To see how, let’s think about maple syrup. The Quaker brand Aunt Jemima is made using high fructose corn syrup, caramel dye, and the enigmatically termed “natural and artificial flavor,” among other compounds. It contains no maple syrup. High fructose corn syrup is linked to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Caramel dye has links to cancer. On June 17, 2020, in the wake of a nationwide reckoning about racism following the shooting of George Floyd, Quaker announced that it will rebrand the syrup, whose name and logo is of a Black woman from a minstrel show popular in the 1800s.
In the second week of September, five of the ten deadliest fires in California’s recorded history were taking place at the same time, out of a total of almost 8,000 wildfires that had burned in California since August. The sky was an otherworldly, doomlike orange in San Francisco on September 9. As of September 11, the fires had burned through a full 3 percent of California’s land.
Since June, many politicians, corporations, and nonprofits have made statements naming systemic racism as the greatest problem in the US. Unambiguously, it is the hot topic of US public discourse right now.
Now, it would be crude but well within the bounds of reason to make the argument that global warming is a bigger problem than racism. America’s great ongoing moral reckoning is based upon outrage over isolated incidents. Killings such as those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—the police killing unarmed Black people—generate an uproar every time they take place and lend themselves to the impression that this is the rampant reality of policing in the US. But these killings are unrepresentative of the typical police killing, which is against an armed suspect. Indeed, more people have been killed in this year’s wildfires in California, and more people are killed every year by lawnmowers in the US, than the number of unarmed Black people killed by the police in 2019. Now, it’s arguable that rectifiable systemic injustices lead to greater crime and policing in Black communities, which leads to a disproportionately high number of Black people being killed by the police. But it is inarguable that global warming can and likely will cause bigger problems for all people.
A better question, however, is why liberal and left politics are seeing things in the world change as per their values and beliefs regarding racism, but are barely able to do anything about global warming. To a large extent, this is because the latter problem is more difficult at a basic intellectual level. Addressing global warming is a challenge of (geo)governance, (geo)economics, and (geo)engineering. It’s much easier to solve a problem defined in terms of undoing basic statistical discrepancies, such as in police violence (by defunding police) or the number of Black Oscar nominees (by mandating diversity quotas), rather than coming up with a politically and culturally workable plan to stop runaway desertification, which is the core ecological dynamic at the root of the Californian wildfires.
Though related to the complexity and difficulty of global warming, however, the reason why the left can’t do anything about it goes beyond that. It is not just a question of capability, but also one of will, and what is seen as most real.
This is where going back to Aunt Jemima is useful. A cynical analysis of the rebranding would hold that there is nothing going on there except for corporations trying to do what looks nice. However, it is likely that woke millennials work in the marketing department at Quaker, and they truly believe in the rebranding. But clearly, there is not as much urgency at Quaker to use healthier ingredients.
Likewise, most liberals would likely prefer it if Aunt Jemima could be real maple syrup, but it is questionable whether they consider that a cause of as great a moral urgency compared to doing whatever possible to fight racism. While Aunt Jemima is physically harmful to all who consume it, it just doesn’t seem Bad, for someone who considers equality to be Good, like something that directly or indirectly harms one discernible group more than another. There is just something wrong about that happening in a way there doesn’t seem to be with, say, everyone consuming a modicum of poison as part of the modern diet. The sentiment is, “Why do these people feel bad when those ones don’t?”
In this moral frame, then, what’s bad is not the external thing, but the fact that some people are sad when others aren’t. It’s the position of one compared to the other that is wrong, and the sadness caused by this particular relation. While this moral disposition—which characterizes the liberal and left temperament—has its uses, its shortcoming is clear. It is not disposed to center the “objective realm,” the world of atoms and bits, the things present to and affecting all in common. Be it the ingredients of Aunt Jemima or the elements of the Earth, the focus of liberalism is naturally less on the things themselves. To the extent that the liberal thinks Aunt Jemima is bad for health reasons, it’s more in the framework that poor people (who tend to be Black!) have to buy the unhealthy stuff—than in the framework that Aunt Jemima’s syrup is simply a substance that can be harmful to all people.
This is for two reasons. First, the harm experienced by “all people” is abstract, whereas the pain experienced by some people but not by others feels clearer by juxtaposition with the absence of that pain in others. Second, and more important, thinking about the pain of “all people” incites neither tribal instincts (incited by unfairness if you are of the suffering group) nor the self-gratification of being a savior (incited by unfairness if you are not of the suffering group).
In all, there is a logical progression between a conscience for equality and fairness—the conscience of contemporary liberalism and leftism—and a focus away from matters of atoms and bits. As liberalism has gotten more culturally dominant, so has this conscience. The means and ends of leftism have shifted toward affect, due to the weakening of the labor movement, the growth of feminism, and the neoliberal focus on the individual as means as well as end. And so, the left’s attention is affixed on relational matters, whether that’s of the face of Aunt Jemima purportedly reinforcing a stereotype, or broadly the place of Black America with respect to sundry systems. Caring about the systems in themselves, however, requires a disposition that the left does not bear.
This in turn shapes our perception that global warming seems a very complex and difficult problem. A society that isn’t disposed to think of engagement with the material world as opposed to feelings and relations as the norm is going to find that engagement hard. This isn’t to say that it isn’t otherwise hard; it’s more a matter of losing a sensibility toward those kinds of things. (Of course, this concretely ties to the fact that leftists tend to be associated with the humanities and social sciences more so than science and engineering.) And without the ballast of real, empirical things to structure social priorities, what we get is further semantic disintegration and inward flux.
So what could an alternative look like? Injustices can be seen clearly as good and bad, but how could something about the objective world be seen as good or bad except with respect to how it makes people feel? How can an interest be aroused, to undertake, say, controlled burns to limit the damage caused by wildfires, or in the long-run to geoengineer hydraulic systems that circumvent or at least decelerate the drying of California?
The answer is that this cannot be an ethical or political orientation first. What is needed is to see the common world not for its implications on making other people feel good or bad, but out of enchantment with the world itself that elicits a desire to work with it, to co-produce with it. The disposition that makes one want to garden is going to be more helpful in addressing global warming than one that wants to eliminate human suffering.
We must want an amazing world, and want to do amazing things to accomplish an amazing world, in order to prevent complete ecological collapse. The current ideological camp in the West that has most of this disposition is the freak “post-political” libertarianish-ism found in the tech sector. This is more closely tied to the political right than the left, and for this reason, it might be the right. See, for example, the Niskanen Center, a center-right think tank talking more about carbon taxes than anyone on the left.
At the bottom, this is a call for aesthetics, in terms of appreciating beauty and the drive to want to involve oneself with something for the sheer sake of creation. Can we approach the burning down of the world as we know it as technologists or artists rather than altruists, in awe of the wonders of the world and wanting to shape things further? Can there be a poetics of controlled burns? Can we conceive of engineering the topsoil as a fascinating intellectual and artistic task, something that can then enable a world to revel in, rather than one that has merely prevented unfairness? It is true that poor and Black people might suffer more because of global warming, and that might elicit concern about it. But the will to do something about the matter comes naturally when one looks, say, through the eyes of John Muir, seeing how incredible the Sierra Nevadas are, and wanting to commune directly with the land, soil, water, and air, for their own sake. And if we do that, we might even figure out how to do real maple syrup at scale in the process.
The Free Lunch’s head columnist, Ishan Raval is an Indic-American writer. He’s interested in political and economic innovation, and in whether a nonliberal internationalist order could best coordinate planetary complexity as is needed in this century.