Avoiding Collapse: Determinism, Altruism, and the Creation of Political Will

The rational basis, from a naturalistic standpoint, for taking action now, not later, if we want a later worth having. 

Despite discomfort with the idea of determinism, there's no way to rationally understand the world unless we suppose stable, law-like cause-effect relations hold at the macro-level. Human motivation – the will – is part of the deterministic unfolding of the natural order, as is its collective manifestation – political will. Seeing that political will is a causal product of conditions, not magically bootstrapped into existence, may increase our effectiveness in creating support for environmental sustainability. Global self-control will require nurturing the norm of temporal altruism: making the long-term future as salient as the near-term in shaping behavior.

Explanation and Determinism

Jared Diamond’s recent book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, presents a sobering analysis of what might be in store for the seemingly solid culture we inhabit. If we don’t heed the object lessons of some failed societies, we may end up failed as well – out of gas, out of food, out of space, with life an increasingly exigent proposition. Diamond summarizes his thesis as follows:

When it comes to historical collapses, five groups of interacting factors have been especially important: the damage that people have inflicted on their environment; climate change; enemies; changes in friendly trading partners; and the society's political, economic and social responses to these shifts. That's not to say that all five causes play a role in every case. Instead, think of this as a useful checklist of factors that should be examined, but whose relative importance varies from case to case.[1]

Not surprisingly, those reviewing Diamond’s latest bestseller occasionally find fault with his explanations, some denying he has any coherent theory on offer, some taking issue with one or more of the determining factors he thinks play a role. But curiously, several reviews have objected to what's perceived as Diamond's problematic dalliance with determinism itself. For instance, Greg Easterbrook writes in the New York Times Book Review about Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond’s book prior to Collapse:

My guess is that despite its conspicuous brilliance, Guns, Germs and Steel will eventually be viewed as a drastic oversimplification. Its arguments come perilously close to determinism, and it is hard to believe that the world is as it is because it had to be that way.[2]

Easterbrook finds it hard to believe that the fate of a culture is the working out of deterministic processes that operate on a particular set of conditions, for instance those at the inception of a once flourishing society. Determinism, as Easterbrook objects to it, is the idea that were we to rewind the tape of time to that inception, all conditions set identically as they were, then the culture would evolve in the same way, to the same conclusion.

This seems at first glance a depressingly fatalistic prospect, and many readers will likely join Easterbrook in insisting, for instance, that the Easter Islanders, who ended up cannibals on an ecologically depleted landscape, could have chosen differently given their circumstances. But why do we think this? Our distaste for determinism, after all, has no bearing on its truth.

To explain the demise of Easter Island is to discover the determinants of its collapse, whether these be matters of climate, geography and plant life, or matters of religion, tribal politics, and individual actions. A definitive history of Easter Island, one that could show the contribution of all such determinants and their interaction, is of course unavailable to us mere mortals. Likewise, a “final theory” of history constituted by exceptionless laws of social evolution is a pipe dream, given the unclosable gaps in our knowledge and the sheer complexity of human behavior. But as ideals to shoot for, there’s nothing in principle wrong with either, nor does invoking cause-effect determinism about specific instances or general laws ignore complexity and contingency. It simply acknowledges that what happens at a particular time and place is a function of the conditions that obtain, not a random occurrence.

In fact, the explanatory project on which Diamond embarks, which includes both instances of social collapse and generalizations from them, must be deterministic to the extent that it’s truly explanatory. Any residual indeterminism or randomness, should it exist (and we can't categorically rule it out) would in effect compete with explanations by introducing imponderable “quirks of fate” and inexplicable exceptions to empirically derived regularities. Even at the level of a single individual's actions and their contribution to larger historical processes, an explanation necessarily makes use of cause/effect relations, both in explaining the individual as the outcome of various conditions, and her behavior in turn as a cause of other outcomes.

If the fate of Easter Island were to have turned out differently, given the exact conditions that obtained when it was first inhabited, this would have required some sort of indeterministic slack between cause and effect, something in principle unknowable and unpredictable by science. Such an alternative fate, therefore, couldn’t be explained, beyond saying that it “just happened.” The upshot is that if we really want understanding and explanations, we have to accept that, given the initial conditions, the outcome had to be as it turned out. If the world didn’t evolve deterministically through time, we couldn’t know why it is the way it is.

