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How to make a better world: A. C. Grayling

A. C. Grayling

Anything that can be done, will be done if it brings profit or advantage to whoever can see that it’s done.

A. C. Grayling

Democracies have a problem, particularly our democracy – we just don't think about the kind of externalities that we are imposing on our own population. Certainly in relation to climate, I think we are not thinking clearly enough and thoughtfully enough about the externalities that we are imposing on other populations. 

Jeremy Moss

It’s easy to feel a sense of powerlessness where every morning we’re greeted with news of climate catastrophes, grave social injustice and senseless violence. So how can we muster the courage to forge a new path and turn things around? Is it still possible to make the world a better place?  

Hear from philosopher A. C. Grayling as he first shares the pragmatic solutions and answers to the big challenges that are troubling us today – climate change, technology and justice – followed by an in-conversation with UNSW’s Jeremy Moss. Together they will span everything from the small personal changes we can make in our lives to transform the world for good to how we can work together as a community to decarbonise the economy.  

This event is presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas as part of UNSW Alumni’s Learn to Lead program and supported by the Byron Writers Festival.  

Transcript | A. C. Grayling

Ann Mossop: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast, a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney's brightest minds. I'm Ann Mossop, director of the UNSW Centre for Ideas. The conversation you're about to hear, How to Make the World a Better Place, was recorded live, and features A.C Grayling, as he shares pragmatic solutions and answers to the big challenges that are troubling us today, climate change, technology and justice. We hope you enjoy the conversation.

A.C Grayling: Thank you, thank you very much indeed. Well, alas, of course, the great challenges which are facing our world are rather depressing ones. So we're all very anxious to know what solutions there might be. And this book tries to address those issues. Exploring first, what those challenges are, and just how serious they are. And then looking at a way that we, we the people of the planet, might be able to do something, in addition to the things that we know, we ought to be doing, already, stepping up and playing our part, for example, in trying to be a good friend to the planet that we inhabit, and therefore, to be good friends to those who will come after us on the planet. But also to begin to think and consider, and to take part in conversations about some other things in addition to the climate challenge. And we're all familiar with, for example, the extraordinary rapid development in the whole palette of technologies, especially over the last 30 to 50 years, some of which, most of which, indeed maybe are of great advantage to humanity and potential waiting capacities in medicine, and in daily living and in the provision of services, but also raising some important questions about the fact that these technologies are outstripping our ability to think clearly about what the consequences of their use might be, and certainly going so fast, that we are limping way behind in any public conversation about how we should manage them. Now, I'll just say a little bit about that also. 

So the first thing that the book addresses is the question of the climate challenge. The second is some considerations about these great galloping technological advances. And the third thing is the deficit in our world of rights and justice, the silencing of the voice of the vast majority of people on our planet, so that their concerns, their anxieties about what these developments mean to them in their individual lives, the fact that they just simply not heard and have so little impact on governments around the world, that is a problem, which needs to be addressed, because that is where a potential solution to our problems is to be found. So that's a general sketch of the journey I'm going to go on. 

We think we're very familiar with what the climate challenge is, we know that the global climate is warming, we know that there has been endless discussion about trying to limit the increase in the global temperature to below two degrees centigrade. 1.5 degrees is the target that the International Panel on Climate Change, and all the periodic conferences have tried to set themselves. We know that governments and big corporations around the world are dragging their feet, they're way behind the curve on what needs to be done. We know therefore, that at this very moment, it's much more like something approaching a three degree warming by the mid century. And if that is the case, that is going to be very, very serious indeed. We are facing an emergency, catastrophic emergency and the unpredictability of what would happen if there are excessive increases in temperature, you know, the kind of trigger effect from which cascading adverse consequences might flow, and which we are only cursorily able to model, it's terribly important that people should be alert, and should be taking some vigorous action now, to contribute to a endeavour to solve this problem or to, at any rate, help with the mitigation and adaptation required to deal with the great damage which is being done to our planet by this increase in temperature. 

Now, I say that this is a very familiar matter. And of course, we're all aware of the fact that for decades and decades now, people have been calling out scientists and others have been calling out about the danger, advising governments, advising the global community to try to do something about it. But an unfortunate consequence of that is, that people's eyes tend to glaze over a bit, we've been given these warnings so often from so many different quarters, that we feel uncomfortable when we hear about them again, and we tend to avert our gaze. And that plays into the hands of those who want to delay or distract, who want to continue doing what they're doing. Things that damage the environment, the use of fossil fuels, for example, for a little bit longer, keep the profit margins high, put it, you know, down the road, before they really get active about implementing solutions. The world ought to be on a war footing, switching from the burning of fossil fuels, to renewable energy. A real war footing. Really massive combined global effort to shift the way that we produce and what we consume. Not that we want to limit production consumption, because after all, over the last 30 or more years, something like a billion people have been lifted out of dire poverty. About 500 million people in our world today live on less than two or three dollars a day, but 30 years ago, it was 1.5 billion. And so that is, in its own right, a bit of a success story. But when you move people out of poverty, you don't want to tell them that they have to limit production and consumption because production and consumption is precisely what they're doing more of because they are less poor. So what we have to do is to shift production and consumption to something sustainable. 

