The Trouble with Metaphysics

Introducing Issue 12 of the Breakthrough Journal

That environmentalism has become a secular religion for cosmopolitan elites in post-industrial societies is a charge that is often hurled by conservatives who otherwise lament the disappearance of religion from public life. Environmentalists, for their part, vociferously reject the charge, insisting that their politics and agenda have simply been revealed by science. In so doing, the latter largely demonstrate the claim of the former, substituting a secular monism — capital-S Science — in place of the various theisms in which the traditionally religious invest authority.

Just how far the equivalence between environmentalism and religion goes depends largely on how one defines the category. The boundary where religion ends and other forms of cosmology and meaning-making begin is at best a fuzzy one. What is clear is that various well-trodden environmental narratives offer both Eden and eschatology — beginning in harmony and ending in apocalypse, a start and an end to history.

These stories foster a sense of identity, community, and purpose, organizing a view of life that allows adherents to feel a sense of connection to a divinity that is both transcendent and immanent. For many, environmentalism and other new belief systems have filled a void left by the decline of organized religion. All of us require some sort of cosmology to make sense of the world — a map to follow, even if, as the saying goes, the map is not the territory.

Holding some vision of an ideal society, too, is part of what it means to be human. Where would we be without aspiration, without some capacity to imagine better worlds?

But the danger of all-encompassing systems of thought is that they readily devolve into dogmatism, making it difficult for us to distinguish between the world as it is and the world as we would like it to be. If the naturalistic fallacy is the derivation of an “ought” from an “is,” the error in political metaphysics is precisely the inverse. We come to feel that the way the world ought to be is, at the deepest level, how it really is — a latent potential hidden behind the surfaces of things, an end state to which the world ineluctably tends. Our utopia is given gravity, bestowed with the weight of natural law.

When politics becomes metaphysics, the world looks Manichean. There are believers and nonbelievers, apostles and apostates: those who can see the world as it truly is and those who are blinded by ignorance, greed, and bad faith — worshippers of false idols and proponents of partial solutions that undermine total salvation.

When ought becomes is, neither means nor ends are negotiable. The entire metaphysical edifice rests upon claims of cause and effect that are invulnerable to both empirics and experience. Achieving utopia requires nothing more, and nothing less, than correct perception. To see is to believe and the act of belief is all that stands between a fallen world and that which the world must inevitably become.


For a generation, disputes about climate science have been a proxy for long established ideological debates between liberals and conservatives. This has resulted, in no small part, from the success of efforts by environmentalists and their allies on the Left to define the problem in relationship to a set of long-standing objectives: expanding government through the regulation and taxation of fossil fuels, downscaling consumption in wealthy economies, and promoting renewable energy.

In the metaphysics of progressive climate advocacy, accepting climate risk has become so fully conflated with liberal and environmental policy demands that it has long been simply assumed that to accept that a climate emergency is under way necessarily entails a response that is liberal, internationalist, and egalitarian. Not so fast, argues Nils Gilman, in his bracing essay “The Coming Avocado Politics.” Drawing on extensive evidence from both the history of ecological politics and current events, Gilman argues that catastrophic and emergency framings of the climate issue will prove well-suited to nativist and authoritarian politics. Avocado Politics (green on the outside, brown on the inside) is, Gilman argues, “what people in the scenario-planning business refer to as ‘an inevitable surprise’ — something that seems out of the realm of likelihood right now… that in fact is almost certain to happen at some point.”

Those on the Left dedicated to ratcheting up public fears of ecologically driven social and economic collapse, Gilman suggests, should be careful what they wish for. “[T]he barriers that people may want to build to adapt to the realities of rising temperatures,” he warns, “may include not only seawalls to hold back the rising tides, but also border walls to hold back the flood of humans fleeing the consequences of climate change, restricting economic development opportunities to white people, or perhaps even outright advocacy of genocide.”

Warnings of climate catastrophe, Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak remind us in their essay “Seven Billion Solutions Strong,” are but the latest in a long-standing debate between optimists — those who argue that human ingenuity can overcome environmental limits to growth — and pessimists, those who, going back to the Reverend Thomas Malthus, have believed that continuing growth in population and consumption will lead inevitably to social and ecological collapse. Fears of eco-collapse, Desrochers and Szurmak demonstrate, go back much further — to the ancients.

The optimistic and pessimistic narratives contain not only two different views of the nature of resource constraints but also competing views of human nature. Pessimists see humans as yet another animal that, lacking any external constraint, will consume resources until it exhausts its means of subsistence. Human numbers and human nature, in this view, are the problem. Optimists, by contrast, see human numbers and human ingenuity as the solution to ecological constraints. In the optimistic narrative, humans “are not only mouths to feed but also hands to work and brains to think of new solutions.”

