October 8, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich

Climate change and the tragedy of our shrinking horizons

A few days ago, on 29 September 2015, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, used the phrase ‘tragedy of the horizon’ in a speech on “climate risks for the global economy and global financial stability with a focus on the insurance sector”. This got me thinking about the various times the concept of ‘horizon’ has cropped up in my academic life and to explore whether there are links between these concepts which could shed some light on what one might call the ‘tragedy of the climate change horizons’.

Horizons of expectations

When I was a student of French literature, I read books by the literary theorist Hans Robert Jauss on ‘reception theory’. (Stay with me!) One of the concepts used in this work is that of the ‘horizon of expectations’. This “refers to the mental set or predisposition that readers bring to a work of art, formed through their previous experiences of genre and style, and their beliefs and assumptions about meanings likely to be encoded in a particular species of work. The horizon of expectations differs in different periods and cultures.” (see here)

Some years later, after I had moved into linguistics, I came across Reinhart Koselleck’s work on conceptual history. Koselleck (partly influenced by Jauss) also talks about a ‘horizon of expectations’ but associates a slightly different concept with that phrase. In his seminal book Futures Past, he reflects on issues around hope and memory in the context of history, culture and politics and distinguishes between the space of experience and the horizon of expectations beyond which a new space of experience may lie.

For him, experience is the “present past, whose events have been incorporated and can be remembered”, while expectation is “the future made present” (see Futures Past, p. 272). This horizon of expectations is not yet realised but envisaged as being reachable. It provides a direction towards which the present can move. Koselleck argues that modernity is characterised by a growing gap between hope and memory, expectation and experience.

Many years later, after I had moved (vaguely) into sociology, I came across the sociology of expectations, where people like Nik Brown, Harro van Lente, Paul Martin and others studied how, in the context of biotechnology in particular, people, organisations, corporations, industries ‘mobilise the future into the present’ (Brown, 2003: 5). Interestingly, sociologists of expectation maintain that claims and promises being made about the future potential of technologies are “at their strongest when uncertainty about the future of the technology is greatest“; these visions of the future are then used to marshal support and financial investment in the present.*

Tragedy of the horizon

Some of these concepts and approaches came back to me (but I have only been able to point at the tips of various icebergs and I have probably run aground on various of them), when I read/listened to Carney’s speech on climate change. He stressed that climate change was a reality and then asked: “So why isn’t more being done to address it?” To answer that question he created a new concept, that of the ‘tragedy of the horizon’, on the basis of an older concept, namely that of the ‘tragedy of the commons’.

He said: “A classic problem in environmental economics is the tragedy of the commons. The solution to it lies in property rights and supply management. Climate change is the Tragedy of the Horizon. We don’t need an army of actuaries to tell us that the catastrophic impacts of climate change will be felt beyond the traditional horizons of most actors – imposing a cost on future generations that the current generation has no direct incentive to fix. That means beyond: the business cycle; the political cycle; and the horizon of technocratic authorities, like central banks, who are bound by their mandates. The horizon for monetary policy extends out to 2-3 years. For financial stability it is a bit longer, but typically only to the outer boundaries of the credit cycle – about a decade. In other words, once climate change becomes a defining issue for financial stability, it may already be too late.” (I have eliminated paragraphs and footnotes)

The problem highlighted through the metaphor of the ‘tragedy of the horizon’ is that we tend to think only against a backdrop of short-term horizons and we find it difficult to think about threats that are beyond the timescale of our habitual horizons.

Horizons of hope?

So, what might be the link between my old concept of the ‘horizon of expectations’ and the new concept of the ‘tragedy of the horizon’ in climate change?

As we have seen, Jauss talked about mental sets or predispositions that readers use when understanding works of art. These can be seen as part of what Dan Kahan has called ‘cultural cognition’. In the context of climate change, research has shown that the causes, impacts, risks etc. of climate change are projected against and seen through specific political horizons of expectations. These horizons diverge markedly along polarised political lines, especially in the United States. So far it has been impossible, it seems, to converge on a common horizon of expectations, which would support communal and constructive action across cultures and political divides.

Koselleck, in turn, talked about a horizon of expectations as a historical and political phenomenon. In principle, such a horizon should provide hope and should be reachable. However, in the context of climate change our horizons of expectations are often horizons of fear and tragedy and what we aim for is not to reach them (we can discuss who ‘we’ is…). In terms of the sociology of expectations it appears that we don’t actually want to mobilise the future into the present; rather we want to be stewards of the present in order to ward off an undesirable future; we want to mobilise the future out of the present.

What about Koselleck’s claim that, in modernity, the gap is widening between utopian promise and experience? That insight too seems to be applicable to climate change. “Is there still hope?” is a question asked in a a review of a new book entitled Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis by Tim Flannery. Is there still a horizon of expectations and of hope or has it moved too far away to still be culturally and politically useful?

Sociologists of expectation have studied how visions of the future are marshalled to bring the future into the present in terms of financial investment, political support and so on. In the context of climate change, the situation is more complicated. Some people mobilise visions of an ecomodernist future to get financial investment in the present; some, like Carney, mobilise visions of future risk to stimulate financial investment in the present; some mobilise visions of an non-threatening and unchanging future to immobilise certain types of investment, and so on. We are dealing with a surfeit of futures and horizons of expectation that are mobilised in very different ways by different social and political actors.

And so we come to the tragedy of the horizons, which, as Carney pointed out, is a phrase modelled on ‘the tragedy of the commons’. The tragedy of the commons refers to “people’s collective behaviour” which sometimes causes “civilization-threatening situations. Such maladaptive behavior is not initiated by malicious outside forces or individual misunderstandings, but rather results from the apparently appropriate and innocent decisions of individuals and small groups, acting intentionally and often alone.”

Over the last 150 years… “[w]ithout intending to, we changed the atmospheric radiation transport properties of an entire planet.” “We didn’t change the climate because we were greedy. We did it by mistake” as Adam Frank points out in his blog post: “Climate change is not our fault”. But, he argues, and this is a big but:While triggering climate change might not be our fault, not doing everything we can about it now that we know it’s happening — that would be our fault. Worse, it would be our failure as a species.”

The tragedy of the commons is, in a way, a tragedy of the ‘invisible hand’. Climate change is the epitome of what one may call an invisible hand process. Over the last half-century, the workings of this invisible hand have been made visible by science and have, arguably, become increasingly visible to the naked eye.

The problem now is: Is it at all possible to ‘marshal’ the invisible hand in order to ‘mobilise the future into the present’, to create a better collective future or prevent a disastrous collective future from happening? Can one (should one?) create horizons of expectations (local, global, national, international, individual, less polarised…) that are hopeful enough and seen as reachable enough to allow people to act? And is that something one could/should do before the future collides with the present and our horizon of expectations may have, tragically, shrunk to nothing – just like the glaciers there on the horizon?


*Somebody with a bit of time on their hands can try to trace a line of influence from Karl Mannheim in the 1930s to Jauss in the 1960s to Koselleck in the 1970s and to the sociology of expectations (Kornelia Konrad) in the 1990s, following the trail of the concept ‘horizon of expectation’.

Image: Sunset in Dorset (2013)


Posted in Climate ChangeClimate Politics