So think of this, think of this, the Amazon rainforest, that we're all familiar with the fact that it's being hacked down to make grazing for cattle. 10 times the size of the county of Cornwall in England, is the land area which is cleared of rainforest in the Amazon for that purpose. And it has been very well said that we could switch our sourcing of protein in our world from, for example, beef, or indeed, any kind of intensive cattle farming, to eating, for example, mealworms. Mealworms are a very good source of protein. And in some parts of the world, they are actually a delicacy. I'm sure most people in this room now regard the idea of eating worms with a certain disfavour. And the point that needs to be made about that is this, that if we were just switch our habit of eating, to the eating of mealworms in a way, which is hygienic and acceptable, and we get used to it and we have you know, sort of, meal worm burgers that look palatable, then that would be a very, very great deal better than finding ourselves in some few decades time, perhaps, on our hands and knees looking for worms to eat, because we've delayed and things got so bad, that we are forced by circumstance to be eating worms in a much less palatable way. It's that kind of thought, which matters. 

And we'll come back to this question of climate in a minute. And I just want to mention two things which rather dramatise the emergency of global warming. When you think about the fact that the rising sea levels, that the desertification of large tracts of the world, the increase in the number of extreme weather events we've seen this year, are really, really loud, shrill, ear splitting, alarm bell ringing with all the extraordinary things that have happened around the world at this very moment, something like a third of Pakistan is flooded, there have been these incredible heat waves in China, the successive days of temperatures, you know, 45 degrees across Europe, droughts in Europe and heat waves there, you've been experiencing here floods and wildfires, California also. I mean, the world is very stressed and distressed. It's a planet suffering because of climate change, and the impact on people, let alone all the other species and ecological niches around the world are affected by these things, is increasingly dramatic, coming closer and closer to home. And people are realising now just how it will impinge on them. So we just want to mention two things. You will be conscious of the fact that the refugee crisis precipitated by conflict in the Middle East, and the refugee crisis precipitated by Putin's invasion of Ukraine, it's something like 3 million Ukrainians have moved out of the country as a result of that invasion. These are very large scale refugee crises. Think of well over a million people who fled from Syria and neighbouring countries when that war was getting going. But in the extreme of sea level rises, drowning the whole of Florida and large parts of Bangladesh and many Island communities, and many major cities on seashores around the world, those refugee crises will look like picnics. It won't be millions of people, it will be 10s and perhaps even hundreds of millions of people displaced by that event, moving into areas of the world already suffering great difficulty in getting enough in the way of agricultural produce, and fresh water. Those difficulties will be great sources of conflict and distress. Very, very game changing about the way we human beings continue to exist and try to survive on our planet. So just think of that, imagine vast surges of many, many, many 10s of millions of people, desperate for food, desperate for water, desperate for, moving away from areas which have been blighted by the effects of global warming. 

So that's at a large scale level, at the granular level, at the level of individual people and how it impacts those lives. Well, in what's called the Global South, that is the poorer nations, the developing nations of the world, because it's not all in the southern hemisphere, but it's just a collective way of thinking about poor and more traditional societies. In the Global South, the vast majority of women don't learn to swim. Many women in those societies wear clothing, which would drown them instantly if they were caught in a flood. Women in those parts of the world, take care of children, take care of elderly people, take care of people who are sick, have to provide, find and provide food and water for them. And doing it in situations of flooding, or of fire, or of drought, of collapsing food supply, landslides, you can imagine the tremendous stress placed on those individuals. And it's been pointed out that in cases where water supply becomes compromised, it is women and girls who have to go and look for fresh water. And the further they have to walk from home to find those resources, the more exposed they are to assault and harassment. So down at the granular level at the level of individuals, the impacts of climate change, how it affects individual human beings, and especially in the global south, women, has to be taken into consideration. This is why the need to think ahead and to plan and to find infrastructural adaptations, in expectation that there will be such stresses, is now so urgent. 

So right across the board from thinking about how we are to do something to try to limit the rise in temperatures and how we’re to deal with and get ready for some of the dramatic things that are already happening and will continue to happen and happen more often and more severely. What we need is a global response. This is not something that an individual human being or one city or one nation, one state can do. It really does require international cooperation. And so the great question is, is such international cooperation possible? Now in this connection, climate connection, and what I'm just about to talk about, about technology, the great difficulty that faces getting that kind of agreement across the globe, is a law, a pretty iron law, which has to be broken, if we are to grapple with this problem and tried to solve it. It is such a bad law that I've given it my own name, I've called it Grayling's Law. And the law says this, it says, anything that can be done, will be done, if it brings profit or advantage to whoever can see that it's done. So supposing, you think, for example, about gene editing of foetuses. And supposing this is, by the way, completely practicable, it's already happening. There are great advantages to it, you know, getting rid, for example, of heritable diseases and so on. But you could imagine circumstances in which people might want to edit their foetuses so that they are six foot five, blond haired, blue eyed geniuses that can run 100 metres in five seconds, and so on. So, you might want to outlaw that because you don't like the idea of a sort of Aldous Huxley Brave New World in which there are two subspecies of human beings, the ones who are six foot five with blue eyes and blonde hair, and then the ones who do the work, which is what Huxley envisaged in that novel. But this could be a consequence, not by any science fiction stretch of the imagination, of those people who can pay for or get access to gene editing of their offspring. That could be a consequence of that process. So imagine that we outlaw that. Well, there will be rich people or there will be bad people, might not be different people, but they will do this because they will be able to get access to it. It will happen because they can make it happen. So it's a law which is very, very difficult to break. Anything that can be done will be done if it brings advantage to somebody. And the corollary of that law is that things that can be done will not be done if they bring a cost of a disadvantage to whoever can stop it happening. And a perfect example of that is Trump, when he was president of the United States, who withdrew, or said he was going to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreements on on climate, you may remember that when Trump was being, campaigning to be elected, he held up a sign saying Trump digs coal, because he was supported by the coal mining industry, and voted for by coal miners. Now, there's an example of something that can be done that is a real major effort to switch from fossil fuels to renewables, and then somebody who can stop it, because it's, you know, it's in his interest to stop it, like Trump getting in the way of that and interfering with it. So there's that law, it's a law of self interest. It's a law which says, people are not going to disadvantage themselves competitively relative to others, if there's something that they can do either to get an advantage or to prevent a disadvantage. And that is the law that we the people of the planet have to try to get broken. If we have to do something about climate, and about this other problem I'm not going to describe, which is technology. 

