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Political Philosophy

Dewey & Climate Denial²

Wendy Lynne Lee says consumerism really is the end of the world.

Science, argued John Dewey, is ‘an instrumentality of the arts’. What he seems to have meant is that science is not only about seeking an objective understanding of the world but also about a commitment to truth as a social and aesthetic value. Perhaps this seems obvious, but there’s more to this bit of common sense – a ‘more’ that I think more important now than ever. For Dewey can help us see clearly why some people and societies have such an investment – intellectual and economic – in denying climate change, and also what we stand to lose if we do not act to mitigate its results.

In attempting to convince you of this, my argument will rely on four elements. Firstly I’ll recap the nature of the environmental and existential crisis posed by climate change. Secondly I’ll examine how climate change denial as a system of beliefs is connected with the capitalist worldview. I will make use of Dewey’s argument for what he calls the aesthetic in experience. And I will critically reinterpret Dewey’s argument in light of the counterfeit aesthetic required by the capitalist worldview.

John Dewey
John Dewey by Darren McAndrew, 2019

Dewey? Who He?

John Dewey (1859-1952) was a leading figure in the tradition of philosophy we call American Pragmatism. In his 1925 book Experience and Nature, he argued that many of our everyday experiences have aspects that are essentially aesthetic. These include richness, diversity, novelty and duration. This is what makes experiences worth having, and that is why everyone would also wish them to always be features of our future experiences too. It would surely seem that whatever endangers this sort of experience is something we’d want to confront head-on, for ourselves, and for the sake of generations to come.

Climate change plainly is just such a threat, especially since we know that human behavior is a major cause of it, and human behavior can change. This is not to deny that such change is a tall order, but simply to point out that it’s possible. When science showed us that smoking causes cancer, people began to stop smoking, however begrudgingly. The value of science, after all, isn’t that it gives us what we want; it’s that we recognize, even against our narrow self-interest, that knowledge is essential to any life worth living and any future experience worth wanting. If climate change threatens that future, we surely want to make every effort to mitigate it.

The trouble is that our actions, individually and collectively, tell a very different story. Not only do people deny that the climate change crisis is the result of human activity; they even deny that there’s any crisis to deny. This is the denial of denial: denial² (denial squared). Denial², the denial not only that climate change is caused by human activity, but that there is any climate change at all, isn’t merely a decision to ignore the facts of climate change; it’s behaving as if the facts were radically different than they are – that the world is radically differently than it in fact, is.

How can this be? What could persuade us to ignore what science has made so clear? What is the mechanism by which such a perspective could gain purchase in so many minds? We know that various aesthetic elements of our experience are already being degraded by the impacts of climate change. So, why aren’t we doing everything possible to mitigate the damage? Have we decided not to know? Can we decide not to know? It seems we can. After all, zoos are not the natural habitats of Sumatran elephants. Killer whales do not naturally belong in Sea World menageries. Natural history museum exhibits – however interactive – aren’t substitutes for lost mountain vistas and prairie expanses. Each is a counterfeit of the aesthetic in experience, at least as Dewey envisions it. They are poor substitutes for a natural world that we are killing. They show that we are good at fooling ourselves.

The Consumer Capitalist Worldview

For those wishing to uphold the capitalist worldview it’s vital to convince the rest of us that the aesthetic or positive qualities of our everyday experience are facilitated not by any thoughtful appreciation of nature, but by the endless consumption of products. In short, the measure of something’s value is how much stuff you can exchange it for. The difficulty, however, is that such a conception of value cannot be made to cohere with facts about the planet.

The plausibility of the idea that value is centrally to be found in the limitless exchange or circulation of products requires us to assume certain things:

Firstly, that we have either an atmosphere capable of absorbing endless emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants necessary to sustain that production; or else that we have adequate non-hydrocarbon sources of energy. The alternative energy sources are possible, but so far are either inadequate to sustain our current levels of consumption or else present their own environmental hazards.

Secondly that we have endless sources of clean water, breathable air, arable soil, rare earth minerals (for mobile phones and computers) and labor.

Thirdly, that we can be persuaded to behave as if the ‘world’ grounded in these presuppositions is how our planet really is.

Lastly, denial² demands we be convinced not merely that the capitalist worldview mirrors facts about the planet, but that what the world it presents offers is what we (ought to) want – that the world it offers us is the aesthetically desirable world, and that consumption of goods is the highest form of aesthetic experience.

