Why I had to tell my students that I fear for them

Welcome to University! Welcome to perhaps the most amazing opportunity of your lives. Welcome to the astonishing gift that is three years in which to think and learn, three years of the life of the mind.

Though I have to tell you… I don’t envy you.

And the reason I don’t envy you is because, as I look around the room, with very few exceptions, most of you are significantly younger than me. And I think there is a very real possibility that the later part of the lives of most of you in this room is going to be grim or non-existent. I’m sorry to have to say it. I’m sorry to have to level with you.

I’m fearful for you.

I hear a little nervous laughter now. I think that’s because people just don’t usually say this kind of thing. There’s an extreme taboo around it – and that’s partly what I want to talk about.

As you may know, we here at the University of East Anglia have one of the world’s leading environmental science departments, especially on climate science – and what they tell us is extremely grim. If you read their academic papers or popular versions of their papers they suggest that unless our species manages to turn itself around in quite a dramatic way in quite a short space of time (and there is no real sign as yet of this happening) then the future, well within your lifetimes, is going to be unrecognisable, and unrecognisably worse. Also it’s actually even worse than that because if you manage to talk to them off of the record, if you get them in the bar or something, then they will say things like ‘Well you know actually in our papers we’re pretty conservative’, ‘It could be a lot worse than that’. I actually think that you in this room here today should be very angry against the generation that’s older than you and the generation above that. Because there’s been what I would call a ‘festival’ of recklessness or a ‘carnival’ of short-termism that has characterised the last generations. It leaves you in a very parlous position; and it’s all too easy I’m afraid for such kinds of festivals to turn into funerals.

So what are we to do about this?

I want to suggest two things we need to do by way of thinking about this.

One is that we do need to think about this problem and address it in every possible way including philosophically. What does it mean to address it philosophically? It means that we have to try to imagine, for example, how different the future will be if we get to the point, which we may well get to well within your lifetimes, where it becomes clear and unavoidable that for the foreseeable future, even if we do our very best, still each generation is going to have a worse life than the generation that came before it. If that happens it’s going to be – to force – an enormous change in human consciousness, because for so long we thought that what life was essentially about is having a good time and bequeathing a better life to the next generation. It’s going to be an enormous psychological, philosophical, value challenge, if we have to give that ambition up. If we have to give up the prejudice of progress. It requires deep reflection, and courage, to even address this likelihood. To think about how we will reconcile ourselves to decline. I’m not talking merely about a reduction in GDP. That’s no great hardship. I’m talking about an ongoing reduction in actual quality of life, however well we organise ourselves.

Secondly I think we need to think about it in terms of the very difficulty we have in thinking about it. Which I suspect is symbolised by the slightly nervous titters of laughter which went up as I started speaking and confessed to something that I bet virtually no-one has confessed to you before: my lack of envy for you, me fear for you, my shame before you, in the face of how badly you’ve been let down. Why is it that we find it so difficult to face this kind of horrific possibility which may soon become a reality? I think one reason why is the notorious frog-in-boiling-water syndrome, which many of you are probably aware of. If you put a frog in warm water and you gradually heat up the water eventually you have boiled frog. The question of course is why didn’t the frog jump out when the water started getting really hot? The answer that is standardly given is: because of the temperature going up so gradually it barely gets noticed – and that of course is precisely the situation that we are in as a species.

Now here I want to tell you something hopeful. It’s not true. Most frogs do actually jump out. You turn up the temperature enough, your average frog will jump out. I think we should take some hope from that. If frogs are smart enough to sort this out then surely we should be. A great applied philosopher, Karl Marx, once said that human beings only set themselves such problems as they can solve, and I bet he’s right. Only, I think the problem that I’m talking about here is a very, very difficult one to solve, so it’s going to require a lot of work. It’s going to require a lot of intellectual effort for starters.

So for starters: am I in despair? Well no; as I say, if frogs can do it then so can we. Let’s show that in this respect at least Marx was right.

So that’s why I’ve been thinking along with some others in recent years about ways in which we might start to seek to change this culture of incredible recklessness and short-termism that we find ourselves in that is committing us to serious risks of complete civilizational breakdown within the 21st century and thus within the lifetimes of many of you in this room. I want to share with you quickly two ideas that I’ve been working on along with others for how we might seek to make that change. To become wise frogs.

