In Defense of Theory (Part I): Why Our Obsession with Action Is Perilous

Cartoon by Wiley Miller

This is the first article in a multi-part series that argues for greater appreciation of conceptual work in addressing climate change and other wicked societal problems. You can read Part II here and Part III here. The other parts are forthcoming.

The 2020s are the decisive decade of humankind. A climate crisis is raging, and world leaders must act now if they are to stave off civilizational collapse. Time is of the essence. We must stop the debate, the theorizing, the philosophizing. The only thing that counts is real-world action.

We can all agree with that, right?

Well, hold on a second.

Yes, time is of the essence and real-world action is important. But the panic that has gripped the climate action community is making us increasingly blind to anything that is conceptually different from what we have been doing so far.

Given how far off track we are in our effort to avert catastrophic global warming, our obsession with hands-on intervention — and the stigma against theoretical work that goes along with it — is treacherous. It is a bias that confines us to the sphere of incrementalism and makes us look for success in solving the wrong problems.

My work on Transformation Capital delivers regular reminders that theory is not en vogue. Few people seem to take the time necessary for reading beyond the headline. Many brush aside conceptual thinking as “too abstract” and demand “simpler ideas” with a “clear value proposition”. Webinars are often beauty contests of what everybody is working on and rarely forums for fruitful debate. Investors only engage at the deal stage and have no appetite for being part of a journey of learning and exploration. Philanthropic funders have an aversion to supporting academic work, as if everything universities do was completely devoid of practical relevance.

All the while, we overlook that the economic, financial, and political institutions that guide climate action are antiquated. Neoclassical economics (1950s–1970s), modern portfolio theory (1952), the LogFrame (1960s), the efficient market hypothesis (1970), and the UNFCCC (1992) are all decade-old ideas that we take for granted without questioning whether they are still fit for purpose. Even the Paris Agreement, which was drafted only five years ago, already feels outmoded for a post-Trump/post-COVID-19 era.

The issue is not just that we hold a false belief in the permanence of these social constructs, that we unquestioningly accept them as given. What’s more worrying is that many don’t even see the value in interrogating the foundations on which these institutions stand.

Why is this a problem?

If we stop questioning the paradigms, algorithms, and structures that shape our society, we are going to remain stuck with what we already have. We may add the occasional tool to our toolbox, but what we should really be doing is designing new toolboxes.

Climate change and other wicked social challenges are here to stay. Their containment will require attention and resources for decades to come. If we address these 21st-century problems with 20th-century approaches, failure will be the inevitable outcome.

Our aversion to new theories and conceptual ideas reminds me of the Streetlight Effect, an observational bias that occurs when people only search for something where it’s easiest to look, not where it’s most likely to be found. In the climate action community, few have the courage to step into the dark.

Why aren’t we asking more fundamental questions? Why aren’t we debating the purpose of money and the intent of corporations? Why aren’t we questioning the theories behind our economic system, the way our election systems works, the distribution of power and resources in society?

One reason is a misguided sense of urgency. Talk of the “decisive decade” and of the 1.5°C-target “slipping out of reach”, and evocative imagery such as the IPCC’s emissions pathway charts, may present scientifically valid arguments. But they also create a psychological pressure to act that may be counter-productive in the long run.

This chart by Carbon Brief (an interactive version of which can be found here) shows 1.5C emission pathways that would be required if emissions had peaked in each year between 2000 and 2026. Such charts may be informative and accurate but they also create a psychological pressure to act that may be counter-productive in the long run.

Another reason is solutionism, a belief that all problems have discrete, often technocratic solutions. It’s a mindset bred during industrialization when most problems were complicated in nature and could be solved through engineering.

Solutionism is particularly rampant in the climate action community, as Professor Mike Hulme notes in a recent essay. It not only dominates public innovation policy but also the popular discourse around climate change, partially because “breakthrough solutions” make for catchier campaign slogans and newspaper headlines than the issue’s systemic root causes.

A pernicious side effect of solutionism is that it keeps us from revisiting our understanding of the problem. This is particularly true in the field of sustainable finance. In a recent (unpublished) study, researchers at ETH Zurich found that many sustainable finance initiatives are vague about the problem they address and lack a robust theory of change (Egli and Guido 2019). It is no surprise, then, that much of the global finance community pursues nebulous objectives such as “greening the financial system” and “aligning portfolios with the SDGs” — whatever that means.

To those who have worked on issues like climate change for years, it is clear that complex systemic problems cannot be fixed but must be managed — carefully, deliberately, patiently, and in response to what emerges over time. In such contexts, mindsets and strategies are more important than single-point solutions, and a solid grasp of the problem is key.

Lastly, theory may also get a bad rap because of the innate psychological predisposition of humans toward action. As Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman explains in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, our animal brain has evolved to act on intuition (System 1), not on deliberation (System 2). This predisposition intensifies during times of urgency when people tend to default to hyper-activism. In my native language German, there’s even a word for that: “Aktionitis”.

The climate action community has undoubtedly contracted Aktionitis.

So what’s the cure?

It’s not obvious. Not to me, anyway.

Our predisposition toward action is deeply entrenched in the operating protocols of society. You can see it in KPI-driven accountability frameworks, in productivity-oriented incentive structures, in the way professionals manage their calendars, in the false dichotomy between theory and practice, in our preference for speaking over listening, and in our nanoscale attention spans.

Changing these things isn’t impossible. But in an era in which society rewards busyness, thrives on deal-making, gets its dopamine shots from red notification blobs on smartphone screens, and finds arousal only in superlatives, restoring theory to its rightful place might require nothing less than a change in the zeitgeist.

Until that happens, let’s hope the theories at our disposal today aren’t leading us off a cliff tomorrow.

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Dominic Hofstetter

Dominic Hofstetter

I write to inform, inspire, and trigger new strategies for tackling climate change.