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The commons, and the culture of climate change

27 November, 2009

While we’re talking about national parks and other common spaces in relationship to migration, I’d like to draw attention to this nice short film on the concept of “The Commons”.  Using some groovy retro animation and sporting a catchy soundtrack, the film makes an argument for recognising those things that we (should) share as members of societies, including water and government.  The film encourages us to see the value of these shared things and to see the injustice of their exploitation by the few.

As a concise way of making a bringing a simple idea to life, I think the film is very effective.  It is also inspiring, which is not all that common in environmentalist discourse.  As was noted in a recent NYT article, environmentalism is generally failing to inspire large numbers of people to change their ways.  Witness the ever greater numbers of people who, despite the hardening of scientific evidence, do not believe climate change has anthropogenic causes.  Thankfully, there seems to be an increasing recognition that bringing about social change around climate change is not just a technical issue but one that involves understanding human psychology and “culture”.  One important factor is that of motivation, of inspiration.  Consider these statement from the NYT article:

“I think we have become very, very good at describing that we’re against. … We’re terrible at describing what we’re for. We’re against climate change, we’re against biodiversity extinction, we’re against land-use change, etc., we’re against pesticides … but what are we for?” [Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change] said.

Martin Bunzl, a philosophy professor at Rutgers University, compared the climate change movement to the civil rights movement. Climate change is often described as a “technical” problem with technical solutions, he said, a portrayal that research has shown is ineffective.

Instead, he said, the key is culture change — it’s about changing what’s in people’s heads.

I agree that people are going to have an easier time coming on board some social project which inspires them, which feels like moving in the right direction.  The problem with a lot of environmental discourse is that it plays upon feelings of guilt and pushes in the direction of greater asceticism.  No wonder so many people have difficulty signing up to that.  So perhaps we need to reframe the debate and ask ourselves not what we should abstain from but we are for.   And one possible answer to this question could be, “We are for the commons!”

Okay, enough of a rave.  Here’s the film:

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Morgan permalink
    24 December, 2009 12:54 am

    “…despite the hardening of scientific evidence…”

    The problem with this statement is that it is false. There is more reason to doubt that humans are having a significant impact on the climate today than there was a year ago, and a year ago more than two, and so on.

    Note that the Earth is not actually warming as predicted.

    Note that we are now aware of the abysmal state of the surface temperature record, and of the ad-hoc methods used to “adjust” for thinks like locating a thermometer over a parking lot next to an air conditioner outlet.

    Note that we now know that those “scientists” (we can only use the term loosely, given what we know) most responsible for creating a sense that anthropogenic warming is an impending catastrophe are now known to have colluded to skew the reporting of science through journals, the media, the IPCC, and their propaganda websites. This is in addition to the (well known and incontrovertible) flaws in the methods by which they produced catastrophe-implying hockey stick graphs.

    No, there is ample reason to think that the “science” of global warming has been skewed to exaggerate the threat. People are catching on. No wonder you advocate “reframing the debate” so as not to focus on the science.

  2. 16 January, 2010 12:08 am

    Thanks Morgan for providing a good example of what I’m talking about. You make a number of claims, stated as concrete facts (“the world is not actually warming as predicted”) without providing a skerrick of evidence. This is supposed to be taken as truth over the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists, because … well, just because. Of course you need to account for the lack of peer reviewed scientific literature contradicting the theory of anthropogenic warming. The answer: there is a conspiracy, i.e. there has been widespread collusion, intentional skewing of data etc. You suggest that this is not real “science”, but rather a combination of conspiracy and propaganda.

    Thus you point to the phenomenon that occupied me in my post: why the enormous authority of scientific discourse to represent itself as Truth has failed on this particular issue. However, it’s not really “Science” itself that has lost its authority, because this continues to be assumed to be a realm of supposedly objective truth beyond everyday society. Indeed, climate change deniers rely on the notion that there is such a thing as Science in this sense in order to accuse climate change scientists of falling short of this ideal.