The first idea is called the Precautionary Principle

What the Precautionary Principle basically says, on the version of it that along with Nassim Taleb I have been developing, is that where there is a risk of a serious, potentially catastrophic or irreversible harm then you don’t need to wait for all the evidence, you don’t need to wait for ‘full’ scientific proof, before acting to forestall that harm. (In fact, it would be irresponsible to wait around for all the evidence; because what is needed is action to change what is happening, not merely passive observance of the unfolding disaster.) What then does such precaution mean in concrete terms? Well for example with regard to climate what it would mean is that rather than having to prove categorically that the climate scientists are right and that their models can be 100-percent relied upon, we should take massive precautious action now. For their models suggest that if we continue on a business-as-usual type path, we will have several degrees of global warming by the end of the century which might not sound so bad but believe you me, when you realise that although we have only had one degree so far, we’ve already had the massive floods here a few years ago, we’ve already had the kinds of catastrophes that are regularly visited now on countries like Bangladesh, we’re already seeing the coral reefs dying: when you understand how exponentially worse several degrees of over-heat and of climate chaos would be than this, then you know that business-as-usual or anything like it actually is an epically appalling proposition in relation to climate. What the Precautionary Principle would say is we don’t need to wait for ‘full’ scientific proof of the models before taking strong precautious action and that in fact it would be reckless to await such indubitable proof. It would be reckless to wait until we have that kind of proof before taking that kind of action, because in the interregnum we would potentially be allowing the entire human future to be destroyed or at least decimated. If the Precautionary Principle were to become a guiding principle of our societies – if we were to act wisely, ahead of certainty, to reduce our exposure to disaster – well then the world might start to look very different and the prognosis might look very different.

The second idea is an idea that I’ve developed myself, a proposal on how institutionally to entrench care for the future. My idea is for guardians for future generations. The idea goes like this. We seem to have a problem in that we are prone, especially nowadays, to the kind of recklessness and short-termism that I’ve already mentioned, that’s symbolised for example by us chucking more and more greenhouse gases up into the atmosphere as if there’s no tomorrow – which might well eventually, unfortunately, be the case if we carry on with the chucking. We seem to be stuck in a form of short-termism-in-our-reasoning which our normal modes of governance and government don’t seem very good at getting us out of, to put it mildly. Politicians famously have relatively short time horizons; it’s very difficult for them to think further than the next election. In fact in many cases it’s very difficult for them to think further than the next news cycle – which nowadays have shrunk to about to 24 hours. So what if we were to have an institutional change which would make it possible and indeed necessary for people to think in a long-term manner. My thought experiment then was, what if future generations – what if your children and their children – were here with us now? What would these tell us to do more precisely? What would they tell us not to do or to stop doing now? Of course until one of our colleagues in physics invents a time-travel machine, this is going to be impossible to realise in any straightforward sense. What if we could create an institution that acted as a king of proxy that somehow represented future generations without having to have a time-travel machine? That’s the nub of my idea, which is to suggest that as well as having our ordinary houses of parliament, there should be something like a third house which sits above them. Which would have in it representatives of future generations who would be empowered to strike down any laws (including the government’s budget) insofar as those laws recklessly endangered future generations by, for example, committing us to further climate dangerous greenhouse gas emissions on a large scale. Who should those representatives be, who ‘are’ the guardians of future generations? Plato, a great ancient philosopher, said that guardians should be philosophers, which I’ll confess to you is a not unappealing idea for someone like me – but I think not an idea very well suited to our rightly democratic sensibilities and time. So my suggestion in developing this proposal of guardians of future generations is actually that the guardians should be each and any one of us, by which I mean they should be a random selection of the population who would be given this awesome responsibility of seeking to represent the future. You could think of them as a kind of super jury. We give juries an awesome responsibility to stand in for the rest of us, in judging wrongdoers. The guardians for future generations should be a sort of super-jury representing our descendants who would be placed in the same kind of position of awesome responsibility and again they could and, I think, should, be drawn democratically from each and any one of us.

So those are my two suggestions. I don’t know if they’ll work, I don’t know if they’ll be enough. But one thing I do know: we need some kind of creative thinking and we need some radical answers; otherwise we’re going to be in the situation which I started out by describing, where, in five or ten years’ time, I’m up here again feeling even less envious of those in the audience, and even more fearful for them.

Because I don’t want it to be like that; I would like to be envious of you in every way as you start this incredible adventure of your university education – and I think there’s nothing worse for human beings than the thought that they might be bequeathing to their descendants a worse world than the world they currently have.

Thank you.