By David Hall

Extract from Chapter Ten of David Hall’s new BWB Text A Careful Revolution: Towards a Low-Emissions Future. 

We wrote this report

at your request, and with care.

Will you listen please?

– Andy Reisinger, one of nineteen haikus to summarise the IPCC Special Report on 1.5ºC

Those who call for a revolution should be careful what they wish for.

‘A revolution is not a dinner party,’ advised Mao Zedong:

or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.

It would be easy to disregard this as a symptom of Mao’s uncompromising communism. But the history of capitalism – which is also a history of revolutionary tendencies – is no less prone to glorifying shock and disruption.

Joseph Schumpeter famously described ‘creative destruction’ as ‘the essential fact about capitalism’, which ‘incessantly revolutionises the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one’. That spirit is alive and well in Facebook’s erstwhile motto, ‘Move fast and break things.’ Supposed to champion rapid prototyping and iterative design, it has acquired deeper significance now that Facebook and other digital platforms stand accused of having ‘broken’ our democratic institutions. The urge to innovate and, more important, to grow in influence and shareholder value encouraged an attitude of callousness, of carelessness, towards the effects of expansion.

In this chapter I ask what it means to be careful, particularly in revolutionary times. This is a question not usually asked by revolutionaries, because of their lust for change. Yet if we ask why revolutions are so prone to devouring their children, it is in care – in its deficits and excesses – that many of the answers lie.

Duty of care

It is usual to begin by fixing a definition. But let me begin instead with a fork in the road. To be careful is one thing, to be caring something else. The former reaches for synonyms like heedfulness, vigilance, caution; the latter for compassion, kindness, love. In this chapter, I focus on carefulness, not because tender, loving care is unimportant, but because it cannot do enough.

Consider care work: ‘the daily action performed by human beings for their welfare and for the welfare of their community.’ Conventionally, this includes nursing, elderly care, child care and housekeeping. Increasingly, it includes repairing and sustaining our landscapes, our seascapes and our atmosphere. This care work often relies on love to get it done, such as our love for our children, or for the great outdoors. But care work can be done without love. Indeed, it must, because to ask carers to also be lovers is too steep an emotional demand. Moreover, love is a famously turbulent emotion. It can be tender and kind, but also reckless, fanciful, impatient and perverse. In short, love is often anything but careful.

Being careful – like being caring – involves a sense of concern or regard for something, or someone, that is valued or cherished. But what distinguishes carefulness is its acute sense of risk, its awareness that what we value could be lost or damaged. We are careful because things could go awfully wrong.

In a world where things do go wrong, prudence remains a virtue. This is institutionalised in the Western legal system by the principle of duty of care. This is the idea that we owe others due regard when our actions could foreseeably cause them harm. It is especially important as an aspect of fiduciary relationships, where one person acts on behalf of another, on the basis of trust and confidence. These relationships include those between trustee and beneficiary, director and corporation, agent and principal, lawyer and client, doctor and patient, or guardian and ward. It is the fiduciary’s duty to exercise a standard of care – that is, to treat someone else’s interests as a reasonable person would, without gross negligence, recklessness or incompetence. It is, in other words, a rule against carelessness.

In this spirit, fiduciaries are increasingly being called to account on climate change. One aspect of this is the global push to improved reporting of climate-related risks. A recent analysis of corporate disclosures found that climate risk was being vastly underestimated: most global estimates point toward costs that run into trillions of dollars, yet companies are only reporting aggregate risks of tens of billions. What happens when these misjudgements are defeated by reality, when the careful predictions of climate scientists come to fruition? What assets will be drowned by sea-level rise, or burned by wildfires, or wrecked by extreme weather? What investments will be stranded or devalued as society strengthens its resolve to avoid or regulate polluting goods and services?

As the new mantra has it, climate risk is financial risk. To overlook climate change is to lapse in the duty of care, not because all fiduciaries are uncaring towards future generations – although some surely are – but because many simply failed to join the dots between the science of climate change and its long-term economic implications. That is the source of their carelessness. However, the scale of global commitments to divest from fossil-fuel investments has, according to one analysis, increased by 11,900 per cent between 2014 and 2018, from US$52 billion to US$6.24 trillion. A new spirit of prudence appears to be taking hold.

