In the previous chapter we discerned conditions of rapidly escalating physical and social stress associated with climate change. The predicament had to do with the contradictory function of human culture. Having given rise to environmentally damaging greenhouse gas emissions, human culture was now called upon to devise effective solutions to the problem. This meant moving Modern and modernising societies away from the patterns of production and consumption to which they were accustomed. A key question, though seldom explicitly stated, underpinned the climate change debate: could new advances in human reflexivity set the species on an environmentally sustainable (adaptive) path, that is, away from ‘negative’ and towards ‘positive’ niche construction. At critical moments in the past, human reflexivity had been instrumental in generating positive feedback loops capable of steering the challenge–response dynamic in the direction of adaptive strategies. In the social science lexicon (following Veblen, Myrdal, Kaldor and the language of post-Darwinian economics) these processes have been described in terms of ‘cumulative causation’.1 Here, we take this to mean a cumulative self-reinforcing change in a system caused by a series of positive feedbacks. As earlier chapters have argued, expanded capacities in communication and increased scale and complexity of organisation and technology are indicative of expanding reflexive capacity, which can in turn enhance the capacity to satisfy both physiological and psychosocial needs in otherwise stressed conditions. However, this increased capacity has a dual effect: by intensifying the web of interactions among humans and between them and their environment, new stresses and...
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