The title of Rolf Jucker’s newest book poses a question worth asking: we face climate change, population increases, religious and political extremism, a faltering faith in democratic institutions, and an educational system that often seems broken. Jucker paints a concise, compelling picture of these challenges and offers both a diagnosis and some potential solutions. He is in a good position to do so, as the director of the Swiss Foundation for Nature-Based Education, and the author of Do We Know What We Are Doing? Reflections on Learning, Knowledge, Economics, Community and Sustainability (2014).
The subtitle of Jucker’s book, “Why Craving Easy Answers is at the Root of our Problems,” suggests the nature of his diagnosis. The first challenge Jucker examines is climate change. We know that global temperatures and ocean salinity are rising, the ice caps are melting, wildfires and hurricanes are increasing in intensity and the Great Barrier Reef is dying. We know drastic action is needed even to slow these changes. And many have responded with sweeping proposed solutions. Yet many of these proposals raise more questions than they answer. For example, while most people agree that we should develop wind and solar power sources, they disagree about the benefits of nuclear and hydropower and carbon pricing incentives.
The questions that remain include: how can we build enough solar and wind farms to power the entire continental United States and other western countries? What will happen to people who lack the necessary space or infrastructure for these farms? Can this make a dent in climate change if countries like China and India (who make up a far greater proportion of the global population) are producing carbon emissions at a far greater rate than we are? How can we incentivise those countries to join this project and manage the challenges they will face in doing so? Are these measures too little and too late? Or is the idea that we are approaching Doomsday unrealistically apocalyptic?
Jucker lays out “five fundamental questions” that, he argues, must be urgently addressed:
- What tools and methodologies can best help us understand reality?
- What worldviews and mental models are unfit to helping us arrive at sound solutions?
- What other pressing problems do we need to solve in order to win the battle against climate change?
- What political structures will help us implement the best available solutions and overcome impediments to change?
- How can public education help?
Rolf Jucker shows a keen awareness of how complex the challenges we face are and how radical our solutions must be. And yet he is no pessimist: he proposes solutions. He sees the most daunting obstacle as our maladaptive thought patterns.
The Hurdles We Face
Jucker emphasises that the scientific approach is not about merely accepting facts delivered to us by experts. He quotes Karl Popper’s observation that “we often learn from our mistakes,” and Carl Sagan’s remark that “science has built-in error-correcting mechanisms,” and notes that, as Chris Frith and Carlo Rovelli have outlined, these mechanisms involve the construction of models based on predictions, and the ongoing correction and refinement of these models based on experimental results that reveal any errors in those predictions. Science, for Jucker, is an “open mindset which will never accept any claim … at face value. It always wants proof, explanation, evidence.” This sounds reasonable enough. So, what are the impediments to approaching our problems this way?
Jucker believes that the primary impediment is organised religion and the irrational beliefs that undergird religions, and that it is imperative for us to “move into another paradigm,” because religious thinking activates mental models that make it almost impossible to look at things rationally and holistically, since, like all ideologies, it brings out the worst in people and encourages a mindset in direction opposition to the scientific approach to understanding the world.
Jucker argues that religion is the historical force most responsible for the spread of ignorance (citing as an example Catholicism’s dogmas about sexual relationships, contraception and abortion) and for harming women and their standing in society (citing Islam as an example). Echoing Richard Dawkins’ own observations, Jucker stresses that, “when it comes to how religious people actually behave (rather than how they think they behave), they are more opinionated, less altruistic, less peaceful, and more prone to violence” than non-religious people.
I believe Jucker is correct. However, simply holding religion responsible doesn’t address the problem that many who do not see themselves as religious have taken up causes that have a distinctly religious character, and thus can do just as much damage as traditional religion can.
While the number of people involved in religion is declining, the number of people involved in political tribalism is rising, as suggested by The Hidden Tribes of America project launched in 2018. Jucker sees similarities between religion and “neoliberalism or populism, or indeed the remnants of socialism.” Although he is right to note that religion presents even more obstacles than secular ideology, because it is a “taboo topic even in the twenty-first century” and has a unique “inability to engage with the complexity of reality,” in its rejection of any “error-correcting mechanisms” (to use Carl Sagan’s phrase), today’s Social Justice ideology is just as hostile towards the scientific approach as it is towards free inquiry and scepticism.
The next hurdle that Jucker tackles is population. Jucker argues:
The effect size of having a child on our ecological footprint is disproportionately large, by more than one order of magnitude. “Having one fewer child” would amount to “58.6 tonnes CO2-equivalent emission reductions per year,” compared to “living car-free (2.4 tonnes CO2-equivalent saved per year), avoiding airplane travel (1.4 tonnes CO2-equivalent saved per roundtrip transatlantic flight) and eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tonnes CO2-equivalent saved per year),” [according to work done by Wynes and Nicholas in 2017]. Having one fewer child is twenty-four times more beneficial in terms of ecological footprint than living car-free—every single year.