So there’s nothing wrong with determinism, given that it’s a necessary working assumption for explanatory projects at the macro level of terrestrial affairs (although perhaps not at the sub-atomic level, according to some interpretations of quantum mechanics). It’s only that determinism offends traditional intuitions about human agency – that we somehow rise above causality in our contribution to history, and that we are privileged over the rest of nature by virtue of not being fully the product of our own histories. But there’s no reason to think this, at least not if we take science as the guide to ourselves instead of commonsense nostrums about free will and bootstraps. Human beings, in every aspect, even their most careful, deliberate choices, are just as determined as earthquakes, tsunamis, and global warming. And being undetermined in some respect wouldn’t add to our personal efficacy or responsibility.[3]

Later in his review, Easterbrook writes:

Though Diamond endorses “cautious optimism,” Collapse comes to a wary view of the human prospect. Diamond fears our fate was set in motion in antiquity – we’re living off the soil and petroleum bequeathed by the far past, and unless there are profound changes in behavior, all may crash when legacy commodities run out.

Note that although Diamond may fear that “our fate was set in motion in antiquity,” he also believes that it still depends on what choices we make now: if we change our behavior, we might avoid a crash. Our choices play a material role in determining our fate, so it’s not that we’re fated to crash, no matter what we do. That would be a misguided and empirically false fatalism.[4] Rather, whether we crash or not depends almost entirely, Diamond says, on what we do. So, he admonishes, let’s get cracking.

The knowledge that human beings are fully caused, not self-created, doesn’t mean, as University of Pennsylvania law professor Stephen Morse has so wonderfully put it, that we can wait for determinism to happen.[5] We remain causal agents ourselves, with an overriding desire to survive, and so we’ll continue to act in what we perceive to be our own self-interest, either wisely or not. So determinism isn’t, and can’t be, an invitation to passivity. But, understanding that we are caused and precisely how we are caused to behave as we do will add considerably to our effectiveness. This is our great advantage over previous generations, if indeed we take advantage of it. Knowing the deterministic story behind cultures that in hindsight were doomed, and developing a theory of collapse, are absolutely necessary to be properly cognizant of the hazards ahead. Denying determinism – insisting we have some sort of supernatural contra-causal freedom – might render us ignorant of this story, and make us complacent in the supposition that human beings can simply ignore their circumstances and just choose to make the right choice.

Creating Political Will

It’s often remarked that, given modern society’s prodigious problem-solving resources, all we need is the “political will” to achieve our objectives, for instance to reduce greenhouse gases, save the rainforest, and preserve diversity of species while maintaining a reasonable standard of living.

Diamond himself writes in Collapse that

Because we are the cause of our environmental problems, we are the ones in control of them, and we can choose or not choose to stop causing them and start solving them. The future is up for grabs, lying in our own hands. We don’t need new technologies to solve our problems; while new technologies can make some contribution, for the most part we “just” need the political will to apply solutions already available. Of course, that’s a big “just.” But many societies did find the necessary political will in the past. Our modern societies have already found the will to solve some of our problems, and to achieve partial solutions to others (pp. 521-2).

As Diamond recognizes, finding the political will to forestall collapse isn’t necessarily straightforward. In fact, the question of how to motivate ourselves raises very knotty issues of self-control, at the personal, social, and planetary scales. If we have the means, but not the will, to save ourselves, then even the best technologies will be to no avail. In light of the preceding discussion of causality and behavior, what follows are a few suggestions that might help to generate and sustain the desire for sustainability itself.

Acknowledge the causality of self-control

The first step towards self-control is to recognize that our motives themselves depend on a host of factors, and that to create and maintain motivation requires that the conditions which nurture a desire be brought into existence. As section 1 above implies, political will is no exception to determinism. Our collective desire for sustainability is itself a function of specific causes, not something that we can magically bootstrap into existence, and it’s unlikely it will manifest itself in sufficient measure without deliberate engineering on our part. To some extent, therefore, freeing ourselves from the myth of radical, supernatural freedom is an important component of any strategy to generate the political will to save the planet.  This insight about our causal embeddedness, applied to global self-control, is perhaps one of the more momentous contributions a full-fledged naturalism can make toward human flourishing.

Forecasting doom

More specifically, political will to take environmental action is generated by knowing that unless we act, collapse is a strong possibility in the next 50 to 75 years – not that far off. That’s the motive-inducing realization that must be promulgated far and wide. Scientifically respectable doom-sayers such as Diamond have a crucial role to play in avoiding collapse, as do we in recommending his book to others. The conditional forecast of doom that he presents is itself a potent spur to action, one that may well make the difference in avoiding the fate of Easter Island.

