This news piece from Nature summarizes some of the climate communication problems with respect to ‘dire messaging’ and the problematic of belief. Dire messages about the future, they have found, serve to strengthen disbelief in climate change. But their essentially psychologistic approach doesn’t take into account some of the distinctions I’ve been emphasizing in my last couple of posts, namely that for some people anticipation of the future is presentist and hinges on descriptions of the future as closed, whereas for others the issue is multiple possible, i.e. uncertain, futures which might be worked with dynamically. In the latter case, these potential futures are not posed as a problem of belief; whereas in order to understand the former one must take up belief as a social fact.

Incidentally, some anthropologists have argued for a similar dynamic regarding social conservatism and transgression, in which transgression is analogous to the dire warnings some climate communicators have used. Transgression functions as a liminal practice which ruptures established social order only to re-affirm that social order as a consolidated formation. I don’t think any of that is particularly surprising from an anthropological perspective, but it does imply – if I’m right that different modes of futurity are in circulation – that the target for research should be climate change practices which do not hinge on belief per se.

I have an article submitted to American Anthropologist which argues that uncertainty is a perspective. Uncertainty is not the absence of certainty as a problem of philosophical foundations or adequate scientific knowledge, but rather a normative claim or orientation toward action. In this sense its primary mode is evaluative (I draw on Canguilhem to make this claim) and it posits a politics in terms of a normative determination of the future. I look toward environmental entrepreneurialism in Lao hydropower management to make the argument that uncertainty becomes a relevant term for practice because there has emerged an ethos that is much more comfortable working with uncertainty rather than fighting it all the time. One sees this transformation in certain practices of expertise, for instance, which take a certain pleasure in getting into the weeds. Their’s is more exuberance than jouissance.

I also get into why I think Michel Callon et al miss the mark in their recent book Acting in an Uncertain World. They pose uncertainty as a problem of action but they do not recognize how actors deliberately create uncertainty, how uncertainty becomes a potential for play or dynamism or how in some cases it is to be minimized whereas in other cases it is to be elaborated. For instance they rail against vested interests who present manipulated scientific results, who use the veil of science to confuse honest public debate about science. And they hold up sincerity of public debate as the hallmark of a reasoned participatory technical democracy. But like Latour’s Dingpolitik, what they present attempts to guarantee neutrality for a ‘flat’ ecology of practices. And to do so they think they can reliably exclude manipulated science from real science, insincerity from sincere engagement. Isn’t that simply to re-inscribe the problem of belief?

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