Like I care

Politics has ample room for environmental recklessness. Chairman Mao gave history a spectacular example. His revolution was not only a class insurrection, but also a ‘war against nature’. In 1958, in an effort to improve grain yields, he mobilised China’s peasants to kill sparrows by banging pots and pans, startling them into flight until they died from exhaustion. Without the sparrows, however, insect populations multiplied and devastated the crops, contributing to a famine that left millions of people dead. Such are the dangers of revolutionary fervour.

Climate policy is not immune. REDD+ programmes, which reduce (R) emissions (E) from deforestation (D), forest degradation (D), reforestation and afforestation (+), have long faced problems of corruption, mismanagement and local resistance. Too many projects – not all, but many – lacked due diligence. They transferred large cash sums and foreign rules from the global North to the global South without an adequate understanding of realities on the ground. Such carelessness undermines the legitimacy of climate action.

But is it enough for policy-makers to avoid negligence? The philosopher Bob Goodin once argued that ‘Public officials are, above all else, obliged to care: not to go off half cocked, not to let their hearts rule their heads’. This is, I want to suggest, both insufficient and wrong about care.

The idea of the remainder is particularly relevant. This is the idea that, even when a policy goes to plan, it doesn’t always, if ever, lead to closure. Rather, it creates secondary effects to which decision-makers also have a responsibility to attend. These aren’t errors per se but side-effects, leftovers, remainders: the further crises that remain or emerge after a choice is made, and that call for further choices. These complications blur the lines between negligence and misfortune, inevitability and avoidability, ambition and foolhardiness, even failure and success.

New Zealand’s economic reforms are an apt example. In a brisk period from the mid-1980s to early 1990s, New Zealand went from being ‘one of the most regulated countries in the developed world to being one of the most open and market-orientated economies anywhere’. This was a response to one set of challenges: foreign exchange crises, runaway inflation, unsustainable fiscal and current-account deficits, and a stifling regime of permits and controls. But the dramatic adjustments to economic and social policy – the deregulation of financial markets, restructuring of the public sector, abolition of tariffs and subsidies, and reduced social support – created a new set of challenges that today’s politics continue to react to.

It is telling that a notable TVNZ documentary took the name Revolution. This sense of disruption wasn’t only incidental, but a matter of tactics. As the then Finance Minister Roger Douglas argues: ‘Speed is essential. It is almost impossible to go too fast.’ He warns against cautious reform on the grounds that it gives ‘vested interests’ time to mobilise public resistance. He concludes: ‘There are serious dangers in seeking to hold back the rate of change in order to satisfy groups who claim a slower pace would give the community more time to adjust with less pain.’

Contrast this tactical concern with a case study of Huntly, following the 1987 corporatisation of State Coal Mines:

During the period immediately following corporatisation the number of marital and family break-ups in the town increased. Problems with children and young people have also increased. Relationships between Māori and Pākehā began to show increased strain following the redundancies, as did family and inter-personal relationships. For those who received redundancy payments, arguments frequently arose within families over how this should be spent... Neighbours, families and friends became angry with one another and these relationships disintegrated as people looked for someone to blame for their situation. It was not uncommon for Māori people to believe that if they were made redundant it was a racial decision. There was a great deal of ill-feeling shown by both Māori and Pākehā toward those who had not been laid off.

Here is the strain, the stress, the shear. And it reflects not only tactics, but also an unwavering commitment to the ends of policy reform. The proper attitude of reform, in Douglas’s view, is to ‘do the right thing no matter what the political consequences’. It conveys a view of policy as puzzle-solving, an exercise with a beginning and an end, where the solution is primary and all other considerations are a distraction. This is, in short, a view of policy without remainders, where the only cause for regret is the imperfect execution of one’s vision. Hence the title of Douglas’s book: Unfinished Business.

But business is always unfinished – this is the lesson of remainders. There should always be room for regret in politics, even when we perfectly have our way. This brings us closer to what Bernard Williams meant when he coined the term ‘remainder’, which he described in psychological terms as ‘reluctance’, ‘disquiet’ and ‘moral qualms’. His point was that these feelings of remorse and regret are entirely appropriate – indeed, a sign of good moral character. We should want our political leaders to feel the weight of their decisions, rather than to dismiss their uneasiness as a moral miscalculation or mere sentimentality. Sometimes the heart should indeed rule the head.