So think of technology. Think of the fact that across a whole range, from mobile communications, the internet and the use of it, the applications of artificial intelligence systems, and now with machine learning, and AI, and the developments there, with gene editing technologies with brain chip interfacing, across a whole range of dramatic new and extremely rapid developments in technology, we've seen a transformative effect on our lives and on the world. Everybody here in this room, I would imagine, has a mobile telephone, we love our mobile telephones, and we're on TikTok and we’re on WhatsApp, and we are all getting very evolved thumbs. And we would not now be without those instruments. They've become an essential part of our lives. And yet, our possession of them has stripped us naked, to the view of any public or private agency who wants to know about us. You ask yourself this question, how much did you pay? How many dollars did you pay for your WhatsApp platform, or your email, or your TikTok? Now, you may think it was free. But it isn't. You pay all the time with your personal data. And your personal data is aggregated by all these platforms and sold on to advertisers and political parties. There is a big data analysis, but there will also profilings of individuals and aggregations of groups of individuals who share profilings, and those groups are micro-targeted with messaging specific to them, which other people may not see. And so the prospect for manipulation and false facts and certain kinds of nudging are vastly potentiated by the fact that we have allowed ourselves to be plugged into a universe of technicality here with many, many positive but also some potentially malign uses. And we don't think about it, and we don't discuss it enough, nearly enough. And that is the problem with all these technologies. 

So let me just give you a couple of examples. Brain chip interfacing is now a thing, it happens. And there are wonderful clinical medical applications of it. For example, people with Parkinson's disease or epilepsy, or with very, very traumatic memories, or with profound depression, profound mood problems, these brain ship possibilities will be of immense value in helping people who suffer in those ways. But think of this, if you can help with that technology, people who suffer from traumatic memories, because you can modify the memories or get rid of them, then well, just drop the adjective traumatic. If you can modify memories, maybe you can make people forget things that you don't want them to remember. Maybe you can implant memories. If you can control people's moods by these technologies, maybe you will, maybe you will change people's attitudes and opinions because you can get access to this technology. Now, this sounds a bit, you know, kind of a rabbit hole, you know, conspiracy theory, science fiction, it's certainly not science fiction, because it is within the realms of technical practicality. Right now. 

The point is that we haven't discussed it, we haven't had a public conversation about whether we want it to happen and if it is going to happen, how we will manage it, what the limits are, whether there is any way of attempting to regulate it, any way of making it transparent so that we can see, you know, the people who have the expertise and who are running these technologies, whether they're behaving themselves in ways that we would like, there's been no conversation. There's been no conversation really about the extent to which AI controls so many different aspects of our lives. So for example, you may very well want to have an AI controlled robot, doing your brain surgery, in preference to a brain surgeon who was quarrelling with her husband last night and had too much to drink and has got a shaky hand this morning. So you may think that's a terrific advantage. And that's true. Could well be. But you know, it's alleged that over 90% of robots sold in Japan, which is one of the leading countries in robotics, are sex robots. And if you take the plunge and you look up sex robots on the internet, you will find that both in Japan and in California, which is as you would expect another Center for sex robot manufacture, that's the sex robots in question, are they attractive looking female form, young-ish, looking, sexy robots, which can be programmed in all sorts of ways, including in some very undesirable ways, you know, with rape scenarios, and so on. Well, that's a difficulty which people should start to think a bit about, and ask quite what we want from these new developments, or how we would like to see them managed. Interestingly, and amusingly the because there was the question about male form, sex robots, sort of rather hunky, male sex robots, very well endowed, high performers, you can switch them off after and put them back in the cupboard, and you don't have to wash their socks, and so on. This was thought to be a great potential for the female market. But as you know, women are far too sensible for that kind of thing, so that's flopped. But here we see something about which very little public conversation has been held, and yet already, it's very advanced. I mean, Westworld, you know, is right here in the whole of the world, really, on this front. And that's just an example of how, and we go across the whole range of technologies. And had we world enough, in time, had the organisers promised us breakfast tomorrow morning, we would be able to really get into all the different ways in which these technological advances are very exciting and have a lot of positive aspects to them. But some which are concerning and which we need to explore, we need to become literate about them, and we need to have a discussion as to whether we want them. And if we do, how we are going to manage them. 

So the technology problem is a serious problem. And I'll just give you one more example about how this is working out. And this is the use of AI, and AI controlled facial recognition technology in the development of new weapons systems. So for the last couple of decades, and perhaps more, there have been hundreds of millions of dollars invested by the leading arms manufacturing countries like the US and China, Russia, France, the UK, developing what are called LAWS, L, A, W, S: Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems. Now to explain what these are, remind yourself with the fact that the drones, you know, those unmanned aerial vehicles heavily armed are very, very precise, and farseeing cameras on them, flying over Afghanistan and the badlands of the Pakistan borders. Those drones are flown by pilots in Nevada, in the United States of America, 1000s of miles away. The great advantage for the home team is, no body bags. If the drone is shot down, nobody in the home team is killed. So it's great for them. And also they're very, very precise instruments and have the potential, at any rate, of minimising collateral damage, that is, death of civilians and non competence. Although there are no guarantees, as you see there have been some tragedies with their use. But anyway, those systems are called human-in-the-loop systems, because a human being is operating them, actually flying them from a trailer at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. 

