Culturally Mature Perspective and the Climate Change Debate: How Asking the Wrong Question Results in Actions That Are, in Effect, Suicidal (an Update)

[In response to today’s extreme social/political polarization, I’ll be doing a series of articles that take front-page-news issues and address them from a big-picture, systemic perspective—from above the partisan fray. My intent with this series is not to get people to be kinder toward each another — though that would be a nice side benefit. Rather it is to help make clear how questions of all sorts today are requiring of us greater maturity and a commitment to big-picture perspective—this just if we are to ask the questions usefully much less arrive at effective answers. This third piece in the series addresses climate change.]


I’ve written extensively in the past about how culturally mature understanding brings needed perspective to the climate change debate. But with both the U.S. president and his head of the Environmental Protection Agency each climate change deniers, this critical topic is worth an update.

In part I return to the topic simply to put an exclamation point on the craziness—indeed suicidal craziness—of such denial. But that conclusion doesn’t really need my help. More I revisit the topic to reemphasize the close relationship that the climate change question has to cultural maturity’s larger challenge. Climate change presents one of a handful of essential issues where at least some degree of culturally mature perspective is needed if we are to find workable solutions. And like it or not, it is one of the issues that may prove historically to most teach us about the need for Cultural Maturity’s “growing up.” Climate change gives us no choice but to confront the necessity of bringing greater maturity, nuance, and responsibility to our human choices.

Culturally mature perspective’s contribution starts by alerting us to the fact that we are aren’t asking the right question. It then makes clear that when we do, the climate change “debate” is really over. Whether we should take climate change seriously appropriately hinges not on whether we can be certain about the science—which we can never be, absolutely, just by the nature of science—but on basic systemic risk assessment. By that measure there is really no debate to have.

In my recent book Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future (with an Introduction to the ideas of Creative Systems Theory), I use the metaphor of playing Russian roulette to clarify how systemic risk assessment essentially ends the conversation: “We witness an example of misconceiving systemic risk today with climate change. A person makes the accurate, limits-related observation that we can’t know with absolute certainty that global climate change is real and then uses it to justify not responding to the threat. I often ask people who resort to such logic what they think the odds are that human-caused warming of the planet is happening and could have dangerous consequences. I make them commit to a number. I then ask them how they would feel about their children playing Russian roulette. Few people are willing to claim that the odds of global warming being real and significant are less than Russian roulette’s one in six. And the few who might maintain this claim have a hard time escaping the recognition that their conclusion has more to do with ideology than carefully considered evaluation.”

In fact the science suggests we are playing with at least five bullets in the gun’s cylinder. And even if it were just one, that would be far from a sane circumstance. Indeed it is not being overly dramatic—simply observing what most anyone would consider obvious were the gun held by an individual rather than a species—to say it is suicidal. The origin of this suicidal circumstance is not any desire to do harm, rather simply a lack of needed perspective. But this fact makes the reality no less real or consequential.

Culturally mature perspective presents a “good-news/bad-news” picture when it comes to climate change. On the “good-news” side, it makes the answer to the basic question straightforward. It reveals the climate change picture to be more complex than we tend to recognize, but at once it makes the fact that we must act, and sooner rather than later, obvious.

On the “bad-news” side, culturally mature perspective alerts us to how effectively addressing climate change will ask of us something deeper than just being smarter or more informed. We can make a start by just opening our eyes to the obvious. But acting proactively with the needed nuance and complexity will ultimately require new steps in how we understand—and in an important sense in who we are. The fact that we are just beginning to realize Cultural Maturity’s changes adds significantly to the challenge.

Needed New Capacities

The simplest way to see Cultural Maturity’s relationship to what is being asked of us turns to the fact that effectively addressing climate change will require human capacities that are as yet rare. The concept of Cultural Maturity describes how questions of all sorts today are requiring capacities new to us as a species. Four apply with particular directness to the climate change challenge: the need for a new, more mature relationship to limits; the need for greater comfort with uncertainty; the need for a new depth of human responsibility; and the need for a new ability to hold and grapple with complexity.

The need for a more mature relationship with limits is the most obvious with the tasks of climate change. Our old cultural story was heroic. When we encountered limits our task was to conquer them. With Culturally Maturity’s “growing up” we better accept that limits are often inviolable. Effectively addressing climate change starts with acknowledging both real planetary limits and necessary to limits to what we can do. It also requires us to accept limits to technology as a solution for our problems. Technological advances will play an important role in needed changes—in particular advances that support more sustainable energy production and more efficient energy utilization—but in the end we will succeed at addressing climate change only to the degree we accept that limits are real.

