Post-Modern Pie

December 14, 2009

Aw hell, I’ll bite.

Mike and Ted (aka S&N) just published a recent bit of cynicism in which they lob a few post-modern cream pies at COP15. They’re awfully pessimistic about the whole event, painting it more-or-less as a very elaborate case of political theater. It’s a nicely written piece, and definitely worth a read, but I’m afraid I have to disagree with its central premise.

They are right, of course, that there is a contrived element to the COP, but so it goes with almost all politics, on all issues. Anybody who’s ever been in a congressional mark-up hearing knows that this is true.

There can also be little doubt that there’s a lot of opportunism in the room. The developing nations smell opportunity, Europe smells opportunity, as do India, China, and the US. That’s true as well. In many respects, much of the discussion at COP15 is about redistributing resources to poorer nations and not so much about climate change.

Finally, as opportunism and drama make good politics, there is also little doubt that there are staged charades and shenanigans that are manifestly about creating a stink and garnering attention. There can also be little doubt that there’s a ton of theatre there. So they’re right about that.

But that doesn’t make Mike and Ted right to say that COP15 is political theater from stem to stern.

Real stuff is happening in Copenhagen, and on my read, one has to be blind to miss it.

Minimally, I was authentically moved by Copenhagen, and there’s nothing contrived about that. I suspect there are many thousands of others who were also authentically moved, or at least, maybe learned something that changed their positions either slightly or dramatically. That kind of authentic political reaction to Copenhagen ought not to be downplayed, though it is clearly not S&N’s main target.

To say that there’s nothing happening even to the top-line goal at Copenhagen strikes me as reductive to an extraordinary degree. Something is happening, even if laws emerging from Copenhagen have few teeth. When a legally-empowered representative of a nation commits that nation to doing something, that legally-empowered representative isn’t simply performing, but in performing is simultaneously forging that commitment. And that’s a big deal.

The commitments made and pronounced at Copenhagen make up a unique set of speech acts known as “performative utterances,” first discussed in the speech act theory of J.L. Austin. If the sovereign of nation X says that X will do A for the purpose of addressing CC, that’s not merely a symbolic pronouncement but also a commitment that, while not legally binding, is at least morally binding. It’s not the same sort of utterance as saying “There’s a cat on that mat.” (That’s a declarative.) It’s more like a judge pronouncing the guilt of an accused, or a justice of the peace declaring two people husband and wife. When the sovereign of X  announces their commitment, they commit themselves by virtue of that announcement. X can (and certainly will) be called to task for failing to live up to that commitment. That’s a pretty big deal.

Seems to me that the true post-modern position is the one that doesn’t accept the commitment of the prime legislator as morally binding in any way, but rather, instead, views the statements of signatories to COP15 as declaratives only. That appears to be S&N’s stance; and that’s why I disagree.


  1. […] a proxy blogger for CAP, enlisted to advance their views? I don’t think so. But then I read something like this from Ben, about why Copenhagen is important: Something is happening, even if laws emerging from […]

  2. Jug Ears is real good at “performative utterances”

    keeping promises…not so good

    also, any “commitments” Obama may grandly proclaim at Copenhagen are most definitely not worth the CO2 he spews doing so, nor are they moraly binding to me or the US Senate.

    US Senate (poll avergages RCP)
    approve 28.8 disapprove 63.3 -34.5

    • Windandsea,

      If the President doesn’t speak for you, then who is he speaking for? It is not as if he is speaking for himself. For example, suppose there is a draft and he declares war on a nation. You are obliged, given his commitment, to serve or…serve time in jail (if you are the right age, health, etc).

      Of course, you can disagree with the commitment but that doesn’t make it any more or less binding. This is one of the consequences of being a citizen in a country. You receive the benefits but also incur the responsibilities.


      • Jay Odenbaugh:

        You are correct that the President speaks for the entire country. However, it is the senate which has to ratify treaties. The President cannot legally bind the United States by himself.

        Kyoto was never ratified by the USA, for example.

      • RickA,

        You are correct, but Windandsea was talking a commitment being “morally binding” and denying the President’s decisions ever commits us in that sense.


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