Climate Change Activism

«Science … commits suicide when it adopts a creed.»
Thomas Henry Huxley, 1885

Seems like the climate change activism has reached my university. And no question about it, wanting to protect the environment is a good thing. We’ve only got one planet, as Carl Sagan beautifully emphasized (he was more concerned with war, but also with “to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known”). And yeah, that’s worth protecting.

So I think it’s extremely important to go at it the right way. And I am very skeptical of movements. The issues are extremely complex and what sounds good and what is good can be two different things. And it’s very hard to get a huge group of protestors to accept counter-intuitive findings. Especially when — in my perception — much is based on emotional outrage and emotional reasoning.

Even worse when it’s schools and universities that activists try to shut down. It’s a low hanging fruit to get most school students and a lot of university students to strike, esp. if they are exempted from negative consequences. As they likely are. I guess many university and school administrations will just join.

But I wonder …

  • How can you go on strike, when the ones for whom you stop working, stop the production in solidarity?
  • Does it make sense to go on strike at a university — the place that is looking for the truth (knowing they will never find it, but hopefully get closer)?
  • Does it make sense to go on strike against education — which is most likely to solve the problems we are having?
  • Is the emotional reasoning of a teenager, who is used as human shield, really the best argument? Is she the best spokesperson?
  • Is it really about climate change, when, e.g., there is talk about “social justice” in the charta?
  • Is it really about democratic culture — and if so, how are people treated who have a different point of view?
  • Isn’t it pretty authoritarian by a group of activists to enforce a new curriculum on the whole university, if only for a week?
  • If students are really willing to do something, wouldn’t “lectures, discussions, and actions” conducted during the evening (or even in the early morning), i.e., outside of the class schedule, be more convincing? (Schools and universities could also stop heating in the coming winter, but I want my office and lecture hall warm.)

These are a few questions I have.

As usually with care ethic, I don’t question that these people mean well. But meaning well isn’t an achievement (to quote Dörner). I mean well here, I don’t think it makes any difference. I’m pretty sure many will not grant me that I mean well. And hell, (nearly) everyone means well, even the ones who deny that others mean well.

But if people feel moral by caring for others, esp. if the care foundation is the only moral foundation they use, things can get out of whack quickly (cf. Haidt’s Moral Foundation Theory). Caring is great for children and the elderly. Even for the environment. But that attitude is only good in measures. It’s my impression that the desire to do good and the view of one’s moral position as “sacred”, the absence of humor, the frequently collectivist and paternalistic approaches, and an “end justifies the means” attitude — these get scary very quickly.

And end up doing more harm than good.

To actually solve the problems mankind is facing we need a rational assessment, not emotional reasoning or panic. We need creative solutions, technological advances. And we need to concentrate on the actual problems, not on what sounds good.

I’m not convinced this can be achieved with strikes at schools and universities — even if it provides the students with a feeling of community, shared fate, and even the impression of being moral.

But for me even worse is the entanglement of science — the quest for truth — with a specific position or creed. Because Huxley was right. His example was evolution, but it equally applies to climate change.

Two shower-thought addendum’s/TL;DR:

  1. Again, the goal is good, it’s the way that’s the problem. It likely misses the goal and comes with a lot of additional problems. Esp. when the movement gets co-opted, if it hasn’t been already. I was wondering when we see the same student activism as in the USA, and yeah, it makes sense that climate change is the coalescing factor (compared to race or sex).
  2. The problem with using science this way is the fixed position: Assuming that mankind is mainly or even solely responsible for climate change is an interesting hypothesis. It can even be a central part of a theory. But here — I think — it’s got the status of a creed. A central tenet of a faith. Something that cannot be questioned but must be accepted to be part of a community, of the righteous people. The morally good. And then it stops being science. Science must always be free to question — no matter how many people agree and how strong the evidence — and I don’t see this freedom here.

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