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On Being Reasonable

October 2, 2023

Scientists have been in the news of late fretting that their projections about the onset of disasters caused by a warming climate may have been off the mark. It appears that Mother Nature has pushed the “fast forward” button and we are all paddling, choking, and sizzling much sooner than sober science had led us to expect. We will be hard-pressed to devise a plan of action commensurate with the trouble we are in if we come at that task wielding flawed assumptions.

Events cannot speak of their own accord but if they could recent ones would surely be telling us that any forecasts based on conditions prevailing even until yesterday are not worth much. We have entered a new phase in the life of our planet and, by all appearances, do not have a clue about what that circumstance demands of us as inhabitants.

I am not a scientist, but I did recently encounter a related case of cluelessness that I thought I might try to diagnose. Writing in The New Yorker (07/24/2023), Louis Menand pauses at the end of an essay on the rise and fall of neoliberalism to take stock of its achievements and failings. On the positive side, he claims that globalization has lifted a billion people out of poverty, lowered the cost of many household items, turned formerly marginal nations into “economic players,” and broken the monopoly held by First World powers on modern technology. On the debit side, he notes a deepening “trend towards monopoly” in every major industry and a disturbing increase in inequality. This latter, he believes, fouls the workings of democracy and thus poses a threat to civic order.

Menand is not a hack. He is a diligent researcher, a thoughtful cultural observer, and a gifted stylist whose books are read and discussed within and beyond the academy. The reader who consults any of his books and essays for insight into American history or contemporary politics will find much of substance to chew on. Yet his summary assessment of the ideas that have been dominant in official circles for the last four decades lags even farther behind the visible course of events than the too-cautious calculations of the climate scientists. Perhaps he and the scientists have inherited the same conceptual defect.

Suppose that Shell Oil hires several dozen young Nigerians to help protect its facilities from any local villagers who might harbor ill will against it for poisoning the land base that once supported an economy of small market fishing and farming. As long as these new hires make more than $2.15/day they would count among the billions being lifted out of poverty by globalization. That is how the World Bank, the source of Menand’s numbers, measures economic progress. The wholesale destruction of entire ecosystems, along with the ways of life that flourished for centuries within them, do not figure in these calculations. The World Bank cannot quantify such things so Menand finds no occasion to discuss them. Overheating oceans and atmospheres, environmental degradation, species extinctions, soil depletion, water scarcity, drought, fire, flooding, crop failures, mass migrations – none of these worrisome developments make their way onto Menand’s ledger, even as all of them were either caused or sharply accelerated by fossil fuel-powered globalization. Progress is happening when people who once farmed and fished for a living get funneled, by whatever means and onto whatever station, into the wage economy. So long as “our” household items stay cheap, we have cause to celebrate. So long as the list of “players” in this game keeps expanding and the technology needed to keep the global machine humming gets spread around a bit, what’s to worry?

As recently as seven or eight years ago I might have nodded along with Menand’s assessment of neoliberalism. It is reasonably argued by the standards I then used to measure what it was reasonable to consider when exploring such a topic. Now, such arguments provoke the kind of irritation we feel when someone adopts an attitude of command after, in plain view, missing the boat entirely. What happened?

Two things. First, there is the news. The polycrisis, as many are calling it, has unsettled my preferred means of making sense of the world. Procedures that once seemed soundly empirical suddenly appear woefully constricted. Facts that once grounded the kinds of arguments I deemed credible were dwarfed by realities that no one seemed willing or able to treat as facts of relevance to what was going on around me. Second, my realization that I have been poorly served by the analytic tools I knew how to use inspired me to search for replacements in places that I would have not thought to visit before. I read books on animal intelligence and plant communication. David Abram’s books shattered the foundations of my philosophical outlook, creating cracks for wilder, less head-heavy insights to grow. I stopped feeling sheepish about nodding in agreement with Derrick Jensen and Paul Kingsnorth. My growing suspicions about the serviceability of Western science opened me up to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s respectful humbling of it and to the value generally of indigenous modes of understanding. I read nearly everything written by Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder. I am most likely a pagan now, if by that term we mean someone who believes it was a really bad idea to drain all of the spirit out of the natural world and invest it in a single, vengeful sky god whom we must propitiate in a manner prescribed by one pleasure-phobic priesthood or another. I am not an atheist because when I am hiking alone under old trees or watching seabirds in flight I frequently feel myself drawn into a force field of enchantment where words fail and the mind stalls. I believe it is historically warranted to call that field “sacred” and, if we are to undo the damage done by those who believe otherwise, strategically necessary.

