Hypatia Symposium – Climate Change & Complacency by MICHAEL D. DOAN

Climate Change and Complacency

hypatia_covermichael_doanMICHAEL D. DOAN
Assistant Professor, History & Philosophy Department, Eastern Michigan University


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Climate scientists, social scientists, and environmental ethicists have issued dire warnings. Current global greenhouse gas emissions trajectories exceed the worst-case scenario envisioned in the fourth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC2007), making it unlikely that the global average temperature will be held to a 2°C increase over preindustrial levels given present mitigation efforts. Societies are already coping with unusually frequent and intense weather events (heat waves, cold spells, “supercharged” storms), ecological disturbances (melting glaciers, rising sea levels, floods, droughts, wildfires), pressures to modify traditional agricultural practices, and compromised food and water security. Current inaction has prompted experts to consider even more dangerous scenarios involving more than 3 or 4 degrees of warming (Smith et al. 2009). These scenarios force societies to face devastating collapses of social and technical infrastructure, forced displacements and relocations of peoples, conflicts over lands and resources, and escalating losses of life.

Although climate change is undoubtedly a physical phenomenon, as the editors of this special issue emphasize, it is one built on complex social and political understandings and responses. Its origins and impacts cannot be understood without taking into account complex histories of the transformation and domination of lands and of peoples under settler colonialism and other imperialist systems of rule, propelled by capitalist imperatives of economic growth and white supremacist, heteropatriarchal social orderings. Indeed, the causes, benefits, and burdens of environmental degradation have rarely been parceled equally. Much less can climate change be understood in isolation from current patterns of socioeconomic inequality and political disempowerment that stand to be exacerbated in societies structured and expressed spatially along lines of gender, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, race, age, and ability (Goldberg 1993, ch. 8; Anthony 1995; Pulido 2000; Westra and Lawson 2001; MacGregor 2010). As Chris Cuomo stresses, “climate change is a matter of global social justice” that is already intensifying the ecological and social vulnerabilities of large portions of the world’s population, in many cases “precisely because they uphold ecological values that have not been engulfed by global capitalism and technological modernization” (Cuomo 2011, 693, 695).

Sorting out the responsibilities to be assigned and assumed in responding to climate change is a task that calls for broad-based participation. However, delegations from nation-states have persistently failed to elaborate and execute long-term coordinated response strategies, and surveys and polls suggest worrisomely low levels of public engagement within nations such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada (Nisbet and Myers 2007; Leiserowitz 2008; Upham et al. 2009; Newport 2010; Leiserowitz et al. 2011). These motivational challenges are particularly pressing in nations that have historically been among the highest emitters of industrial greenhouse gasses, and that continue along unsustainable pathways of resource extraction, production, consumption, and waste. In spite of detailed documentation of the role of corporate campaigns in promoting skepticism by generating misunderstandings of climate change (Hoggan 2009; Jacques 2009; Oreskes and Conway 2010), reverberating through conversations on what is commonly called the “problem of inaction” or the “value-action gap” among communications specialists (Moser and Walser 2008; Moser 20092012), social psychologists (APA 2009; Gifford 2011), social scientists (Eliasoph 1998; Blühdorn 2007; Norgaard 2011; Webb 2012), and geographers (Bulkeley 2000; Swyngedouw 2010), these motivational challenges remain puzzling. As political sociologist Ingolfur Blühdorn notes, “Trying to make sense of the evident contradiction between late-modern society’s acknowledgement that radical and effective change is urgent and inescapable and its adamant resolve to sustain what is known to be unsustainable is a hugely important and difficult task” (Blühdorn 2007, 272). Meanwhile, accusations abound of widespread apathy, ignorance, denial, and—to the point of my paper—complacency. Charges of this sort signal that there is nothing benign about resting content with the status quo, passively allowing for the formation of misinformed, imprudent, and ethically suspicious policies and practices.

What exactly does it mean to be “complacent on climate change”? Getting a better handle on diverse forms of what we might think of as “motivational inertia” seems crucial to furthering the political project of reducing the harms of climate change. I take it that the unprecedented nature of the problem calls for the reinvention of concepts that help us hold ourselves and others accountable in meaningful ways. For this reason I want to help make “complacent” a weighty political charge—a charge that, along with “corrupt” and “cruel,” picks out a “vice” that we need to work on remedying.

