Essay

The Way We Talk About Climate Change Is Wrong

The language of “sacrifice” reveals we’re stuck in a colonial mindset.

A climate change protester in New York
A climate change protester in New York
A climate change protester holds a "Bank on the Future" sign at a demonstration in New York on Oct. 29, 2021. Erik McGregor/LightRocket/Getty Images
By , the Raymond A. Spruance professor of international history at Stanford University.

Climate activism in the United States and Europe is typically framed as sacrifice for the sake of future generations: We must consume less now to extend the expiration date on human civilization as we know it. The New York Times diagnoses our failure to confront climate change as “the reluctance of people … to make the investments and sacrifices necessary to protect future generations.” Concerned novelists and literary critics urge us to “see other times as requiring something of us today.” Christian leaders, including Pope Francis, call for “meaningful sacrifices for the sake of the earth,” which requires “exercising self-restraint.” The European Commission’s deputy chief has issued a similar plea, while environmental scientists substantiate the importance of a willingness to sacrifice to effective climate action.

Implicit in this refrain about our responsibility toward future generations is the reproach that we have preyed on our future through the sin of what economists call “time discounting”: our inveterate habit of caring less about a future consequence than the here and now.

In fact, the language of sacrifice for the future is uncomfortably close to the mindset that landed us at this precipice. It was precisely by training their eyes on the future, with the help of the concept of time discounting and theories of how to overcome it that germinated in the era of European colonialism, that previous generations became profligate with the Earth’s resources—which should give us pause in reprising the language of sacrifice today.

Climate change protester holds bank on the future sign NYC
Climate change protester holds bank on the future sign NYC

A climate change protester holds a “Bank on the Future” sign at a demonstration in New York on Oct. 29, 2021. Erik McGregor/LightRocket/Getty Images

Climate activism in the United States and Europe is typically framed as sacrifice for the sake of future generations: We must consume less now to extend the expiration date on human civilization as we know it. The New York Times diagnoses our failure to confront climate change as “the reluctance of people … to make the investments and sacrifices necessary to protect future generations.” Concerned novelists and literary critics urge us to “see other times as requiring something of us today.” Christian leaders, including Pope Francis, call for “meaningful sacrifices for the sake of the earth,” which requires “exercising self-restraint.” The European Commission’s deputy chief has issued a similar plea, while environmental scientists substantiate the importance of a willingness to sacrifice to effective climate action.

Implicit in this refrain about our responsibility toward future generations is the reproach that we have preyed on our future through the sin of what economists call “time discounting”: our inveterate habit of caring less about a future consequence than the here and now.

In fact, the language of sacrifice for the future is uncomfortably close to the mindset that landed us at this precipice. It was precisely by training their eyes on the future, with the help of the concept of time discounting and theories of how to overcome it that germinated in the era of European colonialism, that previous generations became profligate with the Earth’s resources—which should give us pause in reprising the language of sacrifice today.


Mass of abadoned cars Rocky Mountain Prairie, U.S.
Mass of abadoned cars Rocky Mountain Prairie, U.S.

A mass of abandoned cars are pictured amid the Rocky Mountains in the United States, circa 2006. Avalon/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Economists date the establishment of intertemporal choice—decision-making that involves trade-offs among costs and benefits occurring at different times—as a distinct topic in the discipline to 1834, with the publication of the Scottish economist John Rae’s classic text, The Sociological Theory of Capital.

Rae’s subject was “the effective desire of accumulation,” a psychological factor that helped explain why wealth differed among societies. His examination of the psychology of intertemporal choice deeply influenced his contemporary John Stuart Mill before it was rediscovered by economists theorizing capital at the turn of the 20th century, including Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, who added a chapter on Rae to the 1900 edition of his History and Critique of Interest Theories. This renewed interest prompted a reissue of Rae’s book in 1905, extending his influence deep into the new century. In 1930, the prominent neoclassical economist Irving Fisher dedicated The Theory of Interest to Rae’s memory. Today, Rae’s approach continues to inform 21st-century theories of time discounting.

Rae framed his book as a critical response to Adam Smith’s 1776 The Wealth of Nations, but he shared Smith’s anxiety to allay the moral worry triggered by liberal political economics’ encouragement of the pursuit of self-interest, advocating self-regulation to insure against evil results. In the right settings, regard for “personal interest” would, he assured, induce individuals to overcome the universal aversion to delaying gratification and pursue “the paths of sober industry and frugality.” In short, we can be conditioned to exercise self-restraint in the present for the sake of future payoff.