Leadership in modeling restraint

As part of such action, we need to foster leadership that makes sustainability the first priority against which all other goods are subordinated. After all, as oceans rise and resources dwindle, the prospect of having any sort of life worth living is called into question.The sorts of behavioral changes that are needed on everyone’s part now must be role-modeled by politicians and celebrities (and ourselves, of course), so that it becomes fashionable to minimize, not enlarge, one’s personal “footprint” on the planet. This means finding and electing leaders who will put planetary health in 50 to 100 years on an equal footing with “jobs now” and short-term economic health. As Diamond and others have argued, these are not necessarily incommensurable objectives, given that the development of alternative energy, renewable resources, clean manufacturing techniques, and energy efficient and ecologically benign transportation and communities will themselves generate employment. So it needn’t be political suicide to advocate sustainability, although it will require rethinking current assumptions about economic growth, and then selling a revised, downsized version of the “American dream” to the electorate.[6]

Economic equality

Since worrying about the future of the planet is a luxury affordable by only those whose immediate and near-term needs have been met, sustainability is closely connected to economic equality. To the extent that access to education and economic security are increased, so too will concern for the environment. As the fortunate few downsize, the less fortunate majority should be given a greater stake in sustainability by making their and their children’s future a real, attractive possibility, not a pipe dream. So progressive fiscal policies that redistribute wealth and opportunity, not concentrate it, are most conducive to long-term planetary health. Conversely, to the extent that the rich continue to isolate themselves in gated communities, blind the consequences of inequality, they might be conferring on themselves what Diamond describes as the dubious privilege of being the last to perish as resources run out. Fortunately, the same naturalistic understanding of ourselves that reveals behavior to be fully caused also helps to motivate social equality. By challenging the myth of the self-made self, naturalism shows that the rich don’t deeply deserve their riches, nor the poor their destitution.[7]

Tasting success

An important factor in nurturing altruistic motivation is to be directly reinforced by tangible successes. Diamond very wisely points out many examples of environmental success stories, on the part of governments, individuals, and corporations. The requisite changes, whether in policies, habits of consumption, and even fundamental values, have been made and can be made, with gratifying results. At the very end of the book, Diamond lists concrete action steps that have good chances of making a difference, for instance to pressure corporations that depend directly on consumer preference for their bottom line. The desire to make a difference is fed by seeing that it's not merely wishful thinking to suppose companies might change their policies – it actually happens in response to well-targeted grassroots campaigns.

Temporal altruism

Perhaps the key to creating the political will necessary to avoid collapse is to make a temporal, future-oriented altruism – concern for our descendants – the central publicly celebrated personal virtue, not the rugged individualism that makes the present-day self our primary concern. Personal aggrandizement and consumption that compromise sustainability, and which in effect rob future citizens of their own chance for a worthwhile life, must be stigmatized, not celebrated. Of course, this goes against the grain of our biologically programmed predilection for self-concern, but if social approbation and censure are recruited in the fight against this tendency, the very notion of what it means to be socially successful could change. Praiseworthy individuals would be those who’ve come to see that future generations count just as much as present, and who act in ways that take the next 100 years just as seriously as the next decade.[8] They will have achieved success in the sort of self-control that must become the global norm if we are to avoid collapse – they will be in the vanguard of temporal altruism.p

But realistically, how is this possible?p What could lead us to value the lives of those who will be alive in 50 to 100 years more than our unsustainable habits of consumption?p; For those with children and grandchildren, imagining loved ones facing an ecologically impoverished world works well to motivate concern.[9] But for those of us who don’t, why should we forgo present pleasures for the sake of a future we’ll never see?

The future you

Many of us harbor the vague idea that whatever happens after we die isn’t really a concern, because it won’t exist – for us. It’s to discount the potential for future suffering because it won’t be ours, only that of people perhaps much like us, even though our actions now might make all the difference in whether that suffering comes to pass. To extend moral concern beyond the boundary of death requires seeing that future suffering is just as real as present, and for those undergoing it, just as regrettable as anything we might experience. It means seeing that what we do now matters in ways that far transcend how they matter to us. To actually feel that this matters, we must cultivate the imaginative projection of ourselves as a person facing social collapse, and to do this isn’t terribly difficult. We have simply to consider current conditions in many areas of the globe, in which great proportions of the population are now experiencing deprivation and dislocation that will become the norm here and worldwide, if we don’t take action. Just as geographical space doesn’t diminish the suffering of those distant from us, considered from their point of view, neither does time.; And we can take their point of view by cultivating an empathetic projection of ourselves as being that person, a future me, inhabiting a different character and circumstances.[10]