From where I sit now, it seems clear that Menand and the climate scientists were betrayed by a desire to appear reasonable. In the gap between their conclusions and the horizon where the hard edge of reality now cuts we can measure the obsolescence of Reason as it has been conceived in the West for the last four centuries. Events quite near at hand are making it increasingly difficult to dismiss, as “external” factors or “secondary qualities” irrelevant to any disciplined act of understanding, whatever cannot be abstracted, reduced, and counted. It is no longer reasonable, in particular, to abstract humans from the natural world, reduce them to self-aggrandizing egos, and then feed their doings alone into our computations. Social systems are embedded in ecosystems, humans are enmeshed in webs of interdependence with the other-than-human.

Analyses, social or natural scientific, that remain indifferent to these insights are rapidly becoming unreliable, and visibly so, as descriptions of the real world. As empirical backing for moral arguments or policy decisions, these analyses are serviceable only to those who have a stake in keeping the blinders firmly secured.

Menand’s analysis of neoliberalism, for example, is all numbers and people. For him, being reasonable means taking such facts as can be configured mathematically and assembling a balanced account of them. All the thirsting, wheezing, and keeling over in the street, the struggling for food and safety now being experienced by millions of people worldwide, the winking out of species – these consequences of neoliberal globalization are unmistakably real but somehow inadmissible as evidence. Menand is no doubt aware of them – who couldn’t be? – but he is constrained from factoring them in by his manner of being a reasonable intellectual. The balance he achieves by adding some downsides to a World Bank success narrative comes only after leaving the weightiest items off the scales. If the people being lifted out of poverty are at the same time, and by action of the same press of circumstances, being lowered into their graves, that is probably a fact worth noting.

The scientists are well aware of ecosystems and non-humans. But they too are duty-bound to appear reasonable. The manner in which they do so affirms the foresight of those who etched into the founding tablets of modern science a commandment never to mix facts and values. In private, climate scientists confess to being scared shitless by what their most trustworthy empirical projections suggest is awaiting us just around the bend (for this side of the story, see the interview with climate scientist Bill McGuire in the 07/30/2022 Guardian). When facing the public, professional etiquette requires that they adopt a “just the facts, ma’am” demeanor. Those few who violate that code and speak their fears as responsible moral actors are chastised in the media and, often, in the academic journals for tarnishing the hallowed objectivity of science. The facts do speak, but from beneath such a thick overlay of well-mannered reasonableness that only the scientists themselves can catch their true import. With rare exception, they are not sharing with us what those facts say to them. This institutionalized cautiousness infects their sense of what we should consider normal and of how – at what rate, along which dimensions – we should expect things to deviate from that norm in the future. Their fears find no purchase in such calculations, surfacing only over drinks or in bed after the work of science is done.

I recently sat in on a conference panel where two well-informed observers traded speculations about what the future might hold. The social scientist had authored a book which, it was argued, had influenced some of the thinking and language in the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act. Her vision of the future teems with solar panels, batteries on wheels, and windmills – our tickets, if we would just invest in them, to “sustainability.” The other panelist, a science fiction writer who had woven climate change into the plotline of a best-selling novel, seconded her enthusiasm for all-out electrification. An audience member wondered what we should make of the same administration’s approval of the Willow project in Alaska and its decision to remove any legal barriers local residents had been using, out of desperation, to obstruct completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Appalachia. The science fiction writer argued that just because the drilling infrastructure is built, we shouldn’t assume any oil will actually be pumped out of the ground and burned. Perhaps there is a deeper, strategic logic to the approval of Willow. Sensing perhaps the astonishment that lit up some faces in my vicinity at least, he then informed us that there are some amazing young people working on energy policy in the Biden Administration. I doubt that I was alone in my inability to find this reassuring, but it seemed to do the job for the panelists. They then went on the offensive, invoking “the narcissism of small differences” as a way to understand the complaints of those who do not share either their confidence that right-thinking young people will be shaping policy from lowly positions in the Department of Energy or their faith in the wisdom of the “electrify everything’ agenda altogether. Skeptics, apparently, will have to pay for some therapy before that wisdom can sink in.

That exchange gives us a glimpse into how most progressives and environmentalists are now drawing the line between reasonable and unreasonable in the matter of new drilling projects and pipelines. Another glimpse was provided by a keynote speaker at the same conference. Billed as a “visionary green entrepreneur,” he floated point-clinching charts and breezy rhetoric above the stage to ornament a case for full tilt electrification. He was favorably received.

This speaker handled in three ways the argument that all the mining, manufacturing, and transport required to affect a transition to green energy would have an environmental impact as devastating as the fossil fuel economy has had. At the outset of his talk, he said with mock exasperation that “yes, we are going to have to dig some holes in the ground.” Like the anti-narcissists, he claimed the real world as his domain and chided the mass electrification skeptics for their refusal to live in it.

