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The Necessity of Philosophy

The Necessity of Philosophy

At one point in the development of Creative Uncertainty, my father and I took scissors to the manuscript and laid the scraps, sentence by sentence, on the living room sofa.  Then we assembled it in reverse order.  One version went from the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe to another kind of bang – the risk of nuclear war.  The other version began with that risk and worked its way back to the origin of the universe.  Unfortunately, neither version persuaded early readers that cosmology had anything to do with politics.

In our attempt to be relevant and practical, my father and I missed the essential middle term: philosophy.  We forgot that we were in search not just of correct answers (which our political allies were sure they already knew) but of appropriate questions, ways of approaching not just the immediate circumstances of 1980 but the much larger dilemmas that are still with us, only much more acutely, in the third decade of the new Millennium.

Most disciplines seek answers; philosophy seeks questions.  When you ask questions about the questions, you are doing philosophy.  Educators call this process finding “essential questions.”  John McTighe says an “essential question” 


  • Is open ended; that is, it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer;
  • Is thought provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate;
  • Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone;
  • Points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.

Essential questions are an invitation to philosophy, which is never more important than when we are facing an existential crisis, one that cannot be solved by technical fixes but requires us to ask ourselves how and why we want to live.

Socrates famously claimed that the unexamined life was not worth living.  His essential questions — in the form of dialogues exposing how much less his protagonists knew than they thought they knew, earned him a death sentence at the hands of the Athenian state.  Today, authorities do not bother to put philosophers to death.  The Establishment prefers to dismiss philosophy as ridiculous than to dignify it as dangerous.  If all else fails, it can finally be accepted as true but boring.  Anxious parents steer their children to more remunerative majors, while professors argue that it is a good preparation for law or business school.

But the blame for philosophy’s marginal status lies not only with society’s materialism.  It also lies with philosophy itself.   It is hard to make a better case for philosophy than philosophers themselves make for it.  Academic philosophy is a corpus, a field of study with sub-departments each with specialized terminology that outsiders struggle to understand; but it is also a corpse, something whose own practitioners no longer believe in.  Reputable academic philosophers tell students that studying philosophy will teach them to think more clearly and consistently, but they rarely claim that philosophy is key to saving the world.  Such a claim would be met with a nervous titter as the sign of a well-meaning but naive newcomer.  

But such a response is not in fact sophisticated.  Philosophy could help save society, but only once it saves itself from the errors into which it itself has fallen.

The problem goes all the way back to the construction of reason in Western thought.  Philosophy means, literally, the love of wisdom.  Yet wisdom is as foreign to our culture as philosophy is marginal.

What is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

What is the knowledge we have lost in information?

In its first, cosmological phase in Ionia, on the west coast of what is now Turkey, the First Philosophers sought a new understanding of nature and human nature, one based upon theory rather than myth.  Rather than explain the world as the work, or play, of somewhat capricious anthropomorphic gods (or, later, in the three Axial religions, of one anthropomorphic god), these philosophers asked what the world is made of – Air, Earth, Water, or Fire.   But really, this was a debate not about a physical substance but about a fundamental natural law.  Do we live in a world of matter (earth) or process (fire)?

The philosopher Simon Critchley in his fascinating lecture “Philosophy’s Tragedy” argues that philosophy made a fatal mistake right at its foundation in excluding story for theory.    He examines the extraordinary wisdom of the Oedipus story – that of a man blinded by his brilliance and arrogance, who commits incest, sees his kingdom suffer, and leads an investigation that points back to him.  Oedipus, Critchley notes, means “I know.”  

Theory is essentially static: in our conscious mind, we construct a geometric model of the apparently changing world around us.  The visual mind cannot see time.  By contrast, the world of stories, of dreams, of myth, is inherently temporal – full of change, of surprise, of novelty.  Things just happen, unchallengeable because they are first person experiences in which we have no choice but to be involved.  But intellectual experiences are based on skepticism: staring at a structure, looking in from the outside.  Nothing happens.  Time has been extracted.

