Instrumental reason drives climate change; and war is work that soldiers do


A Feb. 20, 2014 CBC article is entitled: “Are we doomed? Elizabeth Kolbert explains why the world might be in the midst of a major mass extinction.”

A July 24, 2014 New Yorker article is entitled: “Spare the rod, school the child.”

The article notes that a causal chain links the health of ocean fisheries to educational success, and that the United Nations estimates that ten to fifteen per cent of the global fisheries workforce now suffers some form of enslavement. The article observes, with regard to these points, that academic institutions reward specialization, and specialists tend to miss the larger problem. Although the meaning of the title – “Spare the rod, school the child” – is to my mind not readily comprehensible, the article provides a valuable overview of a relevant and interesting topic.

A Feb. 2, 2015 Toronto Star article is entitled: “Different tack needed for climate change skeptics, study says.”

[End of updates]


Charles Taylor in The malaise of modernity (1992) defines instrumental reason.

It’s a topic that I hadn’t thought about until I read his outline of the topic.

I found his overview of interest because it helped me understand the history of Long Branch (Toronto not New Jersey).

Taylor speaks of instrumental reason as “the kind of rationality we draw on when we calculate the most economical application of means to a given end.” If something can be done, then instrumental reason will provide the means for doing it.

Instrumental reason can be used for any end, good or bad, that comes to mind.

It’s a form of reason closely associated with the Enlightenment in Europe, a period in which conditions were established for strong advances in science, technology, and engineering.

With regard to climate change and related topics such as warfare, many references are available at this blog post.

Climate change

Instrumental reason drives climate change through the daily work that we do. Everyday work evokes the application of instrumental reason. A given individuals’s frame of reference tends to have as its focus the making of a living and surviving. The wider frame of reference, which includes the processes and results of climate change, currently has a relatively minor – but nonetheless slowly increasing – impact on a given person’s everyday life in Western society.

A book by Harald Welzer, Climate wars: Why people will be killed in the twenty-first century (2012), offers a scenario of how things may play out in future. Perhaps it also refers to a scenario that is already starting to play out in some parts of the world including Africa.

Welzer asserts that the consequences of climate change “will not only change the world but establish different social conditions from those we have known until now; they will also spell the end of the Enlightenment and its conception of freedom” (Climate wars, 2012, p. 7).

I became interested in the concept of instrumental reason when I began to learn about Long Branch whose western boundary along the shoreline of Lake Ontario is some distance to the west of the current outlet of Etobicoke Creek at the City of Mississauga/City of Toronto border.

The channelizing of Etobicoke Creek in the area south of Lake Shore Blvd. West is a demonstration of instrumental reason of instrumental reason as it manifested in the immediate postwar years across Toronto.

The Parkview School project, described elsewhere on this website, has helped me learn about history including the history of Toronto. Instrumentality in the context of Long Branch is discussed here.

Recent reports related to the concept of climate wars are highlighted in a March 16, 2013 Toronto Star article about a severe drought – the worst ever recorded – affecting Syria.

Orders of frames of reference

The Enlightenment brought instrumentality to the fore, but it’s my understanding that the concept predates the Enlightenment and may be rooted in the evolutionary biology of human beings.

Frames of reference help us to understand instrumentality, which the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Second Edition, defines as “the fact or quality of serving as an instrument or as a means to an end.” Erving Goffman among others has explored framing in depth.  As well, Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer (2011) refer to four orders of frames of reference:

1. Frames of the first order are the broad sociohistorical context in which people operate.

2. Frames of the second order are more concrete in a historical, cultural, and often geographical sense. They refer to a particular sociohistorical space, such as the duration of a governmental regime in a given country.

3. Frames of reference of the third order are more specific, referring to a concrete constellation of sociohistorical events within which people act. They include, for example, a war in which soldiers fight.

4. The fourth order are the characteristics, modes of perception, perceived responsibilities, and what Neitzel and Welzer call ‘interpretive paradigms,’ that an individual brings to a specific situation. This level involves psychology, personal dispositions, and individual decision making.

