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


The following is an EXCERPT, click here to read the full article

Browse the entire special issue here


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