To be clear, complacency is one of several forms of motivational inertia standing in need of philosophical attention: apathy, indifference, resignation, and despair have all been subject to neglect (although see Geras 1998; Tessman 2005, ch. 4). Although I am interested in developing an account of the specific phenomenon of complacency, I propose that philosophers should understand multiple forms of motivational inertia from within a general framework of motivational vices. Further, there is cause to view these as species of what Lisa Tessman calls “ordinary vices of domination” (Tessman 2005, 54–79). Very roughly, a person should be seen as in the grips of a motivational vice when the ways she has been constituted as a moral agent prevent her from inquiring into, understanding, and responding well to a range of complex ecological and social problems. Although the broader vision of vice I espouse is indebted to more traditional treatments of virtues and vices, it is distinguished by its focus on the relational dynamics and structural processes that foster, sustain, and enforce various forms of motivational inertia.1 For this reason, I will draw upon and extend the work of feminist ethicists, critical philosophers of race, and moral psychologists, especially those who take relational and structural approaches to understanding human motivational capacities (Campbell 19972003; Walker 2007; Downie and Llewellyn 2012) and the epistemic practices of situated agents (Mills 1997; Code 2006; Sullivan and Tuana 2007).

I proceed as follows. In section I, I take up the recent work of Chris Cuomo and Susan Sherwin on the ethical and political dimensions of climate change. I suggest that Cuomo’s discussion of the “insufficiency” problem and Sherwin’s call for a “public ethics” jointly point toward particularly promising harm-reduction strategies. In section II, I review extant philosophical treatments of complacency, before going on to argue that Nicholas Unwin’s and Jason Kawall’s accounts are inadequate to the task of sorting out what it means to be complacent on climate change. In section III, I offer a sketch for an alternative account. To anticipate: although complacency is commonly thought of in terms of feelings of “self-satisfaction,” I argue that regardless of an agent’s self-directed feelings and explicitly held beliefs, they are complacent on climate change insofar as they are caught up in patterns of behavior that express settled expectations of self-sufficiency. Examining the phenomenon of complacency through a critical-feminist lens, I chart relationships between motivational inertia, privilege, and power by considering the circumstances under which changes in behavior and lifestyle are promoted and pursued as suitable responses to complex ecological and social problems. I also put into question depictions of complacency as a product of epistemic negligence for which individuals are solely and wholly responsible, and as a vice that individuals might “overcome” on their own, resisting the temptation to reduce complacency to ignorance or denial. Recognizing the urgent need to work collaboratively toward sustainable societies, those who are eager to be “shaken out of” complacency on climate change should not expect their journeys to be easy, or to take place overnight, worthwhile though they may be.

I. Publicizing Climate Ethics

No individual can even begin to slow climate change by reducing her own personal and household greenhouse gas emissions, even if she recognizes an ethical responsibility to do so. To make matters worse, should the vast majority of individuals and households the world over manage to drastically reduce their privately controlled emissions (changing light-bulbs, recycling more, and so on), their collective efforts would still be inadequate. Cuomo dubs this the “insufficiency” problem (Cuomo 2011, 701). Her recent work highlights the “rarely emphasized fact” that “household consumption and personal transportation account for a significant but minority slice of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide,” which means that, “Even if personal sphere reductions that can be directly controlled by individuals and households are ethically imperative, they are insufficient for adequate mitigation” (701).

Indeed, mitigating climate change is an extremely complex practical challenge that cannot be met solely through the efforts of ethically conscientious individuals acting qua individuals. It is a political challenge in addition to an ethically and practically demanding one, which is to say that citizens of industrialized nations are called upon to exercise political agency in recognition of responsibilities we share with others worldwide (Young 2011). Especially weighty claims have been pressed on citizens of Western nations that have contributed the most to producing the industrial greenhouse effect over the last century and a half, and that continue along unsustainable pathways of resource extraction, production, consumption, and waste.. When government and corporate agents in high-emitting nations persistently refuse to acknowledge their roles in causing climate change, and decline to take responsibility for addressing the problem, Cuomo suggests that for concerned citizens, “political activism, popular education, and effective coalitions may be even more important than private-sphere mitigation efforts such as reducing one’s own carbon footprint” (Cuomo 2011, 707).

