Source: Trounce [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
Pause for a second and consider these short ‘earth stories’:
- A Nigerian child is vaccinated against polio
- The bumblebee’s habitat declines in Europe and North America
- A sesame farmer in Tanzania buys his first bicycle
- A British farmer decides to plant some grapevines
These kind of ‘earth stories’ rarely make the headlines. Yet they are all part of the unfolding history of our planet. Together with millions of other ‘earth stories’, they give us an insight into how we are interacting with our habitat in two key areas: climate change and human progress.
Understanding climate change and recognising the progress made by humankind are central to the future of our planet and of our species. But neither gets the attention that they deserve.
But why have they both failed to get traction in the public’s consciousness? The reasons are manifold:
- Their manifestations are incremental. The 24-hour news cycle, human discourse, and the fast-moving world of business tend to favour more sudden, attention-grabbing events and narratives rather than drawing our attention to trends which occur over decades (such as climate change) or even centuries (such as human progress).
- Both are complex in terms of their causes and implications. This makes them hard to comprehend, and so it is very tempting for individuals, governments, businesses, educational establishments, and other organisations, to shy away from an in-depth understanding of them. Complex challenges – also known as ‘wicked problems’ (Rittel and Webber, 1973) – have been recognised as a key focus for modern and post-modern societies – but the hard work in translating this into practical measures has yet to begin in earnest.
- ‘Human progress’ and ‘Climate change’ are both contested terms. I have written elsewhere about the difficulty in pinning down my worldview in relation to progress, but of course even the term ‘progress’ is a difficult one to pin down: What spheres of ‘progress’ should we be considering? Whose ‘progress’ should we have in mind? How can it be measured? I have referred to the work of Steven Pinker in previous posts and I believe that he does a good job of summarising ‘progress’:
“What is progress? … Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony.” (Pinker, 2018: p.51)
However, others will disagree on what exactly constitutes progress, or will want to place different weightings on its constituent measures.
- Obtaining an accurate and unbiased verdict on their current status is difficult. This is the case firstly because both spheres are politically sensitive and therefore most messages come to us via media which are subject to their own biases. Also, even though there exists a wide body of evidence to help us to reach conclusions, this body is so wide, and so dynamic, that it is difficult to synthesise.
- Both have vested interests who find it hard to accept nuances and exceptions to their stated positions on one side or another. This means that there is considerable muddying of the water around the concepts. For the more outspoken and controversial proponents of human progress, such as Matt Ridley, the picture seems exasperatingly clear – the world is getting better – look at the proof! But inadequate consideration is still given to the environmental (and social) problems caused by some of the progress made by humankind. For many climate change activists, it is anathema to concede any benefits of climate change, whereas many sceptics, who have only just conceded that anthropogenic climate change is real, struggle to admit that it will harm the world’s poor more than the rich.
- Both seem to escape easy academic categorisation. Which discipline – if any? – should take human progress under its wing? And what about climate change? Universities have led the way with interdisciplinary departments and projects relating to climate change, but at secondary education level, it is only recently that disciplines outside of Geography have begun to explore it. Meanwhile, human progress is such a contested term and covers such a wide range of human experiences that it has an even more diffuse academic grounding – and as it is often stigmatised (with, admittedly, some good reason) as being a hobby horse of the right, then it is in danger of being shunned by the academy in favour of more fashionable and ostensibly more socially acceptable concerns.
- Both seem to have been side-lined by successive governments. In the UK, should the crucial task of tackling climate change be given its own department of government? Or should it belong to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? Either would seem to be sensible – but it is in fact the responsibility of The Department of Energy and Climate Change – two areas which have historically been antagonistic in their priorities. What about human progress? Should responsibility for this lie solely with the Department for International Development? If so, who is responsible for tracking human progress in areas that DfID is not active in, and what about human progress in the UK?
- Neither issue – particularly human progress – has gained much political traction. Many voters are much more likely to prioritise issues that are closer to home than to pay attention to global issues, especially if they are either misinformed or uninformed about their key roles in the future of the planet.
- Both terms lead to reactions that are psychologically complex. Just one example is the cognitive dissonance experienced from holding the same two views simultaneously, such as ‘a holiday would do me good’ and ‘flights are one of the most damaging actions that can be taken in terms of carbon emissions’. Sometimes it is easier to avoid thinking about the deeper consequences of one’s actions than to confront them, question them, and act accordingly. In the context of climate change, George Marshall (2014) has written about the psychological mechanisms that allow us to know something is true but to act as if it is not.
How and when will these barriers be overcome? When the twin UK obsessions of Brexit and Trump pass, as surely they will, who will set the tone for future social and environmental discourse?
When will a tipping point be reached in either sphere? When will the default position of anyone (or indeed any algorithm) considering any significant action be to consider the impact of that action on climate change? When will there be widespread acceptance of the generally positive trends seen in terms of human progress? As ever, your thoughts are welcome.
Marshall, G (2014) Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (Bloomsbury)
Pinker, S (2018) Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Humanism and Progress (Allen Lane)
Ridley, M (n.d.) www.rationaloptimist.com
Rittel, H and Webber, M (1973) ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’ in Policy Sciences 4 (1973), pp155-169: https://web.archive.org/web/20070930021510/http://www.uctc.net/mwebber/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas+General_Theory_of_Planning.pdf