New Rationalism: A Philosophy for Sustainability

This is Part 1 in the Sustainable America series.

The Enlightenment was a failure, at least from the vantage of 2017. What was once a movement of reason, progress, and independence has given way to an era of strife, confusion, and uncertainty. It was meant to eliminate prejudice, empower the people to think rationally, and relax the chokehold that superstition and religion had over individual power. It was meant to protect the people from the overreach of those who sought to control the powerless masses. Liberty was born of this movement. America was born of this movement. Yet two hundred years later, the foundation upon which this great country was founded has eroded beneath our feet. It is no longer a tenable proposition to believe that Enlightenment ideals will save the common man from the forces of power that wish to usurp control from the democracy of the whole. If America and humanity are to survive the coming century, a different approach must be sought, a New Rationalism for the 21st century and beyond.

Perhaps the clearest signpost that we have entered a new moment of history is the dawn of the current administration in charge of the United States of America. Donald Trump ascended to the presidency using lies, deceit, and irrationality as a key part of his strategy to seduce the electorate into believing that he was a reasonable candidate for the highest position in public office. Not only does the man espouse racist, sexist, and condemnable beliefs, but he actively denies the single biggest threat facing America as a country and humanity as a species today: climate change. A Chinese hoax, he calls it, flying in the face of all rational and scientific inquiry. Donald Trump’s rise heralds the end of the Enlightenment, a rejection of all its principles in favor of a new and populist model of leadership that obeys no rules except those he alone chooses to follow.

Despite what Trump has to say about the issue, understanding climate change is the lynchpin for navigating these modern times, for its profound implications will upend the natural order of the world that has existed for nearly 12,000 years and all of human civilization. The set of environmental laws that have governed our existence has now been replaced by a new order of chaos and turmoil. Society has been designed around a set of predictable climatic conditions: the rains will arrive at this time, the temperatures will remain in this range, the coastline will be at this location without deviation. It is upon this foundation that we have built our civilization: we grow our crops around this cycle, we place our cities near these coastlines, we construct our culture around this life. It is the very basis for our understanding of who and what we are as a people.

Over just the past century, however, profound environmental changes have occurred just within our own borders, to say nothing of the world at large. America’s land area covers about 2% of the globe, yet even in this tiny swath, the observed trend is startling. Temperatures have jumped over a degree Celsius, mostly since 1970. Precipitation has increased, flooding is more common, and droughts more pronounced. This is just what has happened so far; as greenhouse gases continue to pour into the atmosphere, the outlook gets increasingly dire. What we know about our current trajectory is stark: by midcentury, temperatures will have further risen dramatically, the food system will be under enormous stress, and countless hordes of people will be leaving cities en masse to escape the encroaching sea, triggering a refugee crisis tantamount in scale to the one facing Europe today.

These projections can only take us so far, but none of the underlying methodologies are in dispute. The impacts listed above are only a small sample of the large and varied changes in store due to unmitigated climate change, which is the direct result of the carbon-fuel economy that underpins our modern era. While the 20th century will be remembered for a great many things, including war, genocide, nuclear weapons, and other horrors, its most far-reaching consequence will be the dynasty of fossil fuel that was built in that century. It is oil, coal, and natural gas that led to explosive economic growth and technological progress, but the pollution it unleashed will devastate humanity and change the course of life on Earth if it isn’t curtailed immediately. Since even the best-case scenarios currently portend a doom of biblical proportions, the only rational thing to do, as a society and as a species, is to prepare for what’s coming.

But it is here that the Enlightenment falls apart, for it’s more obvious now than ever that the human animal is not rational at all. We like to think of ourselves as the wise apes coded into our species name Homo sapiens, but this is more wishful thinking than actual fact. Yes, humans are incredible thinkers. We design whole cities. We build spacecraft to take us to other worlds. We are on the brink of mastering biology and initiating an artificial intelligence revolution. We are fantastic creatures, which is why our influence on the systems of the Earth has had such a devastating effect. Rational beings wouldn’t decimate their home as we do today, yet further along the path we march, unabated by reason or intellect.