Already in operation are systems known as human-on-the-loop, not human-in-the-loop, not human operating it, but human-on-the-loop, meaning a human being monitoring the system but the system is otherwise completely automatic. The primary such system is the sea CIWS, an anti-missile defence system used by all the major NATO navies; US, French, British and so-on navies, have this anti missile defence system, which monitors the skies around a fleet or a ship, and if a hostile missile is approaching, it fires automatically, but somebody is watching the system. So just in case it's your Virgin Atlantic holiday plane on the way to Bali and it's off course, then somebody can override it happily for you, and instead of blowing you out of the sky. So that's a human-on-the-loop system. But what has been developed… these lethal autonomous weapon systems – as the word autonomous suggests – are human-out-of-the-loop. So once they've been made and programmed and a set going, under the sea, on land, in the air, they are completely autonomous. They operate themselves, it's the AI on board them which does the three things that a weapon system is meant to do, the three F's, find, fix and finish. Find the enemy asset, or the enemy competence, and deal with them. Discriminate between enemy military assets and non competence and so on. And you have to ask yourself, just how sophisticated the AI on that, has to be? Think of, say, a land based such system, in the dust and smoke and tumult of battle, having to judge whether a human figure stumbling towards it with its hands raised is surrendering or about to throw a hand grenade at it, how good is there going to be at that?

As you know, the use of facial recognition, so the kind of technology now, which tries to read people's emotions and intentions and to interpret what their behaviour might shortly be, is very, very widely used in China, in some parts of India. And in very, very many airports around the world. You use these systems in airports to try to pick out who's a terrorist. Although I've always been very puzzled by that, because I think we all look like terrorists, when we're in an airport trying to find our plane. So this technology has to be extremely sophisticated to be able to do that job well. And we, again, have had very little discussion about this, indeed, there's very little information about this in the public domain. So another example, therefore, of very rapid, highly sophisticated technological development, about which we've had no conversation. And it's something that no individual person or no individual nation can do anything about, you can't, as a nation say, well, we're not going to be involved in in that, because that means that if other people are going to be involved in it, because they are, it can be done, it will be done, other people will do it, and you will therefore be at a serious disadvantage. And this is why so many of the major arms developing countries around the world are doing it. And they are diverting huge resources into developing it, without our input, or our discussion. So there are some examples about the technological challenge. The rate of technological change is outstripping our ability to manage it and to think about it ethically, or just prudentially. And that is a big problem for our world. Equivalent in some respects, I think, because of the potential destructiveness of human lives, human societies, as the climate challenge. 

But the final problem I mentioned is the problem of the great deficit of justice in our world, the fact that our world is a very, very unequal one. One where the vast majority of people on our planet have no say, or very, very little say, in what happens in our world, very little say over what's to be done with the two other problems that I've mentioned. The vast majority of people on our planet are effectively politically silent. Silenced because they're not listened to, silenced because there are no conduits for their opinions and expression of view to be heard, and to have a real effect on governments around the world. Even in countries like the US and the UK, and Australia, and others, where, we think of ourselves we pretend to ourselves that we are democracies, and we have some of the institutions of democracies, but whether in fact, the genuine informed will of the of the people is what prompts the governments constituted by that will to act in a way which really serves the interests of everybody, not just those who voted for you, or some political faction or some ideological set of aims, but really acts as a servant of the people's interests, and therefore recognizes that it's in the people's interests, to join together with other governments acting in the interests of their people, so that ultimately, the interests of everybody on the planet are served by agreement, by joint activity. 

Well, this lack of a voice, this, this lack of access for the for the vast majority of people, is a function of the fact that they, in too many places around the world, simply don't have the degree of civil liberty in some cases, the the ability to do what is necessary to make a democracy really work, that is to be well informed, safely informed,  to be allowed, just to be left in their prejudices and so on, but invited, challenged really, to think longer and harder about choices they make in the interests of others in their society and around the globe. In other words, deliberative democracy. I really do invite you if you haven't come across this concept before, to look it up on the internet. Mr. Google will tell you a lot about deliberative democracy. It's a very interesting concept that has been developed in the first instance by some people, in fact, at Stanford University, but it has now become increasingly widely discussed. The idea of taking a group of people – you know, if you have 10 people, let’s say, there are going to be 15 opinions – one of them is going to want to be the boss, they're going to start quarrelling with one another, throwing things at one another, if you just leave them up to their own normal human proclivities, but the technique of deliberative democracy is to provide information, and to say, right, we're going to start by looking at the information, and then we're going to put down a few ground rules, which is, that we're really going to listen to one another. And we're all conscious of the fact, aren’t we, that we, that the world's problems come really from people not hearing what other people say, what other people mean. Certainly all domestic problems come from not hearing what your other half is saying and meaning. But in the deliberative democracy process is one which is specifically about listening. Before you talk, before you put your own opinion forward, get some information, listen, listen to the opinion, listen to the case somebody can make, the justification they can offer. And empirical studies of these processes show that at the end of the process, groups of people become like juries, actually, it's actually the same kind of outcome as with a jury in a court of law, they become much, much more mature minded about it, and much, much better judges, and they change their views, and they come to joint conclusions, which are on the whole, rather more positive than the ochlocratic, anarchic situation that they started out in, and which is the normal condition of people who don't have a chance, or give enough time and effort to thinking about things. Deliberative democracy, making democracy real… you remember what Mahatma Gandhi said, when somebody asked him, what do you think of Western civilization? And he said, I think it would be a good idea. Well, I think this is about democracy. So what do you think of democracy? Well, I think it would be a good idea, if we had it, you know, even in those countries that, imagine that they have it, because they haven't quite got it. And if we did have it, and if we could listen to people all around the world, if we gave ear to the needs, the concerns, the anxieties of people to whom we provide safe and reliable information, not, if you don't mind my saying, Murdoch style information, but genuine information about things, then there would be a hope of getting that voice, to make a difference, to have an influence, because in the end, our only hope for dealing with the climate challenge and with the challenge posed by the potential misuses of technology is democracy. 

