Can science save the world?

Chris Rapley

Outlining possible solutions to the crisis, he suggests there is little we can do about escalating population and the global economy. He pins his faith in greater energy efficiency and a growing dependence on renewables such as wind farms and solar power.

This comes from Michael Billington’s review of 2071, a theatrical ‘documentary’ on climate change, featuring Chris Rapley, a man with a distinguished career in science. Billington describes the production as ‘better than good…necessary’.

Chris Rapley

(image from Guardian article linked above)

The quoted statement made me think. It seems to be an example of how the scientific community contributes to our political and social failure to take the problem on. It encourages us and our political leaders to believe that science and technology can get us out of this, without changing our economic systems and cultural assumptions. The global economy can go on its merry way, pursuing endless growth, and population can continue to expand, because the scientists will save us.

Some scientists may be happy to take on this messianic role, but it might be better if they, along with the rest of us, acknowledged its hubris. Billington’s phrase ‘pins his faith‘ is telling. It is faith, not science, that supports the idea that science can protect us from catastrophic climate change, and it is a faith that seems to be driven more by the thought that it’s the only option; we can’t change economic and social forces, even though we know they are hugely significant, so we have to solve the problem technologically. A scientist, who naturally looks to science for solutions, sees that population control or global economic trends are not within the remit of science. So the scientist focuses on the aspects of the problem that he or she can address, and hopes that that will be enough.

The other elements of the problem, population, economic growth, consumerism, involve changes in the behaviour of masses of people. This is why it seems so intractable and why people often resist calls for more sustainable practices on the grounds that one individual’s actions can have no effect, or even one country’s. ‘What’s the point,’ they say, ‘when China is building all those coal-fired power stations?’* Human behaviour on this scale falls under the scope of the humanities, sociology, history, etc. The only branch of the humanities that we tend to look to for solutions to anything is economics, but in this case it seems that economics is part of the problem.

The things that do influence behaviour on such a large scale are religions and ideologies, which are even more remote from current individualistic and scientific outlooks. But perhaps this is where we should be looking. I do not mean to say that some traditional religion or god can save us, any more than science can. Rather, the kind of change in world-view and values that we need is akin to a religious movement, an ethos, both in content – a vision of how we ought to live – and in that it needs to provide a basis for a new social, cultural form of life, for individuals and communities in a global ecosystem.

This train of thought may have got carried away to a rather sweeping, utopian place. Another, smaller inference might be that (in spite of what I said in the previous paragraph) existing religions could have a role to play, by offering alternatives to prevailing economic orthodoxies and by reaching large sections of the population. But that would require global religions to seek common ground among themselves and with science, rather than enabling conflict – to act as unifying forces, not as divisive ones. History is not terribly encouraging on that point.

So let’s be wildly utopian and imagine a Green Reformation, where scientific solutions combine with social change, rather than being an excuse for social, political, and economic inertia.

*Shortly after I wrote this, the USA and China announced their agreement on deadlines for cutting carbon emissions – so that’s a step in the right direction and dare we hope a sign that change is coming? At least it makes it harder to give the ‘what about China?’ excuse for apathy.

Social mobility

I’ve been thinking about the idea of ‘social mobility’ lately. You tend to hear the words spoken by politicians in worthy discussions about improving the lot of the poor, reducing child poverty, enabling people to move up the social scale. Not like the bad old days when people were all trapped in the class they were born to. It sounds quite a good thing, this social mobility.

But the picture that it evokes, of a social ladder (like, if not identical to, the property ladder) that we are all trying (encouraged) to climb, seems problematic to me. It suggests that we can all go up indefinitely, or at least that no one is going down. No one mentions that social mobility might go down as well as up the ladder, or that there might be snakes too. ‘Social mobility’ seems to be a way of avoiding talking about redistribution of wealth (we don’t want to scare the party donors after all).

(But wait – am I confusing upward social mobility with increased wealth? Aren’t these two different things? Possibly, but there is a long and complicated discussion to be had. See for a classic view of the distinction – when social mobility seemed impossible and ‘innate breeding’ was an accepted notion – how much has changed since then?)  Grant for the moment that in our consumer society, money is the bottom line. This is why, for instance, educational qualifications (which, in another world/time, might be valued purely for the sake of the learning they represent as a good in itself) are now justified in financial terms as a means to an end – the return on your investment of time and money (debt) will be greater lifetime earnings, they say. So I will pursue this line of thought on the assumption that social mobility and increased income/wealth are very closely related, if not identical.)

