Friday, 18 December 2009

Climate change: The challenge to Humanism

Humanists believe in reason, science and compassion. Most humanist moral and political thinking derives fairly directly from the third of these. In climate change, however, we have a political and moral issue that is critical for the whole human race but which derives very directly from science.

In the 40 years that I’ve been a humanist the movement has fought, and continues to fight, a series of struggles over abortion, divorce, sex, euthanasia and religious privilege. In each case we have made an essentially moral argument based on the rights of individuals to make choices about their lives and the lack of authority, by church or state, to overrule those choices. We have used science to support these views – and have generally been lucky in finding that it does support them.

Of course we’ve supported broad campaigns against poverty, slavery, debt and political persecution – but rarely with the same energy that we’ve devoted to our core issues.

Climate change is different. It’s a challenge to the world and a particular challenge to humanism.

Firstly it’s the most important issue we’ve faced since the invention of the atom bomb, and arguably ever. Climate scientists are almost completely agreed that unless we reduce greenhouse gas emissions fast temperatures, and later sea levels, will rise uncontrollably. This will reduce the Earth’s carrying capacity, drive many species into extinction and reduce the human population substantially. 

Secondly, our understanding of climate change comes mainly from science. Literally thousands of scientists have contributed to the work of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); itself probably the largest scientific endeavour ever conducted. Science has been less successful in predicting the human consequences of climate change largely, I think, for fear of being thought to exaggerate. I've addressed these consequences by using scenario planning with markedly pessimistic results.

Thirdly, climate science shows that the problem is due primarily to industrialisation; itself closely associated with science and the Western societies that gave rise to individualism and modern humanism. Science and humanism thus originate in the very processes responsible for the problem. Climate change is a political challenge to Western societies because it threatens those societies and the liberties that they support. It’s also a particular challenge to humanists because we need to show that societies based on our values, reason, science and liberty, can exist without destroying the environment that supports us.

For at least the last 50 years Western society has worshipped continual economic growth driven by ever-increasing personal consumption. This consumption is increasingly driven by a celebrity-obsessed media, an advertising industry whose purpose is to create new 'human wants' and widening inequality. This is obviously unsustainable in the long-term. And it doesn't make people happy - as increasing rates of mental illness show.

Now humanists are, as individuals, rarely obsessed by possessions and consumption. But we are part of a society driven by these things and we have failed, as a movement, to dissociate ourselves from that society or to develop an effective critique. 

Fourthly, it requires long-term international action on a scale unmatched since World War 2. As in that war this will require most people in many countries to forgo products, like cars, and experiences, such as foreign holidays, to which they feel entitled. In the poorest countries people are already dying from the effects of climate change. The required actions conflict with some national goals, such as China’s industrial development, and make the UN’s Millennium Development Goals harder to achieve.

As I write this world leaders are travelling to Copenhagen to negotiate a solution to the problem. The diplomats, scientists and pressure groups have been there for a week – some for much longer. But this is itself a problem. Diplomats are used to negotiation and expect to end every negotiation with a compromise. But you cannot negotiate with the laws of nature. A compromise that fails to cut emissions fast enough will be a failure, delaying but not preventing the climate catastrophe. 

That’s why some humanists, including myself, spent Saturday December 5th marching through London to create a ring around Parliament in The Wave , the UK’s largest ever climate change demonstration. In London there were over 50,000 people, with another 13,000 in Glasgow.

This was not only a very big event it was also very diverse. Organisations present ranged from the establishment – the Co-Op, Women's Institute, WWF and RSPB – through Friends of the Earth, Oxfam and Greenpeace to the Socialist Workers Party. The organisations affiliated to Stop Climate Chaos , the organising committee, claim over eleven million members. That’s far more than have joined ALL the UK’s political parties and, I’d guess, far more than are shareholders in the most environmentally damaging businesses. It’s certainly more than are members of all the UK’s humanist organisations.

This ought to be a humanist concern because it threatens the survival of human civilisation and calls for us to respect the science, exercise compassion and collaborate globally, in a great humanitarian cause.

[This post was originally written for the BHA's Humanist Life website.]

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Campaign Success! David Flint, Humanists4Science, 10 Downing Street Petition - Teach Evolution in Primary Schools

David Flint, Chairman Humanists4Science had 500+ signatures for his No 10 petition:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to include the teaching of evolution by natural selection in the new national primary curriculum. More details

More details from petition creator

Scientists are agreed that all today’s living organisms have evolved over millions of years from simpler organisms. This evolution is best explained by Darwin’s theory of natural selection and its subsequent refinement. Natural selection is the most powerful tool for understanding living things.
The current draft curriculum includes living things but omits evolution and natural selection. These ideas are needed to lay a foundation for later studies and to help children see their place in the living world and the universe.

Submitted by Mr David Flint – Deadline to sign up by: 18 August 2009 –Signatures: 536
This petition was mentioned in The Times, 20 November 2009.

Humanists4Science and other groups have helped to introduce legislation on 19 November 2009 to make teaching of Evolution compulsory in Primary Schools!