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Knowledge without Action

Modernity prides itself on its core achievement—basing political order and economic progress on the tools of reason and a trust in science-based knowledge. Yet when it comes to grappling with the large problems of our time it is obvious that there exist wide and dangerous gaps between what we know and what we do, both individually and collectively. Organized governance structures have only selectively integrated the Enlightenment ethos into their formation and implementation of policy, and this explains part of the path of the pathos of Modernity, which despite the technological wonders it has wrought has led to the first bio-ethical-ecological crisis in all of planetary history. To address responsibly such a crisis in relation to climate change or other problems of global scope requires an adequate diagnosis together with new strategies for bringing our knowledge and collective wisdom to bear. Additionally, there exists a discrediting, and likely paralyzing, normative gap between what we do and should be doing in relation to the ethical and political dimensions of climate change.

The severe threats to present and even more to future human generations and habitat wellbeing have long been convincingly confirmed by a consensus among climate experts. [see Naomi Oreskes & Erik Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization, Columbia University Press, 2014; Climate Change 2021, 6th Assessment Report, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2021, and earlier assessment reports ] Civil society activists, most charismatically a young Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, have been sounding the alarm, raising public awareness and anger throughout the world as much as the unprecedented frequency of extreme weather events. Thunberg, speaking to an audience composed of UN diplomatic representatives of member governments gave the issue an embittered inter-generational twist: “You will die of old age. I will die from climate change.”

Not only do we know and increasingly experience the multiple harms due to global warming, but we also have increasingly dire and reliable warnings that unless the underlying situation is corrected within a narrow temporal window of diminishing opportunity, the effects of climate change will cause a series of worsening events and impacts. These include extreme weather causing flooding, drought, heatwaves, and super-storms; sea levels rising; destruction of river systems and lakes; glacial melting and polar warming; unmanageable migratory flows; polarized citizenries leading to extremist politics, demagogic styles of political leadership, and deteriorating quality of democratic governance. We have possessed this knowledge for several decades, and most governmental responses remain deeply disappointing and what is worse, objectively menacing.

Helen Camakaris in a brilliantly perceptive article writes: “The existential risks we now face are largely the consequence of neoliberal capitalism and partisan politics, super-charging growth, greed, and short-term self-interest.”[See Camakaris, “Evolutionary Mismatch, Partisan Politics, and Climate Change: A Tragedy in Three Acts,” In This View of Life, March 9, 2021.] She sensibly concludes that the time has come to rethink the fundamentals of democracy and the economy, and act “to quiet the partisan rage that is currently tearing the US apart.” It is my view that this partisan rage together with the greed-fueled preoccupation with maximizing the efficiencies of capital at the expense of human wellbeing and habitat sustainability is additional to the causal explanation Camakaris provides, a product of historical circumstances and the form of world order that has been evolving since the middle of the 17th Century when it began to take shape in Europe.

Historical Circumstances

Two elements of the historical circumstances bear heavily on why the present context fails to take rational account of the scientific consensus and its evidence-based warnings about the future when it comes to climate change. The first of these circumstances relate to the outcome of the Cold War, which induced a triumphal mood in the West about the superiority of what was touted at the time as ‘market-based constitutionalism’ that resulted in privileging capital flows at the expense of people, giving rise to ‘economic globalization’ as guided by neoliberal ideology. As long as the Soviet Union was associated with a socialist alternative on national stages, the political class in the West, including its economic elites, felt obliged to supply a measure of social protection to their citizenry and to place some limits on the accumulation of wealth by the ultra-rich. With the Soviet collapse, countervailing ideological forces no longer existed to exert a restraining impact on economic and social policies, and the result was to appraise economic wellbeing by aggregate GDP statistics and corporate profitability. In other words, humanity and natural habitat are paying this enduring price for a distorted and shortsighted response by the political classes in the West, led by the United States, to the Soviet collapse and the related discrediting of socialism as an alternative.

 The second historical circumstance of particular relevance to the difficulties associated with mobilizing a political consensus on climate change at a global level that adequately complements the scientific or expert consensus relates to the post-colonial character of intergovernmental relations at the UN and elsewhere. Newly independent countries in Asia and Africa either refused to be distracted in their efforts to give the highest policy priorities to rapid economic and social development or challenged whether their relationship to industrialization deserved to be burdened by constraints designed to keep global warming within tolerable limits. Indeed, the buildup of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere was predominantly brought about by industrialization in the West, yet the countries suffering most from climate change are in Africa and the Middle East, including the destruction of the agricultural foundation of their economic viability, prompting millions of climate refugees to flee their countries, and seek entry elsewhere to improve their livelihood prospects. The countries in the West assume scant responsibility, and when they do, it is not because of an acknowledgment of these causal connections of their behavior with migration flows, but as a hypocritical and purely discretionary humanitarian gesture displaying their high moral standards. Yet analyzing and negotiating safe limits on carbon emissions has largely ignored the underlying injustices arising from the historical antecedents of colonial governance, an aspect of which was keeping colonized peoples backward so that they retain their predominant role in the colonial era–providing raw materials and agricultural goods sought by the factories and lifestyles of the West. [See Deepak Nayyar, Resurgent Asia: Diversity in Development, Oxford University Press, 2019 on the de-development of Asia during the period of European colonialization.]

Dysfunctional Structures, Norms, and Ideologies

The failures of rational response to climate change also reflect the impacts of the deeply engrained and legitimated fragmentation of world order. There are many references to the efforts of ‘the global community’ to act and perform cooperatively, but behavioral patterns do not vindicate such rhetoric of solidarity. International institutions are overwhelmingly controlled by governments of sovereign states, whose representatives are beholden to national interests rather than either human or global interests. It could not be otherwise given the ideology of nationalism, ‘political realism,’ and geopolitical ambition that orients behavior toward the wellbeing of individual sovereign states, in other words maximizing what is good for the part rather than the whole.

