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We’ve all seen hypocrites respond in plenty of different ways when they’re called on the mismatch between their words and their actions: the disarming smile, the sudden rage, the elaborate cover story, the sudden effort at distraction, and so on.A blank look like a cow staring at a passing train isn’t one of these—and yet that’s what I tend to get consistently when I bring up the failure of people to make the changes in their own lives their own rhetoric demands that others make.The problem isn’t knowledge, then; it’s not ethics, and it’s not will. Some decades ago, in a book far more often cited than read, historian of science Thomas Kuhn pointed out the role of paradigms in the process of scientific research.
His name is Peter Kalmus; he’s a scientist who researches climate change; he decided, after careful assessment of the data, to give up air travel in order to cut back on his own contribution to the problem he studies; and he’s written a thoughtful book, , which will be published later this year, and which talks in forthright terms about the way that change has to begin with our own lifestyles, if it’s going to begin at all.
Kalmus made a midsized splash in the sustainability end of the blogosphere a while back, when he published an essay suggesting that climate scientists might want to take the lead in giving up the carbon-intensive lifestyle habits that all of us are going to have to give up in order to keep the planetary climate from spinning hopelessly out of control.
A few of his colleagues have taken up the gauntlet he threw down—last I heard, the number is up to half a dozen or so, out of the tens of thousands of scientists currently researching climate change.
The rest keep on flying carbon-spewing jets to conferences where they talk learnedly about how we all have to stop spewing carbon, and then wonder why so few people take them seriously. If climate scientists—the people who have the most reason to understand what we’re doing to the Earth’s climate by using its atmosphere as a gaseous trash can for our wastes—aren’t willing to change their own behavior in response to that knowledge, how can they expect anyone else to do so?
Yet even those who have convinced themselves that the fate of the Earth is a moral issue of compelling importance seem, by and large, to be unable to go from that ethical realization to the obvious next step of giving up habits and lifestyle choices that actively harm the global ecosystem. Among those few climate activists who have grasped the failure of knowledge and ethics, it’s common to hear the difficulty framed as a matter of will: if only they can find some way to motivate people to do what’s necessary, they think, people will change their ways and everything will be fine.
That hasn’t worked any better than the other two notions.
The difficulty with paradigm-driven science, though, is that no matter how good the procedures, questions, and answers mandated by any paradigm may be, sooner or later they stop yielding useful insights into nature.
At this point whatever scientific field has relied on the paradigm in question slams facefirst into crisis; you see the endless circular debates, the frantic elaboration of existing theory, and all the other signs of a discipline that’s lost its way.
Yet even among those people who think they take climate change seriously, you’ll have to look long and hard to find the very few who take it seriously enough to stop making the problem worse with their own actions.