Regret wasn’t entirely absent from the reform process. It emerged in David Lange’s call for ‘a cup of tea’ and Geoffrey Palmer’s lament about ‘speed wobbles’. It was also operationalised through initiatives like Palmer’s Social Impact Unit, which he established to minimise the negative impacts of job losses. Yet Lange’s very visible struggles with remorse suggest that, in his judgement, he did not do enough. In his memoirs he writes: ‘I cannot remember any serious sustained discussion in Cabinet of the human costs of our economic policy.’ This corroborates the common judgement today – even among those who broadly endorse the ends of reform – that the transition was not well managed. Change was necessary, but the tactics and strategy were not.

This suggests an alternative view of policy not as puzzle-solving but as a process that is never wholly resolved or settled, that inevitably creates new crises and dilemmas as it changes the world, even when – on balance – it changes the world for the better. It recommends a politics that is conscious of its own messiness, that is unembarrassed by being sensitive to the needs of others, and is committed to listening to people’s actual situations, even when this unsettles well-made plans. It is a politics that acknowledges its own remainders.

This poses a dilemma for climate activists today. It isn’t hard to imagine the advocates of, say, a Green New Deal finding things to learn, or even emulate, from Douglas’s hard-nosed approach to radical reform. Given the urgency and awfulness of climate change, it is naturally attractive to take the shortest, straightest line, and tempting to be fatalistic about the disruption this creates.

Just look at the politics of fuel taxes. What appears at first sight to be a simple lever for emission reductions is not so straightforward. If people lack transport alternatives to switch over to, or the money to access alternatives, then a fuel tax stings them without moving them. To make matters worse, a basic fuel tax is regressive – that is, the financial burden falls relatively heavier on low-income households. Not only are low-income households least able to dodge the tax by, say, buying an electric vehicle, they are also more likely to be found in places where transport options are limited. These perceptions of injustice and unfairness feed into popular resistance to fuel taxes, such as the spectacular revolts of the gilets jaunes in France, or the milder backlash against Auckland’s regional fuel tax.

Yet media and politicians tend to paper over such complexities, to frame protest as an outright rejection of climate action, as an unwillingness to bear its costs for the sake of future generations. This obscures the policy’s remainders, the inequities and pinch points that might inform better policy design. One recent analysis found that people are generally more willing to support a carbon tax that earmarks revenue for mitigation projects, or that redistributes the revenue (often called a ‘climate dividend’). A case can also be made for congestion charging, which better captures the full costs of over-reliance on private vehicles. So too for climate finance mechanisms that enable households to respond to price signals like tax subsidies, concessional loans or buy-back schemes for electrified transport. Finally, there is the question of whether fuel taxes really are the optimal choice, given the likelihood of stranded assets and the political risk this entails. This opens the way to policy options such as mandates, moratoriums, feebates, performance standards and financial incentives, as an alternative or complementary strategy to redirect investment and smooth out the transition.

The mesmerising ends of climate policy, in other words, can be blinding. This is the danger of summoning revolutionary politics. Hannah Arendt, in her analysis of the French Revolution, warned that it was:

the boundlessness of their sentiments that made revolutionaries so curiously insensitive to reality in general and to the reality of persons in particular, whom they felt no compunctions in sacrificing to their ‘principles’, or to the course of history, or to the cause of revolution as such.

Caring too ardently for the ends of one’s projects can mean caring not enough for its effects. This lack of balance must be avoided.

Care killed the cat

A call for caution, however, is not a call for timidity. Making space for regret should not tempt decision-makers to avoid regret at all costs, by shirking tough choices in complex circumstances. Action must occur in spite of, indeed in concert with, care. To illuminate this point, let us look to conservatism, which more than any other political position makes a virtue of carefulness.

The history of conservatism is, in part, a history of opposing revolutions. As the conservative thinker Edmund Burke put it, ‘Every revolution contains in it something of evil.’ In his sketch of the conservative temperament, Michael Oakeshott took a more psychological view when he argued that ‘Changes ... have to be suffered’. Conservatives are pained by the overturning of tradition, by the loss of the familiar and homely. ‘Change is a threat to identity,’ Oakeshott writes, ‘and every change is an emblem of extinction.’