We recognize the importance of greater comfort with uncertainty with my assertion that the climate change question is ultimately about risk assessment. Our tendency in policy debates is to think in terms of warring certainties. With climate change we juxtapose “climate change is not proven and thus not to be taken seriously” with “climate change is proven and thus unquestionable.” Neither claim holds up—and each ultimately misses the real question. Culturally mature perspective highlights how ideological views, views that have their origins in limited aspects of larger complexities, inherently make claims for final truth—that is a major part of their appeal.

Effectively addressing climate change will require that we take our best shot at making wise choices in the face of inescapable uncertainty. Effectively addressing climate change also necessarily entails a new level of human responsibility. It requires the acceptance of responsibility for the well-being of humanity—and life—as a whole. And the fact that this is responsibility not just for dealing with current circumstances, but for bringing foresight to our choices—being responsible well into the future—suggests an even more profound kind of acceptance that the buck stops with us.

And finally, effectively addressing climate change requires that we get our minds around a degree of complexity that before would have overwhelmed us. This is not just technical complexity; it is also moral complexity. It requires confronting what it may and may not make sense to do—ultimately a question of value. It also requires addressing the very different effects our decisions may have on different people and different species. We will need to make a lot of hard choices, and very often those choices will require taking into account a complex array of often conflicting variables. Many of the most difficult choices will come with the task of mitigating damage that has become inevitable even if we now commit ourselves aggressively reducing greenhouse gases.

Political Blindnesses

I hinted at a further way the climate change question relates to Cultural Maturity in emphasizing the importance of getting beyond ideological certainties. Here I turn to an observation shared by all the podcasts in this series: The political Right and the political Left each commonly stop short in their thinking. As with all critical issues before us, conventional conservative and liberal worldviews each lack the needed systemic sophistication.

The Right stops short in ways that are most obviously limited and ultimately ideological. Their response to the evidence for climate change and its human origins is, if not outright denial, that we can’t know for sure. That is correct. But this is a correctness based on missing—if not simply choosing to ignore—the real question.

The Left tends to respond by arguing the opposite—that the evidence is sound. They are close to being right in this case—the larger portion of climate scientists agree that climate change is real, that the major part of such change is human-caused, and that the consequences could be extreme. But the way the Left gets caught up in the proof/no proof debate has them also missing the real question. And often their simplistic reactions leave them, in their own ways, in denial about all that is being required of us.

For example, the common assumption that simply replacing fossil fuel use with energy sources like solar, wind, and hydroelectric will take care of things easily blinds people to the magnitude of the challenge. Liberals tend to have a hard time considering that less ideal options may need to play a significant role. (I have not reached a conclusion about whether nuclear power needs to represent a major part of the solution. But when liberals dismiss this possibility out of hand, they are obviously reacting more from ideology than reasoned reflection.) Liberals are also commonly in denial about the severity of economic consequences that could result from poorly thought-out and poorly timed policies (and perhaps even the best of policies). They also tend to lack appreciation for the very different ways those consequences could play out in different cultural contexts and the need to be sensitive to these differences.

Climate Change as Teacher

I’ve noted that there is a further critical relationship between climate change and Cultural Maturity beyond culturally mature perspective’s direct pertinence to addressing the issue. The climate change challenge may serve as an essential teacher for bringing culturally mature perspective to less clear-cut concerns and for the more general cultural “growing up” our times demand of us. Addressing climate change will in no way be easy. I’ve suggested that doing so effectively will require essential steps forward not just in how we think, but in who we are. But what climate change ultimately asks of us—a carbon neutral future—is not that hard to grasp. The goal—if not exactly how to get there and the ultimate implications—is straightforward.

This tends not to be the case with many of the most important Cultural Maturity–related challenges we will face over the next hundred years—for example the need to engage a next chapter in how we conceive of morality, economics, or love and the family. With each of these concerns, I can comfortably articulate why changes are needed and what first steps into culturally mature territory might require. But when it comes to describing what ultimately is being asked of us, there is a lot we are only beginning to know. The fact that the ultimate task with climate change can be simply articulated combined with the potentially calamitous consequences of denial means that the climate change challenge can readily serve to help catalyze the broader cognitive changes needed to address other, less obvious, but also critical, concerns.

We see this most immediately in how climate change helps us appreciate the new capacities I’ve described. Each of these capacities—a new more mature relationship to limits, being more comfortable in the face of uncertainty, assuming greater responsibility, and learning to better hold contradiction and complexity necessary stretch us. But each also applies throughout our personal and collective lives.

