefore (so goes the theory), just as ants have a knowledge limit, humans must also have a knowledge limit, albeit a much higher one. It’s often mused that maybe there could be “superbeings” whose biological evolution has reached far higher heights, who would perceive humans in the same way that humans perceive ants!
It sounds compelling, but the logic is weak. Most species on Earth (including ants) survive exclusively on biological knowledge. In other words, they are born knowing everything that is necessary to survive and procreate. They have little need or ability to learn anything new during their lifetimes. For humans, it’s an altogether different story. The biological knowledge stored in a human genome is great, but won’t get you very far in terms of survival. Humans rely for survival on cultural knowledge, which is only obtained after we’re born. Simple examples of such knowledge include what to eat, how to build shelter, and how to treat disease. This survival strategy requires coming up with new ideas and new behaviors, and passing this knowledge from generation to generation through culture. Creating knowledge culturally has none of the same limitations as creating knowledge through biological evolution. For one thing, new ideas can be spawned and criticized many times per minute, whereas biological evolution requires an entire generation for a single random mutation to be ‘tested’. Therefore, declaring that there must be a limit for human knowledge based on what we know about ants (or other species) wouldn’t work.
Given what we now know about the world, we are left with no good reason to believe that the Spaceship Earth metaphor accurately represents what’s going on in the biosphere. So where does that leave us? We can’t go back to the “Christian story of dominion” for obvious reasons, and finding some middle ground doesn’t make sense either. After all, why would splitting the difference between two bad ideas necessarily give us a better one?
There exists another worldview that is different from the two described so far. It is based on the ideas of Physicist David Deutsch and Philosopher Karl Popper. I’ll lay out my understanding of this worldview through the following key points:
- Knowledge is a fundamental property of our world. Knowledge is broadly defined as anything that has the ability to cause physical effects to the world. This includes everything from a piece of DNA, to a random thought, to a speed bump on the road, to a piece of music.
- All species are born with genetic knowledge in the form of expectations about the world. For example, humans are born with genetic knowledge on how to breathe, based on the expectation that the world contains oxygen. Most animals are born with genetic knowledge for when to mate, based on the expectation for when food will be plentiful.
- All species that have ever inhabited the biosphere have faced existential problems from the very beginning. Existential problems occur when some element of the world changes, and a species’ preexisting knowledge no longer produces the expected outcome.
- For most species, the only mechanism to overcome existential problems was to develop new biological knowledge through genetic evolution.
- Humans are different from the vast majority of species, because in addition to having biological knowledge coded in their genes, they also create non-biological knowledge (which is also called cultural knowledge).
- The difference between biological knowledge and cultural knowledge is: With biological knowledge, a new “idea” is created randomly through a genetic mutation. The idea is “tested” based on whether the idea (i.e. the new gene) can be passed onto the next generation through procreation. It takes many generations and thousands of years for new biological knowledge to evolve. With cultural knowledge, a new “idea” is created when a person has a new thought or behavior. The thought/behavior is “tested” based on whether it survives in the person that created it, and is passed on to other people. With cultural knowledge, there is no limit to how fast ideas can evolve, because instead of betting one’s life on a single new idea (as with biological knowledge), we can test our ideas by criticizing them.
- The Earth’s biosphere is not the thing that supports life. The only thing that supports life is the knowledge (either biological or cultural) that is carried by life forms.
- Given the time it takes to develop biological knowledge, the vast majority of species that rely on biological knowledge were unable to overcome their existential problems before it was too late.
- The human species has been able to survive existential problems such as ice ages, predators, and pestilence, by creating cultural knowledge in the form of new and improved explanations about how the world works.
- There is no fundamental limit for how much knowledge is possible, because (a) there are an infinite number of ways that the physical world can be caused to change, and (b) all changes that are not forbidden by the laws of physics are achievable, given the right knowledge.
- Given the infinite nature of the physical world, it is impossible to predict the full consequences of any new knowledge. Therefore, all new knowledge always leads to new and unexpected problems, and for this reason, there will never be a time that is free of existential problems. For example, as soon as a new piece of knowledge (biological or cultural) is proven successful in making life a bit easier, the species’ numbers tend to increase, creating a whole set of new survival pressures requiring new solutions. As such, most species are constantly living close to the edge of disaster.
- It follows from points 10 and 11 that no matter how much knowledge is created, there is always a potential and need for infinitely more knowledge.
