Do we need to believe in anthropogenic climate change? I pose this question, of course, to be provocative as I do think it’s useful to believe in things like anthropogenic climate change. However, the point of posing the question is to draw attention to how a lot of us academics think and what intellectual movements such as actor-network theory and the new materialisms and realisms might bring to the table at the level of political strategy. A lot of us seem to think that our political work consists in persuading others to believe certain things. People must be persuaded to believe that neoliberal economic philosophy pervades all aspects of contemporary life (true). People must be persuaded to believe that current climate change is caused by human activity (true). Etc., etc., etc. The idea seems to be that if people have the right theory about the world or the correct set of propositional attitudes, then they’ll modify their action accordingly and do the right thing. Let’s call this the intentional attitude. The premise of the intentional attitude or intentionalism is that since action is based on belief or propositional attitudes, persuasion is a key component of political activism.
The intentional attitude can be contrasted with the functional attitude. The functional attitude doesn’t deny that people have intentions and that these intentions play a significant role in why they do what they do, but it notes that functionally much of what our action produces has very little to do with what we intend in our action. For example, as I write this post I intend to persuade and convey certain ideas; however, functionally I am also contributing to the reproduction of the English language (and am probably making it worse!). When I go to the supermarket to get food for dinner I do so because I intend to feed myself, but I am also contributing to the reproduction of agrocapitalism. A lot of work in Continental political thought is undertaken for the sake of various emancipatory projects (intentional stance), but because it ends up accessible only to other expert level academics it functionally just reproduces university discourse, the tenure system, and contributes to the publication of new journal issues. In Latour’s famous example, we slow down for the cement speed bump not because of any particular belief we have about speed laws, but because of how the speed bump functions. Things that happen at the level of functionality are independent of beliefs and intentions, but contribute to why we act as we do all the same.
From a functional standpoint, let’s look at intentionalist strategies again. My strategy is to persuade my interlocutor that climate change is human caused so that they will take action against these causes and support things like reducing carbon emissions and whatnot. That’s my intention. But looks at what happens. Now a massive debate goes on between the climate change denier and the person defending anthropogenic climate change theories. The denier wins either way, because functionally we end up discussing the issue to death rather than taking action. In continuing to debate we’re still doing nothing even though that’s not our intention to debate.
I wanted to say more about these two approaches (gotta go teach)– and I suspect some readers will misunderstand me and think I’m trying to reject the intentional stance in political action –but the foregoing raises the question of whether or not people need to believe in something like climate change for us to make meaningful change. Returning to Latour’s example of the speed bump, aren’t there ways in which we can simply modify the environment in which people act, diminishing their carbon footprint, regardless of whether or not they believe climate change is caused by human activity? In other words, aren’t there all sorts of interventions we can make at the level of the nonhuman actants that populate the world that would address this issue independent of what people believe? How far might this sort of design practice extend in other domains of politics?