Science can’t tell us how to live the Good Life

According to new research from the University of Cambridge, the world’s growing and increasingly wealthy population must change its diet if environmental harm and catastrophic climate change are to be avoided. Lead researcher Bojana Bajzelj and her colleagues used projections of population and economic growth to estimate how much agricultural land would be needed to sustain the world’s food needs by the middle of the century. Their findings, they claim, tell us that we should eat far less red meat, waste less food and eat more healthy foods.

Although this is not the first time climate change has been used to make an argument for vegetarianism, it is remarkable that researchers increasingly seem to be making ‘ethical’ arguments as to why we should consume less, rather than using science as a means of finding ways to produce more. Responding to the research, Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming, wrote an article titled ‘How can we produce more meat? That’s the wrong question.’ This is a view shared by Bajzelj. ‘There are basic laws of biophysics that we cannot evade’, she told the BBC.

But is science really able to offer such unequivocal advice about how best to lead our lives – or, for that matter, avoid catastrophe? The attempt to turn natural science into a basis for the Good Life, and the ground for political authority, is not new. In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler warned that the actions of those who ‘rebel against the iron logic of nature’ are inevitably on a course to bring about ‘their own downfall’.

Although it is popular to think of science as an unimpeachable conduit to objective truth, scientific inquiry often takes its lead from contemporary political priorities. The dire prognoses of racial hygienists and neo-Malthusians in the mid-twentieth century did not materialise. Notwithstanding the claims of today’s fashionable scientists – climate-change alarmists, environmental determinists and neo-neo-Malthusians – that climate change is happening and its consequences are upon us, the people of the world are getting healthier, wealthier and living longer. That is not something we would see in a deteriorating world.

Nowadays, seemingly all political arguments depend on the idea of a deteriorating world. In her latest tome, This Changes Everything – Capitalism v the Climate, Naomi Klein takes inspiration from ‘a pink-haired complex-systems theorist’ called Brad Werner who gave a presentation called ‘Is Earth Fucked?’ at an American Geophysical Union meeting. ‘Science is telling us to revolt’, said Klein in response to Werner’s theories. So it seems, today’s manifestos are merely laboratory manuals.

Given the haste of modern scientists to turn empirical studies into far-reaching political action, it is surely worth asking why it is so hard to make political arguments concerning the environment, independently of scientific studies, rather than simply taking The Science at face value. It seems the progressive view of science as a means to overcoming problems has been abandoned. Bajzelj et al are adamant that no technological or scientific developments offer a way out of the future they claim to have detected. But this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, not a scientific discovery.

Ben Pile blogs at Climate Resistance.

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