But if positive social mobility is possible without a balancing negative mobility, that is, without redistribution of wealth, there must be an ever-growing pot of resources to enable us all to have more. The myth of unlimited growth hovers in the background.

Let’s look harder at the ladder. The people at the bottom have no jobs and their incomes are (more or less grudgingly) paid by the rest of society, through taxes or charity. They have little or no power or freedom to choose how they live their lives. They are surplus to requirements. This is the position that the philanthropic politicians want to lift people out of (incidentally reducing the benefits bill).

The next rung (or the first rung, like the ‘starter home’) is a minimum wage job, not much more power or freedom here (maybe less actually) than at the ground level but at least you’re not so dependent on benefits (this is the theory, remember). As you go up, you get paid more for your labour/time. The idea is that you and your time are worth more because you have become more skilled. You have joined a more exclusive group and the law of supply and demand requires that your price goes up. So we must all get more skilled, get degrees, certification, continuous professional development etc., to make ourselves rarer and more expensive (i.e. more valuable). (There’s a bit of a paradox there, isn’t there? If we are all getting more skilled we can’t be getter rarer, so how can we be worth more?)

Anyway, what about the top of the ladder? The logical progression of increasing value, increasing return to time, is the place the city traders all want to be, where you have acquired so much wealth that you don’t need to work at all anymore, because your money will work for you, and you can live comfortably, nay luxuriously, on the interest alone. These lucky few have escaped from the law of supply and demand. Like the people at the bottom, they have no jobs, but that does not matter, because they have money and the freedom that bestows. If this is the top of the ladder, it is very clear that we can’t all get there – someone needs to be doing the work that holds the ladder up. That is to say that the top of the ladder depends on there being people further down, whose work is undervalued enough to generate excess returns which are the interest on which the truly wealthy can live without working (like the landed gentry of old).

What if you try to define social mobility in other terms, not just money? What might it mean? Social mobility seems to carry with it a notion of hierarchy. (I used the term ‘social scale’ above, without really thinking about it. Did you notice? Did it grate?) We talk of ‘upwardly mobile’ people, and there is a sense of rising status in society, of becoming more socially valued, of people ‘bettering themselves’, like the virtuous Big Issue sellers pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Is this just to fall back into old assumptions of class divisions? When we talk of social mobility are we just aiming for a society where everyone is at least middle class? Where everyone aspires to be management level and every job requires a degree?

Try again. What is social mobility without an assumed hierarchy?

To be socially mobile is not to be trapped in a particular place in society. It is to have many ways of living life open to one. Having more money is only one way of achieving that (though there is surely some minimum level of financial resources which is necessary). More important, it seems to me, is having the ability to choose the goals you want to pursue, the things that will make your life valuable to you, and having access to the resources (financial, but more importantly educational and institutional) to apply yourself to those goals. In these terms, education matters not because it (theoretically) gets you a better paid job, but because it gives you the skills to make those choices and to pursue those goals, whatever they are, in a considered and sustainable way (to live well for less, as the supermarket ad has it).

But why call this social mobility? Why not just say we want to achieve a society (à la Rawls) which provides to all the basic goods necessary to live a life they can find worthwhile? It’s not about moving up a hierarchy determined by socially accepted notions of value, whether that’s in terms of money or class. It’s about freedom to choose, a freedom which depends on some fundamental things: education, health, a decent place to live. And if that involves some redistribution of wealth, some restraint of the ‘free market’, so be it.

Is there any conclusion to these ramblings? Only this perhaps – I think ‘social mobility’ is a red herring. It quietly accepts a hierarchical view of society, while suggesting that hierarchy is ok as long as there’s a chance of moving up it.

Copyright ©2014 F. Watts

Notes to self: Learning to paint etc.

When modelling in clay, avoid smearing the clay about, or automatically, arbitrarily, smoothing out all the tool marks, etc. Smearing produces an unintended, uncontrolled form (and combined with smoothing, usually a lumpy and uninteresting surface). Instead I want to add or remove clay in response to an observation or an intention.

As in drawing, so in modelling and in painting, each mark, each piece of clay, each brushstroke, ought to be part of an act of seeing, of paying attention to the subject and the work.

So practise, practise … so that the medium becomes a familiar tool to enable that act of seeing, not a hindrance to it. As familiar as this pencil or the hand that holds it.Photo1553

And another thing: don’t hunt for something ‘meaningful’ or ‘significant’ to paint. It isn’t really about the content, or even the form; the significance is in the paying attention.