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Climate Change and the Limits of Knowledge Joe Marocco The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence. I do not know that this higher knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before,—a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. . . . Man cannot know in any higher sense than this. —Henry David Thoreau questioning optimism We live in a time of a great, deep-seated optimism. With the explosion of empirical knowledge since the birth of modern science has come a widely held confidence in our unquestionable ability to transcend ignorance . What science cannot tell us today it surely will be able to tomorrow . All that stands between us and the truth is time and research money. In short, we ardently believe the secrets of nature are well within our grasp. Our dogmatic faith in the limitless capabilities of scientific inquiry is so ingrained that it has become a fundamental part of our worldview, silently, yet powerfully, influencing the way we perceive and respond to adversity. There are good reasons to question our optimism about scientific knowledge, however, especially when it is applied to complex environmental problems. The methods of science are effective only to the degree that they are successfully reductive; the interaction between human culture and nature defies reductionism; that is, it cannot be translated into a series of mathematical formulas or physical laws, the mainstay of 308 Joe Marocco traditional scientific inquiry. Reductionism tends to overlook the need to place environmental problems in a larger context, treating them as though they can be solved with advanced scientific knowledge, and ignoring the ethical and behavioral factors that lie at their roots. This century finds us facing an escalating crisis of the natural systems on which we depend for the sustenance of life itself. With each new environmental difficulty we face, we continue to look first to science to prove its existence and provide an understanding of it, then to the purveyors of technology and policy to put in place measures to stem it. This style of environmentalism has its roots in our scientific and technological optimism, and it has appeared to serve us well enough in the past. However, the far-reaching problems of the twenty-first century are proving resistant to the traditional methods of environmentalism. One of these in particular, global climate change, is a serious challenge to our optimism about the power of science and technology and demands a new understanding of the limits of knowledge. the origins of a worldview: francis bacon and “the great instauration” The conventional optimism concerning the capabilities of science descends from a prevailing knowledge-based worldview.1 Central to this worldview is a proverb: “Knowledge equals power.” Ingrained in the Western mind is the belief that more knowledge will yield more control over problems and phenomena, regardless of magnitude or intricacy. This maxim is a cornerstone of our pedagogy, tying the way we teach, learn, and live to the notion that more and better knowledge will allow us to prevail over adversities of all kinds, current and future. We have great hope that science will “get us there someday,” and we will reap the benefits, whether it is a cure for cancer, an unlocking of the mysteries of human genetics, or a discovery of a source of energy that is inextinguishable, “green,” and able to meet the ever-growing demands of modern society. The primacy of the knowledge-based worldview stems from both the putative infallibility of the methods science uses in its acquisition of knowledge and a rich history of successful scientific inquiries. Our optimism about science’s ability to solve problems is rarely questioned, our trust in the sole sufficiency of scientific knowledge rarely shaken, even in the face of extreme complexity and uncertainty. While this rath- Climate Change and the Limits of Knowledge 309 er unchecked confidence is often merited, there is very good reason to question just how far scientific knowledge can take us on its own and just how much faith we should have in our scientific endeavors. Climate change presents us with an unusual combination of extraordinary complexity and the potential for far-reaching, dire consequences —characteristics that, I believe, give us ample reason to carefully question the basis for our confidence in scientific knowledge. Before we can do this...


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