    For example, there’s the notion that climate scientists are “colluding” rather than doing proper “science”. I suppose you’re referring to the infamous East Anglia emails. These emails do point to possible misconduct by the scientists in question and I believe they should be investigated. But as George Monbiot has pointed out in his blog and elsewhere, it is taking a giant leap to suppose that possible misconduct on the part of a few scientists brings the whole science of anthropogenic warming into question. This would require a conspiracy of monumental proportions, and the evidence that such a conspiracy exists is very thin indeed.

    Don’t get me wrong though. I think that it’s very important to remain sceptical about the scientific evidence and the way the scientific evidence is presented to us. Scientific consensuses have a way of being self-sustaining, as we know from Thomas Kuhn’s famous work on paradigm shifts. I welcome genuinely sceptical work on climate change science which points out faults where they exist. Such has been the debate around the so-called “hockey stick” graphs that you mention. There has been substantial and sustained debate amongst scientists about the merits of the research that produced these and some of the shortcomings of that research have been pointed out. However, it is not the case that the findings have been proved of no value. From what I can tell the majority of scientific opinion continues to support the validity of these findings despite a number of weaknesses. But that’s science, or at least one part of it.

    But if we’re going to call ourselves sceptics we should be consistent about it; we shouldn’t pick and choose which aspects of the debate to be sceptical about. We need to be equally sceptical about the claims of climate change deniers, to the possibilities of hidden interests and agendas, collusion, cherry picking data and all the rest of it. This is why I don’t like the term “climate change sceptic”; if you’re going to be a sceptic, be a sceptic about everything. But as we see time and again, those “sceptics” who seek out possible clashes of interest among climate scientists, and who treat every possible weakness in the existing data as proof that the whole field is suspect and who claim that scientific fraud is taking place, do not subject the claims of deniers to the same level of scrutiny. Indeed, when it is clearly shown that certain deniers, such as Ian Plimer, continue to repeat statements that are demonstrably false, the “sceptics” remain silent. This is why it is more correct to call them deniers rather than sceptics.

    Take the question of money and vested interests. Deniers will often point out that money is the real motivator for climate scientists, that they are more interested in obtaining grants than finding the truth. Is there any validity to this argument? Yes, there probably is. I’ve known enough academics to know that winning grants is important to them and that they will tailor their applications to give them a better chance of success. A little while ago when the Australian Research Council moved in a more conserative direction and it was generally believed that research projects that mentioned “gender” would not get a look in, many academics quietly dropped references to this term from their applications. I.e. academics are just as pragmatic as anyone else and they will have a good sense of which way the wind is blowing if they are to be successful. This fact, and any other number of social factors, affect the way “science” happens. Does this render all academic work, and all scientific results suspect? Well, yes, in the sense that we can’t talk about “the science” as some objective realm of Truth outside of human relationships. But that doesn’t mean there’s not validity to knowledge that is produced. Again it’s the partial nature of the sceptical gaze that annoys me: why should climate scientists be singled out for special attention? Why is it only their possible conflicts of interest that are significant, and render their findings suspect? Why don’t we apply the same level of “scepticism” to all other scientific fields? And more importantly, why don’t we also consider the conflicts of interest behind the discourse of the deniers? Fossil fuel industry, anyone? That people can believe climate scientists are all interested in pulling the wool over they eyes of government and the public for the sake of a few grants while ignoring the vested interests wanting to maintain the impression that the debate is still “open” quite boggles my mind.

    Finally, can I just end this long comment by saying that my post was in no way suggesting that we should move away from “the science” when thinking about this idea of the commons (a notion which, by the way, implies that I am “in” on the conspiracy — see the way this kind of thinking works?). The realisation that “science” is not a pure, transcendent form but a thoroughly embedded social practice does not mean “moving away” from it. Rather, it means “getting closer” to it, understanding it much better for what it is, in all its complexity, and the way it connects to other aspects of social life. Really, what I was really trying to say is that we should be looking for new ways for scientific discourse to dovetail with popular imagination in a way that will inspire action rather than despair.

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