I have a colleague who’s become a little bored with teaching modus ponens and the Meditations, and instead now fancies himself something of an authority on global warming. The way you become an authority, by the way, is by so declaring yourself. And so provided you’re not in proximity to anyone who really is an authority – whatever that ‘really’ might mean – you get to be one. Not only that, but provided you surround yourself only with other self-declared authorities who agree with you, and provided you keep your bookshelf clear of anything that doesn’t, you get to be an advocate, and as such you get to hold in contempt anyone who doesn’t think “global warming is the single most urgent problem facing the world today.” You don’t hold them in contempt for not doing anything about it, because then you’d be expected to do something about it yourself. You only demand that, like yourself, they lose sleep over it, losing sleep being, apparently, the sine qua non of membership in the human race. A well-rested countenance, by contrast, is the dead giveaway of the psychopath.
Now then, my colleague in turn had a student who wrote her honors thesis not in defense of one side or the other but rather on the rhetoric of the global warming debate. Her research being impeccable, he had no choice but to give her an A+. But not before his having taken high umbrage at her having taken some umbrage at the sloppy deployment of the notion of ‘urgency’ in the global warming literature. But it wasn’t until he dismissed this concern as a “philosophical quibble” – yes, his exact words – that she realized he’d pretty much left the building.
Others of his students have noticed it too. This happens, especially when an academic gets a little too long in the tooth. In fact I’ve assigned my most trusted student the task of letting me know when it starts happening with me. He hasn’t yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Which is not to say it’ll be time to retire. Without a few has-beens – or in my case perhaps a never-was – a Philosophy Department would be far less productive. Progress is often the product of play. And play can’t happen when one’s still looking to make a career for oneself.
But I digress. For my purpose here is to see, quibbler that I am, if I can put some flesh on the niggle that senior student had about the notion of urgency. Her worry, if I understood it aright, was that “X is urgent …” is not a well-formed-formula. Not unlike “X is valuable …” it requires a to– or a for–whom. And the problem is that a world just isn’t the kind of thing to which or for which anything can be urgent.
This is sometimes what happens when we speak metonymously. When the news reports that “The White House announced today that …”, we all know what’s meant. We all know as well that the world isn’t the kind of thing for which anything can be urgent. But when you tell me that “Global warming is the most urgent problem facing the world today!”, you might be intending one thing and I’m hearing something completely different. That difference will hang on with what, to render the claim syntactical, each of us is mentally substituting for the word ‘world’.
When pressed for his substitution, what will my colleague answer? That it’s the most urgent problem for everybody? Surely not for any of the hundreds of would-be boat people, just two hours down the coast from where I’m writing this, whose lungs are filling up with salt water at this very minute because their ‘fare’ didn’t cover a life jacket. To suggest that global warming is the most urgent problem facing them isn’t just factually wrong. It’s morally obscene.
But we needn’t stray that far from my colleague’s own home to note that before he does anything about global warming first he has to pee. For that matter, let’s suppose the sky really is falling. That is, there’s a planet killer that’s about to hit the earth in twenty minutes. If I have to pee then as desperately as I have to pee right now, well then, I suppose I’m just going to meet my Maker with my schlong hanging out.
So in any normal sense of the word, global warming can’t be the most urgent problem facing anybody. In the normal sense of the word, for any one of us there are hundreds if not thousands of things more urgent than global warming, including peeing, getting those papers marked, picking up the dog from the groomer’s … So surely that student and I are right to wonder in what stipulated sense of the word global warming is even an urgent problem let alone the most urgent one.
The principle of charity would suggest that, though urgency must surely have a temporal component, its intended meaning in this context is less akin to the Italian ‘subito’ than to the legal notion of a clear and present danger. Global warming is a clear danger, in the sense that there’s no doubt, at least in the mind of my colleague, that it’s happening and it’s going to have devastating consequences. And it’s a present danger in the sense that those consequences don’t need any actus novus interveniens to materialize.
Moreover, one wouldn’t use the word urgent for something that’s inevitable. For example, notwithstanding it’s a minute before sunrise, the sun isn’t about to rise urgently. In fact if global warming is a problem in the face of which we’re utterly powerless, then even calling it a ‘problem’ seems something of a misnomer. It’s a problem only if we can do something about it, or at least try. So to say that it’s an urgent problem is to say that if we’re going to try to do something about it, we had better get onto it sooner rather than later. And the ‘most’ in ‘most urgent’ doesn’t refer to how soon we had best get onto it, but rather to the direness and breadth of the consequences if we don’t get on to it at all.
But if this is what my colleague means, then he’s at best facing some very stiff competition, and at worst he’s just straightforwardly mistaken. John Leslie wrote a book entitled The End of the World, in which he catalogued all the ways the world – by which he meant a world amenable to human existence – could come to an end; and he provided a rough ordering of most to least likely, though even the least was by no means un. Global warming barely got a mention. Nuclear warfare certainly did. And I’ve just been reading about the particulates of plastic in the oceans that are rapidly making their way up the food chain to us. So by reckoning that’s by no means idiosyncratic, before we sweat to death we’ll either be vaporized or we’ll suffocate as surely we would with a plastic bag over our heads. So by this clear-and-present-danger interpretation of urgency, we – by which I mean everybody – should be trying to rid the planet of nuclear weapons and bottled water before worrying about our carbon footprint.
Or does my colleague know otherwise? In addition to being an expert in climatology, is he also an expert on nuclear proliferation and microplastic pollution? Would he like to pronounce as well on the great cloth versus disposable diaper debate?
No doubt he’d concede that all of these issues are important. But then what makes him so sure that, not unlike the Archbishop of Canterbury, global warming is the first among equals? First by what measure? If the end of the world is overdetermined, such that if the climate doesn’t get us then the plastics will, then each is the most important. But then the sheer number of problems the solutions to which are each jointly necessary to save the world would render global warming completely un-special. One might even say unremarkable.
So there are at least three dimensions along which global warming must rank first to count as the most urgent problem. It has to outrank everything else in terms of the number of interested parties who’ll be affected. It has to outrank everything else in terms of the direness of those effects. And it has to outrank everything else in terms of how soon we need to get on to it. But in order to make the claim that global warming wins on all three counts, my colleague would have to know how each of these other threats measures up by these same three criteria, which means he’d have to be at least as much of an expert on all these things as he is on global warming. That’s a lot of expertise. That’s more expertise than I could hope to master in a lifetime. That’s either genius or hubris. I’m left to wonder which.
But here’s why the student’s quibble was one worth raising. Her supervisor, my colleague, pronounces himself baffled as to why virtually no one is giving global warning the priority its urgency demands. His student was giving him the answer, if only he’d listened. It’s no one’s priority because for no one is it urgent. That’s something, as an environmental activist, he needs to know, so he can adjust his argumentative strategy accordingly. If it’s not about urgency what is it about? A little more of his time spent on that question might not go amiss.
And that is why we philosophers quibble. Philosophical quibbles direct us to the right question. If you quibble with quibbling it’s because you’re really not looking for the right question. Even if it’s wrongly posed, you want to stick with the question that baffles you so you can remain baffled, because being baffled by the stupidity of others is the mark of the truly superior mind.
Yes, our cosmic insignificance is a bitch! We each deal with it in our own way. My colleague fancies himself Laocoon, and the Koch brothers the giant serpents. I see him more as Don Quixote, though I don’t pronounce on whether he’s tilting at windmills or real dragons. But I do think he should listen more to his page, or in this case his honors student. He took her as mocking his Precious, when she, like Sancho, was really just trying to give him a reality check.