A recent post by Gail Tverberg explains what many of us suspect, that the world economic/resource/technology/political ‘system’ is running into the buffers. She suggests that this is a problem of the physics of the system, and not something that is easily addressed. Her conclusion makes sobering reading:
“We are dealing with a situation that economists, politicians and central banks are ill-equipped to handle. Raising interest rates may squeeze out a huge share of the economy. The economy was already ‘at the edge.’ We can’t know for certain.
Virtually no one looks at the economy from a physics point of view. For one thing, the result is too distressing to explain to citizens. For another, it is fashionable for scientists of all types to produce papers and have them peer reviewed by others within their own ivory towers. Economists, politicians and central bankers don’t care about the physics of the situation…
This is very bad, because urgency is very warranted. The devastating effects of climate change are not something waiting for us in the far future — they are here today, as the Europeans experiencing a brutal, unprecedented heat wave can unhappily attest. The fact that Americans still basically don’t care that much about climate change shows that the required urgency will not manifest until it’s too late.
Over the past few years, I’ve seen U.S. climate activists and leftists — who are becoming less distinguishable in terms of rhetoric — make a mighty attempt to generate a sense of urgency among the American public (and the global public). I have seen Greta Thunberg thundering at the UN: “How dare you?! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood!”
None of it has worked. The Green New Deal is so dead that uttering the name now sounds like a bitter joke. Other ambitious plans like Jay Inslee’s were ignored. Biden’s more realistic plan was killed by Joe Manchin. Polls like the one that Wallace-Wells cite above consistently find that climate change is a relatively low priority for Americans, even among Democrats.
It is now time to conclude that the “scare people into making a big push” strategy that climate activists and leftists have been using over the last few years has decisively, utterly failed. People ought to be scared. They ought to support a big push. But this is simply a thing that is not going to happen in the time frame we need it to happen.
So what can we do? Give up and sit around all day feeling a gnawing certainty in the pits of our stomachs that the planet is as good as cooked and there’s no reason to go on? You can go ahead and do that if you want, but I’ll pass, thanks.
I want to talk about the strategy that I think will be effective against climate change. But first, this requires talking about the strategy that has been ineffective, and why it has failed.
The failed strategy: Degrowth, anticapitalism, and doomerism
Why have climate activists and leftists failed to generate a sufficient sense of urgency in the American public? One reason is that many have embraced the idea of degrowth. This is the idea that economic growth is environmentally unsustainable and should be halted (at least in rich countries). I wrote about degrowth pretty extensively here:
One fundamental fact here is that degrowth is politically unacceptable to lots of people. Halting growth in rich countries and continuing it in poor countries would not make much of a difference to climate change (despite the poorly informed claims of degrowth salesman Jason Hickel). Global degrowth with continued catch-up growth in poor countries would require a vast diminution of living standards in rich countries — we’re talking about the reduction of transportation, energy use, etc. by the U.S. middle class to the level of a country like Thailand.
It’s possible that Americans would accept a vast diminution of their living standards as an alternative to death. But this is a very heavy ask — it enormously raises the bar for how much popular urgency climate activists will have to create in order to motivate the country to action. Thus, embracing degrowth makes the politics of climate change much, much more daunting.
There’s also the fact that degrowth is ridiculous on the merits. It would require central planning of the global economy that goes far, far beyond anything ever attempted. And even if this impossible task were successfully carried out, a halting of economic growth would make it much more difficult to afford the research and deployment of new green technologies necessary to sustain even a constant level of living standards. It also doesn’t help that the research literature behind degrowth is incredibly shoddy:
So embracing degrowth isn’t just politically unpalatable — it also makes climate activists look out of touch with reality. It is why reasonable progressive intellectuals have rejected the idea. Yet some activists stubbornly continue to push the idea. Greta Thunberg rails against “fairytales of eternal economic growth”. And here is Genevieve Guenther, founder of the organization End Climate Silence:
If you think that some supportive comments on an NYT article on degrowth mean the idea has legs, at a time when Americans are up in arms about $4.50 gasoline, you really need to think again.
(Side note: This NYT interview is really, really bad. When the interviewer confronts “pioneering economist” Herman Daly with the question of why growth can’t continue to shift to things like software and services that use fewer natural resources, Daly ludicrously responds that economic growth should be defined as growth in resource use — which is not how GDP is actually calculated anywhere in the world — and that dematerialized GDP growth should be called “development” instead of “growth”. Thus, the entire article relies on one economist’s flagrant ignorance about how GDP is measured.)
Some legacy environmental groups don’t necessarily use degrowth rhetoric, but practice an ethos of degrowth — blocking solar plants and wind farms and other types of economic growth that are crucial for decarbonization. Wally Nowinski wrote a guest post about it here:
There’s just one catch: The organizations that advocate Green New Deal style programs support growth, but only if it comes via the abolition of capitalism.