A bit later he flashed a chart with different sized circles designed to contrast the amount of coal, gas, and oil we now use to power our economy with the amount of what he called “transition metals” (most prominently lithium, cobalt, and nickel, along with aluminum and steel at the end of the list) that would be consumed in a green economy. The circles for the fossil fuels (figures were from 2019) were huge, as one might expect, visually dominating the chart. There were two circles for the transition metals, both quite puny by comparison, which was the point of the graphic. The first represented the amount of these metals consumed in 2020, its puniness attributable to the fact that the transition had only begun. The second circle represented the same variable for 2050 – a projection based on what somebody had calculated all this might amount to at the end of the transition.

His third tactic for handling the skepticism he knew to be festering in audiences like this was to pin it all on the fossil fuel companies. Like the cigarette makers of yore, the bad guys in this story were muddying the waters so they could keep their product burning at full volume into the future. The implication seemed to be that if you were experiencing any of this skepticism you were being duped by industry propaganda. It was not reason but partisan skullduggery that was prompting your misgivings about the green energy script.

Call me a narcissist if you must, but my misgivings arose from my own reading around in these issues and they were not being quelled by this presentation. I balked at the size of the 2050 circle – is it really possible to calculate, from where we sit now, all the materials a fully green economy would consume? Given the scale of this construction project and the unknowns sure to crop up along the way, an estimate made a quarter century before completion is bound to be an underestimation – most likely a sizable one. And were these calculations inflected in any way by a partisanship, opposed to that of the fossil fuel propagandists but in play nonetheless, that I should worry about? Early in the presentation the speaker had flashed a chart showing that “total energy-related CO2 emissions” had peaked and were trending steadily downward. He urged the audience to take pride in what had been accomplished and cautioned that we not grow complacent, as if the hard work of transition might be behind us. That was puzzling. If one consults any available graph for total CO2 emissions, one will discover that they continue to trend upwards. This fact has been widely reported and causes much consternation among those alarmed by climate change. I do not know what had to be excluded from consideration to get the downward-trending graph – i.e., exactly how “total energy-related CO2 emissions” differs from “total CO2 emissions” – but it was apparent that the speaker had selected the celebratory numbers so we might feel that we were on the right road and just needed to do more of what we were already doing in the way of sustainability to get things fully under control. The maneuver called to mind the factors Menand left out of his review of neoliberalism and, for me, drained the last bit of credibility out of the teeny 2050 “transition metals” circle.

The costs of digging some holes in the ground become more tangible if we visit a place where that is already underway. A New York Times correspondent recently (08/18/2023) filed a report on a Chinese mining facility in Indonesia, which has some of the world’s largest deposits of nickel. Chinese investors wanted to mine and smelt this critical “transition metal” (needed in batteries for electric vehicles) offshore so the operation would not add to the already poor air quality of most Chinese cities. The project proved a boon for local merchants who service the thousands of workers drawn to the site but every other impact was devastating. An aerial photograph of the site looks eerily like those taken of the Athabascan tar sands in western Canada – a lunar landscape of total ecological destruction. Pools of toxic waste nestle up against farmland. Those who make their living from agriculture – who, in the reporter’s phrase, “coaxed crops from the soil,” as if they were the ones out of synch with nature here – voiced sharp opposition to the project, as one would expect. Locals don masks on bad days; health clinics are full of people reporting lung ailments. Hours at the smelter are long, working conditions are horrendous, deadly accidents are commonplace. Non-native workers often find that their visas have been confiscated; a disturbing number choose suicide as their only avenue of escape. They wear helmets that signal by color their rank in the job hierarchy – yellow for those on the bottom, red, blue, and white for the workers and supervisors tiered by category above them. Nearly all the yellow helmets are worn by Indonesians, the rest by Chinese. The immigrant Chinese are sometimes prohibited from leaving the vicinity of their barracks lest the mere sight of them fan the animosity of native Indonesians into violence. Protests against the pollution and the caste labor system have been brutally suppressed by police and, when necessary, Indonesian army units.

Conditions such as these were not represented in the green visionary’s cost-of-transition circles. The mathematical representations diverted our attention from such realities as could be observed by the naked eye and invested our hopes in the very development – a growing “green economy” – that brought those conditions into being. This maneuver transported the discussion to a place beyond the reach of moral judgment. Anything that might provoke outrage – what most of us feel when we read about such things – had to be excluded so that the work of empirical calculation could proceed unsullied by any outpouring of empathy. Beyond that, these are just some holes in the ground. Rabbits and groundhogs, whom we tolerate, dig them too.

Also visible at the site, but buried within his math, were the energy sources that undermine the green visionary’s “we’ve bent the curve, people” cheeriness. Along with millions of tons of mined nickel spilled across the Sulawesi landscape, the reporter observed a “structure the size of several airplane hangars [holding] mountains of coal waiting to be fed into the park’s power plant to generate electricity.” Of course he did. All the major components of the “green economy” – windmills, photovoltaic cells, EV batteries – require fossil fuels for their production.