But one of these pre-Socratic philosophers tried to escape that trap.  Heraclitus saw change and structure as inseparable.  His most famous maxim is “You can never step in the same river twice,” or, more accurately, “In the same river, ever different waters flow.  Here is an extraordinary insight that prefigures 20th Century biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s Open System: a pattern maintaining itself in a flow of matter and energy, structure that feeds upon process.  Static things are degraded by time; dynamic systems feed upon time for self-maintenance, self-repair, and (with life) for reproduction.

But Heraclitus lost this debate at the outset of Western philosophy.  The winner was Parmenides, who argued that time is an illusion.  How can anything change?  A thing, by definition, must be itself.  If it changes, it becomes different from itself.  Therefore it is no longer its old self.  So nothing really changes.  Quod erat demonstrandum.  Substance metaphysics is not kind to chameleons or caterpillars, or indeed to any living thing.  

The separation of the structure from the process is the opening gambit of Western philosophy and leads to almost all its tortured positions over history.  As Alfred North Whitehead writes in Process and Reality, “The vicious separation of the flux from the permanence leads to the concept of an entirely static God, with eminent reality, in relation to an entirely fluent world, with deficient reality.  But if the opposites, static and fluent, have once been so explained as separately to characterize diverse actualities, the interplay between the thing which is static and the things which are fluent involves contradiction at every step in its explanation.  Such philosophies include the notion of illusion as a fundamental principle – the notion of ‘mere appearance.’  This is the final Platonic problem.”

When reality as we experience it is an illusion, then truth belongs to a select few: the philosopher kings of Plato’s Republic.

Democritus tried to reconcile change and stasis, and made an enormously influential move to do so.  He posited atoms – small unchanging building blocks; only their arrangement changed.  In this notion lies the origin of the reductionist method.  Break a complex thing into its unchanging elements; then observe how forces act upon those things to produce apparent change.

The next, enormously influential step occurred at the beginning of the early modern period with Galileo and Newton.  By studying the motion of a ball rolling down an inclined plane, Galileo realized that what we perceive as motion was really just inertia: if you filter out friction, the ball really just continues blindly doing what it was already doing.  Motion is arbitrary, really a form stasis, like a car coasting.  What matters is not change but acceleration.  And this, Newton posited, was the result of force acting on an inert mass.  The world had been entirely mechanized into forces and masses, all known and predictable.  Such a world appeared radically different from the static, ancient and medieval world – yet was fundamentally the same.  It had incorporated motion and thus the ability to change the word.  Yet by reducing motion to inertia, to something passive acted upon by forces that could be expressed in mathematical equations, it gave us the mechanistic, deterministic world picture.  It was a world we could predict and control.  It was also a world in which we were both almighty and abject, the hidden God, the puppet and puppeteer, the inert mass of atoms acted upon by hidden forces, and yet the calculating intelligence that can solve mathematical equations and predict (and manipulate) the action of everything – or everyone – else.  Such powers became truly demonic in the 19th Century, when joined with the motive power of fire.

Until the professionalization of academia in the 19th Century, there was no fixed demarcation between science, economics, theology, and philosophy.  René Descartes was one of the greatest and most influential mathematicians and philosophers.  A Cartesian diagram, with horizontal and vertical coordinates, can plot the values of an equation over time, as in a parabolic curve, which describes the height of a ball you throw into the air as it reaches its apex and again falls.  The result is that you see a temporal process as a spatial, essentially timeless shape: time reduced to space.

Descartes was famous for his dualism between mind and matter – or mind and body.  Insofar as we are bodies, or animals, we are mere machines: our freedom and humanity consists solely in our consciousness and free will, which are immaterial.  The irony is that this dualism leads to intractable dilemmas when you consider both computers and brains.  A computer fits the Cartesian model: the hardware, the silicon chips, are the machine; the software, the computer program, is the mind, which the physical computer executes.  There is no room for freedom in such a dualism.  Both its so-called mind and body are mechanistic.  The more we understand about biological mind, be it in humans or animals, the more we understand that it is embedded in, and inseparable from, our bodies.  Our freedom comes not despite, but because of, our corporeality.  (Continued in the book.)