Anticapitalism has become one of the major themes of climate activism for a while now — longer than degrowth, actually. There are endless articles written about it, in the New York Times, in the Guardian, in the Nation, in online publications and city newspapers. There are popular books about it. Anticapitalism is the animating force of the Sunrise Movement and of the Green New Deal. Several of my favorite climate writers, despite their enthusiasm for green technology, routinely bash capitalism on Twitter — it has become a meme and a motif of the movement.
Now, it’s true that free markets, on their own, will not solve climate change fast enough, because free markets don’t take externalities like climate change into account (in fact, this is the subject of most environmental economics research, which NYT interviewee Herman Daly utterly ignores). In order to decarbonize fast enough to save ourselves from some very bad outcomes, we’re going to need government to step in — to subsidize green energy so its costs decline, to tax old coal and gas plants so they get retired faster, to build new grid infrastructure, to facilitate the infrastructure for electric vehicles, and so on. Government needs to do a lot.
But this doesn’t mean that the capitalist foundations of our economy need to be overthrown — in fact, doing so would be counterproductive. Countries that set themselves up explicitly as anticapitalist tend to have very bad environmental records. One reason is that a well-functioning economy requires a hefty amount of both markets and government — when you try to abolish capitalism, your economy tanks and you don’t have the money to switch to green technologies, to develop new green technologies, to clean up pollution, etc. And when the economy tanks, people get mad, and governments often appease them by falling back on short-sighted, environmentally destructive consumption subsidies.
So abolishing capitalism would be very bad for the climate, because despite all the Green New Dealers’ claims, it would effectively end up as a form of degrowth. It is just as heavy an ask, and thus massively raises the threshold of urgency that’s required to motivate the American people to take action.
Climate activists who make these heavy, heavy asks of the American people — degrowth and-or the abolition of capitalism — are forced to try to pump up popular urgency to extremely high levels, in order to clear the very high hurdle they have set up. This is one reason so many climate activists turn to doomerism — apocalyptic rhetoric about how it’s too late to save the world.
In the past year or two there has been a pushback against doomerism in progressive circles. Ezra Klein wrote a New York Times op-ed called “Your Kids Are Not Doomed”, in which he argued against leftists’ increasingly common declarations that it’s not worth bringing children into a world ravaged by climate change. There have been many other op-eds arguing against doomerism. David Wallace-Wells himself wrote an excellent op-ed last year called “After Alarmism”, noting that while the best-case climate scenarios have deteriorated, the worst-case scenarios are looking more unlikely. Thanks to renewables and better data, the “business as usual” scenarios now look more like 2.5-3C of warming — still devastating, but not as apocalyptic as the doomer scenarios that have been thrown around in the last decade.
Yet in activist circles, there still seems to be a taboo over expressing the kind of can-do optimism that’s usually necessary for sustained social movements. When I noted that data revisions show that global carbon emissions have been constant for a decade, many cheered the news, but some activists got angry at me for perceived complacency:
Trumpeting modest, initial successes is not complacency. It’s a way of countering doomerism — of saying “Yes, we can do this.” Attacking anyone who shows heartening data is really just a way of encouraging doomerism. (For staunchly anticapitalist activists, there is probably another motivation — a fear that heartening data will be used as evidence that climate change can be fixed without overthrowing capitalism.)
Degrowth, anticapitalism, and doomerism are not a single unified package — many climate activists subscribe to only one or two of the trio of bad ideas. And some climate activists don’t subscribe to any of the three. But enough subscribe to at least one of the three that together, this trio of ideas has heavily compromised the effectiveness of activism in generating the degree of popular urgency required for bold policy change. We have strayed from the positive, can-do rhetoric of late 2000s activists like Van Jones. Degrowth and anticapitalism have raised the bar for popular urgency too high, while doomerism has simply turned activists to passive surrender and depression rather than spurring non-activists to desperate action.
A new approach is needed. And fortunately, we have a new approach ready at hand.
The strategy that will work: A technology-focused, bottom-up, whole-of-society effort
In settling on a strategy that works, we (i.e. anyone who actually wants to stop climate change) must grapple with the failure of the big-push strategy that just met its ignominious end at the hands of Joe Manchin. There is no way of spinning this as a good thing; the planet isn’t doomed, but it would have been far easier to decarbonize the U.S. with a big government push. And we should not stop rhetorically wishing for one. But unless we get very lucky in the election this November, that big push is not coming soon, we need to go with plan B in the immediate future.