I’d like to end on this point, now that that seems to be a very feeble kind of solution, and very unlikely one, you think, oh, God, you know, the planet is going on a disastrous trajectory, and we're going to have democracy to solve it? It's a bit like saying, you're in a bus, which is falling off the end of a cliff, and the solution is to eat a sandwich. Well, it does seem a council of despair, but if you reflect on it a bit longer, you'll see that actually it is our only solution. It is a possible solution. It could be made to happen, if we were all energetic enough to try to encourage ourselves and our neighbours, by word of mouth, by involving ourselves in the right kinds of activism, to get all our fellows in our own towns and cities, our own societies, and eventually across the planet, to work together in this fully conscious and rational way, on the premise of knowledge of the real difficulties that face us, there could be a positive change in our world. I will grant you that it's unlikely, that it's improbable. And I could, I could put the point by saying this, that there will be a dramatic change in the way that humanity relates to this world of ours, during the course of this century, in the next century, they will be. Now either it will happen because we get together and we start thinking and we try to be clear minded, and we try to work together, or natural catastrophes will force it on us in ways that are much, much less palatable. Changes will come. We have a choice. We either do it rationally and prudentially, or we do it perforce, in the midst of floods and earthquakes and starvation and eating worms. So that's the choice that faces us. That's why I say that the democratic solution is the one that we need to go for, however unlikely it might seem. So I leave you with that thought, I'm sorry, to be a little more depressing than usual. But our world is being challenged. Thank you very much.

Ann Mossop: This event was presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas as part of UNSW alumni’s Learn to Lead program, and supported by the Byron Writers Festival. Thanks for listening. For more information visit, and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Transcript | A. C. Grayling & Jeremy Moss

Ann Mossop: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast, a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney's brightest minds. I'm Ann Mossop, director of the UNSW Centre for Ideas. The conversation you're about to hear, How to Make the World a Better Place, was recorded live, and features philosopher A.C Grayling, UNSW’s Jeremy Moss, and myself, Ann Mossop, exploring the big challenges that are troubling us today, climate change, technology and justice. Together we discuss, is it still possible to make the world a better place? We hope you enjoy the conversation. 

Thank you so much to Anthony, we might be depressed, but I do feel we're depressed in quite an energetic and engaged way. After his wonderful introduction to these problems and some of the potential solutions. We're joined, of course, by Jeremy Moss, a professor of political philosophy here at UNSW. He's the author of several books on climate change, including Carbon Justice: the scandal of Australia's biggest contribution to climate change, Climate Justice Beyond the State, Climate Change and Justice. He's the director of something called the Practical Justice Initiative, and so, has brought a really interesting perspective to questions about climate change, and to what a philosopher in the public realm can offer us, to help us think through those problems. So I'd like to get Jeremy's response to the points that Anthony has set out and in particular, your view of how important it is to have something as an ideal, in that sense of that, ideal of genuine democracy, and how important values are in how we think about this.

Jeremy Moss: Well, thank you Ann, and thank you to Anthony for giving us this wonderful book. And one of the things that I found really striking about it, and which, with which I agree, is the case that the book makes for the importance of having a framework of values that guide us, when we're looking at a climate, when we're looking at inequality or technology, having a clear sense and a justified sense of who benefits and who is burdened by whatever pathway we take in response to these kinds of issues. And that, to me, is an absolutely crucial part of the public debate and the public response to these kinds of problems. Because if you don't have a clear set of values, then I think you run the risk of mis-allocating resources, of creating responses and societies that are unfair. And also, you run another risk, it seems to me, and this is particularly true in the climate case. Because if we don't devise a fair response to climate change, then not only is that bad in itself, but you run the risk of people not accepting responses to climate change, because they're unfair, and they're perceived to be unfair. And I think we run the risk of having a similar sort of reaction, that Brexit is characterized by, people feeling left out, disenfranchised, and so on. So having a clear set of values is very important for that reason. And I think it's also important, because, even if… this is something – unfortunately, philosophers learn at a young age – that if you have a set of values, they're often not fully realized. But nonetheless, they can still function as a guide, even if the solutions you're choosing are second best. And one other thing that I thought was a terrific contribution of the book was to show how injustices, say, in the climate space, were compounded by injustices in other spaces. So the disadvantages that Anthony referred to suffered by women in the Global South, for instance, make them even more vulnerable to the kind of disadvantages that the climate will bring. 