Cuomo’s argument should give us pause for at least two reasons. First, many people living in the West have grown accustomed to the individualization of responsibility for addressing climate change. As sociologist Janette Webb points out, it is not only environmentalists who have been pushing the idea that changing a light, recycling more, and planting a tree are particularly effective ways of slowing climate change and of transforming into environmentally conscious citizens. The prevalence of these recommendations must be understood in the context of neoliberal micro-economic governance in nations such as the US, the UK, and Canada, where common tactics include deploying behavior-change technologies to enable the transformation of individuals into “green consumers,” while offering incentives (for example, differential government funding; investment options with energy firms) to induce the cooperation of environmentalist groups. One effect is that consumers are encouraged to develop the capacity for performing “carbon-calculus,” internalizing the long-term environmental costs of their purchasing behaviors (Webb 2012, 116; cf. Szasz 2011). By coming to make more informed decisions in “markets designed to associate satisfaction, prestige and self-worth with increasing consumption of carbon-intensive products” (Webb2012, 119), green consumers are led to see themselves as undergoing profound lifestyle changes. Meanwhile, because the demands placed on individuals’ limited cognitive resources “leave little room to ponder institutions, the nature and exercise of political power, or ways of collectively changing the distribution of power and influence in society” (Maniates 2001, 33), the basic lesson absorbed through this mode of governance is that “we have to change radically, but within the contours of the existing state of the situation… so that nothing really has to change” (Swyngedouw 2010, 219). On the basis of her case study of Scotland, Webb argues that these tactics allow “the work of governance to proceed seemingly productively” (expert behavioral knowledge is guiding public policy; some people have become carbon-calculators), while ultimately offering “limited and largely self-defeating means of transition to a sustainable society” (Webb 2012, 121).

Second, engaging in political activism, popular education, and forging effective coalitions need not mean struggling to create alternatives to unsustainable policies through suitably democratic processes. Eric Swyngedouw argues that nurturing “apocalyptic imaginaries” of the world coming to an end is “an integral and vital part of the new cultural politics of capitalism,” for which a central leitmotif is the management of popular fear (Swyngedouw 2010, 219). These imaginaries tend to be wielded as means of disavowing social conflicts and antagonisms, effectively clearing the ground for invocations of Humanity as an agent of change while silencing the dissent of marginalized, disempowered groups. Swyngedouw contends that stoking populist sentiment in this manner “forecloses (or at least attempts to do so) politicization and evacuates dissent through the formation of a particular regime of environmental governance that revolves around consensus, agreement, participatory negotiation of different interests and technocratic expert management in the context of a non-disputed management of market-based socio-economic organization” (227). Thus, he underscores the need to turn “the climate question into a question of democracy and its meaning” (229)—not just a question of whether to engage in collective action, but of how to do so, with whom, through what organizational forms, with what modes of collective decision-making, and so on.

In light of growing acknowledgment that the only responses that seem workable involve collective action, Susan Sherwin has issued a call for a new kind of ethics: a “public ethics” (Sherwin 20082012). Extending her earlier work on “relational autonomy,” Sherwin attends to the many ways in which the activities of individuals, groups, and institutions are framed and constrained by the actions of agents at other “levels of human organization,” reminding us how thoroughly intertwined are the actions of individuals and the organizations to which they belong.2 Whereas her earlier work focused on how the autonomy of members of oppressed groups tends to be limited by the reasonable options made available in specific circumstances, she now appreciates that when it comes to climate change, “even those individuals with privilege and power are caught up in patterns of behaviour that are contrary to their deepest interests” (Sherwin 2012, 27). The problem is that many of us “lack the skills and infrastructure options necessary for making choices that give proper weight to the long-term consequences of the practices in which we collectively engage, and we find ourselves continually encouraged to focus on immediate gratification” (25).3

9 thoughts on “Hypatia Symposium – Climate Change & Complacency by MICHAEL D. DOAN”