Among the key premises of contemporary capitalism is the idea that the planet upon which its enterprise depends is a self-recovering cornucopia of resources. This is what the economist Herman Daly calls ‘the myth of endless resources’ – including endless extractible hydrocarbons, endlessly cleanable water and scrubbable air, endless arable soil, animal bodies, and cheap labor, and perhaps most important, a limitless celestial vault in which to emit greenhouse gases (Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development, 1996). This myth – the archetypal narrative of modern capitalism – is a core premise for capitalism’s central operative idea, that everything is a potential commodity – that is, that the value of something lies in its potential to be exchanged in the interest of profits. Given the combined power of the myth of endless resources and the idea that the value of everything lies in its potential to be commodified, it’s not surprising that the consequences include pollution, desertification, deforestation, disease, and the geopolitical instabilities that follow, all of this increasing human desperation.

These, however, are the fixable environmental crises. We can compel coal-fired power plants to install air scrubbers, develop new antibiotics and anti-viral drugs, plant trees, deliver food aid. The fixable crises make clear the radically different threat posed by the crisis of climate change. ‘Anthropogenic’ implies more than simply meaning ‘human-caused’: the anthropogenic element is also the barometer of the extent to which our disposition towards the planet is defined by the myth of endless resources. It is the extent to which we believe that ‘dilution is always the solution’; or that such a thing as ‘clean coal’ exists; that hydrocarbons are limitless; or even that human activities cannot generate a greenhouse effect. All these examples indicate the operation of the assumption that the capitalist ‘world’ is the actual planet on which we live.

To be clear, it’s not that we’ve given up the idea of a verdant world where an aesthetic experience of nonhuman nature is possible. It’s not that we’ve resigned ourselves either to the denuded world actually offered by capitalism and its products. Instead, capitalism offers us a counterfeit world: the world packaged and marketed as if it were the planet; as if the planet really were an endless treasure trove of the aesthetic experience to which we think we’re entitled. This isn’t cognitive dissonance; it’s epistemic simulacra – fake knowledge. Denial² signals our commitment to painted zoo savannas, artificial shorelines, or ‘Sounds of the Tropics’ on iTunes, as if the consumption of a day at the zoo, the beach, or the spa offers exactly the aesthetic experience we desire.

A Myth Exposed

The trouble, of course, is not merely that this is a scam, but that it’s an unsustainable scam grounded in premises we know to be false and yet usually don’t actually think about at all.

The myth of endless resources is false: The planet, its living and nonliving things, ecological systems, and atmosphere are not limitless repositories of extractables, recuperative capacity, and waste disposal.

Commodification does not reflect true value: While the value of everything can potentially be converted to its exchange value, the planet cannot support an endless circulation of exchanges premised on infinite resources.

Human nature is not defined exclusively by material self-interest: Human beings are both the labor and the consumers needed by the capitalist world. But the idea that material self-interest defines us is not part of our existential condition. Our self-interest does not necessarily coincide with industry’s self-interest, and there is more to us than self-interest anyway.

A detractor might point out that it’s not necessarily true that everything can be assigned a market value – that of course some things remain sacred. But this is manifestly false on the evidence, which seems to tell us that everything has its price. Moreover, deciding what counts as sacred is itself subject to the capitalist calculus. Critically endangered white rhinos slaughtered for the commodity value of their horns will become extinct, and documentaries about white rhinos aren’t white rhinos. Driven to extinction by the exchange value assigned to their feathers, passenger pigeons are now museum props for natural history exhibits. Sugar is routinely assigned a higher value than the sea creatures suffocated by Red Tide along the Florida coastline. The challenge then for the capitalist ‘world’ isn’t the preservation of some notion of the sacred to which we assign aesthetic value, it’s the preservation of the natural world itself. In 2018 a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that if global temperatures rise by 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, a tipping point will be reached with catastrophic consequences. There may be counterfeit opportunities for aesthetic experience, but there’s no such thing as counterfeit existential conditions. Indeed, the very idea of a replacement planet only exposes the lie of the premises of the capitalist worldview. Climate change thus brings into sharp focus the self-contradictory conditions of denial², in that to deny that there is such a thing as climate change first forms an essential condition for the continuation of the capitalist world and its worldview, then ensures that the capitalist world will reach its apex in the destruction of the conditions necessary for its own continuation. In other words, denial² instantiates what can be described as the ‘defining nihilism’ at the center of capitalism.