Uncertainty is Not Just a State of Mind

We associate uncertainty with a state of mind: the inability to decide.  Actually, however, uncertainty has its roots in a state of the world, not just a state of mind, as when the outcome is balanced between two or more points.  We have to overcome centuries of Western dualism, which separated a subjective mind from supposedly brute insensitive matter.  This was the assuption of Isaac Newton and René  Descartes, but it is badly out of date in the 21st Century.  

We now understand that we live not so much in a world of things as in a world of processes, some of which maintain themselves far from equilibrium.  In the context of such processes, small differences can be dramatically amplified.  If you are walking in a valley, a few steps off your path will make little difference.  If you are hiking on a mountain ridge, the consequences can be decisive.  

Life maintains itself as a cascade of chemical reactions far from thermodynamic equilibrium.  This means that organisms react in sensitive and sometimes surprising ways.  They are intrinsically unpredictable.  This is also true of the larger systems that organisms create, whether we are speaking of ecosystems or human societies.  At times they behave stably and predictably, but they have tipping points.

When we understand that uncertainty is an objective condition not a subjective attitude, our approach changes.  We no longer try to minimize uncertainties: risks and opportunities are vividly real.  

There is no guarantee that unplanned change will always be creative.  On the contrary, it is usually deleterious and not infrequently disastrous, as it may well be in our time. But life has proved astonishingly resilient, able to absorb setbacks, reorganize, and make creative new beginnings.  One of the most important challenges of our time is to become more resilient.  A global society hyperconnected by social media, travel, and finance is dangerously vulnerable to pandemics of many kinds.  We need to build in buffers.  As a wag put it, “Only disconnect.”  We must also recognize that there are some disasters for which there is no possibility of resilience.  There is no protection from a global nuclear war; prevention, through the global abolition of nuclear weapons, is the only defense.  

Facing global climate change, a group of ecologists have formed the Resilience Alliance. As they say on their website, “Key elements of resilience in practice include:


  • Describing and developing a conceptual model of the social-ecological system;
  • Understanding system dynamics including alternate regimes and thresholds;
  • Identifying interactions across scales including structural influences of larger systems and novelty emerging from smaller sub-systems;
  • Mapping governance networks and exploring adaptive governance options;
  • Active adaptation, resilience-based stewardship & transformation.”

What exactly is “resilience-based stewardship and transformation”?  We have much to learn.  This is the urgent new knowledge for our overstressed century.  Meanwhile, we must recognize that uncertainty is necessary to a creative future, but we must also beware of subjecting natural and human systems to stresses that they cannot bear.  One of the most common and dangerous reactions to such stress is, precisely, a quest for certainty.  That is what brought fascism in the 20th Century and continues to test our global society today.  Resilience thinking offers grounds for hope, but it calls for humility and wisdom.           

Father & Son

Father & Son

Reflections on my Collaboration with John Keppel

My life – or at least my memory – begins on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Our family lived in Rio de Janeiro, where my father was Political Counselor of the U.S. Embassy.  My mother was having a tea party for the wives of officers in the Political Section in our apartment on Copacabana, a couple of floors down from the apartment of the President of Brazil.  The government had officially moved to Brazilia, but no one in the Brazilian elite or the diplomatic colony was in any hurry to leave life-loving Rio.  I was seven years old, and on walking through the schoolyard on my way home that afternoon, I had said to myself “Something terrible is going to happen today.” 

It had not been a presentiment of Dallas.  Instead it reflected rising tension in Brazil and in the U.S. Embassy, where my father, John Keppel, was locked in a debate that, bluntly stated, was about how far the United States should go to overthrow our upstairs neighbor, the leftist President of Brazil, João Goulart.  Goulart was no Fidel Castro, much less Che Guevara; at most, he was the potential Brazilian Hugo Chavez of his day.  He proposed tax reform that forced foreign multinational corporations to invest in Brazil, not repatriate profits, and he wanted to expropriate the large unproductive estates that characterize so much landholding in Brazil, long one of the world’s most unequal countries.  