This means that climate breakdown ought to be a source of agony for conservatives – and indeed some have tentatively acknowledged this.
Global warming will make local climates foreign. It will disrupt settled ways of life. It will displace people from their homes, even their home countries. All this cuts against conservativism’s ‘love of order’.

Yet climate policy is also a source of change. The IPCC Special Report on 1.5˚C calls for nothing less than ‘societal transformation’. This poses a dilemma for conservatives, a choice between an immediate or delayed disordering of the status quo, between the pain of climate policy or climate change itself. Yet note that, for progressives, there is no dilemma. For them, change is a source of thrill and gratification. The low-emissions transition is intrinsically exhilarating, a chance to reshape the world while battling a gross intergenerational injustice and advancing other related agendas, such as opposing extractive industry, reversing deforestation, transforming food systems, tackling global poverty and so on. For progressives, there is much to be gained by climate action, and, more important, little to lament.

Given that our democratic societies are home to both progressives and conservatives, how can climate politics reconcile these contrary inclinations?

The certainty and urgency of climate change would appear to give progressives the right of way. Conservative squeamishness looks like stonewalling. At its most cynical, it deserves the label ‘predatory delay’ – that is, the wilful slowing of action in order to prolong a profitable but destructive status quo. This offloads a burden onto future generations that isn’t only unjust, it also fractures the intergenerational contract that Burke placed at the heart of conservatism, the insight that society is ‘a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are to be born’.

Yet conservatives are capable of overcoming this contradiction. In 2007 the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, argued that ‘fiscal conservatism means ... not running deficits that the next generation can’t afford’. He has since applied this same logic to greenhouse gas emissions in his role as chair of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures. Insofar as he sought to improve capitalism, rather than overturn it, he persists in the conservative mould.

As Oakeshott argues, conservatives are not committed to things remaining strictly the same. He balances his aversion to change by championing innovation, which he distinguishes as a form of improvement. He argues that conservatives are amenable to ‘an innovation which is a response to some specific defect, one designed to redress some specific disequilibrium’, even if they shy away from utopian ‘vision[s] of perfection’.

Yet he also retains his sense of caution, saying that:

whenever there is innovation there is the certainty that the change will be greater than was intended, that there will be loss as well as gain and that the loss and the gain will not be equally distributed among the people affected; there is the chance that the benefits derived will be greater than those which were designed; and there is the risk that they will be offset by changes for the worse.

This sensitivity to the remainders of politics is what made Oakeshott such a keen critic of rationalist policy-making – not only the grand projects of the left but also the then-emerging doctrine of neoliberalism. Both, he believed, succumbed to ‘the rationalist faith in the sovereignty of technique’. They replaced the politics of real life with ‘the politics of the book’. As the mishaps of fuel taxes and emissions trading schemes show, what works on an economist’s drawing-board won’t necessarily work the same way in the real world.

These worries are not unique to conservatives. At the more progressive end of the political spectrum, care is posited as an antidote to the politics of control, as a way out of the technocratic trap. Similarly the American indigenous philosopher Kyle Powys Whyte has raised concerns about the politics of climate emergency. In the rush to impose ready-made solutions, indigenous knowledge is left (once again) by the wayside, even when this knowledge stems from earlier experiences of adapting to changing climates. As Whyte warns: ‘When people feel something is really urgent, or crisis-oriented, they tend to forget about their relationships with others.’ A society’s capacity to adapt, however, depends upon relationships of consent, trust and reciprocity, which take time to cultivate. In bypassing this, emergency politics is prone to producing policy without legitimacy, which will undermine itself eventually.

Not all doubts and complaints about climate action will be sincere or proportionate to the scale of the threat. The spirit of scientific scepticism has been hijacked and weaponised to obstruct climate action, overseas and in New Zealand, and this must be called out for what it is. But not all caution is insincere or unproductive. If climate politics are to be democratic, conservative values need to be recognised and welcomed, not ostracised or pathologised. A wary, careful spirit can help to refine and discipline policy, even when policy must press ahead. It anticipates loss and, when loss is unavoidable, informs mechanisms of assistance and compensation. It can even give succour to people who must suffer change, by simply recognising their sacrifice.