Democratic leaders are not waiting for Congress to act. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California signed a budget bill this month with a historic $54 billion in climate investments. New York State is moving ahead with its ambitious plans to cut carbon this decade. And in Washington State, Gov. Jay Inslee is leading an all-out mobilization to decarbonize: from landmark building codes to bold climate goals.
Individuals don’t have to wait, either. Although the climate bill would have helped millions of Americans afford cleaner technologies sooner, many Americans can already make the switch.
Most electric vehicles are now cheaper to own than gas cars, starting on Day 1…Inflation hasn’t hit E.V. drivers nearly as hard as it has hit people with gas-powered cars. No wonder sales for E.V.s are through the roof and many automakers are planning to go all electric…For those who prefer two wheels, affordable electric bikes are now widely available.
We can also work to eliminate fossil fuels from our homes, by installing induction stoves and switching from gas or oil-fired furnaces and hot water tanks to heat pumps…
In the long run, we are going to win.
State-level policies and individual choices will not solve the problem at the global level, of course. But to be frank, neither will U.S. policy, even if we had passed Build Back Better — after all, the U.S. only produces 13.5% of global emissions, even after accounting for offshoring/imports. The biggest way that a U.S. decarbonization push would have helped the world is by pushing down the cost of renewables (because the more you build, the more prices go down) and making it in other countries’ economic self-interest to install those renewables.
Even without that big push, state-level policies and individual adoption of renewable technologies can push down prices via learning curves. Learning curves are a positive externality that works against the negative externality of climate change.
In addition to electing state leaders like Inslee and Newsom, and buying green tech ourselves, we can do a lot to raise awareness within the worlds of technology, business, and the civil service. In a post a year ago, I wrote:
The most important single factor in the fight against climate change is technology…[N]ow that these technologies are becoming cheaper than fossil fuels…fighting climate change is becoming economically easy, or even advantageous…
And this did not happen on its own; technological progress does not simply fall from the sky. It required researchers to dedicate their lives and careers to inventing better energy technologies, instead of working on better semiconductor design or protein folding or whatever. It required government bureaucrats and legislators to fund energy research instead of starving it of money. It required entrepreneurs like Elon Musk to invest their lives and their fortunes in battery companies that pushed down the cost of batteries through mass production and scale effects, rather than starting companies that made death drones or ad tech. It required managers at large companies to risk investing their companies’ capital budgets in green energy tech. And so on, and so forth.
Last year was a singular, awful moment in economic history, but even accounting for the effects of the COVID-19 recession, America’s real-world emissions last decade outperformed the  Obama bill’s targets. From 2012 to 2020, real-world U.S. emissions were more than 1 billion tons below what the bill would have required, according to my analysis of data from Rhodium Group, an energy-research firm…
What gives? America is supposed to be doing nothing right. Yet we’re making progress anyway. How? Why?…
Decarbonization…proceeds by a self-accelerating process that I have called “the green vortex.” The green vortex describes how policy, technology, business, and politics can all work together, lowering the cost of zero-carbon energy, building pro-climate coalitions, and speeding up humanity’s ability to decarbonize. It has also already gotten results. The green vortex is what drove down the cost of wind and solar, what overturned Exxon’s board, and what the Biden administration is banking on in its infrastructure plan…
The idea that drives the green vortex is: Practice makes improvement. The more that we do something, whether baking a cake or manufacturing electric vehicles, the better we get at it…The green vortex leverages this idea to describe a positive feedback loop…As technologies develop, they get cheaper. As they get cheaper, more companies adopt them. As more companies adopt them, their leaders grow more comfortable with climate policy generally—and more supportive of pro-technology policy in particular. As more corporate leaders support climate policy, coalitions change, governments can pass more aggressive measures, and the cycle expands and begins again.
In other words, everyone pushes wherever they can push. We campaign for climate-aware state leaders. We build technologies that make decarbonization easier, if that’s what we’re good at doing. We persuade our bosses and the companies we own to adopt renewable technologies. We use our investment choices to direct capital toward companies that produce or use renewables. If we work for the civil service, we try to design and implement regulations in ways that favor renewables.
And most of all, we persuade the nation. We talk about how beating climate change is about abundant cheap energy. You won’t have to give up your car or your truck; you’ll just have an electric one instead, and then you won’t have to pay for gas. You won’t have to ration electricity or wear a sweater in the winter; renewables will make electricity cheaper, not just greener, so that you can consume more of it. We persuade Americans not just to support pro-renewables policies, but to try renewable technologies for themselves.
This requires a very different kind of rhetoric than degrowth, anticapitalism, or doomerism. It is not the language of sacrifice — it’s the language of abundance. It’s not some fantasy of socialist utopia — it’s cheap good stuff you can buy right now. It’s not a dire, angry, hectoring leftism that demands sacrifice under threat of destruction — it’s a positive, can-do individualist progressivism that’s in keeping with the way America has improved itself in the past. Beating climate change is part of the Abundance Agenda.