The Kennedy administration split over Goulart.  On the one side were liberals associated with Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, the successor to Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy.  On the other side were Cold Warriors and imperialists.  The immediate issue was a planned Latin American trip by Kennedy, a Harvard classmate, though not a close friend, of my father.  The trip never took place because of Dallas, but in the background was covert aid – money and weapons – to Goulart’s right-wing opponents in the Brazilian elite and military.      

Kennedy’s murder removed the obstacle to the coup, a liberal Alliance for Progress supporter, Assistant Secretary of State Edwin Martin, whom Lyndon Johnson replaced with the more conservative Thomas Clifton Mann.  On March 28, 1964, in a telegram declassified after my father’s death, U.S. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon cabled Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy,  C.I.A. Director John McCone, and notorious clandestine operator Col. J. C. King, warning that Goulart could make Brazil another communist China.  Ambassador Gordon suggests  that clandestine services provide an “unmarked submarine to be off-loaded at night in isolated shore spots” with “delivery of arms of non-US origin, to be made available to Castelo Branco supporters in Sao Paulo” to await the appropriate “trigger incident” for the coup.  The military dictatorship lasted twenty years, and Brazil’s future President, Dilma Rousseff, since impeached by some of the same rightist political forces, was tortured in the regime’s jails.  

As Political Counselor in the Embassy, John was a leading exponent of the Cold War view that Goulart was sliding toward communism.  As a small boy, I was of course not privy to the details of these debates.  Even in later years, he never mentioned the transfer of weapons.  But I remember his coming home early with high blood-pressure.  I remember on another occasion asking him about the rasping noise from my parents’ bedroom and his saying to me, “That is your own mother,” who had asthma.  I remember the night before our departure, when a dapper gentleman turned up at the door of our apartment with replacement salt-and-pepper suitcases (ours had deteriorated) and then invited us to a late night reception with the Generals at the Presidential palace, an invitation my father declined.  The gentleman was Dick Walters, the “Army Attaché,” that is, the C.I.A. station chief, who went on to play a part in other Latin American coups, briefly became C.I.A. Director, and met his political end in Watergate. Walters had the motto, “Flattery will get you somewhere” and was as much at home with piano wire as with fluent translation.

John was not one for conversions on the road to Damascus or for self-flagellation.  He was self-forgiving — he himself would often say, slightly self-indulgent: unlike his occasionally borderline anorexic son, he liked his Gouda.  Unlike penitents who enjoy publicly confessing their sins, John did not like to talk about his role in Brazil, even with me.  But Rio was the turning point of his life, leading away from the track to becoming Ambassador to the U.S.S.R. and starting a long path that led to this book, as well as his role in the investigation of the Korean Airlines Flight 007 disaster.

John was an occasional — also a somewhat unfashionable, indeed old fashioned — poet.  One of his poems, written about a day of battle in World War II, begins:

Free now to leave the field,

To wander sandy roads

And stare at vines against the sky.

As these lines suggest, John was by temperament artistic, even dreamy; and it was only events that thrust him into public affairs.

He grew up destined for the family art business.  His grandfather Frederick Keppel was a brilliant if not unduly pious Irish protestant of Dutch ancestry, who first landed in Canada as a farmer.  But he fell off a bale of hay onto a pitchfork that pierced his lungs, gave up farming and went to New York, where he became the first dealer in etchings and engravings in North America.  He cultivated Victorian eccentricity, including keeping a crow on his shoulder during meals, more than kindness.  When his elder son declined to follow his father in the art business, instead becoming a foundation executive, Frederick Keppel totally disinherited him.  It remained to his younger son – John’s father – David Keppel to divide the inheritance.  That was no great hardship in the plush years before the crash of 1929, when John was twelve.   His teen years came with a sense of doom.

John was a shy child, and he passionately loved his toy sailboat.  To his surprise, he turned out to be an able student.  As a history of fine arts major at Harvard, he wrote his Senior thesis on Francesco Goya’s remarkable series The Disasters of War.

He would soon witness them.  He was a division commander’s aide in the Normandy campaign in World War II.  This experience, where many of his friends and comrades were killed, convinced him he could not return to the family art business.

