Response to Gerken, Winant and Lebron

by Danielle Allen on June 25, 2015

Response to Heather Gerken

Heather Gerken has launched this seminar on Our Declaration with an elegant exposure of my method. Like Constitutional lawyers, I focus on a single fragment, one utterance, crafted in a particular moment of time under the most unusual and trying of circumstances, and develop “a robust set of democratic commitments from a thin textual guarantee.” How did the words of the Declaration come to be expressed? How can we still access the intentions of those who wrote these words and interpret their evolving meanings for our own generation? “When constitutional lawyers turn to a text, they look not for precision,” Gerken writes, “but what Ronald Dworkin calls ‘fit’ and ‘justification’ – a normatively attractive account that fits within the extant interpretive landscape.” As in the work of constitutional lawyers, there is a marriage in my book of historicism and pragmatism (by which I mean the school of philosophical thought bearing that name). This marriage is effected through a theory of language and its place in politics.

Language has always been, for me, the strangest and most cunning unifier of past and present, a deep ever-flowing stream passing from mouth to ear and ear to mouth and on again, across millennia, shifting yet durable, transporting visions and perspectives from the deepest recesses of history to the present, under layers of silted accretion, accumulated through a confounding blend of social accident and logic. These layers give way to a form of archaeology, and reveal the secrets of the past.

Why does it become reasonable, as you will read in Our Declaration, to introduce the divorce decree dis-uniting Prince Charles and Princess Diana in order to explain the dissolution of the political bands between the colonies and Britain? This isn’t just the teacher’s trick of using something present, something already known, to lead the students from what is familiar to what is more distant. Among genres, legal language is distinctively durable. This durability in effect shrinks the time span between the Declaration of Independence and the royal divorce decree of 1996. This stands in contrast to the temporal distance between the popular speech, images, and metaphors of eighteenth-century almanacs and what now gushes forth abundantly on blog pages, Pinterest, and Instagram. Popular speech is volatile and changeable. Set an almanac’s maxim and a blog’s self-disclosure side-by-side and the two periods will look more rather than less distant. [click to continue…]

An optimistic view on climate change

by John Q on June 25, 2015

We had an interesting discussion in comments recently about the usefulness or otherwise of optimism in relation to problems like climate change. I’m a card-carrying optimist, as can be seen from this article for Australian magazine Inside Story arguing that the prospects are good for stabilising global greenhouse gas concentrations at 450 ppm.

On the whole, excessive pessimism is a bigger problem than over-optimism. As I’ve argued before, lots of people have locked themselves into positions (eg advocacy of geoengineering, or belief in the end of industrial civilisation) that are based on the assumption that stabilisation is impossible. Many of these people are not open to evidence that stabilization is feasible, and even likely.

There’s a strong case that we should do better than 450 ppm, with a common ‘safe’ figure being 350 ppm. Since we passed that level some time ago, that requires a long period of negative net emissions, which cannot easily be achieved with current technology. Still, if net emissions are reduced to zero in the second half of this century, and some technological advances are made over the next fifty years (a plausible assumption if we put in some effort), even 350 ppm might be feasible.

Since this was written we’ve seen the Dutch court decision mentioned by Ingrid. Also, the development of one of the biggest coal deposits in the world, in the Galilee Basin in Queensland, is looking a bit less likely. The main developer, Adani, has halted engineering work on the project. Adani didn’t announce this, but since it’s been reported, their spin is that it’s a tactical move to pressure governments to speed up regulatory approvals. My take from a while back is here.

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