The Epistemic Climate
This initiative explores the opportunity that climate change presents to consider not what, but how we understand, and outline why that matters for everything.
In Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty (2014) the German Philosopher Thomas Metzinger wrote:
“Conceived of as an intellectual challenge for humankind, the increasing threat arising from self-induced global warming clearly seems to exceed the present cognitive and emotional abilities of our species. This is the first truly global crisis, experienced by all human beings at the same time and in a single media space, and as we watch it unfold, it will also gradually change our image of ourselves, the conception humankind has of itself as a whole. I predict that during the next decades, we will increasingly experience ourselves as failing beings.”
Failing is not the same as failed, and it is sometimes wise to accept limitations, yet there is hope in Metzinger’s premise — “the present cognitive and emotional abilities of our species”. Those abilities of our species are not fixed. We know, as well as we know anything, that human beings can grow and change for the better. We also know that is deeply rewarding but difficult. The importance of this point is part of the premise of Perpsectiva’s human growth project, but its relevance to climate change is highlighted by Paul Hawken in his extraordinary book of climate solutions, Drawdown (2017):
“The build-up of greenhouse gases we experience today occurred in the absence of human understanding…That can tempt us to believe that global warming is something that is happening to us – that we are the victims of a fate that was determined by actions that preceded us. If we change the preposition, and consider that global warming is happening for us – an atmospheric transformation that inspires us to change and reimagine everything we make and do – we begin to live in a different world…We see global warming as…a pathway that awakens creativity, compassion and genius.”
Deeping our understanding of the relationship between climate change and human change is an increasingly urgent intellectual challenge and the nature of that challenge is perspectival - a renewed sense of perspective on our selves and our lives in the context of the problem as a whole.
This initiative is led by Perspectiva's Director Jonathan Rowson who is in the process of completing The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change: rethinking the world's toughest problem. This short academic book for Palgrave Macmillan builds on a related public engagement research project completed at the RSA where it was argued that one of the main barriers to effective climate action is viewing it as one of many environmental challenges, rather than a civilisation- level event with seven major thematic dimensions that are interrelated: Science, Technology, Law, Economy, Democracy, Culture and Behaviour. The main output from this initiative will be the final book, due to be published in the second half of 2018, but we will share the inquiry through other mediums and platforms on an ongoing basis.
Grasping the need for that kind of major shift in perspective highlights Metzinger’s challenge. Beyond all the ethical and political and practical questions raised by climate change ('the curriculum') there is also what Robert Kegan calls a 'hidden curriculum' in terms of the implicit demands on how we know, feel about and act on the curriculum. That challenge is fundamentally epistemic in nature.
The hidden curriculum of climate change is therefore about needing to improve our capacity to perceive and think and feel and understand in a range of ways, including the following:
Probabilistically – to understand and act upon risk as a mixture of estimated hazard and harm.
Systemically – to see multiple elements and their relationships as primary, giving rise to myriad forms of cause and consequence.
Reflexively – to grasp the dynamic relationship between knowledge and action at scale, and what follows for signalling.
Metaphorically – to sense how images, associations, frames and narratives generate identification, affect and commitment.
Constructive-developmentally – to appreciate that climate change is both all too real and socially constructed. Organisms have to make meaning out of climate change at evolving but quite distinct levels of perspective and complexity, which matters both for public engagement and managing conflicts relating to proposed solutions.
Pluralistically – to accept that applied rationality is always value-laden and that effective policy responses are likely to emerge from a mixture of governmental, market, community and individual actors.
Hopefully – to move beyond the bad faith of pessimism and the delusions of optimism through a deeper orientation to reality grounded in hope; a disposition of the will to insist on intentional action.
Imaginatively – to cultivate what Perspectiva researcher Sam Earle calls our representational, moral and radical imaginations in an effort to understand the climate challenge at the level of the social imaginary, what Charles Taylor calls ‘a wider grasp of our whole predicament’.
Existentially – to encounter the relationship between various forms of climate denial and our tendency to disavow our own deaths.
Spiritually - to share deeper questions about the ultimate sources of meaning and value that help us make sense of this civilization-level challenge. Perhaps climate change is not just about ‘solving a problem’ but creating a new world.