This rationality assumption is built into our economic models as well, that people will take into account available information, weigh costs and benefits, and act consistently in choosing a preference. It is called the rational action theory, and it fails to account for the numerous decisions made every day that act against our own self-interest. Consider: the devastation of climate change will cost the global economy many trillions of dollars. Yet overhauling the economy to be carbon-neutral would cost a mere fraction of that. It would be the difference between living in Manhattan and watching it flood, sinking all those assets along with it. For many other countries, it is the difference between life and death. It is impossible to put a number on how much stands to be lost by not eliminating carbon pollution from the global economy, but the ultimate fact is, civilization in its current form cannot survive unless global warming is halted and carbon removed from our atmosphere.

The choice, for a rational actor, should be obvious: pay for clean energy now to avoid devastation later. Yet for decades, even with this choice made clear, the human enterprise has proceeded apace with worst-case emissions scenarios. 2016 witnessed the largest year-over-year climb in carbon dioxide concentrations since data collection began. It also happened to be the hottest year on record. A rational actor would recognize these trends and adjust behavior accordingly. Nonetheless, we continue to burn carbon on a scale equivalent to burning a forest 30% larger than the size of Africa, every single year.

The question is what to do to break the quagmire. It’s hard to communicate the danger of climate change when faith in public institutions has tumbled dramatically in recent decades. The internet revolution and the information overload associated with it has made discerning fact from fiction harder than ever. “Fake news” is prevalent, and often more entertaining than real news. Americans in particular have lost trust in experts and scientists. Authority now rests solely in the individual, another failing of Enlightenment thinking. Whereas once pursuit of the truth was meant to improve the human condition, now it is actively resisted, with people relying instead on their own personal truth, regardless of whether it has any basis in reality. This is why there are those who continue to doubt the well-established facts of evolution and global warming. This is why the Enlightenment has failed.

Humans aren’t rational actors, to be clear, but rather intelligent animals that are more grounded in emotion and feeling than objective understanding. This is why communicating the urgency of the climate threat over the past several decades has fallen so short of its intended results: half of all current members of Congress oppose climate action, and the president of the most powerful nation on Earth is doing everything in his power to undermine our laws to regulate our greenhouse gas emissions. A deconstruction of government is taking place, and with it what few tools we have at our disposal to contain the growing threat. It will cost us in blood and treasure, and it isn’t a smart move. If scientists hoped their findings would influence policy, it has, at this stage of the game, not done nearly enough.

Which is why a New Rationalism must come into the fold if we are to deal with these issues. This philosophy espouses one core belief: the universe can be understood through science and rationalism, but getting people to live in harmony with this reality will require an emotional appeal. Human psychology is the foundation for this new approach, using the quirks of our capricious emotions to guide us toward a prosperous future. It is no longer enough to merely report the science; it must be done artfully, tenderly, in a way that allows people to accept its conclusion without irrationality clouding our judgment. Science must be cloaked in the package of entertainment, and it must be done without bruising anyone’s ego in the process. Too much of science communication has been boring, brutal, and in some cases, counterproductive. People react very defensively when new information threatens their worldview. Climate change in particular has the ability to shatter people’s conception of their world and their place in it. But it can and will be understood, if this new approach can be adopted.

Thus far, the climate movement has spoken to people’s heads instead of their hearts, but that has to change immediately. It has always been a movement about and for people, and inspiring them to act has to be a priority over communicating the dire facts. The science has long been settled; repeating it again and again does nothing to add to the debate. Even this article falls into that trap — a recap of the science, when no such recap is strictly necessary. But this is written for a different audience than the typical climate skeptic.

When it comes to writing for that demographic that dismisses climate change as junk science and unworthy of attention, there are a number of modifications that should be made to the current discourse. In part two of this series, these adjustments will be explored in detail, leveraging the best approaches from psychology to make climate change a salient threat. But what’s clear after all these years is that our response to the science hasn’t been effective. A change must be made if we are to survive.

It is irrational to believe people will act rationally. New Rationalism offers a novel approach, one rooted in human psychology and behavior, using our emotions as well as scientific inquiry to understand the truths of our world. The most important truth of all is that climate change is upon us and wreaking havoc. It will end us if we choose to ignore it. Our psychology thus far has done an excellent job of relegating the problem to a distant abstraction, and continuing to fight our hard-wired instincts will only steer us backwards. It’s time to let the Enlightenment go, and let our modern understanding of the universe shape our actions and motivations. Without truth, there is no way forward. Thankfully, truth is within our grasp. We just need New Rationalism to embrace it.