In this narrative, humans are neither the heroes nor the villains. Like every other species in existence, humans are problem solvers and knowledge creators. Because humans have developed the capacity to create cultural knowledge, they are able to solve problems at a much faster pace than species that rely on biological knowledge. And because all solutions necessarily lead to new and unexpected problems, the fact that humans create solutions at a faster pace necessarily means that humans will create new problems at a faster pace.
Climate change is one such problem. It is the unexpected result of solutions that were created to solve prior problems. Those prior problems were themselves the unexpected consequences of further prior solutions, and so on going back to the first self-replicating molecules, which faced its’ own set of problems that required new knowledge.
And climate change is not the last problem. If we are able to successfully manage climate change, it will necessarily lead to new and unexpected problems, which will require ever newer and more brilliant solutions, and so on for as long as life exists.
In this narrative, the biosphere is neither a chaos to control, nor a life-support system to live in harmony with. It is simply the consequence of solutions (and attempted solutions) to existential problems faced by every Earth species that has ever existed. Viewed through this lens, the biosphere is unsustainable and will always be unsustainable. The reason this is so is not because humans have made it so, but because all solutions inevitably lead to new problems.
Climate change is certainly an unprecedented existential problem, but all existential problems are unprecedented. So why does climate change feel different from other crises? One guess is that past existential problems look very different when you have the benefit of hindsight. For example, it’s very hard for us to imagine what the bubonic plague must have felt like before we had the knowledge about how to solve that problem. Another guess is that for some reason, our society has an expectation that there should not ever be any existential problems, and the fact that one exists means something went horribly wrong. I hope that the description of this third worldview will cause readers to at least question whether this is a reasonable expectation to have.
Within the framework of this third narrative, there are two ways to overcome an existential problem, and one way to fail.
The first way to overcome a problem is by creating new biological knowledge, that is, evolving biological adaptations to survive and thrive in the new environment. The second way to overcome a problem is by creating cultural knowledge, that is, creating and testing new explanations about how the world works.
The one way to fail is to start with the assumption that the future will be like the past. If this assumption is true, then new knowledge is not only unnecessary, but it should actually be suppressed. It is disconcertingly tempting to think about it this way, because it appears to be supported by so much evidence. After all, isn’t it true that most new technology has resulted in new and unexpected problems for society and the environment? Wouldn’t it make sense to stop creating new knowledge, if that would result in fewer problems? This is essentially how the Spaceship Earth narrative would see it. In a world where life is initially provided with everything necessary to survive and thrive, there is no place for knowledge.
The problem with this reasoning is that it ignores the fact that the future has never been like the past. Humans will always be facing new and unexpected existential problems, irrespective of whether they are creating knowledge or not. Without our tradition of creating newer and better cultural knowledge, we are as vulnerable as the 99% of species that are now gone.
Today’s existential problem is climate change, and the global response to it is sluggish. Why?
Have we the people not been pushing hard enough? Should we be writing more letters to our governments, or doing more protests, or publishing more statistics, or sharing more polar bear photos?
Or maybe, there’s something more fundamental that is undermining our cause.
There seems to be a confusion around how we’re talking about climate change. On one hand, much commentary considers it self-evident that the biosphere is our life-support system, and that our aim should be for a state of harmony with it. On the other hand, the same commentary also supports the aim of creating new knowledge. As I’ve tried to show in this article, these two aims cannot coexist within a single logically coherent worldview. Worse still, they conflict with and undermine each other.
This confusion is not benign. When we subscribe to a narrative that’s in conflict with itself, we lose the ability to distinguish good ideas from bad ones. Moreover, we lose the ability to argue convincingly for what we believe in.
At the beginning of this article, I said there is a societal gridlock around what to do about climate change. Many in my generation tend to pin the blame squarely on ignorant deniers, corrupt governments, and greedy industrialists. I would suggest that the gridlock is caused in part by a conflict within the narratives promoted by the environmental movement. After all, why would anyone want to join our side if we’re just as mixed up as they are?
We could scream louder, or we could tell a better story — one that fits more with what we know about the workings of the world. It starts with critically examining the assumptions behind our worldviews — our assumptions about knowledge, infinity, life, the biosphere, and what makes us human.
For anyone interested in gaining the tools to challenge yourself and those around you, I would highly recommend that you read David Deutsch’s important 2011 book, The Beginning of Infinity.
Below is a side-by-side comparison of some of the differences between the three narratives described in this article. Think about where you stand on each of the elements listed here. Is it time for an update?