Saving the World? The Paris Agreement
When I went to see Wonder Woman, I wasn’t thinking about the Paris Agreement, but as I went on, the parallel became clear. One of the movie’s most important themes is the allure of thinking “there’s one bad guy to blame” for the problems of the world, one quick fix to make everything better. Although the movie does have a climax, it begins and ends with reminders of the evil that is present in the human heart, a fight “no hero can win” with brute force. The movie gives us a more complex picture of the world’s problems.
Of course, Wonder Woman doesn’t learn this lesson right away, and until she does she cannot properly understand the world she lives in. The other characters raise their eyebrows at her naiveté, but she will brook no argument, insisting that they “will see.” Her heart is certainly in the right place, but her oversimplification leads her to more ferocity than is necessary for the real problem at hand, and it even begins to divide her from her friends when she grows angry at their attempts to check her crusade. She invents a clear-cut answer, and it’s so compelling it keeps her from seeing the truth.
Perhaps you have seen the analogy in this. There are many parallels that could be drawn, because we like to simplify things in the modern world. We are optimists; we like to think we can fix the world’s problems with technology and treaties and modern sensibilities. I remember a Middle School teacher waxing eloquent over how education would have stopped the rise of Nazism, or a long speech from Star Trek on how light speed (aka science) was invented one day and magically solved all poverty, war, greed, cruelty, etc. Education, science, democracy, globalization – the list of panaceas goes on. But my focus in this post is environmentalism.
We have heard a great deal lately, sparked by the Paris Agreement, on why environmental activism is the only way to save our children from the apocalypse, why we need this international cooperation to champion the future of humanity. It is a tempting case. Nature, properly cultivated, is a beautiful and obviously good thing. To think that we are hurtling toward Armageddon, and now, with global connectedness, we can pull together and save us all, is tempting. We want to fight for Lord of the Rings’ “everything green and good in this world.”
The problem is that, in our zeal, we distort the truth for too-easy answers. Apocalypses cannot be easily predicted; the future is always in flux. Human activity has, no doubt, contributed to environmental change, but what percentage of that change? How strong is its impact? What are likely to be its effects? No one knows; our models rely on many shaky estimations – they are, quite literally, a function of the assumptions we input at the beginning. We cannot know nearly as much as we like to think.
Furthermore, there is no easy fix to the problem. I am not going to speculate on the pros and cons of pulling out of the Paris Agreement; I don’t know what I think. But I know one thing for sure: the Paris Agreement was never going to save the world. It was a modest effort to limit an aspect we think is important for climate change. It was not a magical making-the-climate-better act that automatically helped more than it hurt. And even if it were, this is an international agreement, and as such has an entirely separate set of limitations.
The very word “agreement,” after all, implies that this was based on preexisting shared concerns. It is not that the agreement magically made people care more about the environment; it was rather limited to what people were already willing to “agree” upon. Those heralding the arrangement as a great step forward in diplomacy would do well to remember that when everyone in the room agrees to something, it is usually because 1) it isn’t a very substantial something and/or 2) it doesn’t cost anything to agree, not because nations have suddenly decided that idealism should overrule national interest.
Does that mean we shouldn’t care about these issues? Of course we should care, and we should discuss our best course of action. But we must realize that there is no institution, no treaty or technology or political system, that is going to fix everything. Why? Because these are all made and run and developed and applied by people, and people themselves need fixing. Perfection doesn’t come unaided from imperfection; that is a modern misconception. So until we are perfect, nothing we implement is going to solve all the world’s problems, and if we warp the truth to find easy answers, we will end up, like Wonder Woman, with unnecessary hate and panic. We must instead maintain an appropriate level of humility regarding what we can know and what we can change, following Chesterton, who upon reading a journalist’s question (allegedly) replied:
Regarding your article “What’s Wrong with the World?”
G. K. Chesterton