In 1947, he entered the U.S. Foreign Service and began studying Russian.  He met Grace in Washington as they were both preparing to go to Moscow, and their courtship took place in walks around the Kremlin. 

John brought to diplomacy both his natural tact and an artistic flair for interpretation.  He became a Kremlinologist.  These were Stalin’s last days and the period immediately following – a time when the exact lineup at a parade, or small wording differences between the editorial in Pravda (the Party paper) and Izvestya (the government paper) were the only clues to great power struggles.

Though he was a young analyst, John helped write some of the decisive cables trying to tell a Washington in the grip of Joseph R. McCarthy’s anti-communist hysteria that change in the Soviet Union, while slow, was real.

When John died, we called Sir John Morgan, a retired British diplomat, who had been John’s counterpart in the British Embassy.  He wrote to Grace:

“I have so many happy memories of our time together.  To meet you both, on our first diplomatic posting in Moscow, was an inspiration.  John’s analytical understanding of the arcane ritual in the immediate post-Stalin era – of what actually went on in the Kremlin – was the envy of all the diplomatic missions.  We thought we were pretty good in our own Embassy – but John got it right and we did not.”

But John did not get it right in Brazil, and it was the Cold War framework that led him, like so many others, astray.  The first lesson he took from the experience was that the United States had no business choosing who should govern other countries or even who was our “friend” there — an obvious lesson, perhaps, but still unlearned by U.S. policymakers.  In place of the State Department’s traditional area studies and political analysis, John became interested in what he called “functional affairs”: food, water, population.  

Yet it was not just a new understanding of the dangers of American imperialism that spurred this life-change, but something more personal and painful. John was always torn between the private and public, between lyric poetry and the bureaucratic memorandum.  Even when he had been an art student, he was torn: he wanted to draw and paint, but his father asked him to continue the family business and thus to do art history.  Only when the war and the State Department displaced that did he have a legitimate reason to tell his father he did not mean to follow in father’s and grandfather’s footsteps and the firm would thus have to close.  Even in his years of great success in the Foreign Service, and even married to my warm and extroverted mother, he was an introvert who held his breath, a habit he said he had acquired listening to a crystal radio set as a boy, and jiggled his knee, to my exasperation for years.  

John said that those who get to the top need to have more than analytical brilliance (something he in any case always disavowed): they need the ability calmly to destroy colleagues in bureaucratic infighting.  And they need to get out of bed in the morning without the least scruple about their failures, even their crimes against humanity.  After the conflict in Rio, the State Department offered him a post in the Embassy in Pakistan, under an Ambassador who was a political appointee, a Coca Cola executive and friend of Lyndon Johnson.  John said No and took a more modest job at the Foreign Service Institute, which educates and reeducates diplomats.  It was clearly not the route to an ambassadorship.  One of my early memories is back from Rio as he explained to a friend why he was doing this.  I do not recall the reason he gave at the time.  

 After a brief time in Washington teaching fellow Foreign Service Officers his old specialty of Soviet politics, he began to reeducate himself.  His first step was to take a year’s leave to study population at Johns Hopkins, and then, after a couple of years in the population office of the State Department to leave the Foreign Service and work for Philippine politician Rafael Salas in the founding years of the United Nations Population Fund. He relished working in a truly international organization and learning new cultural and intellectual approaches.  But he was still restless.

Our family is not alone in this, but we sensed that the global political, social, and ecological crisis at the beginning of a new millennium (after a terrible two decades, one no longer calls it a dawn) is one crisis, and is inseparable from a deep crisis in humans’ way of seeing and understanding their world and themselves.  It is as basic as the difference between life and machines, or between manipulation and nurture.  The manipulative approach is very useful – right up to the point where we can destroy our world and therefore ourselves.  At that point – which is now – it is not romantic but simply practical to learn a new way of thinking and acting.

John’s eldest sibling, his sister Mary (Dorothy Keppel Fraser) was a microbiologist turned heretic and a key influence.  A sickly child, she was a precocious poet but above all a naturalist.  Mary became a microbiologist and protégée of Salvador Luria, a Nobel Prize microbiologist at M.I.T.  As the Vietnam War put her draft age son at risk, she moved with her son and daughter to Canada, to a part of Vancouver Island that could be reached only by boat, and they built their own houses amid the great trees.  By this time, she was a thorough heretic about the genocentric view of life.  

