Rational self-interest isn’t enough to save the world. We will need faith as well.
Scandinavia is one of the most secularised corners of the world and by reputation one of the most rational. So I was astonished last week to hear the Finnish chairman of Royal Dutch Shell (and of Nokia) Jorma Ollila, say that the world’s energy crisis would not be solved unless everyone turned off the lights when they left an empty room.
Now, he’s not a villain or a fool, and he certainly wasn’t suggesting that there was no role for oil companies, or even mobile phone companies to play in the transition to a greener and more stable kind of economy. Nor did he claim that even the aggregate of millions of acts of infinitesimal self-denial would solve the world’s problems. The linkage was a more subtle one, and goes to the heart of the question of how political will is manufactured.
In Ollila’s view, the difficulties we face in making the world’s economy greener and ultimately sustainable are not just technological. He didn’t sound to me like a huge technological optimist, in any case; he certainly didn’t say that it was inevitable that technological solutions to the problem of global warming will be produced. But even if they are, he thought that half the problem facing us was political. Technology isn’t made in a vacuum and doesn’t spread in one either. Without political encouragement (which is also economic, through instruments like tax policy) the necessary research won’t happen and its fruits won’t be deployed.
So where does the political will come from? The question is urgent because the will is at present so conspicuously absent. As Ollila said, you can imagine the reaction to any democratic government which tried to raise petrol prices by 10%. Yes, I was listening to the boss of a major oil company lamenting the governments are unable to raise the price (and diminish the demand) for his own products.
The answer he gave, which was either extremely Finnish or extremely religious, is that it has to come from a genuine, bottom-up commitment. That’s why turning off lightbulbs is important. To turn off the light when you leave a room is an act of piety just as much as lighting a candle in church. It has no measurable effect on the crisis at all in itself. It doesn’t even have a notable effect on your own electricity bill, and if it ever does, the world economy will be in a dreadful mess. But it is a token of seriousness. It is, if you like, a gesture of faith.
The belief that other people, some of them in other countries, will be influenced to their own acts of self-abnegation by your good example in turning off the light as you leave the room is on the face of it entirely absurd. It is certainly not proven by evidence.
But there is a paradox here.
The only chance this belief has of being true is that people believe it to be true. That’s not in itself a sufficient guarantee: I may make a grand gesture of renunciation only to have you laugh and scoop up what I have renounced. But I am much less likely to make such a gesture if I expect that you be your reaction.
This faith-based reasoning seems to be a product of a presumably evolved part of our psychologies. But wherever it comes from, it’s not a delusion. It is a fact about the world: we will only do on faith some things probably essential to the survival of our species . Again, to sidestep another argument, there may well be grounds for the faith that other people will respond in kind to our gestures of self-sacrifice; better grounds than for other beliefs also held on faith.
But I am not using the term simply to mean “best rational guess on inadequate evidence”, because in the case of mass movements, such as environmentalism must become if it is to work, faith is not just a neutral calculation of interest. It carries a moral weight. People who don’t share the faith are not just wrong: they are dangerous. And that is the kind of belief you need to fuel a political movement.
Now, in the particular instance of co-operative action to save the world, or our species” place in it, these moral overtones look justified. But that can’t be the first time the problem of collective action has presented itself to our species, even if it turns out to be the last. And in this case we have the outlines of a solution to a question which does seem sometimes genuinely puzzling to me: why is it that in questions of faith, we so naturally assume that our opponents are not just wrong but morally repulsive, too?