Ann Mossop: If we look at the point where Anthony finished, which is this really important discussion about democracy, and perhaps, I think a little bit about the Australian context, and we've got some great questions coming in from you. Stefan says, 'What does it mean for democracy that has taken this long to act on climate change, when polls have for years consistently ranked it as a leading concern?' And I think this is a really interesting question, because it goes to the nature of, you know, any comments either you would like to make about, do we have in Australia, something that approximates the kind of genuine democracy that we've discussed? But also to think about the second part of Grayling's law, where things will not happen if there is someone on whom that imposes a cost. And so perhaps some commentary from both of you on how we can look at Australian democracy, but also, perhaps, Jeremy, you've done a very good job of outlining the kinds of forces that are arrayed against action on climate change, you know, even when democracy is calling for it.

Jeremy Moss: So two things about democracy, I think we have to pay attention to it being present at all levels. So I don't need to tell this audience that we've had a tremendous barrier to climate action by the past federal government. However, I think there was ample evidence of democracy, or at least some good signs about democratic process at lower levels of government and lower level of activity. So Australia, for instance, didn't have a robust Net Zero target with the last government, officially, at least, but we had one de facto because all the states and territories had some sort of target. And I think that's, I think, a positive sign. And the other thing I think we need to think about when we think about democracy, is making sure that everyone is subject to it. Obviously, this is a focus of my work, where I try and articulate, I suppose, how some of the bigger fossil fuel interests are escaping the kind of scrutiny that they should be subjected to. So bringing everyone in, to what we're focusing on, when we talk about democracy.

A.C. Grayling: Yes and it brings up a really, really interesting, striking consideration, which is that you get large majorities of people in polling saying they really want something done, about the climate problem. And then you see governments, national governments generally, dragging their feet. And this is, of course, because national governments are formed by political parties that happen to have the majority in the legislature. And so their interest is in ensuring that they get re-elected, if they can. So the political cycle is very short term-ist, and they're going to act in the interests of those who are major supporters, mainly donors, big companies that are supporting them, and their constituents. And so they are very leery about going too far, too fast on the kind of public policy, which would be of a disadvantage to them for that reason. And this is why I very, very much appreciate and agree with the work that Jeremy has done on the sub national level. So that there are other levels, like, for example, here at the state level, or the level of organizations in society, and as I was saying there the idea of promoting citizens assemblies, using these techniques of deliberation, which could, if they were formed, and if there were a lot of them around the country, have a big impact on the political process on the whole public policy debate about this, I think. So I'm very, very much in favor of that kind of idea. And I think, I think probably that's where we have to go, because we are locked into this very, very sclerotic kind of politics in our so-called democracies, Western democracies. And we need to shake that up. Need to do it as soon as possible. Because otherwise, as I say, nature is going to do our deciding for us.

Ann Mossop: So we thought a little bit about democracy at the sub national level. And in the book, Anthony, you're talking about, you know, a vision of genuine democracies cooperating on a global level. But there are other forces and entities that are very powerful, that are now outside, effectively outside, those that framework of nation states, however genuinely democratic they are or not. What does what would your ideal model tell us about how to manage, you know, the those kinds of, you know, we refer to as fossil fuel lobby, or that Jeremy refers to in his work as the carbon majors, these enormous companies that are effectively a network of interests beyond the reach of, of most national governments?

A.C. Grayling: Yes, I think that, you know, this is one of the great problems our, and recent, times, is that these super national organizations, big, very, very wealthy, multi located corporations have so much muscle and they seem to exist quite outside the sphere of control of governmental political, public policy control that we would ideally like to see any national entity under. There is a second problem which is the media around the world too. So you get multiple media ownership, like, sort of, the Murdoch media empire, pushing a very, very definite kind of political and economic agenda, and influencing a number of different national governments because of its reach. So now, both of those cases, if there were genuine global agreement among governments around the world, to bring these two outlying beasts to heel –- the supranational corporations and the multimedia outlets — it could be done. It's not impossible, there is a way to do it. It’s necessary, because at the moment, of course, the big companies are associated with the big 20, big polluting nations around the world. And there has to be a concerted endeavor to deal with them. Because, again, no individual government is going to be able to do it.

Jeremy Moss: There are some sort of positive signs, I agree with what Anthony was saying. So I'm told that as of last week, actually, in France, it's now illegal for fossil fuel companies to advertise in certain ways or advertise the merits of their wares, and so on. And I think those sorts of things are what we have to think about, and have a debate about, whether or not we're prepared to put restrictions on the freedom of speech of individuals and corporations, in respect of problems, like climate change, and I think we ought to think about some of those measures, because it's very pervasive, I think, the influence that that kind of advertising can have.

A.C. Grayling: There are, in fact, some instruments available to national governments or to, you know, bodies like the EU. The EU, for example, makes it possible to prosecute people for corruption, unethical behavior, by companies, elsewhere in the world. So if there's a corrupt activity in Angola, let's say, with mining there, those people can be prosecuted in France or Germany. Now, this is one way to go, that if people are polluting, big time, somewhere else in the world through mining or, you know, putting poisonous substances into rivers and so forth, that, they, if the corporation is present in a country where this facility exists, can be prosecuted in that country. And that would have a very helpful restraining effect on some of them.

Ann Mossop: And even more encouraging than the ban on fossil fuel advertising in France, is the fact that the city of Sydney is now also considering and discussing a similar issue on the enormous amount of advertising that they have on our bus shelters, and the like. We've got a question from Toby Walsh, who I must tell Anthony, is one of the leading global experts on lethal autonomous weapons. But in this case, asking us a question about democracy. Democracy has two fundamental problems, the tyranny of the majority, and its failure to take proper account of externalities. How do we fix this? A simple question.

