How would the climate change debate change if it focused more on behaviors and less on ideas? Ilan Chabay visited the University of Oslo two weeks ago 1 to talk about “improving how we learn for sustainability,” emphasising the value and necessity of models to deal with complex issues. There was a pronounced exasperation in the audience at large at the unwillingness of much of American society to seriously address humanly induced climate change, and much of the discussion centered on cognitive shifts needed toward a greater respect for scientific results.
Being a middle school teacher, I kept expecting the conversation to turn toward the teaching of sustainable behaviors, but this was dealt with only in a closing comment. Strictly, however, beliefs or models are hardly what cause pollution, depletion of resources, or climate change. Actions, purchases, behaviors are what cause these things.
And is there really that much reason to believe that modifying the former will result in changes in the latter? As far as I can see, people who are more educated in general, who are more knowledgeable about models of climate change, are no less - and are frequently more - inclined to fly frequently, enjoy foods imported from distant places, and consume electronics whose production involve environmental hazards. On the other extreme, the Amish, while likely not overly receptive to the science of climate change, probably also contribute less to the problem than does anyone who uses an electronic device to read this entry. The connection, then, between understanding of science on the one hand, and sustainable practices on the other, is not straightforward.
I do see that groups who are outright hostile to science and who also engage fiercely in politics do thwart necessary political efforts. However, I am not convinced that insisting on a common understanding on the way the natural world works, an agreement on metaphysical issues, is the only common ground worth seeking. Could some basis for agreement on careful and moderate consumption be found elsewhere? Could there be some convergence on how we will behave without agreement on why we would do so?
I would like to think that devoting resources to the development of measured skepticism, to the appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of models of climate change, would result in more rational decision-making and in behavior directed toward limiting the problems. But I don’t know that there’s overwhelming evidence that this would be more effective an approach than eclectically building on whatever various motivations for moderation that one might find.
1And due to that delightful arrangement, the Fall Break in Norway, I could attend! Yay for whoever decided we’d continue to have a week off in October even though most kids don’t need to help their families harvest potatoes at that time anymore.