John Dewey and the Aesthetic In Experience

John Dewey’s concept of the aesthetic in experience offers a compelling lens through which to examine denial². For Dewey, the aesthetic in experience is as much a feature of scientific investigation as it is of art, and crucial to making the world desirable as opposed to merely knowable. For Dewey, science is a variety of creative labor requiring imagination in addition to knowledge, experimental rigor, and appeal to such principles as falsifiability or elegance. “It would then be seen”, writes Dewey, “that science is an art, that art is practice, and that the only distinction worth drawing is not between practice and theory, but between those modes of practice that are not intelligent, not inherently and immediately enjoyable, and those which are full of enjoyed meanings” (Experience and Nature, p.358).

Each of science’s disciplines offers a unique way of interacting with the natural world, of coming to appreciate its interdependencies; and so each offers a unique opportunity for deeper forms of satisfaction. In short, science encourages development of an aesthetic sensibility grounded in the joy of knowledge – even (or especially) when it’s unexpected.

Science includes the aesthetic in experience because knowing is an ‘operative art’ (p.367) corresponding to the capacity for reflection. Science, as Dewey notes, is not only able to induce a unique enjoyment in an experience ‘reflectively chosen’ for its correspondence to the natural world, but defines itself as a sincere commitment to epistemic integrity – to following the evidence wherever it leads, regardless of whether it supports a preferred, or profitable, view of the world.

Science thus tells us not only about the kinds of complex and diverse worlds in which aesthetic experience is made possible, but also about the kinds of worlds where it’s threatened:

“There are two sorts of worlds in which aesthetic experience would not occur. In a world of mere flux, change would not be cumulative; it would not move towards a close. Stability and rest would have no being. Equally it is true, however, that a world that is finished, ended, would have no traits of suspense and crisis, and would offer no opportunity for resolution… Because the actual world, that in which we live, is a combination of movement and culmination, of breaks and re-unions, the experience of a living creature is capable of aesthetic quality.” (p.358)

There are two ways – both illuminating – to read this passage. First as saying that the world that makes a place for the aesthetic in experience is precisely that world within which the natural processes and events that animate living things create the conditions for formulating value. Neither the world of absolute flux nor the ‘finished’ world would make possible experiences of any such kind, since in the world of flux there exists no opportunity for reflection or anticipation, and in the finished world nothing happens to be the subject of experience at all. No sense can be made of either as desirable, as nothing about them occasions wonder.

Neither of these possibilities, however, quite capture the capitalist ‘world’; and so I want to suggest an alternative reading, which says that insofar as the world of the aesthetic in experience demands truth-tellers committed to revealing the world in an experience of all of its ‘combination of movement and culmination’, it cannot afford to elect ends over means. Someone seeking a true aesthetic experience can’t afford to subordinate reason to ends already given, since to do so ignores a quality vital to doing science; that of the freedom from imposed presuppositions required for objectivity. Yet capitalism requires precisely the reduction of means to ends already given: the ends being commodification for profit. In the capitalist world, ends determine means because they govern what has value – what gets distilled from the flux as valuable, or in other words, marketable: hydrocarbons, sugars, animal bodies, labor… Nothing true about the world can matter to the capitalist as a capitalist other than insofar as it serves his ends: for him, things exist for exchange.

Having said that, the possibility for an aesthetic in experience does exist for the capitalist world. It exists according to premises that, while utterly anathema to the facts about the world revealed by the sciences, are nonetheless able to offer a sufficiently coherent counterfeit narrative, for which not only the denial of fact is made possible, but the denial that there are facts to deny is made possible: denial². Dewey is right that an aesthetic in experience requires some conditions to ground its possibility; he’s also right that there exist conditions where no such experience is possible. But he doesn’t notice, or miscalculates, the fraudulent power of capitalism to determine a worldview wherein the ‘flux’ is commandeered by exchange value, and so consumption forms the ‘event’ of the aesthetic in experience.

