For years, I’ve been haunted by the message of a slender volume written in 2014. Only China survived the challenges imposed by climate change. It did so because it alone had the ability to mobilize itself against the threat.
Western societies, western civilization, collapsed. We collapsed because we let consensus and individualism be the enemy of efficiency and decisive action.
"The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future," by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, is dystopian – a view of the future should things go wrong, horribly wrong. The narrator is a Chinese intellectual historian writing in 2393, on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the Great Collapse of 2093, when the west imploded under the pressure of climate change.
One of life’s grand mysteries is collective action. Somehow, as a species, we have developed a capacity for group action. Thus, a division of labor: I practice law, you operate a restaurant, our neighbor manages data. By each pursing our own individual goals, we generate goods and services sufficient to keep millions of people living together in harmony.
No one really knows how we developed this ability. But political philosophers have developed theories. Organic theories stress the primacy of the group: the chicken came first, laying each individual egg. Contract theories say the egg came first, spawning the larger whole.
We’re individualists in the West. China is collectivist. We value the rights of the individual; China places a premium on the requirements of the group.
Science is a group activity. Theories are developed. The scientific method requires hypotheses, experimentation, proof, disproof, peer-reviewed literature. The scientific community is committed to a belief that there is a shared reality about which intersubjective truths can be known.
Science can run counter to individualism. You are free to deny the scientists’ theories, but you do so at the peril of denial of reality. Most of the time, denying reality doesn’t matter. Whether we evolved or were created ex nihilo is question without a lot of pragmatic cash value, as William James might say.
But a lethal virus is real. What scientists have to say about it matters. So, too, climate change. Does there come a point at which the individual’s right to deny conflicts with reality and the good of the group? Are there ever such things as self-regarding acts?
The concept of self-regarding acts is endlessly discussed in libertarian circles. Consider laws mandating motorcycle helmets. Should I be required to wear one?
No, the libertarian shouts. If I fall and am injured or killed, I injure only myself.
Not so, the other side shouts. Your family loses your support and love; valuable resources are spent caring for your mangled body. The injury is communal.
Or, to put the matter in more contemporary terms: Your decision to violate social distancing requirements doesn’t just put you at the risk. If you are asymptomatic, as we are told 25 percent of COVID-19 carriers are, you expose everyone you meet to risk. A quarantine may violate your right to self-destruct, but it preserves the rights of others to survive.
In a pandemic, it appears, there are no self-regarding acts, at least none done in the presence of others.
So where does this leave us?
The courts are closed in this unprecedented crisis. I don’t know how the concept of reasonableness, the law’s hidden lynchpin, will surface when the courts reopen. Will we emerge from this crisis with a robust sense of individual rights? Should we? Nature is clawing at our doors. A virus picks and chooses, seemingly at random, killing some, sickening others, and leaving others to wonder whether all this fuss is necessary.
A more indiscriminate killer sits in the wings – global warming.
Can we survive the pandemic? Most of us will. Can we survive global warming? That is an open question.
I can’t help but wonder whether China is better positioned to survive in the long run. I can’t shake the image of a West in tatters, a victim of its own idiosyncratic glory.