Climate change appears in the first and second orders of frames referred to above; it tends to go into the background while we attend to more immediate everyday concerns involving the third and fourth orders of frames of reference.

Neitzel and Welzer note that interpretation of situations “is bound to frames, perspectives comprised of many elements that structure and organize experiences as we are in the process of making them” (Neitzel and Welzer, 2011, p. 12). A related metaphor is that of the ‘horizon,’ which Charles Taylor has explored at length.

War is work that soldiers do

Warfare involves the application of instrumental reason in the management of violence in the pursuit of political goals. As Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer note in their characterization of war as the work that soldiers do, “Modern division of labour, with its focus on instrumental reason, can serve almost any purpose imaginable (p. 334).”

In modernity and postmodernity, specialists play a key role in civilian or military life. As Neitzel and Harald Welzer note, in Soldaten, 2011, p. 192: “Specialists tend to apply their instrumental reasoning to the precise situation and task they had been given. The topic of military technology … manifested the deep connection between modern industrial labor and the labor of war. World War II was a war of technicians and engineers, pilots, radio operators, and mechanics.”

They add: “To briefly summarize: A lot of what appears horrible, lawless, and barbaric about war crimes is actually part of the usual frame of refer­ence in wartime. For that reason, stories about cruelty don’t attract any more attention in the World War II German surveillance proto­cols than they do in reports and commentaries by U.S. soldiers who served in Vietnam. Such instances of cruelty rarely seem like anything spectacular to the majority of soldiers as long as they are not called to answer for themselves before a court of law. Such violence is instru­mental in nature. It’s hardly any surprise, then, that it occurs in war” (p. 333).

Camaraderie is a prime frame of reference

Camaraderie is the social environment of wartime: Soldiers at the front, Neitzel and Welzer note (p. 22), that soldiers at the front essentially have only their brothers-in-arms:

“Camaraderie use less about a specific view of the world or ideology, then orientation. Many individuals feel emotionally more at home with their comrades than with family members, who do not share their experience as soldiers and thus cannot understand them. Camaraderie is by no means a romanticized military myth.  It is a social environments whose importance outstrips all rival environments.”

Erving Goffman offers valuable insights (Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer, p. 20) concerning the social environment of warfare:

“The lower down  one he is in the hierarchy, the more dependent one will be on others’ commands and decisions. Yet even within total institutions  like a military boot camp, a prison, or a closed psychiatric clinic, everyone enjoys at least a small measure of freedom of action. In his book Asylums, sociologist Erving Goffman has convincingly describes how people can exploit rules in total institutions for their own purposes. According to Goffman, when people in such institutions use jobs in the kitchen or the library to get organized or smuggle desired goods, they are engaged in ‘secondary adjustments,’ pretending to follow the rules but actually advancing their own interests. Occupying troops enjoy numerous opportunities for secondary adjustment.”

Instrumental reason drives climate change

As Harald Welzer notes, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published in February 2007 “assumed with 90 per cent probability that the currently observable climate change is the result of human activity, mostly caused by emissions of so-called green­house gases throughout the period since the Industrial Revolution. Fossil fuel use for industry and transport produced the CO2, while agri­culture (especially livestock farming) emitted the methane and nitrous oxide. Both carbon dioxide and methane levels in the atmosphere are now higher than at any time in the past 650,000 years” (p. 34).

A recent CBC news report on this topic can be found here.

Modernity and postmodernity, including the Industrial Revolution and what has followed, are based upon the power of instrumental reason; they are based upon what Charles Taylor speaks of as “the kind of rationality we draw on when we calculate the most economical application of means to a given end.”

Michael Mann (2005) discusses the posited role of ethnic cleansing in the creation of European nation states

In a chapter entitled ‘Killing yesterday,’ a prelude to the next chapter, entitled ‘Killing today: Ecocide,” Welzer remarks (p. 50):

“Phenomena such as the Holocaust or the violent break-up of Yugoslavia (the latest European instance of state-building) illustrate the truly horrifyinig point made recently by Michael Mann: that most of Europe’s ethnically homogeneous states are the outcome of proc­esses of ethnic cleansing and mass killing. These murderous options are not simply occupational accidents but the dark side of the democ­racy that rests upon them. The path to ethnic cleansing and genocide does not follow any master plans and is often strewn with unintended consequences.

