WHAT CAN FRANCIS BACON TEACH US ABOUT THE CLIMATE CRISIS?
Those who think there is a climate crisis believe in what is called “climate science.” But those who resist the very notion of a climate crisis dislike climate science and climate scientists as elitist alarmists. They see nothing terribly wrong, and every time there is a polar vortex in the northern hemisphere they say, “see: what did I tell you?” One could always turn to such people and say, “Well, you also see that wall over there, but in fact, it’s mostly just molecules and empty space.” This, however, is to invite more head-scratching and opposition.
Yet even those who applaud and credit climate science may have vexed opinions about the practice of science itself. Many have long bought into the notion that science is not all it was once cracked up to be. Has it not created nuclear bombs that can destroy us, and aerosol spray cans that crack open the ozone layer? Karl Popper has famously said that science is always struggling with how to verify or falsify its findings, and Thomas Kuhn even more famously said that science is only as good as its current paradigm makes it. It’s not as benign, reliable, or progressive as some of us once thought. Climate change deniers are unlikely to have wrestled with the likes of Popper and Kuhn, maybe, but if they knew anything about them, they would have fresh ammunition.
It’s time to re-think the rhetoric of “climate science.” And it’s the “science” part that needs the overhaul. Here one of the pivotal figures of the early modern period, Francis Bacon, can help. He lived and worked at the dawn of what became the full Newtonian revolution. He was a practicing empiricst and thought the experimental method was the best way to find out about the natural environment. He died of pneumonia doing an experiment on a chicken in the frozen snow. He looked around at the magicians and conjurers of his day, plus the alchemists, and thought they were ants crawling about in incoherent directions, and the saw the rationalists and theologians of his time as spiders weaving endlessly complex and self-contradictory webs. He thought those seeking truth should be like bees, pollinating here and there in a large group andmorals comparing notes. He imagined a utopia of government spending on scientific knowledge so tht its benefits could be widely shared.
Bacon’s enthusiasm for early modern science may seem naïve, but he offers us a great insight for these days of climate science and crisis. Bacon actually thought science improved morals. Wittgenstein once said that even the best scientific progress is but a patch on the troubles of humanity, The great thinker’s austere realism seems attractive, but Bacon would have thought he was wrong. He considered the three great scientific technologies of his day—the compass, the printing press, and gunpowder—and thought they were great advances in the human endeavor, and not just because they were ingenious and changed society. He even imagined, it seems, that they improved not just the lot but also the MORALS of humankind.
How or why could he have possibly thought this? He does not spell out details, but, consider the compass. How many ships knew where they were going because of the compass, and how many munitines and on-board battles were accordingly avoided? We may not think this improves actual morals but only prevents immoral behavior. But what prevents immoral behavior is surely a moral enhancement. The printing press: we think of it as advancing morals because people can read and tdhink for themselves, as though that alone would make for greater morality. But it is more likely that with more newspapers and pamphlets people were preoccupied and sedentary and were less likely to get up to something wicked, just as today’s digial preoccupations keeps young people in front of a screen instead of in a knife fight. To paraphrase Churchill, better to read-read than to war-war.
But surely gunpowder has not been conducive to moral improvement. That would depend, as we try to think as Bacon thought. If battles can be ended more quickly with one side having gunpowder and the other not, or if battles never begin because of this advantage, then gunpowder does indeed foreclose immoral conduct. For that matter, whaqt has most prevented World War III, which would wipe out the planet even faster than holes in the ozone will. The answer is a nuclear balance of terror during the Cold War. MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction—super-gunpowder. In that sense gunpowder of the fissionable kind has prevented immoral behavior. Science can be good for morality.
Here is no proposal for a grand narrative of scientific utopia. For instance,, it is impossible to know whether or not medical advances have been good or bad for human moral behavior, but we can at least say that Keats might well have produced evej more great verse had he had a little penicillin around, or that Virginia Woolf would have written nore great novels had she had some Lexapro about. Would Keats and Woolf’s staying alive to make more great literary art be consistent with moral improvement? History does not disclose its alternatives, but it takes little imagination to believe that some very moral people were wiped out by the Black Death and Spanish Flu that might in a more scientifically advanced time been saved for the benefit of human society.
And this Baconian spirit brings us back to “climate science.” Instead of discussing such sciene in terms of dire warnings alone why not establish a discourse about its potential to improve the moral condition of us all? What would this entail?
At the very least it would mean an unapologetic emphasis on the moral improvements often inherent in scientific discovery and application—not just the meticulous monitoring of the planet but also the cleanliness of solar and wind power (dirty air makes people meaner) and the ingenuity of carbon catchers, and so forth: all in the service of avoiding the sorts of privations (floods, storms, droughts) that create vicious struggles among human beings to find out who is going to survive or not. Bacon would have thought that science is not just a matter of more convenient ways of washing dishes and producing new toothpaste caps. He would have said science makes people better by giving them a better environment in which to live. We should stress the same message when it comes to saving the planet: we are also bettering our own morality. We need a planetary Moral Majority.