This is our Plan B, but as Robinson Meyer writes, it’s not such a bad fallback. In fact, it sounds like a pretty fun social movement to be a part of. A heck of a lot better than sitting around waiting to die in a fire, anyway.
Family lore has it that my grandfather, having spent some time doing business in England and about to return to the United States, received an invitation to seek additional sales opportunities in Scotland. At the last minute, he cancelled the passage he had booked on the Titanic. If the story is true, then, but for a chance communication from a Scottish businessman, I would never have come into existence. And what led to that businessman learning about my grandfather? Perhaps it was a mere afterthought as someone was leaving a meeting in the purchasing office of a Glasgow manufacturer. Surely somewhere along the line there was something – many things – equally happenstance, without which the invitation to my grandfather would never have been made – without which, that is to say, I would never have been born.
In his bookThe View from Nowhere (1986), the American philosopher Thomas Nagel captures well the reaction that these sorts of reflections can generate:
We are here by luck, not by right or by necessity.
Rudimentary biology reveals how extreme the situation is. My existence depends on the birth of a particular organism that could have developed only from a particular sperm and egg, which in turn could have been produced only by the particular organisms that produced them, and so forth. In view of the typical sperm count, there was very little chance of my being born given the situation that obtained an hour before I was conceived, let alone a million years before …
If you concentrate hard on the thought that you might never have been born – the distinct possibility of your eternal and complete absence from this world – I believe you too will find that this perfectly clear and straightforward truth produces a positively uncanny sensation.
If an uncanny sensation indeed results from such reflections, it’s something that just happens, like a shiver or a shudder. It can’t be evaluated as reasonable or unreasonable. But emotions can be assessed in that way: hope may be misplaced, anger may be an overreaction, fear may be unwarranted. I want to focus, not on any sensation such as Nagel speaks of, but on the emotion of astonishment. I believe that, when one reflects on all the things that had to have happened exactly as they did in fact happen in order for one to be born, astonishment is a reasonable and appropriate emotion.
As with emotions like hope, anger and fear, the emotion of astonishment can be unreasonable if the associated beliefs or expectations are unjustified or unreasonable. One can be unreasonably astonished at flunking an exam, having taken too high an opinion of one’s abilities and readiness.
Sometimes, of course, astonishment is warranted. Consider then what we should say about a young person who is told about the facts of reproduction Nagel refers to, or who learns about the chance events that led to her parents meeting, and realises that, but for those events, which could so easily have gone another way, she would not now, and never would, exist. For such a person, the emotion of deep astonishment at the very fact of her existence is, I would argue, the appropriate reaction.
But some might demur. A roll call of those who don’t think their existence is very astonishing:
The weary parent: There’s nothing astonishing about your being born. You came into existence in the ordinary way, for ordinary reasons, and in the ordinary course of events. I won’t go into the details, but I can vouch for it. Calm down and finish your oatmeal.
The no-nonsense naturalist: The posterior probability of your having come into existence is one. The chain of events leading to your conception followed the laws of physics, chemistry and biology. If determinism is true, your existence was fully determined by prior conditions. Even if determinism is false, there was nothing extraordinary about the course of events leading to your conception and birth. Sorry, but no choir of angels announced your coming.
The theist: God has a plan for everyone. He created you for a reason, perhaps to be revealed in the course of your life. And, actually, there might have been a choir of angels singing in celebration of your coming to be. But that would be true for every person God chose to bring into this world. The naturalist is right that there’s nothing cosmically special about you that wouldn’t apply to everyone else created by God. But your existence is the result of the loving deliberation of God, not the indifferent forces of nature.
This is quite different from the emotions of joy and happiness that many feel about being alive
The Leibnizian: My theist confrere does not have it quite right. God, in his infinite powers and infinite goodness, created the best of all possible worlds. His failure to do so would have diminished the perfection of his creation. Since sentient life is a good, God has created such life to the maximum extent possible. All the possible people that could exist (consistent with this being the best of all possible worlds) actually do exist, or did exist, or will exist. So there is nothing astonishing about you coming to be, for this is only to say that there’s nothing inherent in your nature incompatible with being part of God’s creation.
The cosmological physicist: Your existence is indeed inevitable, but not because of any God or gods. The physical universe is spatially infinite. In such a space, every physically possible combination of atoms occurs, and reoccurs infinitely. There is nothing extraordinary or astonishing about your existence because the Universe contains multiple versions of you, and everyone else – indeed, minute variations of each individual – and even more: each variation repeated infinitely!