It is interesting to entertain how being forced to address climate change’s potentially cataclysmic consequences could also help stimulate changes in institutions. The concept of Cultural Maturity challenges the common assumption that modern age institutions represent ideals and end points. The fact that climate change is not just a scientific question, but a question of just how much risk we are willing to accept, makes it an appropriate concern of multiple institutional spheres. Here I will touch briefly on three: education, government and religion. With each, the challenge of addressing climate change could serve as an important catalyst for needed evolutionary changes.

In my most recent book Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future, I describe dramatic changes that should reshape higher education in times ahead. Spiraling costs and the growing contribution of on-line learning will drive some of these changes. But I propose that the more important contributor will be the way assumptions common to modern age education get in the way of its ability to provide leadership when it comes to the most important tasks before us as a species (see The Future of Education).

The board of Amhurst College recently committed the school to being a model of sustainable environmental practices—including divesting from corporations that are major greenhouse gas producers (not unlike divestiture in times past from companies that profited from apartheid). So far, few other schools have been willing to take such steps—including institutions like Harvard that we tend to look to for example. It is interesting to reflect on why the moral example we see with Amhurst has not been the norm, given that the kind of risk assessment I have described is not that conceptually difficult and something we would expect higher education to be good at. In my writing, I’ve described how a new level of moral leadership will be key if higher education is to effectively prepare our young people for the future and continue to be relevant. Amhurst should be applauded not just for intelligent policy, but for modeling culturally mature decision-making for its students and for society as a whole.

The concept of Cultural Maturity also points toward the need for major changes in how we think about government and governance (see The Future of Governance). Thus far, governments have contributed much less than we might hope when it comes to addressing the climate change crisis. A person could say this is just how it is with governments. But protecting us from harm is one of government’s most explicit mandates. Government should not only provide needed leadership in decision-making, but lead the way in alerting us to dangers and what addressing those dangers may require. The question of what would need to change for government to take on the required responsibility and provide the needed foresight offers a good lens for examining governance and government as whole.

Climate change presents a related challenge to religion (see The Future of Religion). Historically, religion has claimed to be the place we appropriately turn with questions of a moral nature—and it has, at least adequately for its times, carried out this function. I’ve suggested that once we are past the particulars, climate change is less a scientific concern than a moral one. It has to do with making hard choices that are ultimately questions of value. I don’t see religion today doing any better job than education or government when it comes to providing needed leadership—indeed it has often served as a major voice for denial. Religion that can serve us going forward must be able to guide us toward the moral courage needed with questions like climate change. It is fascinating to contemplate what would be required of religion for it to provide this kind of leadership.

The most important way that the climate change challenge may help further the needed cultural “growing up” relates to the overarching question of narrative, of an effective guiding story for our time. I’ve argued that the ultimate crisis of our time is a crisis of purpose—a crisis of cultural story. Climate change is requiring us to rethink wealth and progress, indeed, to reexamine what constitutes human meaning. It asks us, “What does it mean to be a mature adult living at a moment in history when the evidence for potential climate change disaster became inescapable?” “And what will we say to succeeding generations of children and grandchildren the world over if we fail to take needed action? It is very possible that in time we will look back on climate change as human history’s most significant teacher of mature systemic perspective—and with this, ultimately, of wisdom.

What Lies Ahead

The recognition that effectively addressing climate change will require culturally mature capacities can leave a person wondering whether hope is warranted. The problem by itself seems overwhelming enough without the need for changes in ourselves. Add the bizarre current reality of climate change denial at the highest levels of government in the U.S. and it can be hard to feel optimistic. But it is important to appreciate that we also see positive signs.

We can take some solace in the fact that other countries are stepping in to provide leadership. (The majority of the world has signed on to the Paris agreements.) We also see state and local governments increasingly making their voices heard. (I think in particular of California and its willingness to enforce stringent emissions standards). And increasingly businesses are stepping up. In part this is because the economics are increasingly on the side of more renewable energy sources and because the need for more sustainable technologies provides a huge business opportunity. But often, too, it is because they are recognizing the larger moral responsibility that we all necessarily hold in our time.

There is also the fact of Cultural Maturity itself. The same changes I have described altering assumptions in realms as different as love, leadership, and the most fundamental levels of science should make bringing greater maturity to the climate change question increasingly seem “common sense.”

In the years ahead, our evolving relationship to the climate change question should prove a good barometer for measuring our more general progress with Cultural Maturity’s needed “growing up” as a species. Will the suicidal nature of ignoring real limits take many more decades to become broadly accepted? Will denial perhaps fade quickly as the need for greater maturity in how we understand and act becomes obvious? Whichever proves the case, climate change’s consequences, even if we act wisely, will extend well into the future. Like it or not, climate change will serve as a reminder and teacher for generations—and possibly centuries—to come.

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