Now it may be that the process of evolution, which has demonstrated that natural selection privileges cooperation, is in the early stages of manifesting an evolutionary jump ahead by the human species. It is possible that global cooperative potential is on the verge of breakthroughs, which if they occur, will only be adequately explained retrospectively being hidden from view until after their unexpected occurrence. As matters now stand there are not sufficient shared values at the global level to constitute community, and the cooperative alignments that are most robust in terms of commitment and funding take the form of alliances confronting adversary states.

This pattern was recently exemplified by the kind of vaccine diplomacy that illustrated the primary international realities of geopolitics and statism, the secondary reality of multi-state antagonistic clusters, and the tertiary reality of special interest private sector actors, especially the large vaccine manufacturers. Some civil society transnational actors are oriented toward holistic perspectives but exert almost no influence in settings where important global challenges are addressed, as for example, climate change, COVID pandemic, regulation of markets, migrant rights, and nuclear weapons.

Evolutionary Relevance

At first glance, the timelines of both biological and cultural evolution seem much too long to be relevant to unraveling the prospect for a timely, effective, and just response to the multiple challenges posed by climate change. And yet we cannot be certain that there has not been in progress over the course of antecedent decades and centuries natural selection events that incline toward the emergence of species identity along with an appreciation of the mutual benefits of collective cooperation at a global scale. In effect, humanity in various contexts seems increasingly aware that the tepid response to climate change, and perhaps other apocalyptic menaces to the future of humanity, are indeed dire news, having produced the first bio-ethical-ecological crisis in human history.

It is possible that the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, although falling short of what the scientific consensus prescribed with respect to reductions of carbon emissions necessary for assurances that a safe ceiling for global warming will be achieved, was a partial breakthrough with respect to collective action with response to climate change at a global level. It seemed a dramatic recognition by 196 governments of sovereign entities that collective action in the form of global cooperation was indispensable in view of the dangers confronting humanity, and to be achieved needed to take account of diverse capabilities, vulnerabilities, and experience of these state actors. Such an event constituted a global moment of universal recognition, although limited by the voluntary nature of participation and subject to withdrawal, could be understood as a manifestation of an emergent evolutionary trend. The withdrawal of the United States from the Agreement by the Trump Presidency in 2018 followed by the promise of a return to full participation in 2021 by the Biden Presidency can be interpreted in contradictory ways or as the ebb and flow of the underlying evolutionary reality. It may be best understood as revealing the opaqueness of evolution. In this instance, in relation to the fragility and weakness of moves toward global cooperative problem-solving or as signifying the need to modify behavior within the prevailing fragmented world order.

Because inter-governmental behavior continues to be driven by short-termism as well as nationalism, sovereign rights, and geopolitical ambition, it would seem that transnational civil society activism is faced with an evolutionary responsibility and opportunity to act more forcibly in support of a transition from statism to regionalism/globalism, with a corresponding appreciation at the state level that deference to international law and other mechanisms to contain militarism and capitalism serve a drastically revised view of ‘political realism’ and ‘geopolitical ambition.’ [See Ahmet Davutoglu, Systemic Earthquake and the Struggle for World Order, Cambridge University Press, 2021; Robert C. Johansen, Where the Evidence Leads: A Realistic Strategy for Peace and Human Security, Oxford University Press, 2021; Richard Falk, Power Shift: On the New Global Order, Zed Books, 2016; also, Jeremy Brecher, Common Preservation in a Time of Mutual Destruction, PM Press, 2020; Brecher, Against Doom: A Climate Insurgency Manual, PM Press, 2017.]

If there is to be a positive outcome to the bio-ethical-ecological crisis it will necessarily be more comprehensive than bridging the current gap between knowledge and action as reflected in the polarized politics within sovereign states that misdirects the popular imagination toward subsidiary concerns of national egoism, obscuring the unprecedented challenge to human wellbeing, and species survival. Also, of crucial importance is the parallel normative gap between neoliberal capital-driven ethics and eco-humanistic ethics expressive of an inclusive practice of justice responsive both to human rights and the rights of nature. [See Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948); Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth (2010) setting forth widely accepted normative frameworks.] If bold action is taken to bridge these gaps, we can begin to be somewhat hopeful about the prospects for overcoming the current ‘evolutionary mismatch,’ but not until then.

Published On: January 13, 2022

Richard Falk

Richard Falk

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global Law, Faculty of Law, at Queen Mary University London,  Research Associate the Orfalea Center of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Fellow of the Tellus Institute. Falk is currently acting as interim Director of the Centre of Climate Crime and Justice at Queen Mary. He directs the project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy at UCSB and formerly served as director the North American group in the World Order Models Project. Between 2008 and 2014, Falk served as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Occupied Palestine. His book, (Re)Imagining Humane Global Governance (2014), proposes a value-oriented assessment of world order and future trends. His most recent books are Power Shift (2016); Revisiting the Vietnam War (2017); On Nuclear Weapons: Denuclearization, Demilitarization and Disarmament (2019); and On Public Imagination: A Political & Ethical Imperative, ed. with Victor Faessel & Michael Curtin (2019). He is the author or coauthor of other books, including Religion and Humane Global Governance (2001), Explorations at the Edge of Time (1993), Revolutionaries and Functionaries (1988), The Promise of World Order (1988), Indefensible Weapons (1983), A Study of Future Worlds (1975), and This Endangered Planet (1972). His memoir, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim was published March 2021. He has been nominated annually for the Nobel Peace Prize since 2021.

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