All of these perspectives encourage an attitude that treats the fact of one’s existence as nothing remarkable. This might be the default state of many children, since they simply find themselves alive and experiencing this world. And if, on top of that, a child is told that her being here is nothing out of the ordinary, or that it was inevitable, or ordained by God, then there may be less likelihood for the deeper reflection that can lead to an astonished awareness that one exists when one might never have existed at all.
Let me be clear that the emotion I am focusing on here is astonishment, and that the object of astonishment under discussion is the fact that one came to exist when one so easily might not have. Call this the contingency of one’s existence. This is quite different from the emotions of joy and happiness that many people feel about being alive and living their lives fully. Joy and happiness are emotions readily distinguishable from astonishment. A person can take delight in her life yet, if she never reflects on the contingency of her existence, or rejects the idea of such contingency, or accepts and understands it but is indifferent toward it, she will not experience the sort of astonishment of which I speak.
Instead of taking the fact of our existence for granted, consider what can be said for the idea that each of us should upon reflection be utterly astonished about our own existence – happily astonished if we are happy with our lives. On my view, the positions noted above that don’t accept the appropriateness of astonishment are not sustainable.
The response of the no-nonsense naturalist (and, for that matter, the weary parent) does not take into account the particular significance of the subjective perspective. This sort of naturalist is exemplified by one of the professors I had in graduate school. He defended the idea that one’s existence is unremarkable by gesturing toward a section of bricks in the wall we were standing next to. He asked me to consider the particular order of the atoms composing that part of the wall. The chance of those atoms being arrayed in exactly that order was just as extraordinarily small, at some time prior to the bricks being manufactured, as was the chance of your existence, he said. Right, I agreed. So, he asked, we don’t think there’s anything remarkable about those atoms being arrayed just like that – why should you think you’re any different? Because, I replied, that array of atoms is not home to a subjective point of view that would allow it to form any attitude about the utter contingency of its coming to exist in just this atomic configuration.
Nagel is right that ignoring or discounting the subjective perspective fails to do justice to an irreducibly significant factor in our attempts to provide a full accounting of the world. Nagel argues that subjective and objective points of view are both legitimate, and that neither can be explained in terms of the other. From the objective point of view – the perspective taken by our naturalist – we look at the Universe as it exists independently of any particular person’s subjective perspective. We can imagine, for example, a universe that contains no subjective perspectives at all. Certainly, there were no human subjectivities in the early ages of our solar system. Even after humans emerge on the scene, when we look at the course of human lives from the objective perspective, there is nothing particularly remarkable about this set of lives coming to be, as opposed to some other set. There are of course some individuals who have changed the course of the world in objectively significant ways. But had the world gone a different way and produced a different set of individuals, some among them would surely have made their own significant contributions. From the objective perspective, humans are dispassionately observed, as it were, from a very high perch. That one individual exists as opposed to some other doesn’t matter.
The proper comparison is to all those who might have been born instead of you
But we also have to acknowledge that there are in fact subjective perspectives. Each of us has a point of view from which we view the world, distinct from the objective perspective, and also distinct from the subjective perspectives of others. And from your subjective point of view, it is appropriate for you to be astonished that, of all the possibilities, the incalculably improbable sequence of events that led to your existence was the one that in fact obtained. This applies as well to me when, from my perspective, I consider the sequence of events leading to my birth, and to my sceptical professor from his perspective. Even that array of atoms in the brick wall, if it had subjectivity and appreciation of its existence as a subjective being, should be astonished.
There is, however, a straightforward rejoinder to this argument. Our no-nonsense naturalist might reasonably reply: ‘But check out all the subjectivities the next time you’re in Times Square or at the county fair. All these individuals, going about their lives. What you’re saying is that the same considerations apply to every one of those people regarding how extraordinarily contingent their existence is. But if the same considerations apply to everyone, why should there be anything astonishing about any of this?’
Because these considerations don’t apply to everyone. They apply only to the extraordinarily small proportion of those who do exist, compared with those who might have existed. That every living person has won the existence lottery might be a major motivator for one’s taking for granted the fact of one’s own existence. But the data set of 7 or 8 billion existing humans is, in the present context, too small a sample size. The proper comparison is not to those who share this planet with you, but to all those who might have been born instead of you, had the world gone a different way. All those who have ever lived are but an incomprehensibly tiny fraction of those possible persons who might have lived but never will.
But suppose that determinism is true, and that each event that occurs in the world, including my birth, was the inevitable result of prior causal forces. Even if this is so, it’s still true that, from my subjective point of view, the exact course the world must take is outside my ken. I can’t penetrate into this determinacy and understand why things happened as they did in every particular. And so, as I reflect on the events that had to happen in order for me to be born, it is easy to imagine how this extraordinarily complex cause-and-effect sequence might have gone differently. Even if everything was determined, it’s still astonishing from my subjective perspective that the set course of the world went this way, so as to include me, and not that way – a way in which I’m forever absent, and no one even notices.