Denial², the denial that there is any such thing as climate change, is a result not of any truth that could be the product of open-ended empirical investigation as Dewey describes it, but rather of a worldview in which the reduction of all things to a lowest common denominator renders the planet as a repository of resources whose value is determined by their capacity to be commodified. The value of water isn’t as water, but rather as a substrate for chemical solvents for hydraulic fracturing, or an opportunity to cash-in on bottling its last clean drops; air is a repository for volatile organic compounds; soil a distribution medium for fertilizer; vegetation a substrate for high-fructose corn syrup; animal bodies are for deep-fat friers; human beings for labor.

Detached from its moorings in what Dewey recognizes as the aesthetic value belonging to the pursuit of truth, science becomes an instrumentality for capitalism rather than for art. But this isn’t merely because the technologies of extraction and manufacture are dependent on science. Rather, science must also continue to be associated with the aesthetic in experience, although to ends radically different from what Dewey had envisioned.

Water and Earth
Water & Earth, Farshaad Razmjouie, 2019. Farshaad is a refugee from Iran, currently studying and living in Liverpool.

Bottled Water, A Case In Point

Consider, for example, bottled water. It is marketed as if shapely plastic bottles were water’s natural condition (rather like as if pink were the natural color of animal flesh). Companies compete for consumers via the aesthetic presentation of their packaging. One type of water, for example, advertises itself as ‘artisan’ and includes a bright pink flower on the plastic wraps of its twelve packs. Another brand goes for the more ‘euro-chic’ look of tall narrow bottles with sleek silver caps. Both brands capitalize on a scarce existential necessity by treating it as both scarce and abundant; that is, scarce enough to be priced like gold or diamonds, and abundant enough that polluting it via the processes necessary to bottle it in plastic bottles poses no significant hazard. The latter, of course, is false: it is also presupposed by the switch to bottled water in the first place. If we believed tap water was pure, or even safe to drink, who’d spend the money to buy bottled?

It’s at just this juncture, however, that the counterfeit aesthetic plays a key role. Bottled water is advertised as ‘clean’ or ‘pure’; but this isn’t because bottled water companies have any interest in what consumers know about their water. After all, tap water may contain less arsenic than their ‘clean’ product. Moreover, ‘clean’ needn’t mean clean (even if it’s true); it means ‘cool’ – as in what can be afforded by the affluent as water. Were the point simply the purity, then dewy pink flowers or shiny sleek cylinders would be unnecessary and the advertising wouldn’t need to promote sciencey-sounding promises, such as a reassurance that the product conforms to US Food and Drug Administration specifications and testing protocols.

The point I’m making isn’t about water. It’s about how the sciences are used by the world of capital to engineer its products, provide a vocabulary to its promises, and conceal its destruction of resources. The story of water is simply perhaps the most perverse variation on the theme of the counterfeit aesthetic, just because water is an existential necessity. Diverted by bottled water’s aesthetic claim to be ‘clean’, we’re invited to ignore important things that the sciences – chemistry, biology, epidemiology, neurology, bacteriology, environmental sciences – tell us; namely, that clean water for those who can’t afford bottled has become increasingly scarce due to industrial dumping, and/or the appropriation by international conglomerates of what’s left.

The upshot is, if we can be successfully conned into buying bottled water by transparently false advertising campaigns, is it any wonder that we’re susceptible to denial²? The bottled water story is about an existential necessity. Yet even this story is about the kind of fixable environmental crisis that climate change isn’t. If our analysis of bottled water shows the capitalist world to be inconsistent with a good life for the world’s poor, what anthropogenic climate change makes all the clearer is that the capitalist worldview is inconsistent with all life. This is why the denial of climate change is critically importance for the preservation of the capitalist system. Unlike other environmental crises where we’ve made our peace with the devil – giving up Sumatran elephants, polar bears, and leatherback turtles to extinction so we can keep driving SUVs and eating burgers – climate change gives the lie to the myth of endless resources and the edifice of endless consumption built on its rickety scaffolding. Climate change can bring it all down.

Can reflection on that possibility disrupt what seems a seamless disposition to an attitude of denial²? If we continue not to know what we don’t know, can firenadoes, melting ice caps, increasingly catastrophic hurricanes, mass human starvation and migration, or ever more virulent outbreaks of disease persuade us to change?

© Prof. Wendy Lynne Lee 2019

Wendy Lynne Lee is professor of philosophy at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.

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