And yet, in convincingly dismantling the metaphysics of Malthus, Desrochers and Szurmak arguably reify another — the view that markets, left to their own devices, will self-correct not only resource constraints but also pollution problems. Drawing on the history of the oil industry, they demonstrate that often, over time, waste from those industries has been transformed into products whose value is greater than the original product (e.g., kerosene) the industry produced. In fact, both gasoline and natural gas were originally by-products that in the early years of the industry were simply dumped into waterways or burned.

And yet by their own acknowledgment, given the global scale of fossil fuel combustion, markets are unlikely to find sufficient uses for carbon dioxide to have much impact on atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. “The only truly sustainable option remains, as in the past, the development of new ways of doing things,” they write. The extraordinary expansion of human social and technological capacities that has attended fossil-fueled industrial development, they argue, has also “created conditions in which we have the capabilities to develop new and better forms of energy that might allow us to continue to thrive.”

But there is little reason to think that markets will accomplish this by themselves. Absent either significant government incentives to develop and deploy low-carbon technology, policy measures to internalize the carbon externality, or some combination of the two, markets are unlikely to develop technologies that will have much impact on global warming.

Nonetheless, Desrochers and Szurmak’s larger point is the right one: humans have unique capabilities to overcome environmental limits. Markets require public institutions and infrastructure to function well, and these are no less a product of our remarkable capabilities for cooperation and self-organization. “Future flourishing,” they argue, “for the Earth and for most living beings on it, demands that we tap into the extraordinary potential of creative individuals made increasingly more prosperous by ever more trade, collaboration, and opportunities to (re)combine existing things in new ways.”


Whenever phrases like “systems theory” are invoked in environmental debates, metaphysics is sure to follow. Metaphysical systems of this sort are typically holisms in which legitimate values and priorities are never at odds. To see the system in all of its multiple dimensions and complexity, is, almost always, to see that trade-offs are false.

In “Must We Be Cruel to Be Kind to the Climate?”, Marta Zaraska exposes complex trade-offs between animal welfare and climate mitigation in livestock agriculture. For some, it simply must be true that their vision for maximizing animal welfare — typically through extensive production — is simultaneously a strategy for climate mitigation, and vice versa. Zaraska debunks this claim. To the contrary, extensive systems that often bring at least marginally better animal welfare typically also bring diminished production efficiencies and higher emissions. Zaraska also notes a variety of ways in which many intensification strategies can and do benefit animal welfare while reducing climate impacts.

In the end, though, she concludes that no livestock system can eliminate the cruelty that is unavoidably entailed in the act of raising and slaughtering animals. Nor can animal agriculture ever be disassociated from some nontrivial amount of greenhouse gas emissions. So long as we eat meat, cruelty and environmental impacts will come along for the ride. “There is no perfect Kumbaya meat, no matter how much we’d like it to exist,” she writes. Reducing the cruelty and impacts associated with animal agriculture, rather, requires an honest discussion of costs and trade-offs.

Another way of knowing when politics has tipped into metaphysics is when all problems become one problem. What results is a kind of fetish whereby the part of any problem that is central to the metaphysics becomes the whole of it. In the case of climate change, we see climate in everything. The issue becomes omnipresent: a lens that refracts all problems we encounter.

Even in cases where climate change is demonstrably a significant factor, fetishizing climate blinds us to other social, economic, and political dynamics that are often more centrally implicated in the issue at hand. When climate becomes metaphysics, we care about those other dynamics only insofar as they lead back to climate change, and no further.

In “Freeing the Snow,” Breakthrough Institute senior analyst Jameson McBride’s essay about the future of the ski industry, McBride demonstrates how climate fetishization often obfuscates more than it enlightens. Contrary to the narrative that climate change poses an imminent threat, he argues that the ski industry is actually thriving and will readily adapt to climate change thanks to snowmaking technology. But the more important question is how the industry will change and who will benefit. Skiing, he writes, “will merely retreat, gradually, into higher and colder places, less accessible places, with more and more expensive and complicated measures to adapt to warming temperatures. Perhaps it will return to a place in society like that in which it began: obscure, prohibitively expensive, and exotically glamorous.” Even for what is by all rights a luxury activity, climate change will magnify existing inequality.

Echoing Gilman’s essay, the rhetoric of exclusion is already present, McBride points out. “If you drive around San Francisco today, in the wealthier neighborhoods, among expensive single-family homes protected by restrictive zoning laws, you might see a strange bumper sticker. Instead of ‘Keep Tahoe Blue,’ the iconic California environmental slogan, you might see ‘Keep Squaw True.’ This is a movement to prevent the development of more lifts and hotels at Squaw Valley.... But Squaw is the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, not a small or marginal resort. In a changing climate, who is keeping Squaw — and American skiing — ‘true’? And ‘true’ for whom?”


