DOES THE CLIMATE CRISIS NEED A SOCIAL CONTRACT?

by Tom McBride

DOES THE CLIMATE CFRISIS NEED A SOCIAL CONTRACT? 

Tom McBride 

Thales thought everything was made of water. Thomas Hobbes thought nearly everything was made of fear. He no doubt saw it as the prime human emotion. Fear was to Hobbes what Pride was to medieval theologians: the chief of its class, first among un-equals, in terms of deadly sins (theologians) or human emotions (Hobbes.  When in The Leviathan Hobbes said without a social contract human life would be “nasty, brutish, and short,” he was appealing to our fears. Who would not be scared to think their lives wold be so brutal, with the only redeeming feature being brevity? This is some distance from the existential condition of dread, angst, or anxiety. Hobbes traded in good old-fashioned fear, terror, horror, real fright. In reading his beautiful work of political theory, one gets an image of heading out to a pond to fish and being unable to concentrate for fear of a marauding tribe showing up and cutting one’s throat, without fear of any local constabulary because there is none. If you are one who thinks that there would be no peace even in the most pastoral and abundant of communities without the police, then Hobbes is your man. 

     We might take a moment to assess his elevation of fear in the pantheon of human drivers. Anger is often a therapy for fear, is it not? We get mad at those who have done us wrong for fear that not doing so will only egg them on to do worse? Is not envy fear of being shafted and living in a world where one’s true desert is ignored? Melancholy is oft a fear of life itself. Disgust is fear of poison or attack. Confidence is a reprieve from fear, but even the most self-assured of us fear it cannot last. The same goes for joy. William Faulkner wrote a macabre short story about about a woman who so feared her lover would leave her that she murdered him and slept with his corpse. Here any disgust was preferable to having her fears rof desertion realized. 

     We think of excess fear or misplaced fear as paranoia, but when we do so, we may be thinking on the other side of Hobbes’s social contract. We have traded some of our freedom in order to get the leviathan protections of government, so those who continue to operate as though we are living in a dog-eat-dog state of nature seem to us strange and sick. Yet in another way the paranoids are onto something real, for paranoids who fear the Leviathan itself realize that in theory the same entity that protects us can also kill us. That which saves us from our savage selves can also terrify us. 

     Hobbes’ view of a state of nature was much more dour than Rousseau’s was in the next century, but he did have an answer to the paranoids: If government no longer protects us or turns on us, then we do have the right to overthrow it. But he had no answer for the complex details of such a process, for if such a Leviathan is so strong as to scare the ife out of us, then it is hard to toss the brutal bums out. Nonetheless, it seems clear that he thought the risk worth running. Even the most frightening government is better than living in perpetual fear in a natural state without any third power to protect us from one another and foreign invaders.  

      All of which brings us to the climate change crisis. If Hobbes were around, he would justly point out the role of fear in the predicament, except that he would say, “there is not enough of it,” a possibility we shall return to shortly. He might go on to say that in a way the role of national and local Leviathans has worked all too well. Whatever his thoughts on police brutality, he would point to forensic technology and video monitors as great boosts in the location of malefactors. We have given our privacy over to the state in precisely the exchange of freedom for protection that Hobbes proposed in the Leviathan. As a good materialist, he would likely listen to the physical explanations given by climate scientists and tend to  accept their rueful warnings. Was not this the philosopher who told Descartes that while mind might not be measurable, that did not mean that it, as much as the body, was made of anything other than matter itself?  

     Yet, he might conclude, the Leviathan’s delivery of the citizens and subjects from a state of nature has made them overly confident that a state of nature cannot return on its own. Hobbes was a man of sufficient genius to sense that a new “state of nature” might well is in the offing: not one fomented by human animals lacking a pervasive system of protection but one created by shortages of acceptable living conditions despite the presence of strong governments. Fights over clean water and air and arable soil and air conditioning might swamp the capacity of any Leviathan to intervene. This would not be a state of f nature that humans created for themselves because they would not tolerate a government of central authority. This would be a state of nature that humans brought upon themselves despite any police force. No doubt Hobbes understood originally that resource limits would make fighting and brutality inevitable and government necessary. But he was no doubt thinking of shortages of fruits and fish and lands, not shortages of breathable air itself. .In other words, Hobbes would recognize, as a future condition, his old friend “a state of nature” but see this one is different in origins (overpopulation) but no less ominous for the peace. He might have less concern for the planet. Hobbes was a man of peace, not of planets. 

     Among the liabilities of political subjects, otherwise known as human beings, was, to Hobbes, their erratic sense perceptions. He was not as sanguine as, say, Wittgenstein that those in a local community will, with repeated customs and informal rules, know what each of them is talking about in the vocabulary of a particular place.  Hobbes saw a chaotic linguistic state of nature as well. He saw a squabbling place where people saw different things in the same thing and talked right past one another. This is why he believed in written definitions and principles.  To adapt Sam Goldwyn, Hobbes did not believe that an oral social contract was worth the paper it is written on.   In the new climate state of nature prospectively on its way, then, Hobbes would approve of the written agreements made in such places as Kyoto and Paris among nations. These agreements are global social contracts to lower emissions. 

     But, he would surely add, who can enforce such contracts? In his concept of the Leviathan he envisioned some going to the central authority for redress against others. The idea is that these others signed the contract, too, so they are bound to make good or behave themselves or accept the established penalty if they do not. The government enforces the contract it made with the many whom it governs. But who can enforce a contract agreement against a government itself? Hobbes might suggest that in future Paris agreements, governments who renege shall have to pay a fine of half of their country’s GDP for two years running or longer if they continue to abrogate the contract and spew too many emissions. But who can or will enforce such a fine? No doubt Hobbes would quickly return to what he had observed in the seventeenth century: that when it comes to foreign relations, a state of nature is always looming. 

     But in the end he would come back to his favorite emotion: fear. It is only when a state of nature becomes all too obviously a source of life’s getting nasty, brutish, and short that people turn to the Leviathan. They have tried freedom. They have tried to find sufficient protections in small tribalistic settings. They have tried enlightened cooperation with each other—constructive tit-for-tats. All have failed. Liberty is great, but it is too threatening to us all. Tribes are too small. Cooperation goes only so far. So out of fear human beings turn to the Leviathan.

     So what will turn the next Kyoto or Paris into a true climate change Leviathan, an entity that can truly enforce the rules for limits on emissions and other measures, such as investments in clean or renewable energy sources? Fear. It is only fear, Hobbes would say, that can do it. A state of nature must truly be just around the corner. Then there will be a global Leviathan with big teeth. In the first state of nature, when at least the air was clean, it was never too late to turn to this new thing called a government. Ir could be done whenever folks tired of being afraid of each other all the time. But in the second state of nature, the one that may be upon us, by the time the fear really kicks in, it may be too late for any new Paris Leviathan to work its will. Some social contracts may be signed with a tardiness both fateful and traic. Fear as motivator isn’t perfect. Far from it. Behind Hobbes’ think is always a fallen world.  

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