  1. As a scientist who studies the impacts of a changing climate on ocean ecosystems, in particular coral reefs, and who teaches various undergraduate courses on environmental science, I have read Doan’s paper with great interest. As a non-philosopher, I humbly offer my comments. This paper on complacency as it relates to climate change struck a chord with me. For one, the complacency that Doan depicts and discusses is prevalent among various groups and levels: individual citizens, organizations, governments, the global community. And the reasons outlined for this are compelling. I agree that the very complexities that are inherent in the scientific mechanisms associated with climate change contribute to the complacency and cycle of complacency that we see. A pessimist may equate this cycle of complacency with despair; both for our planet and for humanity. So, with a better understanding of the drivers of complacency as they relate to climate change, how do we move forward? How, as people who care, do we avoid complacency as it relates to climate change? What are we supposed to do?

    As a starting point, I would offer the myriad organizations and institutions that are developing and/or implementing climate action plans for international use (e.g., Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Reports), religious groups (e.g., United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), and colleges and universities (e.g., American College & University President’s Climate Commitment) to name a few. These groups and the strategies they are putting into place at a local level provide evidence that we do have guidance for mitigation and this guidance is continually being modified and improved. We are starting to appreciate that collectively we can make positive differences. And perhaps some concrete ways of breaking the cycle of complacency.

  2. This is an extremely thoughtful and important article. I hope it gets widespread readership and helps people to wake up. Thanks for sharing it here, I wouldn’t have discovered it otherwise.

  3. Hi Lisa,

    Thank you for your response, and for participating in the forum. I think it’s really important for feminists and feminist philosophers to be thinking and working together with natural and social scientists on issues of such urgent concern. And for what it’s worth, I don’t think of the sort of conceptual issues I’ve been raising here as the exclusive “turf” of philosophers, though I appreciate your gesture of humility. It would be great if more of us would assume a more critical, active role in these humble negotiations, which are going on everywhere at all times.

    On that note, I share your concern about despair and agree that complacency, in the sense articulated here, is not too distant a cousin. Part of what I have been suggesting is that, unlike the despairing (and apathetic, or indifferent), those in the grips of complacency often care a great deal about the direction in which planetary ecosystems, social systems, and their inhabitants are heading. And unlike the resigned, they remain committed to responding, whether through participating in mitigation efforts, or adaptation, or both on a variety of scales and from diverse locales. But people’s lives are complex and dynamic, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that folks tend to drift in and out of different relationally constituted states.

    Part of I have been wondering is why so many of us end up framing practical and political questions in terms of what “I” can and should do, and who or what has been encouraging this way of thinking and relating. What do you think? I worry that a lot of people struggle with feelings of isolation and powerlessness that are only further exacerbated when normative questions are posed in this individualizing way. It’s a real problem. Perhaps something similar could be said of many groups and institutions, insofar as they don’t self-consciously regard themselves as already thinking and acting in relation to others at various levels or organization and across numerous sites. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on what it is about the organizations you mentioned, and what they are doing, that you find particularly promising as a starting point. For whom do you think these modes of response best suited, and to whom do they tend to appeal?

    One last thought. Maybe it would be helpful if people and groups started by inquiring into how others living nearby have already been mobilizing collectively in response to the combination of ongoing climate change with less spectacular, more longstanding and everyday forms of economic, social, and political catastrophe. In some places responses are being organized, in part, through organizations and institutions of the sort you mention. Though sometimes not, or at least not accessibly for many. And if broad-based participation is an aim in movements for climate justice, then this is a serious concern. Exploring for ourselves, from where we respectively stand, we might find that responses embedded in situated knowledges and understandings of responsibility (see the discussion of Kyle Powys Whyte’s paper, for instant) offer attractive possibilities for building relationships, long-term collaborations and movements oriented towards addressing the concerns of frontline communities, which all of us are connected to in some way or another.