This issue of the Breakthrough Journal continues conversations about food justice and global governance. Owen Gaffney responds to Leigh Phillips’ essay, “Planning the Earth System,” echoing his call for global democracy to safeguard a more equitable and environmentally sustainable future. In addition to averting environmental calamity, Gaffney writes, “[t]his system would offer ways to build trust, more fairly redistribute wealth, and hold multinational corporations accountable.... One of the biggest benefits of such a move would be promoting a cultural shift toward acknowledging and valuing a common human identity.”

But Gaffney also seriously questions whether this aspirational vision is economically and politically viable — unlike Phillips, for the most part, who notes merely that his vision is no less radical a departure from the status quo than the calls for global degrowth he excoriates. What Gaffney and Phillips do share is an optimism rooted in perceived necessity. Because a just, enforceable, global democratic order is ultimately necessary for a stable planet and widespread human progress, it had better be possible.

Alison Hope Alkon takes S. Margot Finn to task for representing the food justice movement too narrowly in the latter’s essay, “Food Injustice.” Finn argued that in fetishizing the intersection of food systems and injustice, the food justice movement has focused on “solutions” (e.g., farmers markets, urban gardens, and consumption of fresh vegetables) that remedy problems that are neither particularly important drivers of health and environmental outcomes associated with America’s food system, nor particularly important contributors to inequality. In reply, Alkon insists that Finn’s definition of the goals of the food justice movement is outdated. Although initially, the food justice movement “fuse[d] support for local production with increased food access for low-income communities,” Alkon argues, it now includes “campaigns to improve worker pay and conditions throughout the food system” — exactly the sort of activism Finn has suggested would represent a food justice movement worthy of the name.

If Alkon’s critique is largely definitional, Tali Perelman, Breakthrough Institute digital communications manager, takes on epistemic questions about the nature of knowledge production and the role it plays in political disputes in her review of Bruno Latour’s latest book. In Down to Earth, Latour, a founder of what has become known as science and technology studies (STS), struggles to reconcile his view of science as socially constructed with the concern that, in the case of climate science, relativism has opened the door to science denial.

In the face of this seeming contradiction, many STS scholars, perhaps most famously the Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes, have felt compelled to reinscribe the objectivist view of science they have otherwise dedicated themselves to dismantling. Worse, many scholars have deployed the tools of the discipline selectively, applying a social constructivist view when it suits them ideologically while retreating to scientism when it doesn’t.

By contrast, Perelman observes, Latour leans into the discipline. Climate scientists, like all scientists, are unavoidably political actors. The political controversies associated with climate science can’t be avoided by attempting to place science back on a pedestal, removed from the rough-and-tumble of politics and democracy. Climate scientists are constructing a view of the Earth, and humanity’s place within it, that is shot through with meaning and consequence that go well beyond empirics. To his credit, Perelman writes, “Latour doesn’t suddenly shirk from his messy view of science…. For him, it’s still science — not Science — even when he’s talking about the climate.”

Whether studying science or history, the lens through which we look at the world unavoidably informs the sorts of questions we ask and the conclusions we draw. In reviewing two recent books on the history of livestock agriculture in the United States — Capitalist Pigs by J.L. Anderson and Red Meat Republic by Joshua Specht — Breakthrough Institute food and agriculture analyst Alex Smith observes two starkly divergent narratives leading to equally different conclusions. The former focuses on the role that a range of innovations played in transforming pork from an afterthought on the American table — largely because hog farming was a difficult, dangerous, and often unprofitable activity for most farmers — to a mass-produced commodity and staple of the American diet. The latter focuses on the dispossession of native lands by ranchers, the consolidation of the meat processing industry, and public policies that allowed meat processors to funnel profits upward and risk downward as the industry grew and modernized.

Separately, both books are flawed, with the former focusing on the economic and technological to the exclusion of the social and political, and the latter focusing on complex relationships between agriculture, society, and the state but largely ignoring the roles of technology and growing market demand. Taken together, though, the two books suggest that ignoring either the economic and technological or the social and political leads to an impoverished view of food systems and how they might be improved to better meet social and environmental objectives.

Ultimately, all the authors in this issue of the Breakthrough Journal raise questions about how we might navigate a course between our social, political, and intellectual commitments, an openness to revising those opinions based on experience and experimentation, and pluralism. What does it mean to maintain those convictions while maintaining a bit of perspective about the multiplicity of meanings that can be legitimately inscribed upon the world? And how can we recognize the limits of our knowledge and the possibility that, often, the world does not work in the ways we might like it to while still plotting a course toward futures that we can believe in?