This leaves open a host of strategic questions about when caution must give way to urgency. There is a reasonable worry among Just Transition sceptics that we will go too far if ‘we make the necessary rapid phase-outs of destructive industries such as coal, cars and cows ... dependent on the existence of realistic proposals for Just Transitions in these sectors’. Care could kill the cat. Yet a transition that takes care of people along the way would be the most rapid and enduring of all transitions, because it would bring people along with it, reducing the likelihood of revolt and resistance, and creating the popular legitimacy that will sustain its reforms into the future.

A politics of care

I promised a definition of care – so let me defer to Joan Tronto and Berenice Fisher. They define caring as an activity:

that includes everything we do to maintain, continue, and repair our world so that we may live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web.

Tronto and Fisher propose that, when it is done well, care is circular, a never-ending loop of activities. These involve caring about, taking care of, care-giving and care-receiving. Behind each of these, respectively, are the qualities of being attentive, responsible, competent and responsive. I shall elaborate through the example of climate change.

It begins with caring about: ‘the recognition in the first place that care is necessary.’ Not all climate action requires people to care – necessity and compulsion play a key role – but care guides voluntary action, and provides the popular legitimacy for more coercive measures. Fortunately, in New Zealand and elsewhere, most people do care about climate change, and increasingly so. The major hurdle to climate action is not people’s attentiveness to the issue, but the shift from attention to resolve.

Taking care of climate change involves taking responsibility, not only for our own emissions, but also our capacity to make a difference. It is tempting to wriggle away from these responsibilities, because their burdens are onerous and the idea of runaway climate change is so terrible. Many species of denial can come between our acceptance of the science and our willingness to act. Yet it is also the case that responsibility is hard to assign in climate change. Or, more accurately, that individualistic conceptions of moral responsibility are uniquely ill-suited to grappling with such a highly complex, collective action problem that cuts across interwoven physical and socio-economic systems. Accordingly, taking responsibility is likely to involve changing how many of us think about responsibility in the first instance. Indeed, this change is already taking place, through the renewed appreciation of indigenous knowledge, for example, and the shifting of blame from individuals (change your lightbulbs!) to the systems that people operate within, as well as the companies and governments that maintain and defend those systems. The more care we take, the more discerning we become about who should take care of what.

Care-giving is the next step: meeting the need for care by acting concretely and competently. In terms of climate change, future peoples and ecosystems need present-day peoples to reduce ongoing emissions, remove emissions from the atmosphere, and prepare for the warming that can no longer be avoided. This is where we turn our various cares – our fears, regrets, furies and empathies – into effective, material change, in accordance with our various powers and capabilities. Without this shift from feelings to action, all the care in the world is futile. If climate action is not delivered, and not delivered competently, then our agonies over climate change are all for naught.

And finally there is care-receiving, where we assess whether care was successful in its aims, whether needs were met, and whether any remainders are acceptable or addressed. This chapter – and indeed this whole book – is weighted towards this latter aspect of care, towards the issues that arise from climate action and not just climate change itself. It isn’t enough to simply pour care into the world, as if this relieves us of all our responsibilities. There needs to be ‘a balance between the needs of care-givers and care-receivers’. People progressing climate action must listen to those who are feeling the pinch, and take their complaints seriously. If the complaints are serious – and not all will be – then we must start the circle of care again, by attending to and taking responsibility for the remainders of policy. This might lead to policy revision, an offer of assistance, or some other form of solidarity. This ensures that the means of climate action are consistent with the ends, so that care retains its integrity.

The virtue here is responsiveness, which is ‘concerned with conditions of vulnerability and inequality’. A transition cannot be just, a revolution cannot be careful, if it moves ahead by deepening inequalities and leaning on the vulnerable. That would be a recipe for revolt, or counter-revolution. The Earth’s climate can afford this no more than it can afford inaction.

David Hall is a writer, editor and policy researcher. His recent policy work focused on tree planting as a mitigation strategy for climate change. He has a D.Phil in Politics from the University of Oxford and currently holds the role of Senior Researcher at The Policy Observatory, AUT.

For more information on the book, and links to purchase click here.

See Also:

Q+A: What are the best ways to mitigate climate change?

Q+A: 100% global renewable energy: Is it possible?