Still, the prospects for adopting temporal altruism as our cardinal virtue may seem remote, given both human nature and the current cultural climate in which most forms of altruism are widely considered weaknesses. But human nature includes not just selfishness and competitiveness, but capacities for empathy and cooperation, and cultural norms can shift rapidly, especially if strong leadership emerges to model a different set of values. We must nurture the norm of altruism in our votes, our personal behavior, our financial investments, and our policy advocacy. We must devise ways to make the future as cognitively salient as the present, such that it has a concrete behavioral claim on us.[11] How precisely all this might be accomplished is beyond the scope of this article and my expertise, but developing and disseminating techniques of future-oriented personal, cultural and planetary self-control might become a discipline in its own right, with its own academic concentrations and institutional resources.

Whether or not this comes to pass, we must proceed in the knowledge that the political will to take sustainability seriously, as everything else in nature, arises out of specific conditions. If we go about creating these conditions, a few of which I’ve suggested above, then indeed we’ll find ourselves motivated to act in ways that will avoid the collapse Diamond argues is otherwise in store for us. If we don’t, supposing that sufficient motivation will just arise automatically, then we’ll likely muddle along until we and our immediate descendents discover ourselves caught in what will surely seem a catastrophe we should have avoided. Faced with these stark, vivid alternatives, the choices we should make now are obvious.

< © Thomas W. Clark 7/2005


[1]  “The Ends of the World as We Know Them,” New York Times Op-Ed, January 1, 2005.
[2] “There Goes the Neighborhood,” New York Times Book Review, January 30, 2005.
[3] On efficacy, see The flaw of fatalism and on responsibility, see /what-is-naturalism/common-misconceptions#responsibility.
[4] As Daniel Dennett points out in Freedom Evolves, we shouldn’t confuse determinism with inevitability (pp. 56-61).  A crash is still “evitable,” that is, avoidable, even though if it’s avoided, that too will be fully determined.
[5] Morse, S. (2004) “Reason, Results, and Criminal Responsibility,” University of Illinois Law Review 2: 363–444.
[6] Of course making the sale will depend a good deal on the perception of cheating.  If it’s widely believed that some are making a killing while only suckers sacrifice, then few will want to jump on the downsizing bandwagon.
[7] See for instance “The progressive implications of naturalism”.
[8] Of course some contemporary cultures not completely colonized by Western individualism already model a less individualistic, more collective ethos, for instance Japan and China.  But it’s not clear whether such an ethos can survive market capitalism.
[9] About which, here’s Bill Moyers in the New York Review of Books: “I read all this and look up at the pictures on my desk, next to the computer — pictures of my grandchildren: Henry, age twelve; Thomas, ten; Nancy, eight; Jassie, three; Sara Jane, one. I see the future looking back at me from those photographs and I say, ‘Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.’ And then the shiver runs down my spine and I am seized by the realization: "That's not right. We do know what we are doing. We are stealing their future. Betraying their trust. Despoiling their world."  And I ask myself: Why? Is it because we don't care? Because we are greedy? Because we have lost our capacity for outrage, our ability to sustain indignation at injustice? What has happened to our moral imagination?  On the heath Lear asks Gloucester: "How do you see the world?" And Gloucester, who is blind, answers: "I see it feelingly.'" I see it feelingly. Why don't we feel the world enough to save it—for our kin to come?
          “The news is not good these days. But as a journalist I know the news is never the end of the story. The news can be the truth that sets us free not only to feel but to fight for the future we want. The will to fight is the antidote to despair, the cure for cynicism, and the answer to those faces looking back at me from those photographs on my desk. We must match the science of human health to what the ancient Israelites called hochma—the science of the heart, the capacity to see and feel and then to act as if the future depended on us. Believe me, it does.”
[10] For an exercise in such projection, see “Death, nothingness, and subjectivity
[11] Prosaically, a simple desktop icon using data from empirical forecasts that depicts the state of the world in say 20 or 50 years might help.  Imagine a schematic human figure that looks relatively decrepit or healthy, depending on the data.  If and when the US approves the Kyoto Accord on global warming, for instance, the figure would look a tad more robust.  It would serve as a constant graphic reminder of what the world will be like if we don't take action.