THREE KEY PRINCIPLES...
...that set out the stall and define a particular, perhaps unusual, approach to sustainability. Further discussion of basic principles can be found in Philosophy and Prejudices.
collaborate with the 22nd century
We should try to interpret, and then defend, the interests of future generations. They cannot do it themselves.
Perhaps this sounds an obvious sentiment, if a bit strait-laced. Everyday morality has many similar notions: Clear up after yourself; pay your dues; leave the world a better place. The Brundtland definition of sustainable development urged that we meet our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. The very notion of sustainability implies a long term view, not burning the furniture to keep warm.
Except that it has become plain in the last twenty years that it is very hard to resist burning the furniture, even if we don't really need to.
The result is an incipient bifurcation of history that will commit our descendants to a physical world very different from the benign, well-buffered climate we have enjoyed in last 10,000 years of the Holocene interglacial period.
They won't like it. In fact it could be really horrible and impossible to escape. Our descendants should not have to adapt endlessly to climate change. It is up to Us to prevent it. Only We can do this. They cannot.
Successful prevention of 'dangerous climate change' allows a continuation of the benign Holocene climatic regime. Failure leads to an irreversible state I call the Misanthropocene. So They depend on Us, and I take this seriously.
I like to imagine conversations with people in the 22nd century about 100 years from now. What would they like us to do to ensure they live in the 'good' branch of future history, and not the bad one.
In fact I have even personalised this to the extend of 'corresponding' with an imaginary great-great-great grand-daughter. This, I find, helps me to choose priorities and make decisions. She crops up around the site. Called Balqis. In the 22nd century she is unlikely to loook like my rather blonde existing grand-daughter pictured above, and might well be a meta-Muslim, as most of us are, faute de mieux, meta-Christians.
This is what I mean by listening to the voices of the Future.
START WITH THE PHYSICS, NOT THE POLITICS
One of the most significant political experiments of all time was carried out by the Anglo-Danish king, Canute, in the 10th century, at least according to legend. Sick of the endless demands of fawning courtiers assuring him his powers were limitless, he had his throne taken to the seashore to face an incoming tide. Sternly he ordered the sea to stay where it was, while his awestruck court looked on. Of course the water flowed up round the throne and everyone was forced to retreat.
The result of the 'experiment' then is this: that fundamentally, Physics Trumps Politics. Think about this
Of course we have come a long way in controlling many aspects of the natural world, but we have never succeeded in altering the fundamental laws of nature.
This has a strong bearing on climate change, which is caused by an energy imbalance based on the first law of thermodynamics. Unless the fundamental issues are addressed it is not going to go away, and as it turns out, addressing the fundamentals is quite difficult.
Over the last decade it has become clear that any physically realistic programme for tackling the problem is almost impossible to implement within the present political and economic arrangements. In other words a programme might be physically realistic, but is not politically realistic.
The converse is also true: that politically realistic programmes are not physically realistic. This is fairly easy to demonstrate, and several items around the site address the matter.
The physics-politics gap is a serious blockage. But we have start somewhere. Which is better? The 'Canute Principle' (as we might call it) tells us the answer: it is better to get the physical requirements right first, then build the politics and economics around them. Not the other way round, which is what nearly all governments, economists, think-tanks and university research programmes tend to do. No doubt it seems 'pragmatic', and of course, it's where the money is, but it cannot be right.
As part of an acknowledged minority, this web site will argue the case for remorseless 'physicalism' -- creating physically realistic scenarios without a great deal of regard for political and other constraints. In our view it is necessary to set such constraints on one side to avoid tramelling the requirements of programmes that will actually work.
This is what I mean by giving Politics a secondary role. It is not really meant literally, and of course in the end political measures are required. The principle is offered to stiffen our spines, to emphasise how very difficult it is to avoid the 'gravitational pull' of short-term political realism. We have to put it deliberately out of our minds.
The stakes are so high, and political voltage so great with many aspects of climate change, that sometimes it is hard to think straight. It is hard to find calm spaces where all these difficult matters can be explored without a dense cloud of fears and taboos.
We have to keep our eye on the long-term goal, that is, care for the essential interest of the future inhabitants of the planet. On the way it is easy to become enmeshed in complex political calculations about which law or party or policy detail would be best, and most favoured by action x or y.
Perhaps such detail is essential, but that is not the role of us 'physicalists'. We are here to put out the arguments, maintain open minds, point out the evidence, design strategic transition programmes, develop parallel narratives and patiently remind everybody over and over again that we are failing to live up to our own highest standards.
This all needs humane common sense, but above all, sweet Reason and Doing the Numbers. Read on!
DO THE NUMBERS
The nature of the climate problem is a quantitative one. It depends on physical temperatures, gas concentrations, radiation effects and so on that are going on all the time, but it is the actual numerical values, the quantities, that make them into a problem. We need to be able to evaluate all the different factors with reasonable accuracy to tell how we are doing and what to do next. We need fairly precise numbers and measurements to be able to allocate responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions and work out who should do what, where and when.
Qualitative assessments are sometimes needed too of course: numbers can't do everything. Many people feel uncomfortable with numerical arguments and must remain part of the debate.
But without the discipline of reliable data we cannot tell whether we are within spitting distance of a correct interpretation, or even whether we are going in the right direction. Neither can we discuss intelligently with others and correct our mistakes. It is too easy to make things up to suit our interests.
Having accurate data allows us to interpret numbers in the form of graphics that are more congenial to most minds. But the graphics themselves must be quantitatively accurate.
There is no escape from the numbers.
This is a quantitative diagram representing the total accumulated greenhouse gas emissions implied by UK government policy from 1990 to 2050. The 'allowable' emissions budget is shown in purple at the bottom.