  4. Hi Michael,

    Your question about framing important issues in terms of what “I” can do and where this comes from is interesting. How, given the enormous scale of the problems facing us, can I make a difference? Students in my introductory environmental science classes typically ask a similar question. My response (and something that I firmly believe, regardless of how trite it, admittedly, sounds) is that it will take all of us to solve these problems, even if all we can do are seemingly very small things. It takes many small drops of water to fill the ocean. Students never like that answer! So, ultimately, I think the value of “I” (and perhaps the use of focusing on “I” as a strategy) is two-fold: awareness and some measure of conciliation. By that I mean those who participate in small environmental initiatives, in theory, gain awareness of these issues that they can either pass on to others or choose to become more engaged themselves. For the environmental movement in general, focusing on “I” fills the gaps left by and perhaps makes up for inaction on the international level when it comes to climate (think Kyoto). In fact, many organizations including the few I mentioned, like the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/environment/global-climate-change-a-plea-for-dialogue-prudence-and-the-common-good.cfm) and the American College & University President’s Climate Commitment (http://www.presidentsclimatecommitment.org/), have come about in part as a response to inaction on the international and national level. These bring smaller groups together (churches and colleges/universities, respectively) to make changes within their own domains and purview. I am more familiar with the ACUPCC – it requires signatories to provide a Climate Action Plan within two years of signing; the Plan must include target dates for climate neutrality and interim target goals among other requirements. Of the 684 signatories to date, 533 colleges or universities have submitted their plans. And like you mention, one of the great things about these organizations is that they do allow for exchanging of ideas, resources and troubleshooting. These more local efforts have (mostly) been driven by inaction at the international level and are something encouraging about focusing on what “I” can do. Albeit, collectively!


  5. Lisa,

    Thank you for sharing resources and info on these organizations and initiatives. It is always great to learn more about what other people in different places have been up to, how they are framing and organizing responses to climate change and related concerns of social and environmental justice (if and when they are acknowledging the complex political dimensions of the issues), who they are and are not including in their processes, and in and what ways. I’ll look into these with interest!

    When the “us” in “it will take all of us” is invoked, it can often be important to ask: Who is imagined as actual and possible participants by various people, groups, and institutions? What forms of participation are imagined as important? Whose knowledges and ways of relating and organizing are being valued, supported, and encouraged in fact and in prospect? What would it mean to develop genuinely “ecumenical” approaches to working for climate justice, when–in the context of the United States and Canada, at least–so many have historically been excluded from or been undervalued by those who describe themselves as “environmentalists”? Is such an approach possible, and if so, desirable–and for whom?

    These are all really complicated questions and I hope to keep on thinking through them together.

    I also wanted to flesh out a few concerns about focusing on and acting with pride of place given to the “I” a little bit further, as I fear they may not come across clearly enough in the short paper offered here. While having a sense of personal efficacy in thought and action is important for a lot of people, especially those who have been raised in highly individualistic cultures and societies, I have found it helpful to think of this as only one concern, and not as one of overriding importance. I also worry about underestimating my students. Many are well aware, if only inchoately at first, that they cannot make much of a difference as individuals, or by taking up individualized roles, and I’m not sure that pushing against this very realistic realization, in the direction of reassuring and propping up fragile egos, is always the most helpful way of engaging. It often seems to constrain thinking while closing off possibilities for relating and acting in more deeply collaborative and collective-oriented ways (even when people are working in coordinated fashion).

    I’m also concerned about the epistemic dimensions of the “what can or should I do?” question, which includes such doings as inquiring, crediting, discussing, trusting, critiquing, and pursuing understanding over time. Sometimes this question is posed in response to prepackaged and highly questionable understandings of what “the problem of global climate change” is, so I think there is reason to be cautious about taking the problem as “given” or presenting it as such. For instance, current levels of GHG emissions globally are undoubtedly an important aspect. But what of the economic, social, and political dimensions of ongoing ecological devastation in a variety of contexts? What is being missed or ignored through focusing only or primarily on emissions reductions within “the contours of the existing state of the situation” (Swyngedouw 2010, 219)? Is that all that needs to be considered as a possible locus of or target for change? After all, we all know that there are many “I”s whose developing understandings of the problems that are or ought to be at issue grow out of their situated social experiences, core beliefs, and the epistemic practices in which they are engaged with other members of what are in many instances quite heterogeneous communities. And how we think is importantly shaped by our material situations as well. These both constrain and enable the modes of responding that seem available to us and need to be subjected to collective critical scrutiny so that we don’t get stuck in certain patterns.