A.C. Grayling: Well, on the first point, the concept of a majority is a very interesting one, given that no, no nation, no state, no society has any natural majorities in it at all. Any society is just a great conduit of minorities and individuals. And what happens if you have a very artificial thing like an election, and some political parties offer a manifesto, you get a very temporary coalition of minorities forming a temporary majority, with respect to some issue or some set of proposals. And the idea that there is a natural majority in the country for this, that the other is a very misleading one. It's a misunderstanding of the way, of sort, of the complexity and diversity of society. And therefore, really, the reason why it is so much better if the system's electoral systems or constitutional order of a country is such that the legislatures that are elected by it are themselves very diverse and represent a lot of different interests. So a really proportional representative system of election, coalition governments.., you know, I’ll give you an example. Last year, there was an election in the Netherlands, and the Netherlands has a highly PR system of voting, much, much more even than here. And they have lots and lots of political parties. So the election took place in the spring, about April time, and they formed a government in December. This took them that long, all the discussion and negotiation until they formed a government. A lot of people pointed at that and they say, well, isn't that terrible. Took them nine months to form a government. I think it's a damn good thing because it meant that they were sitting down, looking at what the real priorities were, what they could all work together on. And they were bringing in these voices from the different aspects of society, and finally came up with a government and a program, which they agreed to implement. Now providing you know, there isn't too much personality and egoism and party political ambition involved, providing you haven't mature minded people, which is never guaranteed of course, then you would get a government which is servant of the people and not an attempted master of the people in order to get a partisan agenda through. So we're talking ideals here, it's all a bit utopian, but if this was how things were, then you would get, I think, much, much better expression of what the sentiment in a nation really is, and therefore, much better public policy.

Ann Mossop: Jeremy, do you want to pick up that question about externalities? And how, you know, can democracies ever cost externalities? And in particular, that question about, in so many environmental issues, whether it's carbon or ecosystem services, clean air, clean water, you know, the fact that we are not factoring in either the costs, or those benefits?

Jeremy Moss: Look, I think that is a very good question. And I think democracies have a problem with, well,  particularly our democracy, has a problem with this on two levels. We just don't think about the kind of externalities that we're imposing on our own population. But certainly in relation to climate, I think we're not thinking clearly enough and thoughtfully enough about the externalities that we're imposing on other populations. And we're doing this in two ways, one, as a producer and exporter of fossil fuels, but also as consumers. So we’re at both ends of the supply chain, for different kinds of externality producing activities. And I think lots of countries, not just Australia, but say, you know, Norway, even, the USA, Canada, and so on, lots of developed countries, need to take ownership of the kind of externalities that they're imposing on others.

Ann Mossop: Again, this is an interesting, very interesting conversation for us to have with two philosophers. When I was talking to Jeremy, prior to the event, he pointed out to me that philosophers have the habit of thinking that good arguments will carry the day, which is certainly… we’re here tonight to listen to these good arguments, even as we think, sadly, perhaps they will not necessarily carry the day, tomorrow in the real world. Certainly not without efforts from all of us. We have a question from Jan Felix, do you have any practical suggestions for organizations, companies — and I think we could expand that to all kinds of organizations and people — about how to create a culture that breaks Grayling's law for a better sustainable world. So how do we break out of that trap of self interest? Whether it's individuals or organizations?

A.C. Grayling: Well, of course, you're right, that the great problem with philosophers is that they do think that reason will sway and we know that…

Ann Mossop: Maybe I was wrong saying it's a problem, the charm of philosophers,

A.C. Grayling: Well, it's kind of charming in a way, I suppose. But, you know, it's emotion, it's feeling, it's sentiment that really does, on the whole, motivate people. And what you got to do is try to educate the sentiment, educate the emotion. One way of doing that is a combination of reason and narrative, you know, we're very influenced by stories, and we could be moved by coming to see how at the individual level, these problems express themselves. And if you get people to understand at that level, not just the cerebral, but at the, sort of, gut level, what's going to happen to people, what effect it might have, and give people a motive to want to see the world work differently. And to talk to other people about it, and to communicate their sense of anxiety or interest or urgency. Then, within a group, so within a company as it might be, well within a party, or community or a nation. And then perhaps, in the world as a whole, you get a great swell of sentiment that wants to push everything in a certain direction. And in fact, I suppose in a way, that's what I was suggesting that if we were able to give people a voice, if we were able to bring people together and communicate to them, in a way that really, sort of, bit, really took, that people would want to work with others to solve these problems, and to help to make things better. Again, it's a bit utopian, it's a bit idealistic, but it's not impossible, because it does happen in certain circumstances. Think for example of the way a nation will come together in wartime. Think of the sort of blitz spirit. Well, you know, the whole world is being blitzed now by these problems, and we should see that and understand it. And once we do, maybe we can get together like the people did in the blitz and do something about it.

Ann Mossop: Jeremy? Anything to add on this whole question about how we create more altruistic cultures?

Jeremy Moss: Well, just picking up on something that Anthony was saying then is, what strikes me is, the importance of joining in, as it were, it sounds a bit, sort of, Boy Scout-ish, in a way. But what good solutions look like is people joining together to combine their powers and interests to make changes. I think that's something that is a key part of moving forward.

Ann Mossop: And if we look at that question about those two examples about joining in or potentially this idea of a war footing, how do you achieve that without that being in opposition to other groups? I mean, one of those examples about bringing people together very often, when we've seen it happen successfully in the past, it's been, in order to fight other groups of people, rather than rather than to tackle problems in this more, you know, common way.

