Pleasure in the Pain of Climate Change
The goal of climate change activism is to be the exception. To be the one civilization that avoids extinction, that continues, and thrives into the future. And yet the central message of all these groups is ironically the one thing that will ensure the opposite happens.
The first inklings of the problem before us happened quite early, with a series of published scientific estimates in the 19th century. By the mid-1960’s people were beginning to approach things a little more seriously, with the creation of climate institutes under the direct funding and support of national governments.
Then it was the eye-catching spectacles of climate summits, all the while evidence mounting up, and the scale of the looming crisis stretching far beyond ordinary points of panic. Yet behind all of this, much-too-much time was lost with insincere debates about the underlying science, all to the detriment of conversations about what we should actually be doing in response.
A relative afterthought, and without the same levels of energy, scrutiny, and creativity that have been applied to analysing the problem itself, the world has stumbled into a single pathway out of this crisis, a single solution, all bound-up in a single policy. Namely, limiting our carbon outputs by punishing economic activity.
There are a number of problems with this. As a species we have consistently shown on this issue — and others similar to it — a deep, and so far unshakable, psychological resistance to sacrificing in the present moment for the benefit of our future, or of altering our standard of living in any way.
And despite our early start on climate science, a full enough understanding of the impact of greenhouse gas emissions didn’t come about until it was, by any reasonable consideration, already too late to avoid catastrophe, due to the ‘lock-in’ effects of carbon in the atmosphere.
It’s unsettling to think that an existential crisis might sneak up on us in this way, risk bringing the whole project of humanity to its knees, and leave so little obvious recourse. No doubt this is what arouses so much of the climate activism we see, as it gets louder and more intrusive each day. Fear motivates, even when things are at their most hopeless.
But the hopelessness being felt around the issue of climate change today, has nothing to do with climate change at all, and everything to do with that question of what we should do. Though it is popular to think otherwise, we are not boxed into a catastrophe here, for the very reason that we –as a species — have been in this exact same position many times before.
Whether it was new tools for hunting, the development of farming techniques, safeguards on the spread and use of nuclear weapons, or now a solution to climate change, there is a tried and tested pathway out of existential crises of this, and every, kind: technical innovation.
In many ways this is the obvious solution, but it is also the only one available to us. And around the world embryonic projects are trying to do just this with biological carbon capture, chemical sinks, iron fertilization of the oceans, aerosols in the atmosphere to precipitate cooling, and much more. But the resources are just not there, no international treaties have been signed, and there is no galvanised and dedicated community of supporters; no coordinated full-court push of any type.
All the funding, all the initiatives, and all the climate activism, are still devoted to doing the one thing that we know won’t work: finding new, and harsher, ways to punish economic activity. Why we would do such a thing requires an explanation — an answer to which lies deep and forgotten inside ourselves: our love of punishment.
We have a range of modern ideas about what punishment should be, why we do it, and what we are hoping it will achieve — typically explained through some combination of ‘deterrence’, ‘retribution’, ‘reformation’, ‘reparation’ or ‘prevention’. But to only try and understand punishment in this way — as a form of behaviour modification — is to ignore its genealogy, and the real value it often still holds.
Originally a philologist by training, Friedrich Nietzsche saw that punishment was something much more instinctive than all of this, something that comes to us naturally, a long way removed from carefully structured responses to carefully designated undesirable behaviours. But also something rarely understood, even by those people administering it.
The link between the German words for guilt [Schuld] and debtor [Schulden] are a bold reminder of this forgotten history. But it is also there in the records of every known civilization — an explanation of punishment that sounds a lot more like a business transaction than a behaviour modifier.
Within our foundations of justice is a deeply entrenched idea that our actions have a cost, and that this cost must be paid in full — a debt being owed. And then also attachments of guilt to those who fall on the wrong end (as ‘buyers’ or ‘debtors’) of this relationship. We hear the hard echoes of this today when prisoners and victims talk about ‘debts to society’.
What is slightly less obvious, but just as strong, is the pride associated with those people in the position of ‘seller’ or ‘creditor’. This is why it was once so natural for debts to be passed on and transferable between family members — justice came with a sense of exchange, of compensation, and above all else measurement.
It is here that the question of punishment becomes the question of pain. Traditionally creditors would extract their payment — their justice — through torture and humiliation. Everything has its equivalent price, especially when it comes to dishonour, harm, and offense. So in Nietzsche’s words, it became common to “excise as much flesh as seemed commensurate with the size of the debt”.
