Climate Change and Progressive Metaphysics

Jesse Callahan Bryant
5 min readJan 20, 2022

When Bernie and others say things like “climate change is an existential threat” they are right. But when they inevitably follow up these sorts of claims by proposing new policy interventions they’ve lost the thread. There are not policy solutions to philosophical crises. It’s a category error, plain and simple, just like proposing a technical solution to an adaptive problem, putting gauze over a gaping wound, or taking out another loan to cover the balance on a mortgage.

The reality is is that the tangle of problems often pointed to with the signifier “climate change” is in fact a problem salad of all types of issues mixed together. There are technical dimensions — there is too much carbon in the atmosphere — there are political dimensions — the nature of the problem crosses the borders of nation states and we do not have the political will to mediate international collective action — and there are philosophical or existential dimensions — despite what we’ve been told, the world will get worse before it gets better and it may never get better.

The funny thing about this existential reality, “the world will get worse,” is that it is not actually a philosophical issue for many folks. In fact, I would argue that most people on Planet Earth understand in a deep philosophical sense that often times the state of things deteriorates, that life is hard, and that things can get worse quickly without much lead up. The only people for whom the idea of a world getting worse is an existential surprise it seems is Progressives in the West — AKA, basically, me.

In 1991 Albert O. Hirschman published a book called Rhetoric of Reaction which was an attempt to stereotype the most potent political myths (narratives) that characterize Conservative and Progressive movements in Western democracies. I’m not going to summarize the book here, but relevant here is that one of the most important myths/narratives to Progressive movements has always been what Hirschman refers to the “history is on our side” myth, perhaps best codified in the MLK saying that Obama managed to slip into literally every speech he gave: “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” Simply put, this belief suggests that regardless of day to day happenings, the world is on an inevitable march toward improvement, that the inertia of justice will eventually carry us into a better future.

Given my upbringing, culture, and political predispositions when I heard this quote my reaction is always like, “fuck yeah!” It is the Progressive narrative: we are the ones history has been waiting for, we are on the right side of history, and if we can just get our way we will bend the world toward justice. We can do it! At its most inspiring it motivates action, but when the rubber meets the road the “history is on our side” myth also breeds complacency and metaphysical sense of inevitable improvement regardless of day to day who shows up.

By “Progressive metaphysics” here I mean like, a deep-seated philosophical assumption that the world we’re all making with one another is, and has been from the start of time, on some course toward a more stable, more just, less violent future. Does that subconscious belief live in you? It does in me.

We can contrast this with some Conservative myths like the metaphysics pessimism, or the philosophical belief that the world is always getting worse and continues to until an apocalyptic event that resets everything only to begin a new decline toward apocalypse. Or further, with the metaphysics of Traditionalism (which Steve Bannon subscribes to, along with both Putin and Bolsonaro’s closest advisors) where time is cyclical and we are always turning between Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Dark Ages before some unforeseen chaotic disruption resets the cycle.

And look, I basically have been raised in a culture that believes in the MLK/Obama Puritanical Progressive metaphysics — the world is here to be made better and through my work I will make the world better and the world will get better because that’s how the world works, it always gets better.

And this is the tricky thing: when we say “climate change is an existential threat” I think what we mean to say is that “climate change is an existential threat to Progressives who believe the world to always be improving.” And further, that climate change is not an existential threat to people who do not believe in these Progressive metaphysics.

In other words, what climate change suggests — i.e. that species are disappearing forever, that natural resources are becoming scarce, and that human violence will begin to grow in response — directly contradicts the Progressive philosophical belief in the inevitable march of justice, but does not contradict other philosophical stances on the ebb and flow of society. In fact, in a sense, climate change almost validates other metaphysical sense of time that — consider pessimism — believe that things are always getting worse and there is nothing we can do about it.

Thus, if we consider the philosophical dimensions of what’s going on today it makes sense that despite everyone being somewhat on board with the sense of climate change as a technical and to a certain extent political problem, it is only really Progressive who feel it in their bones, feel it as not conforming to the big picture meaning making sense of the world, feel climate change as an existential threat because it is — climate change points out what has always been true and known deeply by marginalized people and those against whom genocide was committed, often by Western Progressives in their various campaigns of societal betterment: sometimes things get worse.

Meanwhile, Conservative daytime television hosts sell survival kits and tubs of dehydrated potatoes and tell their viewers that the apocalypse is coming. The Mormons stash more and more things deep in Little Cottonwood Canyon. More people buy guns. It’s a grift, sure, profiting off the apocalypse. But on the same day Jerry Falwell Jr. tells his viewers to build bunkers the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists ticks their Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight, 30 seconds closer than in 1953 when the USA and Soviet Union were taunting one another with thermonuclear bombs.

It snowed out this morning and is sunny now. I’m gonna go walk my dog.



Jesse Callahan Bryant

Jesse is a Ph.D. student at the Yale School of the Environment, creator of the Yonder Lies podcast, and instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School.