A.C Grayling: I think we're going to start standing like a stuck record here. But it really is a matter of… put it this way, in the UK, in the Second World War, there was a government of national unity with a single purpose, which was to, you know, defend the states and defeat the enemy, and to put all the energies of the nation together to do this. So there is a model that shows that it's possible, maybe, if the war went on for too long, it would start to fray and fall apart and everything. But anyway, there is a model, an example, it can be done. Of course, there will be people there who, you know, freeriders and the people who profit from a bad situation. Bad situations are always opportunities for somebody. So you know, that can happen, there were black marketeers, and so forth. But in general, the nation kind of pulled together and they did what was required. That same spirit, that same energy is required now. What we really need is, you know, what, I think, probably Jeremy and I will remember that, what, one of the great figures of our tradition, which is Bertrand Russell, was a believer in World Government. I'm not personally because just imagine if World Government were run by Boris Johnson, or Scott Morrison. Wouldn’t be too good. So, it's good that we don't have World Government, but what we do need is world unity on these issues. You don’t have to have world unity on every issue. But on the really, really key issues, we need to see that. That will only happen if individual governments are really prepared to work with others and to subordinate national interests and partisan interests to the general good of humanity. Like the Blitz, I think, really, that's probably the best model that we can come up with. And you know, what Jeremy says, in his book and has just said now, but more I think, it really is a matter of people coming together. And by the way, the power of word of mouth, of people persuading one another, stopping people in the pub, or over the dinner table or at work, in the workplace, in the supermarket, saying, you know, we really, we should do something about this, we can do something about it individually. I mean, alas, alas, it's just simply true that if each individual human being on the planet started to recycle, and you know, the recycle and cycle, okay, those two things, it wouldn’t make… it would be some kind of a contribution, but it wouldn't solve the problem, it really needs to be very large scale, there's got to be a huge shift from burning fossil fuels to renewables, changing the way that we produce and consume, we've got to think about genuine sustainability. And, you know, just, all these little, little individual things, won't do it, but little individual determinations, to try to get the global shift. Now that can be something effective. If each one of us thinks that we can put a little pixel into the picture, the overall picture. And we can do it by our own individual action, and by talking to others and trying to work together with others, to write letters, to be an activist to get out there on the street when it's necessary, to do something, that could start to shift the needle a little bit, and we could see the world, the people of the world, the people of the planet, at last having an effect.

Ann Mossop: Jeremy, a closing word.

Jeremy Moss: Well, I think those words are very good ones to end on, which is the importance of doing things collectively and trying to ensure that collectives are diverse collectives, as well. As I noticed, this week, I think, or last week, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the ACTU, was calling for a climate transition authority. And I thought, This sounds like a good idea. And I think I thought it was a good idea, because I probably had the same reaction that everyone did, which is yes, and I can be on that. I could really contribute. And of course, I'm not going to be on it. None of us are probably going to be on it. But it does show that we have to ensure that whatever authorities or groups that are set up, really do have the right to have a diverse group of people on them.

Ann Mossop: Thank you to both of our speakers. Thank you to you for all of your questions. We have only got through a few of them. And there are many other interesting questions here about making the most of the knowledge of Indigenous people, about questions about AI… so many interesting things as part of this conversation. It's always really interesting in these discussions to see what comes in, in terms of questions, that people are often wanting to take something away about, what could I be doing in my life tomorrow towards these greater goals? And it's really interesting to have had this conversation tonight about how we do have to be thinking about things on a global scale, and that our biggest individual contributions are in that form of collective action. Although, of course, recycling, never forbidden. But we need something that brings us all together to make those kinds of changes. Thank you very much for joining us here tonight, our live audience. I hope to see you again at more Centre for Ideas events, but I'd like you to join me in thanking A.C Grayling, Jeremy Moss, and Ben Newell, of course, our introducer.

This event was presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas, as part of UNSW alumni’s Learn to Lead program, and supported by the Byron Writers Festival. Thanks for listening. For more information visit, and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

A. C. Grayling

A. C. Grayling

A. C. Grayling CBE MA DPhil (Oxon) FRSA FRSL is the Master of the New College of the Humanities, London, and its Professor of Philosophy. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is the author of over thirty books of philosophy, biography, history of ideas, and essays. He was for a number of years a columnist on the Guardian, the Times, and Prospect magazine. He has contributed to many leading newspapers in the UK, US and Australia, and to BBC radios 4, 3 and the World Service, for which he did the annual ‘Exchanges at the Frontier’ series; and he has often appeared on television. He has twice been a judge on the Booker Prize, in 2014 serving as the Chair of the judging panel. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Vice President of Humanists UK, Patron of the Defence Humanists, Honorary Associate of the Secular Society, and a Patron of Dignity in Dying. 

Jeremy Moss

Jeremy Moss

Jeremy Moss is professor of political philosophy at the UNSW Sydney. He is the author of several books on climate change including: Carbon Justice: the Scandal of Australia’s Biggest Contribution to Climate Change; Climate Justice Beyond the State, Climate Change and Justice. He is the recipient of the Eureka Prize for Ethics and the Australasia Association of Philosophy Media Prize. 

Image of Ann Mossop

Ann Mossop | Chairperson

Ann Mossop is the Artistic Director of Sydney Writers’ Festival, and was previously the Director of the Centre for Ideas at UNSW Sydney. She also held the position of as Head of Talks and Ideas at the Sydney Opera House from 2010–2017. She established the Opera House’s extensive talks and ideas program and lead key projects like the Festival of Dangerous Ideas and All About Women. Throughout her career she has been involved with important initiatives to bring the work of writers and thinkers to broader audiences, from the pioneering series Writers in the Park to the re-establishment of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

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