But this is still only half the picture, it gets worse… We get worse.
Our desire to punish other people is also a means unto itself. Looking back into history again — and written into the founding documents of the three great monotheisms, and as far back as Homer’s account of the Trojan Wars — punishment has always taken on a festive-like quality.
On the ground, in daily life, things fared little better, with it being common for aristocratic weddings to include spectacles of torture and execution as part of the celebrations; and for noble households to employ someone for the sole purpose of being a destination for pent-up violence, someone on whom they could “vent one’s malice and cruel teasing”.
There is a truth here that can only be avoided through some effort — we punish others for no other reason than because we enjoy it!
Punishment is pleasure, it’s a moment when your enemy is presented to you, belly-up, prostrate, defenceless, and stripped of their rights to dignity and protection. It is an entitlement to be cruel, an excuse to express anger, and the right to mistreat someone else as beneath you.
There is nothing more pleasurable or festive than cruelty, and there is no more satisfying way to be cruel than through the righteous exaction of punishment.
With this still written into our culture as well as our penal codes, it begins to make more sense as to why our global policies to address climate change look the way they do, and why we are pursuing them with so much fervour, and so little scepticism. Policies that, even if enacted, and capable of reducing carbon emissions to zero overnight, would still do nothing to stop the future warming of the planet due to the high levels of carbon already ‘locked-in’ to our atmosphere.
This can be found in the language of our climate summits and their documents, with the repeated insistence that an arbitrary upper limit on greenhouse gas emissions be set, and then those countries found in breach of these limits be first named responsible, and then punished accordingly. In some instances “calculation kits” have even been handed out, so that states, businesses, and everyday people, can painstakingly tally-up their ‘historical responsibility’.
Climate change had its break-out moment at the Villach Conference in 1985, a conference that proclaimed to the world: 1. Harm had been caused to the environment by carbon emissions, 2. That We were to blame for this, 3. And so a cost was owed by us all, explicitly a sacrifice in our standards of living.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) dug deeper into the details of this ‘owed sacrifice’, creating a proportional framework for each state in terms of the harm they had already caused. Later, the Kyoto Protocols (1997) continued to narrow-in on this relationship between ‘harm-caused’ and ‘debt-owed’ by dividing responsibility between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries.
The informal Copenhagen Accords (2009) and the Paris Climate Agreement (2015) focussed most of their attention on creating a better monitoring and verification system for the implementation of climate punishment. When it became obvious that such a punishment regime could not be agreed upon, the conference instead decided to ‘name and shame’ violating countries (a social punishment in place of a physical/material one).
Even beyond such supranational organisations, the policy talk is remarkably consistent — involving very little beyond the proportioning of financial punishments through carbon taxes or emissions trading schemes.
At every step, the question of how to address global warming has been sidelined for, and dominated by, a process of microscopically calculating how much harm has been caused, carefully apportioning percentages of blame to match these calculations, and then insisting that punishment is exacted in full and public terms.
Which brings us back to those climate activists, and what motivates them each day to return to the streets and protest in ever louder ways. Their obsession with the problem before them is clearly genuine, and yet all they talk about is ‘punishments’ rather than ‘solutions’. Through their language, and written on their banners and graffiti, is an unmistakable link to our ugly past.
There is no talk of helping to reform or rehabilitate the perpetrators, instead everything is hyper-moralised and flooded with outrage. From this outrage you can hear the cries of an ‘aggrieved creditor’, someone who feels individually wronged, and so demands that the ‘debt’ be repaid in full.
We have an overwhelming instinct to punish people even when it is fruitless and counterproductive, because it satisfies something deep inside ourselves. So a solution to our climate crisis that involves removing carbon from the atmosphere, or artificially lowering temperatures by other means, would be unsatisfactory for many people, because it would also remove their entitlement to inflict related punishments.
The problem would be solved, but the heavy polluters would be excused of their debts, and climate activists would be denied their pound of flesh.
It is always tempting to imagine that the solutions to large and difficult problems are beyond our reach. And this is where the real danger lays. Our rapidly heating planet is not the first existential crisis to confront our species, and it won’t be the last. But if we allow global warming to pull us back into our primitive selves, and down a pathway of problem avoidance rather than problem solving, then even if by some chance we avoid the coming annihilation, the next problem — when it arises — will almost certainly destroy us instead.