If you are (a) an environmentalist, and (b) a Burkean, how do you establish a position on global warming? Are you conflicted, confused? It so happens I am (a) an environmentalist and (b) a Burkean, and I am neither conflicted nor confused. To the contrary, the precepts of Edmund Burke provide me with a position on the issue that I take to be both sound and clear. Moreover, Burke provides a useful guide to remedial action.
Edmund Burke (1729-97), of course, is the Anglo-Irish politician and writer regarded as the founder of modern conservatism. He is best known as the author of Reflections on the Revolution in France, which he wrote to express his profound hostility to the revolution’s spirit of total, radical innovation.
Burke’s central point was that we should not meddle with complex systems we do not understand, especially when civilization rests upon the system. The French revolutionaries were violently dismantling a monarchic system that had endured serviceably, as Burke saw it, for a thousand years. (Burke was writing in 1790, during the revolution’s balmy inception, when most of his countrymen were hailing the fall of French absolutism. Presciently, he predicted the coming of the Reign of Terror and the military dictatorship that followed.)
Burke’s thinking applies full force to global warming. Climate, after all, is a complex system we do not fully understand, a system on which civilization totally relies, and a system we are meddling with on a grand scale. There are, for example, now about one billion cars and light trucks on the planet emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at levels never seen before.
Scientists cannot tell us with certainty what the full range of effects of this will be. But our common understanding of how the world works — derived from millennia of rigorous, even harsh human experience — tells us the impact is far more likely to be bad than good.
So what changes do we need to make to curb global warming? Here I think Burke’s advice is particularly apt now in the absence of scientific certainty and congressional legislation on the issue.
It is true Burke opposed radical innovation but he did not oppose change as such. “We must all obey the great law of change,” Burke declared. “It is the most powerful law of nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation.” The question, then, is how change should occur. Burke’s answer was that change must be sought organically.
To me, as an environmentalist, organic is the key word. Organic means occurring or developing naturally, without being forced or contrived. There is no hierarchy in nature to impose things from above. Nature is decentralized. It experiments on the small-scale, changing things incrementally. After rigorous testing, only those adaptations that prove workable in nature’s boundlessly complex web are assimilated.
Thus, if we are to follow Burke’s advice in efforts to address global warming, we should look for remedies that are decentralized, small, incremental, and proven. These exist in abundance. Here’s the idea: there’s no silver bullet that can reduce the threat of global warming. Instead, we need a vast number of small, incremental reductions in greenhouse gas emissions — that is, silver buckshot.