    Part of what worries me about focusing on the “I” is that it is so easy to take our own and our students’ backgrounds for granted instead of self-consciously engaging them as part of broader discussions. Perhaps our understandings of who is and stands to be affected by climate change, in what ways, as well as who is mobilizing in response, and how, could be based on engaging across and beyond communities comprised of our own epistemic ken instead of starting with “I”.


  6. A wonderful next step from Cuomo’s awesome articulation of the insufficiency problem. Bravo Michael! I like your framing of complacency as a motivational vice and your extremely insightful analysis on how individuals thinking they are “doing their part” undermines/subverts the work it take to become a viable and effective agent for broad-based political change.

    But here’s the thing. While I completely agree with you and Cuomo that the kinds of token things individuals are likely to do — recycle, reduce, reuse, etc. — do not constitute an effective change strategy, but doesn’t the kind of political agency you hope for require a particular ontological orientation, the achievement of which, in our messed up culture, requires an inside job?

    At risk of sounding pre-philosophical, it seems to me that overcoming our motivational vices is going to take some serious soul searching. Maybe your analysis does not preclude the kind of deep ontological questing I am proposing or maybe you’d see it as just more grist for self-satisfied navel gazing. I’m curious.

  7. Hi Amber,

    Thank you for the generous remarks and helpful thoughts.

    It’s worth mentioning that I don’t think either Cuomo or myself mean to be suggesting that enacting personal sphere mitigation responsibilities is not important (I’ll speak for myself here, though–that’s just what I gathered from reading Cuomo’s 2011 paper). Heavy consumption of carbon-intensive products and services clearly plays a significant, if often over-emphasized, role in generating and worsening climate change.

    However, from what I’ve read of the contributions made by Anglo-American philosophers and certain environmentalists in particular, consumption has become a near exclusive focus in what pass for analyses of the structural sources of climate change. That is a big problem in the overdeveloped and overproducing global North (and elsewhere), where energy-intensive resource extraction and food production and distribution, for example, seem not to be on many peoples’ radars. It needlessly and dangerously constrains how people are envisioning creating alternative systems, strategizing, and so on, both individually and collectively. And it has been going for a long time.

    With these thoughts in mind, I would love to hear more about the “particular ontological orientation” you’re gesturing to here, and why you think it might require an “inside job.” You’ve sparked my curiosity.

    There does seem to be all kinds of soul-searching going on in various places, and I definitely don’t think it’s my place to preclude or devalue these sorts of pursuits, which is not to say that I’m uninterested. Although I usually back away from thinking of these matters in metaphysical terms, toward the end of that paper I do wonder aloud: “How can we support one another through what are often quite difficult processes of coming to grips with how tangled together all agents are in networks of highly interdependent relationships, not to mention how changeable those relations and relationally constituted agents can be?” I’ve found relational theory, as taken up by feminists and critical race theorists, among others, to be a valuable resource–a useful way of reorienting and clearing space for different questions. May even different forms of soul-searching?

    Please feel free to take that risk you mentioned. I’m glad you’ve joined in.

  8. # Hypatia comment on Complacency 140820.

    As a long-time student of philosophy, an analyst working on ecological economics, and a full-time climate advocacy organizer, I think it is fair to say complacency on this issue, despite the many expressions we see, relates to a sense of how we fit into the fabric of the wider world. The disempowerment individuals tend to experience in our global society, along with the escalating influence of transnational flows of money in even the most liberal democracies, inhibits many people’s ability to conceive of their own role in the wider fabric of human engagement (with humanity and with natural life support systems).

    On the way to disallowing such disempowerment, it is helpful to first articulate the ways in which we are always already actively part of a web of ecological interrelationship. That the world itself, our world as we know it, the depth and reach of our experience, and our being, what makes us think of selfhood as something to grapple with and to fret about at all, that all of these are part of a web of ecological interrelationship, changes the question as to whether we are responsible for, affected by, or ethically entangled with the wider world of efforts, interests and impacts, we call the climate system. It is part of what we are as we are part of what it is, and it responds to our way of being as we respond to its way of being; we are entangled in the climate; it is part of the fabric of lived experience that gives us meaning.