Ihave been supposing so far that there was no supernatural agency involved in one’s creation. The belief that one’s existence is part of God’s plan might be another important reason why many people don’t focus on the contingency of their own existence. How can it be that one’s existence is happenstance, and might never have occurred, if it was the deliberate act of God? But I don’t see that theism allows one to ignore the contingency of one’s existence once the implications of the theistic perspective are properly reflected on.
Consider the theist’s position. God created you for a purpose. If he needed you for a purpose that some other possible person could have fulfilled, then it is extraordinary that he picked you as opposed to one of those others. Suppose though that only you would do. Then it is extraordinary that, out of all the possible beings God could have created, the circumstances called for your creation, not that of any of those others. Had those circumstances been even slightly different, God would have chosen someone with a different profile. It’s wonderful for you that the circumstances were just right for God to need you, but you were also extraordinarily lucky, given that different circumstances would have entailed God’s need for a different person.
These responses to the theist might lead her to embrace the Leibnizian position – that virtually every possible person must be part of God’s plan. According to Leibniz, God’s omnipotence and infinite goodness entail that ours is the best of all possible worlds. An all-good, all-powerful God surely wouldn’t leave anyone out!
Perhaps our defects were exactly what was needed to further some inconceivable Godly aim
That can’t be quite right, though, for there are issues about one individual’s existence being logically incompatible with another’s. In addition, God will recognise that some intrinsically flawed lives are incompatible with the best of all possible worlds. He presumably could not accept into such a world animals or persons living with irremediable intense and chronic pains, such that their lives from beginning to end are constant misery, with no redeeming purpose. There are also problems with the idea of admitting into existence persons of fundamentally evil wills. With these qualifications and exclusions in mind, the theist might use the Leibnizian position to counter any defence of the contingency of one’s existence: it’s not contingent because it follows of necessity from God’s nature.
This Leibnizian picture is highly implausible, for this world hardly seems to be the best possible. But even if it were so, there is still room for astonishment that I, of all people, made it into the best of all possible worlds. Surely God, with his infinite power to fashion the best world, could have overseen the creation of a being who, in my place, would have done better than I have in contributing to its being the best. Even if, in his appreciation of freedom, God left some of my doings up to individual choice, then given my own evident deficiencies in motivation and strength of will, and given the infinite alternative possibilities available to God, surely, in creating the best of all possible worlds, he would have installed someone with more resources to contribute to a greater good than my poor self has been able to muster. Perhaps you harbour similar thoughts. Perhaps, in some unfathomable way, our defects and failures were exactly what was needed to further some inconceivable Godly aim that was nevertheless consistent with this being the best of all possible worlds. But if that were so, it would be truly astonishing.
Our cosmological physicist offers a naturalistic version of Leibnizian plenitude that doesn’t require the moral perfection of this world and might be more attractive as a defence of the idea that there’s nothing remarkable about one’s existence. This defence might take the American physicist Brian Greene’s account of the multiverse, from his bookThe Hidden Reality (2011), as its starting point:
[T]he expanse of space contains an infinite number of separate realms … with our observable universe … being but one member. Canvassing this infinite collection of separate realms, we find that particle arrangements necessarily repeat infinitely many times. The reality that holds in any given universe, including ours, is thus replicated in an infinite number of other universes across the Quilted Multiverse.
This possibility, if true, might seem to undercut the astonishment attitude in the most thoroughgoing way. (Greene himself does not address questions about the appropriateness of astonishment.) Given the Quilted Multiverse, not only do I exist, so do infinite atom-for-atom identical duplicates of me elsewhere in the multiverse – ‘endless doppelgängers’, says Greene, and also near-doppelgängers that vary from me by one or two rearranged atoms – and infinite versions of each such near-doppelgänger to boot! And so on for each individual creature in this world, and for each blade of grass, each clod of dirt.
Could such an extraordinary plenitude actually exist? Other physicistsdemur. And even if Greene were right that an infinite amount of matter/energy is dispersed through an infinite spatial expanse, it does not follow that there is an endless replication of all possible particle arrangements. There’s no logical guarantee that even an infinite number of monkeys at their typewriters will produce Hamlet, because there are an infinite number of ways to type gibberish. Similarly, it’s possible that the putative infinity of other universes are all just stupefying equivalents of monkey gibberish, duplicating nothing of the life-generating complexity of our universe.
Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Greene’s picture of infinitely replicated doppelgängers of yourself is correct. This still does not reduce one bit the astonishment of the extraordinarily unlikely fact that you came into existence and are alive now in this universe. To see this, imagine a young woman who is tragically about to die from injuries suffered in a car accident caused by a distracted driver. Had some passing thought or event not distracted the driver, our young woman would have made it safely home and carried on with her life.
Now, suppose that, just before she dies, an omniscient, multiverse-overseeing being speaks to her: ‘You needn’t worry about dying so young. There are infinite universes in which molecularly identical doppelgängers of you are not victims of doppelgängers of that distracted driver, and you’ll be happy to learn that in most of those universes your doppelgängers go on to live long lives full of love, productive work, and enjoyable leisure.’ This young woman would not, of course, actually be terribly happy to learn of this. For in the only life she has, her life is cut tragically short. She will not identify with these other doppelgängers because they are not her – they are entities vastly remote in space, in universes that bear no causal relation to anything that happens on Earth.
But suppose that she, in fact, recovered from her injuries and did indeed go on to have that fulfilling life. And that a big part of that fulfilment included giving birth to you. Suppose that the omniscient voice then told you: ‘It wouldn’t have mattered if the distracted driver had killed your mother, because, while you would never have been born, there are infinite worlds in which a doppelgänger of her thrives and gives birth to a doppelgänger of you, and in most of those universes your doppelgängers live long and happy lives.’ This otherworldly voice may be omniscient about objective facts and alternative possibilities, but it’s pretty clueless about human emotional reactions. For it doesn’t recognise the significance, for you, of your life in this world – the only life you could ever have. It remains astonishing, given all the otherwise inconsequential events that had to occur in order for you to come to be born, that each of those events did in fact occur.
So should we conclude from these reflections that we all ought to go around dizzily celebrating and exclaiming: ‘Wow! Just wow! Here I am! It’s incredible to be alive!’? Well, perhaps not during the calculus exam, or in the middle of the budget committee meeting. And, of course, one should be careful not to choke on one’s oatmeal. But if the argument offered here is right, it is incredible, from your perspective, that you are alive. You should feel amazed that everything came together in the way that it did. To never reflect on the implications, astonishing from one’s own subjective perspective, of the improbabilities of one’s existence is, it seems to me, not to appreciate one’s life as fully as one could.
Parents can encourage such reflections when they remark on the uniqueness of their child
Why then do so many people seem to treat the fact of their existence as unremarkable? Perhaps, quietly and occasionally, many people do feel the astonishment that is appropriate to the contingency of their existence. But many others seem to go through life, however happy they may be to have it, taking utterly for granted what is in fact the most important thing in their lives – that, against all odds, they came into existence in the first place. Of course, the contingency of one’s existence may never occur to many people. But most people now know the facts of human reproduction. Even those who don’t – or who don’t thoroughly reflect on those facts – could easily make the inference to the contingency of their existence when they hear stories of how their parents or grandparents met.
Perhaps ego plays a role in taking all this for granted: ‘Of course I should exist. How not?’ Even a theist who teaches against egocentrism might harbour some unacknowledged self-regard if she feels that it was natural or inevitable for God to think that only she would do. I suspect, though, that what is at play here is typically not so much ego as an understandable tendency to take for granted that which does not demand our immediate attention, or even any attention at all.
We are first, and necessarily, attentive to what is required for our survival. Then we are also understandably attentive to what beyond survival makes for a life with the most important goods – love given to and received from another, social acceptance, and meaningful projects. It is quite possible to survive very well, and live quite happily, without having engaged in the reflections noted here. Even the common philosophical questions that reflective individuals are most prone to ask – is there a God? What is happiness? How should I live? – typically do not reach in to question the very fact of a particular individual’s existence. But if there is some unique delight in life to be found in reflections about the extraordinary contingency of one’s existence, then such reflections offer another value that philosophy has in enhancing our lives.
There is also a practical implication of this argument: the emotion of astonishment, since it is appropriate and life-enhancing, should be cultivated. In her bookPolitical Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (2013), Martha Nussbaum makes the case for the importance of cultivating emotions such as love of one’s country, of its history and of the sacrifices of forebears, of its vision of itself engaging with the future. While such emotions are often thought of as the bailiwick of politically reactionary cultures or parties, Nussbaum sees it as an essential component of a liberal outlook concerned with creating a more just society. It differs from reactionary emotions because it involves love of one’s fellow citizens in all their cultural, political, religious and ethnic diversity, and because it should form the basis for a further extension to the love of all of humanity.
Emotions certainly can be cultivated. Reactionary political leaders and movements excel in stirring up fear, hatred and other tribalist emotions. Nussbaum thinks the solution is not to disdain the cultivation of emotions in political life. Emotions create meaning that, for good or ill, bind members of a society together. The point is to cultivate the right emotions, in the right way.