China licenses two new coal-fired electricity-generating plants a week to power its manufacturing facilities, including the ones that make those components. That is why CO2 emissions continue to rise with the numbers for renewable energy usage. As the fossil fuel companies are well aware, it is an integrated system. The economy envisioned by “green growth” enthusiasts, with its carbon capture scams and electrify everything fantasies, gives those companies a new lease on life. If they are to be put down, it will be by other means.

The reporter placed Jamal, a construction worker hired to build dormitories to accommodate the influx of smelter workers, at the center of his story. He had boosted his income by building a few rental units of his own and used that money to put tile on his floors and an air conditioner in his house. The “crux” of the matter, which the reporter derived from Jamal’s situation, was the trade-off Indonesians seemed willing to accept – “pollution and social strife for social mobility.” As Jamal put it, “the air is not good but we have better living standards.”

That does get us to the heart of things, although not in the way Jamal or the reporter imagines.

Notice that air quality is not perceived to be a component of living standards. The ecological and economic values are segregated, calculated separately, and then thrown on the scales to achieve the unhappy balance that marks the arrival of a reasonable conclusion. It mimics exactly Menand’s analysis of neoliberalism and every other account you will find online about nickel mining in Indonesia or, indeed, the mining and manufacture of anything needed for the “green transition.” The script is classically tragic – a lamentable situation unfolds that people, the reasonable ones at least, must accept as their share of a fated outcome.

So we look away from the holes in the ground and carry on, sadder perhaps but wiser. We collect data and mind our business. We add well-trained voices to those tasked with prettifying an administration which is building out the infrastructure for fossil fuel production faster and bigger than anybody. We applaud glitzy, upbeat presentations that assure us we can keep the consumer extravaganza going with batteries and solar panels. Nothing seems to shake our faith in the righteousness of that extravaganza, even as we are beset at every turn, in our communities and our homes, by despair and unhappiness.

There are plenty of bad actors in this story but rest assured that I am not placing anyone I have refenced here in that category. The explanations and projections of these observers fall short, as I see it, because they are coming at things with a stock of assumptions that is being depleted along with everything else. The intellectual climate, too, has grown chaotic. More precisely, a fissure has opened up between two ways of being reasonable. The old one, in place since the scientific revolution and on display in the arguments I have reviewed, is showing itself to be inadequate to the challenges – to reliable comprehension and sensible conduct – we now face. But a new one has arisen to supplant it. Those who nudged me in a new direction are not monks scribbling away in a monastery but writers with large readerships (Braiding Sweetgrass stayed on the NYT best seller list for over two years). The commitments that bind them as a group – to holism rather than dualism; to ecological rather than reductionist approaches to the natural world; to beauty and mutuality as defining features of that world and the need to take both into account when engaging with it for any purpose; to the worth and significance of every being, not just the humans, on the scene; to the value of being rooted in a particular place if we are to live free, well, and wisely – are shared as well by the millions of ordinary folks worldwide who have never been pried loose from these commitments in the first place. Further, those aspiring to be reasonable in this way exhibit remarkable diversity in political and religious beliefs. Among them you can find reactionaries and radicals, Christians and Buddhists, animists and atheists. Established methods for sorting out and evaluating political options and spiritual possibilities, like the old way of being scientific, have been compromised by serious weather damage. They are not worthy of repair. A new mass constituency for fundamental change – the new way of reasoning made flesh – is visible amidst the blight and the rot. No member of this constituency would find it reasonable to trade clean air for cheap household items, health and justice for toys and gadgets.

Here is real cause for optimism. Here is a transition sure to reward the hopes we place in it. The change in consciousness that must happen if we are to live within the planetary limits we have so foolishly imagined we could ignore is underway. Too slowly, and as yet on too small a terrain, but it is underway.

for a plan to shift this transition into a higher gear, please visit occupythehearth.org

Brian Lloyd

Brian Lloyd graduated from West Virginia University in 1976 with a B.A. in Sociology/Anthropology. He returned to his home town in eastern West Virginia and played in rock and roll bands for seven years, then headed out to Ann Arbor for graduate studies at the University of Michigan. He earned his Ph.D. in American Culture in 1991. He is the author of Left Out: Pragmatism, Exceptionalism, and the Poverty of American Marxism, 1900-1922 (Johns Hopkins, 1997), assorted articles on philosophy and the American left, and, most recently, “The Form is the Message: Bob Dylan and the 1960s" (Rock Music Studies 1:1, 2014). He is now engaged in a study of the interplay between political aspirations and formal innovations in 1960s rock and roll.