    There is no way to disentangle our ethical ramifications from the complex of systems we call the climate. It is actually often the case that this insight, that we are consequential in all that we do, is the moment of insight that allows people to overcome complacency, peel away the layers of rationalization that feed our patterns of inaction, and allow them to deliberately engage, and work to contribute in a meaningful way.

    The political challenge you cite is the puzzle many people feel cannot be fit together, made of so many moving parts all susceptible to so many whims of powerful and entrenched interests. But once we recognize that we are part of an always responsive ethical entanglement, and then engage deliberately to shift the forces that keep change from working for a better outcome, it becomes necessary to help those in positions of influence understand that they can actually work together, that there is no worthy justification for not collaborating with sometime rivals and with newcomers and those from other political factions.

    Just as we often leave aside most of the force and meaning of our role as citizens, we also see how the web of political pressures and conventions overlooks the force and meaning of people working together to expand the space we consciously commit to notions of what is possible.

    We can engage; we can do better; we can require of our elected officials that they engage and do better, and they can do even more if they work together.

    Envisioning, with a real spirit of inclusion, what that coalition looks like is a direct extension of coming to awareness of our being coextensive with the ethical web of entanglements that is so often abstracted into terms like climate, world and environment.

  9. In this fine essay Michael Doan investigates the “motivational challenges” that currently appear to get in the way of the development of adequate action against global warming and climate change. The primary challenge he addresses is “complacency” which he describes as a social phenomenon rather than an individual vice or shortcoming, and which he believes can be overcome by working collaboratively to “devise and implement coordinated response strategies” to successfully address climate change.

    The sort of complacency Doan is most concerned about is the complacency that too often accompanies “green” consciousness, when moral goals seem clear and committed, but the majority of one’s actions are contrary to those goals. Given the political and structural obstacles to realizing the changes needed to address the climate changes caused by rampant industrialism, there may even be a tendency for environmentalists to feel gratification or superiority for at least caring about climate change, even when their actions regularly contribute to the problem. That misplaced confidence amounts to a slide into complacency, for regarding climate change, effective action is so urgently needed, internal virtue alone seems to hold little value.

    Interestingly, Doan characterizes the collaborative work needed to vanquish climate change as also requiring personal (if not “individualized”) struggle, especially concerning knowledge and ethics. Those who are concerned about climate change might better transform abstract commitments into realities by developing better knowledge, including understandings of the power-laden nature of history and social action, and our complex ecological interrelatedness. An implication of Doan’s analysis is that political work regarding climate change includes “shaking each other out of complacency” and facing the challenges of enacting more effective collectives and collaborations. There seems also to be a deeply social/ecological understanding of human being and agency expressed between the lines of this piece, and I would be interested in hearing more about such metaphysics as a means for unlocking complacent patterns.

    In the essay of mine “Climate Change, Vulnerability and Responsibility,” kindly referred to (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1527-2001.2011.01220.x/full)
I define two obstacles to effective action against climate change: 1) the “insufficiency problem,” or the fact that personal or household-level changes are simply not enough to dramatically reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and 2) the “disempowerment problem,” or the debilitation that results when environmentalist and moral discourses place responsibility on us as individuals who ought to change our practices, yet few alternative options are available for those who hope to make such changes. Like the slide toward complacency, the slide toward disempowerment may be generously lubricated by the distracting pleasures and demands of privilege, consumerism, social roles and the like.

    In carefully investigating the limits of individualism and the gross over-emphasis in environmental discourses on personal “carbon footprints,” and in arguing instead for consciousness-raising, caring policies, and collective political movement, I do not mean to imply that household-level efforts are a waste of time or energy. In spite of the metaphysical fictions and confusions grounding individualism, personal and household-level efforts can raise and maintain consciousness and caring about climate change and ecological ethics in general, and effectively enact powerful forms of micro-level education and the cultivation of alternative cultures. Small local changes can serve as experiments, prototypes or inspirations for other changes, and the positive effects of personal actions and interactions can often be more powerful than they are easy to trace.

    I for one am quite interested in the insights that other understandings of the political as a realm of personal illumination and healing might provide for climate justice activism and for organizing and maintaining practices and infrastructures that are caring, just and ecologically sound.

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