Jucker believes that the decision to have children should always be an informed, reasoned choice, and “never a mere accident, never a fluke of the moment, never surrendering to an emotional situation, never a foregone conclusion.” He doesn’t advocate authoritarian interventions like China’s former one-child policy, but he also dismisses “the idea that we have an inalienable right to have children.” It is difficult to imagine that any western nation would implement a similar policy to China’s, which most people would surely see as an infringement on personal liberty.
However, in many parts of the world we are already seeing not only declining birth rates, but changed attitudes towards having children. According to US Bureau of Labor statistics, 44% of female millenials say that they have had fewer children than they expected, and yet have hit their fertility goals—a change from the attitudes of those in the baby boomer generation. The director of the American Enterprise Institute’s poverty studies programme has suggested that the data don’t bear out the idea that the expense associated with having children is slowing birthrates: a phenomenon he thinks is more likely to be due to personal choices, such as prioritising career goals. However, fellow AEI researcher Lyman Stone has pointed out the economic barriers to raising a family in the United States. Regardless of the reason, however, birthrates are falling, particularly in the west.
Jucker is also concerned about the weakness of our current democratic systems. He is not naive about the difficulty of effecting constructive systemic change; he asks, “How do we reinvent the democratic system without jeopardising its clear advantages?” But he describes the threats to democracy that many countries are facing: including, on the right, the rise of populist figures, such as Donald Trump, Viktor Orban and Jair Bolsonaro and, on the left, the rise of “a strong movement questioning the existence of an objective reality and advocating cultural relativism.” He suggests that social media’s dissemination of fake news and other material designed to influence elections may have rendered the traditional model of democracy unworkable. He also laments the fact that the task of sorting true from false has been made vastly more difficult by the growth of social media influencers, the increased use of traditional media as a mere marketing tool, and the creation of echo chambers and filter bubbles. Jucker believes that democracy’s inability to counter these combined threats compels the conclusion that democracy must be reinvented.
Jucker also claims that “the [current] economic system is clearly at odds with a democratic perspective,” citing the work of Hans-Peter Martin and Harald Schumann, as well as research from the Swiss Environmental Education Commission, suggesting that democracy and free markets and democracy aren’t always interdependent. He believes that it is only by chance that they have been seen as reasonably compatible so far, and that their happy marriage is unlikely to continue. In Jucker’s view, the way to fix democracy is to guarantee that democratic policy decisions are based on empirical evidence as to their effectiveness, rather than on propaganda, fake news and ideology. Drawing on the work of Chip and Dan Heath, Jucker asks if it’s possible for us to reinvent democracy so that “undesired behaviors … are made not only harder, but impossible.” He recognises that attempts to control people’s behaviour in this way can backfire, given the history of such attempts by totalising ideologies in the twentieth century, but he claims that the mistakes of the past can be avoided if the reinvention is done with the scientific approach in mind. He argues that, therefore, we must find a way for everyone to start using the scientific approach, and to reject the intuitive human preference for a good story over the facts. He believes we must do this without putting our hopes in some “eco-dictatorship or a benevolent ruler” and cites evolutionary theory that suggests that humans only became as smart as we are because we learned to communicate and cooperate.
The Solutions We Need
Jucker proposes that, through education reform, we can teach people to make sense of the complexity of reality, and revise our political system to better facilitate cooperative problem solving. He argues that education has great power to shape perspectives and teach us how rather than what to think. For example, he argues that outdoor education has proven to be an effective way to teach the importance of environmental sustainability. Although believes that individuals working alone will not solve humanity’s challenges, he also believes that individual teachers can encourage new ways of thinking. He cites pedagogical and psychological research showing how teachers can help students create mental models, cultivate decision-making skills and deal with pressure and uncertainty. This research also suggests that it is important to tailor teaching to individual students’ needs. At the same time, Jucker contends, this individualised approach must be paired with collective learning, and with an environment in which teachers encourage students to view challenges to their ideas as opportunities rather than threats, and promote open discussion and dissent.
This is where Jucker’s thesis is strongest and most hopeful. Educational reform—while rarely popular or uncontroversial—provides a tangible approach. Jucker suggests that, if we can create an educational system that emphasises rational thinking, scientific reasoning and an understanding of “the limitations to individual subjective experiences, cognition, and perception,” we may be able to work our way out of the messes we face as a species.
However, though I believe that Jucker’s ideas are generally sound, it is not clear that all human beings can be taught to adopt a primarily rational and scientific way of thinking. As Niall Ferguson has recently observed, the use of eschatological language and perspectives has increased when discussing scientific challenges—particularly the threat of environmental destruction. Many people do not respond to scientific progress by beginning to think more rationally; instead, they dress up old ways of thinking with the trappings and terminology of science. Such people have merely transferred the religious impulse to a new object of worship—they are pledging allegiance to the idea of science, without realising that the scientific approach may produce evidence that they don’t like. Facts don’t care about feelings—but, clearly, people do.
Can We Cope with the Complexity of Reality? raises good questions and suggests some positive steps to combat our problems. Even if his proposed solutions turn out to be unworkable, the book still makes an important contribution by examining those problems from a broad perspective. Jucker’s answer to his own question, “Can we cope with the complexity of reality?” is a resounding yes—if we can abandon the search for easy answers. That remains an open question.