What is the phrase for the categorical refusal to recognize context?
Sticking to principles.
There are very few true principles in the world. Among the most important and the least observed is the central tenet of Christianity and all other major religions: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Many principles are at heart an expression of misplaced loyalty to a world view whose time has passed. Second-Amendment absolutism comes to mind. When the right to bear arms was included in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, the world was a fundamentally different place.
That right was devised when arms were single-shot, front-loading weapons, the population of the US was four million and agrarian, there was no such thing as telecommunication, and British soldiers were forcibly billeted in citizens’ houses. After the Revolution, America disbanded its army and chose to rely on volunteer militias for national defense—thus the literal language of the Second Amendment, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State.” The right to bear arms was a pragmatic response to the exigencies and limitations of that far less technological, organized, or crowded day.
Today, our population is 310 million. We have instantaneous communication. The US has a huge standing army. We’re not occupied by an overseas power. We’re not forced to billet soldiers. Automatic weapons fire hundreds of rounds in seconds.
Saturating today’s society with these weapons of mass murder is clearly counter-indicated from a public safety perspective. Given the size and firepower of our armed forces, it’s also abjectly impractical as a deterrent to the “tyranny” of our own democratic government. Yet people cling to the absolute “principle” of unregulated gun ownership.
How does this apply to the climate? Among the principles at odds with the overwhelming problem of our age are the sanctity of unfettered fossil fuel use and of individual choice. Being free to extract unlimited fossil resources, consume them at will, and spew their waste products into the sky made (some) sense in a low-population frontier environment, but makes zero sense today. This isn’t ideology. This is common sense.
Scarcity Is Not Surplus
No change in context is more fundamental than from surplus to scarcity. In business, people recognize this shift right away and adjust. A business can’t operate the same way when money is scarce as it does when it’s in surplus. An investor can’t function in a bear market the way he does in a bull market. No conservative would say otherwise.
But when it comes to the climate, we stick to creaky and dubious “principles,” even though the climate’s capacity to absorb carbon has shifted from surplus to scarcity in exactly the same way. In the context of that scarcity, carbon emissions are an ongoing violation of the true principle, Do Unto Others.
2014 is not 1776. Metropolises are not villages. Organized society is not the frontier. Office towers are not farms. Cars are not buggies. Technology is not agriculture. Ak-47s are not flintlocks. Scarcity is not surplus. Black Arctic water is not white Arctic ice. Pre-industrial air is not post-industrial air. Age is not youth.
The refusal to recognize context is a form of denial. In the same way someone at age 62 can’t do all the things she could at 22, today’s society can’t do all it did in earlier days and expect to thrive. Or to be forgiven.
When it comes to the climate, we’re all 62 trying to act as if we’re 22.