Astonishment at one’s existence is not a political emotion, and I’m not arguing that it be cultivated in a public context. But, just as the right political emotions can enhance the meaningfulness of one’s life as a citizen, the right personal emotions can enhance the meaningfulness of one’s life as an individual. The venue for cultivating the emotion of astonishment is not a political or civic gathering, nor even primarily a church or school, though there can certainly be room for more general expressions of this idea in these latter contexts. I am thinking primarily of the value of parents cultivating this emotion in their children, or even of children, in their own often exhilarating explorations of ideas together, engaging in reflections that lead them to this emotion. Parents can encourage such reflections when they remark on the uniqueness of their child or speak of their love for the specific individual that their child is, and is becoming.
Cultivating astonishment – recognising it in regard to oneself, encouraging it in children – can be seen as a call to see the world in a new way. It deepens one’s appreciation of the world by way of a philosophical argument to the effect that astonishment at one’s existence is a legitimate and realistic emotion. Since this conclusion is life-affirming in the most literal sense, and since it points to an important and too easily taken-for-granted truth, it is valuable to recognise that there is reasoned support for the astonishment that emerges from fully appreciating how wonderfully strange and extraordinary it is that the course of the world went in such a way as to include you as part of it.
I’m pretty darn sure that you can’t watch Gurdeep Pandher do his Punjabi Bhangra dance without a smile of pure delight crossing your face. Bhangra dancing was originally developed for that exact reason, to spread joy. That’s why he keeps dancing. And that’s why he’s currently engaged in a cross-Canada tour, doing all he can to spread joy from coast to coast to coast.
I’ll be honest, the first few times I watched YouTube clips on FaceBook of Gurdeep dancing or on the news, I thought he lived in Nova Scotia and this was something regional. That this lovely man was telling Nova Scotians how much he liked being there. Well, I may have been correct about the message he was trying to convey, but not that he lived there. In fact, I’ve just come to realize that he lives, of all surprising places, in a cabin in the northerly…
System change is – and has always been – our only realistic means of defending the living planet. By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 19th July 2022 Can we talk about it now? I mean the subject most of the media and most of the political class has been avoiding for so long. You…
We all know that dying is an inevitable part of living. Knowing it doesn’t mean we are ever ready to lose a loved one; even though we know it’s one of the few constants in life, knowing it doesn’t make it any easier. We’re told that those people who have made a difference in our lives – in whatever way – will live on in us even when they are no longer here. Their spirit and their kindness to us has become a part of who we are. We know this and we experience it, but it doesn’t make the physical loss any easier.
My husband and I are now of an age where we’re reminded of the dying-is-part-of-living reality entirely too often; it goes with the territory of having had the privilege of living a very full (long) life. Eventually full lives come to an end … and sometimes…
On both sides of the Atlantic, powerful interests seem determined to trigger the collapse of life on Earth. Why? By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 6th July 2022 It feels like the end game. In the US last week, the third perverse and highly partisan supreme court decision in a few days made American…
I think it is fair to say that Ti-bish-ko-gi-jik or Father Philip B. Gordon of the Ojibwa tribe in Northern Wisconsin was not forgotten since he was never really remembered. I have lived in Wisconsin and Minnesota since 1965 and I never heard of the first North American Catholic priest who was also a Native American. A friend of mine told me about the attached article which is a compilation of stories and a short biography of Reverend Gordon written by Paula Delfeld in 1977. I am always amazed by the lack of history for Black Americans but it is probably true that Native Americans are equally forgotten in our American educational system. Call me naïve but I always thought history was supposed to be unbiased and objective and inclusive. I am still waking up to the fact that t never was. The following link includes some interesting pictures and…
It was already a challenging Independence Day in the U.S. before the terrible, terrible mass shooting in Highland Park turned a happy community parade into everyone’s worst nightmare. This latest heartbreaking and senseless loss of life served as a dramatic reminder of one of the several issues that have brought one of the most successful and influential countries the world has known to question its path forward. These are difficult times, for Americans and for the world.
Social media has been full of heartfelt opinion pieces and blog posts by Americans who are alarmed and saddened by the current state of the country they love, struggling with what to to celebrate on July 4th. Hate and violence should not be winning. Among many shorter posts recently, two stood out to me as refreshingly reasonable approaches to two major issues that politicians continue to struggle with. I was especially pleased to…
While millions starve, crops are used to feed cars. It’s obscene. By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 30th June 2022 What can you say about governments that, in the midst of a global food crisis, choose instead to feed machines? You might say they were crazy, uncaring or cruel. But these words scarcely suffice…