In 1974, John retired from the United Nations Population Fund.  I had graduated from The Phillips Exeter Academy and entered Winchester College — not a college in the American sense but the oldest and one of the most intellectual English “public” (meaning the opposite) schools.  I wanted to go to Oxford and read English literature.  Through until my twelfth birthday I was sure I was going to be President when I turned forty, my teen years saw me turn from politics to literature, especially the magnificently complex novels of Henry James, whose writing style I imitated to an exasperating degree.

Given our grossly unequal society’s pretense of populism, many writers and almost all politicians would conceal such an experience.  But it shaped me in direct ways for which I am grateful and refractory ones that were even more valuable, holding a mirror up to the unspoken snobbery of my upbringing and showing it to be anything but gentle.  The British class system, which Americans romanticize watching Masterpiece Theater or, in my case, reading Henry James, turned out — in its “public school” version — to feature a clever but cruel boy leading others in torturing the fat boy from Yorkshire with asthma and limited money.  I wonder whether the victim had a happy life.  The tormentor became one of the world’s great journalists with a social conscience.

 John had been talking about writing a book with the numbing title, “The Crisis of the System.”  One of the things thirty years of bureaucracy will teach you is to be as bad a writer as possible, so that your official memos are too soporific to be politically damaging.  More important, though, was his insight, hardly original but surely central: that we were facing not multiple crises but multiple manifestations of one crisis.

In May, 1975, Grace and John came to see me at Winchester and then we spent the long weekend of a “Leave Out” in the Georgian market town of Blanford Forum.  I asked John what he planned to do in retirement.  He said that he and Grace planned to write a travel history of New England.  With the arrogance of an 18 year-old, I replied, “Oh, Dad, that isn’t ambitious enough.  Why don’t you try to write the equivalent of Montaigne’s Essays for the present time?”  I had been reading Montaigne at Winchester and was fascinated by his digressive style and open mind, so expressive of the possibilities of the Renaissance, liberated from the shackles of the Middle Ages and not yet desiccated by the mechanistic thought of Montaigne’s successor René Descartes.

The suggestion intrigued John, and when he and Grace got back to Connecticut, he went to the Yale Co-Op bookstore and browsed for sources.  Montaigne, writing at a stand-up desk in the wonderful tower of his small chateau near Bordeaux, wrote his Essays as ever more expansive margin notes on the classic texts he was reading.  John somehow put his hand on three seminal books that became the basis of our project: Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine, Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s General System Theory, and Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition.  They opened three great, interrelated questions: What has gone wrong, that humans are now threatening the Earth and therefore themselves?  What new ways of thinking are emerging in science, beyond reductionism?  How should human society be organized to give people a meaningful life?  

The unifying idea here was that whatever was wrong with what we were doing in the world somehow mirror an error in our way of thinking, and replacing that flawed model with a better one could make a critical difference to the world and ourselves.  It seemed obvious but turned out to be a stumbling block with early readers.  Surely we didn’t imagine that bad philosophy, instead of the military-industrial complex, was the cause of the nuclear arms race?  But although ideas do not cause a social system, they tend to mirror it, and new ideas can inspire people to change it.

Uncertainty in an Age of Existential Risk

Uncertainty in an Age of Existential Risk

Ours are the first generations in history to face existential risk: the risk that we will extinguish life on Earth.  The fact that this risk confronts us in more than one form suggests that the problem is systemic, with deep roots in our ways of thinking and acting.  

“Today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable,” John F. Kennedy told the United Nations in 1961.  “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.”  Despite the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons continue to pose an existential threat.  Even an unanswered nuclear attack by the United States or Russia would have global environmental effects that killed every American or Russian.  Yet both countries continue to see nuclear weapons as central to their security.  

