Book review: Climate change and scientific whistling in the dark

The Sustainability Mirage Illusion and Reality in the Coming War on Climate Change. By John Foster. Earthscan. £19.99 paperback.

Brilliantly and ironically written, this book shades a bright light on most foggy areas around the concept of sustainability. Those fastidious obscure points do not fit properly in the reassuring technical solutions to Climate Change. Foster puts a name on those shapeless shadows that inevitably induce the sensation of something being wrong.

Comforting calculations and sharp definitions of sustainability use the terminology of hard science but can’t completely calm down the insecurity towards a warming future where climatic chaos lies in wait. According to Foster two fundamental fallacies hinder our walk towards sustainability: scientific wishful thinking and bad faith.

In the Brundtland definition of Sustainable Development a few logical and practical flaws are identified, one of them being the core of Foster’s argumentation: we are unable to predict the consequences of our actions to a satisfying degree. Approximation is such that we can only be prudent to the best of our understanding and good faith. Foster defines many of the calculations of environmental economists as scientific whistling in the dark. Rational planning ahead, instead of being a panacea, is considered by Foster a piece of self-delusion, thus part of the problem. Scientific fallacies are due to the inherent uncertainty of science and the elusive nature of nature: if you want to make God laugh tell him your plans. Thus the intergenerational legacy of sustainability gives rise to a mirage: the tremolo view of water on a desert horizon and the policy on never getting there.

Sustainability thus requires surrender of the delusion of prediction and control and living the present in a responsible way as to widen our options. Faced by an unpredictable but threatening future adaptive capacity should be fostered by enhancing our collective ability to learn our way forward. As events unfold we not only have to reduce CO2e emissions but also must adapt to the climate change already in place. The intergenerational fallacy can be corrected by focusing on education. Future generations will not inherit an untouched natural capital, since that is structurally impossible. Neither our best science nor good faith can guarantee future generations’ needs will be fulfilled. The only responsible thing is to avoid harmful conducts and build responsiveness to the high degree of uncertainty we have to live with.

Capitalism, being the only game in town, ought to de restored to an ideal state, were real competence rules the game and the richness of diversity and options would discriminate between the fit and the unfit. Short term self-interest should not affect the head of corporations and politicians, through structural reforms in both public and private sectors. The chances to make better public choices are widened by diverse forms of public deliberation and social attentiveness. Governance is truly strengthened by transcending vested interests and counting on diverse responsive social intelligence effectively expressed in diverse fora.

Lack of meaning is the deepest driver of ecological destruction being the cause of the restlessness motorizing obsessive consumerism. An addiction to ever increasing artificial stimuli is set and dealing with sustainability is also tackling with a hopeless lack of meaning. As playwright Havel once put it: (Hope) is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. A deep sense of purpose may become truly compelling if the severity of our condition is properly understood and appropriate action becomes a driving force that restitutes life-hope.

Thus business, politics and education must take on the challenge to increase flexibility and responsiveness, to learn our way forward, as we move from scientism to deep sustainability. Whether such “conversion” will suffice in restoring meaning to our lives or not it is probably the only way forward that increases our chances of success. Deep Sustainability means: acting under a broad constraint of ecological responsibility without ever being able to know very far in advance just what that will require and entail.