Climate inaction is a theme bookending the first decade of our chronicling news stories and analytical essays. Why, we have stopped bothering to wonder, is inaction so persistent? Whether activism or other forms of action, there is not enough of it relative to the scale of the crisis. We thank Eleanor Cummins, a freelance science journalist and adjunct professor at New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program for these ideas as published in Wired:
‘Thinkwashing’ Keeps People From Taking Action in Times of Crisis
When it comes to issues like climate change, too many let the perfect become the enemy of the good, while the world burns.
LESS THAN A decade ago, “wait and see” arguments about climate change still circulated. “We often hear that there is a ‘scientific consensus’ about climate change,” physicist Steven E. Koonin wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2014. “But as far as the computer models go, there isn’t a useful consensus at the level of detail relevant to assessing human influences.” The idea was that the world needed more data before it could respond to the threat posed by global warming—assuming such research indicated a response was even necessary.
Today, outright denialism is dormant, but delay tactics have never been more in vogue. Many of them fall under the banner of what I’d call thinkwashing, a combination of willful ignorance of existing knowledge, policy perfectionism, and an all-or-nothing position on the role of technology in society. It’s not limited to climate change, either. People thinkwash whenever they magnify the complexity of the problem and undermine real possibilities. Whatever the issue, entrenched interests have perfected their response: It’s complicated.
It’s easy enough to empathize with these arguments; 21st-century challenges like artificial intelligence, climate change, and the threat social media poses to democracy are astounding in their legal, social, and economic complexity. But while organizations may tell the public they’ve got the “brightest minds” working on a given issue to no avail, the roadblock is often not intellectual but political, says Marianne Jennings, a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Meaningful action is possible—but when companies are unwilling to address root issues, it’s often because doing so would threaten their revenue stream. Instead, they demand more research amid dire circumstances and promote distracting alternatives.
Thinkwashing is not thoughtfulness. It is not a helpful contribution to the discourse or an essential injection of skepticism. It’s a way of obscuring the basic fact that “complicated” intellectual questions can often be answered, at least in part, by straightforward moral imperatives and a pragmatic approach to the future.
OVER TIME, THINKWASHING has trickled down from corporate PR campaigns to the general public—typically in the form of a profound techno-pessimism that is also an obstacle to action.
Take direct-air carbon capture. Tech billionaires like Bill Gates, an investor in these plants, have suggested that they will one day be able to extract emissions out of the sky at scale, passively decarbonizing an electrified but otherwise largely unchanged world. Already, Microsoft has purchased one such facility, thereby helping to bring its business down to sub-zero emissions by 2030—without necessarily disentangling itself from the fossil fuel economy (though it’s promising to do some of that work too)…
Read the whole essay here.