“War and violence intrinsically tend to trigger develop­ments that no one foresaw at the beginning of the state-building proc­ess; resettlement can suddenly turn into expulsions, and expulsions into genocide. It is important to realize that such dynamics are not historically random. But escalations of extreme violence are aspects of modernization processes that are subject to cultural amnesia after the successful constitution of a new state. One reason why this is possible is that the victims of homogenization have run away or are dead.

“If the ethnic cleansings and genocides of the nineteenth and twenti­eth centuries are understood as dynamos of modernization – and there is much to suggest that they should be – then the social transformations that come in the wake of globalization will produce a further rise in deadly violence. And, if changes in habitat, system change or the resource needs of other countries lead to increasing instability in vari­ous societies, attempts to find solutions through violence will become more and more likely.”

What can and cannot be done

The final chapter of Climate wars (2012), entitled ‘What can and cannot be done- 2’, refers (pp. 182-83) to a discussion in Tristes tropiques in which Claude Lévi-Strauss describes the institutions, morals, and customs that he has spent a lifetime studying as “the transient efflores­cence of a creation in relation to which they have no meaning, except perhaps that of allowing mankind to play its part in creation.”

Welzer comments, with regard to this observation, that:

“Indeed, culture has no meaning in itself— only as a technique for raising the sur­vival chances of social groups. It is still an open question whether this uniquely human capacity to keep improving survival chances by means of cultural tradition will continue to be successful in the medium term. The world as a theatre for experiment has existed for only 40,000 years. Of those, the Western variant has been with us for only 250 years, and in that speck of time more has been done to destroy the conditions for life than in the whole of the preceding 39,750. Destroyed conditions of life mean lost opportunities, not only in the present but also in the future.”

In his concluding paragraph, the author speaks of globalization as “an accelerat­ing process of social entropy, which dissolves cultures and finally, if things turn out badly, leaves behind only the bare, undifferentiated will to survive. Such would be the apotheosis [elevation to divine status; a glorification; a sublime example] of the violence that the Enlightenment and Western culture thought it had found the key to abolishing.

“To be sure, in the actual course of its history – from modern slave labour and ruthless exploitation of the colonies to early industrial destruction of the conditions for human life, which had noth­ing to do with the project – the free, democratic, enlightened West eventually wrote its counter-history of unfreedom, repression and counter-enlightenment. With the future impact of climate change, the Enlightenment will not be able to free itself from this dialectic [the existence or action of opposing forces or tendencies]. It will fail because of it.”

The definitions in brackets are from the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Second Edition.

Update: In War, violence, and population: making the body count (2009), James Tyner addresses issues of relevance to the topics discussed in this blog post. The blurb for the book at the Toronto Public Library website begins with the following opening sentences:

“Grounded in theory and research, this book offers a spatial perspective on how and why populations are regulated and disciplined by mass violence – and why these questions matter for scholars concerned about social justice. James Tyner focuses on how states and other actors use acts of brutality to manage, administer, and control space for political and economic purposes.”

Is climate change linked to violence?

Further update: An Aug. 2, 2013 CBC article entitled “Climate change linked to increase in violence, war” continues the narrative – providing a balanced overview of the topics at hand.

The article concludes with the following paragraphs:

“Some criticism facing the study is that it does not make clear exactly under what conditions the heat contributes to an increase in violence.

“‘The world will be a very violent place by mid-century if climate change continues as projected,’ said Thomas Homer-Dixon, a professor of diplomacy at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Ontario.

“But Joshua Goldstein, a professor of international relations at American University and author of Winning the War on War, found faults with the way the study measured conflicts. He said the idea of hotter tempers with hotter temperatures is only one factor in conflict, and that it runs counter to a long and large trend to less violence.

“‘Because of positive changes in technology, economics, politics and health’ conflict is likely to continue to drop, although maybe not as much as it would without climate change, Goldstein said. The researchers said that as of now they can only speculate, but are trying to understand the relationship between heat and aggression.”


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