Most political leaders are not insance in any ordinary sense of the word.  But they act that way when armed with nuclear weapons.  We use our nuclear arsenal not just to deter a nuclear attack on the United States but as a threat to deter other actions we do not like, whether it would make sense to use nuclear weapons under those circumstances or not.  During the Cold War, the United States threatened a nuclear attack on Russia if it occupied West Berlin.  NATO commits its members to defend each other with “any means necessary,” so the West would presumably be obliged to use nuclear weapons on behalf of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Albania, and Bulgaria, even those these had been part of the old Soviet orbit in the Warsaw Pact.  It is true that the nuclear guarantee makes it less likely Russia will attack them, but if it did, we would be committed to a nuclear attack that would likely end life on Earth.  The same goes for our implicitly nuclear guarantee of Taiwan, which China does not recognize.  Pretending not to care that the nuclear defense is insane is very useful – right up to the point you have to carry it out.  One problem is that the other side is apt to think you are bluffing, as indeed you may be; and then, in a crisis, people feel obliged to carry out threats that make no sense.  The most likely way for a nuclear war to begin is miscalculation in time of crisis.   

Kennedy did not know that the planet might become uninhabitable a second way – through climate change.   Tim Lenton, the director of the University of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute and co-author of a recent study, said the recent record-breaking heatwaves in western United States and Canada showed that the climate had already begun to “behave in shocking, unexpected ways.”  “We need to respond to the evidence that we are hitting climate tipping points with equally urgent action to decarbonize the global economy and start restoring instead of destroying nature,” he said. The researchers said there was “mounting evidence that we are nearing or have already crossed” a number of climate tipping points.

Yet many people react to these warnings with angry defensiveness, because they rightly sense that the crises threaten their way of life – in other words, they require systemic change.   “We need to stop treating the climate emergency as a stand-alone issue: global heating is not the sole symptom of our stressed Earth system,” said William Ripple, a distinguished professor of ecology at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry.  “Policies to combat the climate crisis or any other symptoms should address their root cause: human overexploitation of the planet,” Ripple said.  This overexploitation is a manifestation of an obsolete, indeed fatal, way of thinking and acting.  It applies as much to the danger of nuclear weapons as of climate change.  To change requires that we open ourselves to creative uncertainty. 

As with nuclear weapons, with climate change ordinarily sane people have to act insanely on the issues of greatest importance.  For years, fossil fuel companies deliberately deceived the public on climate risk, and it became obligatory for conservative Republicans to claim that global warming was a hoax.  Climate science became part of the culture wars.  Even on the other side of the culture wars, more liberal politicians have to make their climate policies saleable.  U.S. President Joe Biden says that good climate policy guarantees good American jobs for the industrial working class – building electric vehicles, for example.  So far, so good.  But is it enough?  What about a climate tax charging polluters the true social cost of carbon pollution?  What about a tax on meat?  These are political non-starters, but in a true climate emergency, they might be necessary.  We pretend not to know what we cannot help knowing: that we are recklessly endangering our survival. 

 Those who call for abolishing nuclear weapons or drastically cutting fossil fuels are often dismissed as “utopians.”  Without nuclear weapons, “realists” will argue, we would be vulnerable to cheaters: some nation would secretly keep one nuclear weapon and tyrannize the world.  Even apart from that, without a U.S. nuclear threat, what would stop Russia invading Ukraine or Lithuania or China seizing Taiwan?  The question is whether those are issues for which we are willing to end life on Earth.  If we rely on a nuclear bluff, then one day, we will have to make good on our threat, with all its consequences – unless meanwhile we have found a new basis for national and global security.

Likewise, the climate emergency cuts to the heart of our addiction to fossil fuels.  To change that on the scale required is not just a matter of a solar roof.  It goes to everything we do, from our diet to our transportation to the chasm of injustice separarting affluent Americans (or Europeans or Asians) from the world’s poor, who have never enjoyed the affuence that high energy lifestyles made possible.  Economic growth has been our preferred substitute for sharing.  T o change, in short, requires change on a scale that we cannot fully foreseee or calculate in advance.  It involves risks for all of us, as the only alternative to the existential risks of business as usual.  The paradox is that to have any hope of reducing existential risk, we must learn to be comfortable with uncertainty.   

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