Philosophy and Prejudices

This section might help explain some of the material elsewhere on the site.

Not Required Reading.

I use the word 'prejudice' because we are all subject to ideas, principles and preferences that seem natural and obvious, often that have appeared out of nowhere, yet are not necessarily shared by others. A prejudice is edgier than an assumption, and harder to change.

The discussion here expands the Three Key Ideas.

 

THE CORE ETHICAL PRINCIPLE: ACTING ON BEHALF OF THE FUTURE

I have a simple aspiration, dressed up as an ethical principle: that if somehow my great-great-great grandchildren in the 22nd century were to stumble across my work, they would raise a glass and say 'well good old grandpa, he  went down fighting our corner'.

I fear that they would have to follow that with, 'Pity he ended on the losing side'.

It's not looking too good, but we've got to give it our best shot. It would be nice to think that enough survived of our efforts to inspire descendants in the not-too-distant future. Kids of the next century, we are the good guys and we are batting for you.

The general principle is that a very wide range of moral entities in the future have rights, or at least interests, that depend critically on actions taken, or not taken, in the present generation.  The entities in question would include people of course, but perhaps also other species and indeed larger entities such as habitat types, ecosystems and even 'the Biosphere'.

Whether non-human entities can be considered as having 'interests' is a matter of debate, but the triggering of a mass-extinction event, far from unlikely, would impinge strongly on future generations of people. Of course it is trivially true that all generations have some influence on all succeeding time, but the present situation appears qualitatively different.

We appear to be approaching, or perhaps are already undergoing, a bifurcation in planetary history that will lead, possibly within decades but certainly within centuries, to two completely different kinds of future world (see below). By the standards of the 'humane values' increasingly espoused by humanity since the second half of the 20th century, one of these classes of futures is relatively benign, while the other appears repulsively injurious to more or less all parties, indefinitely. If this 'bifurcation model' is accepted, it strikes me as fairly obvious that no effort should be spared in ensuring that benign pathways are chosen, but I have to admit this is contested. 

Here are some of the debating questions. Is 'bifurcation' an appropriate metaphor? Is the situation really as 'digital' as this? Are there not fuzzy mixed futures where some parts of the world experience the good bits, and others the bad? If this is the case, how should the choices be made?   Does any generation in fact 'blame' its ancestors? Do we not generally make the best of what we have, knowing nothing else? In fact would anybody notice the specific effects of climate change, in the context of continuous, widespread globval mayhem?

Does this absolve the present generation from responsibility? And in any case where does this 'responsibility' lie? Individuals? Governments? The United Nations? Who is to speak for the interests of the future, and what 'interests' might 'posterity' be deemed to have?  

I conceive the main task of this web site is to promote discussions of these questions, and to act as a rallying-point for those who try to act on behalf of posterity.  

It is probably fair to say that in the very long run humanity will run into perhaps even greater difficulties. It is said for example we are 'due' another glacial period in about 5000 years.  At the rate human life is changing it is perhaps hard to imagine what things might be like even in 1000 years: so second-guessing their interests might be problematic. But in all likelihood the people of the next few hundred years will be reasonably like 'us'  and we can meaningfully speak of trying to interpret (and speak for) their interests.

THE CORE STRUCTURAL PATTERN:  BIFURCATION OF HISTORY

I believe we are close to a critical point in history where either

  • we succeed in preventing 'dangerous climate change', or
  • we fail, and climate change itself takes over, dominating most future agendas.

I call outcomes of the first case 'mitigation futures', outcomes of the second 'adaptation futures'.   Mitigation futures essentially maintain the stable and benign Holocene global climatic regime that has seen the emergence of regional civilisations and then the global civilisation at least notionally based on 'enlightenment values'.  Possibly it is the enlightenment vision of humanity we are really trying to preserve. 

The 'Holocene' has a been an unappreciated blessing, and is well worth keeping. Now around 10,000 years old, undisturbed it's probably good for another 5000 years until the next glacial period is due.  Already the Holocene is not quite what it was, and is commonly referred to as the Anthropocene, a geological epoch dominated by humanity. We might call the desired future regime the Neo-Holocene, or perhaps the Eu-anthropocene.

 'Adaptation futures' essentially trash the Holocene and bring in new, unprecedented, unknown and probably very chaotic weather regimes.  Even the best-case scenarios are troubling, and the worst-cases are unspeakable. I refer to this new trajectory as the 'Misanthropocene'. The diagram here summarises my 'model'.

Bifurcation diagram 2.png

The curious feature here is that the People of the Future are not yet living in either state. They are neither in the benign Neo-Holocene nor the sinister Misanthropocene, but they will certainly be in one or the other, with no ability to switch. We know with absolute certainty which they would prefer, yet they cannot do anything about it. Only we in the present have the power to help them. 

Sometimes I try to personalise this sense of future preferences by constructing imaginary conversations with a person living in the early 22nd century. I imagine that my grand-daughter might also have a grand-daughter. I call her Balqis, for reasons that need not detain us. I imagine she is wise, in her thirties and sharp-tongued. She knows about me. We correspond. She's a bit like Shroedinger's famous cat, not yet in one state or the other, but trying to influence what I (and all my generation) do to deliver a benign future. She crops up around the web site.

One of the things she often says to me sounds callous, but makes sense once given due consideration: 

Don't bother with adaptation: put all your resources into mitigation.  

What she means is that once the misanthropocene takes hold, adaptation measures will have only marginal and local effects, and it is far more rational, from the perspective of posterity, to devote those resources to prevention rather than futile band-aids. A medical analogy suggests itself: an injured person losing blood in the street needs extremely prompt attention to stem the haemorrhage; then vigorous medical intervention, then intensive care. They (and their relatives) would not thank you if instead you straightened their tie, removed the stains on their clothes or offered to help write their will. 

This by the way is an example of Outlier thought. It is entirely rational, indeed reasonable, but runs counter to received wisdom in both the mainstream and Green worlds.

SOME OPERATIONAL PRINCIPLES

I am a rather 'post-modern' sort of person, aware that nobody can escape a particular set of perspectives, while smugly feeling that this very awareness at least partially exempts me from it.  Readers will judge for themselves. 

The Truth is important to me, and I will go to some lengths to respect it even if it causes me some grief, which it sometimes does, and also to other Outliers. Within the environmental movement (and other campaigning movements too of course) it is widely thought that outcomes are the highest goal, and there are some things that should not be said because they might make the desired outcome less likely.  

An example (details elsewhere on this site, especially in Controversies) is discussion of the pros and cons of various energy systems. The custom is to talk up the things we like and bad-mouth the things we don't. It is considered bad form to muddy the waters by mentioning undesirable aspects of a favoured system or positive features of an unfavoured one.  Opponents and malicious journalists will (it is assumed) gleefully snip out these discordant elements and use them against us.

Well they might. But I don't care. On this site anything can be discussed if it is backed by some reason and evidence and is offered in good faith.   We have gone far too far down the road of polarisation, propaganda and "T'is!T'isn't!".  We need more calm spaces where we can soberly consider the entire range of options and discuss them in a spirit of mutual respect. It is important to remind ourselves frequently: We might be wrong.

Having said this I know perfectly well that the world (and especially the growing cyberworld) is full of daft and unscrupulous people with axes to grind.  Well I'm in charge here and I'll decide who is fit to take part. There will be a lot of Moderation.