The requisite setting for this path was a society that bred a desire for “family aggrandizement” and ranking “high in the estimation of the world.” By the same token, “envy of the superiority of other men” was an important stimulus, albeit held in check by “probity, and tenderness of the happiness of others.”

Smith and other Enlightenment philosophers had already urged study of great historical figures as key to cultivation of moral sentiments. Such study would inspire men to act with history’s prospective judgment of their own actions in mind—as George Washington pithily reminds Alexander Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, to live as though “History has its eyes on you.” Thus, Rae himself was driven by the ambition “of being a lasting benefactor to man.”

In theory, anyone might learn to act this way, given the right setting. The propensity to exercise self-restraint, Rae claimed, was lower in the East and West Indies, where “the expenditure of the inhabitants is profuse,” but he believed “[t]he same people, coming to reside in the healthy parts of Europe,” would “live economically.” They were profligate only because “[w]ar, and pestilence, have always waste, and luxury, among the other evils that follow in their train,” he explained—forgetting colonialism’s role in generating these ills. Rae was certain that increasing security through law and order—what the empire promised to do—would improve these regions’ prospects (though imperialism in fact drained wealth and created disorder).

Indeed, one way in which Rae claimed to dissent from Smith was in his unequivocal faith in empire as a beneficial force. Rae was writing in the 1830s, when slavery was abolished in the British West Indies, the heyday of the belief that British imperialism in the East Indies would produce Indians “English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect,” according to the historian and imperial policymaker Thomas Macaulay. The liberal project, however universal its aims, depended on racist comparisons that implied the default human being was a white man.

Rae was himself a beneficiary of empire, emigrating to British Canada in 1822 after his father’s bankruptcy—an event that likely deepened his interest in the quality of foresight, in an era when Britons understood bankruptcy as the result of moral failure, a failure of self-regulation. Certainly, the loss of an anticipated inheritance prevented him from pursuing the scholarly path he had intended while he was a medical student in Edinburgh. Extensive travel in Canada shaped the writing of his classic text, which he published in Boston on his visit to the city in 1834. He took up arms to defend the empire during the Canadian rebellion of 1837 but moved to the United States after losing his teaching job in 1848. He joined the stream of migrants to California, via Panama, in 1849, before venturing to Hawaii in 1851. Financial stability alas persistently eluded the theorist of accumulation. He worked variously as a physician and geologist, while attempting to assemble the “history of humanity” by studying the origins of the Polynesian “race,” as he confided to Mill in the 1860s (in a letter that he may not have sent).

This North American experience and fascination with race critically shaped his analysis. From its first pages, his book frequently invoked what he saw as Native Americans’ disregard for futurity as a counterpoint illustrating the importance of the right conditioning—a disregard Rae attributed to collective values and relations with land, animal, and water resources. “[T]he Indian,” he wrote, thinks “little of refraining from the pleasures [the course of events] may offer him … and indulges … without restraint, in the enjoyments of the hour.” He praised the Jesuits for turning Indigenous Paraguayans into “docile disciples” in European arts of self-restraint, keeping them “from barbarism and idolatry”—at least while closely supervised, given their persistent “defects” of “improvidence, indolence, and want of economy.

For Rae, regard for futurity was what distinguished man from “the inferior animals, and the degree in which he possesses it marks his rank in the scale of civilization.”

The racial barriers built into his seemingly universalist theory are transparent in his insistence that “[o]ur own barbarian ancestors” in Europe were not a good comparison to “the savage aborigenes of North America,” since, even as “shepherd warriors” in the Roman era, a sense of “foresight” had governed their consumption habits. Hence the “European race” “naturally” had “a much higher effective desire of accumulation” than others. He saw Asians, too, through damning Orientalist glasses: Despotic tendencies, he claimed, prevented Chinese society from rising above the pull of “sensual gratifications and selfish feelings” (though their effective desire of accumulation was greater than among “other Asiatics”).


Native American Engraving Colonialism and Industrialization
Native American Engraving Colonialism and Industrialization

An engraving depicts a Native American devastated as he views the industrial landscape where the Great Plains once were, where buffalo and Indians could freely migrate across the landscape, circa 1850-1900. Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Today’s economists understand time discounting, or caring more about the present, as fundamentally human, a psychological trait at the heart of debates about how to address climate change. But the concept originated in colonial-era cultural and racial assumptions. And the regard for futurity that Rae claimed was nurtured partly by climate changed the climate everywhere. The very land-use practices, such as clearing and enclosing ever more expanses, that he held up as evidence of Europeans’ exemplary regard for futurity mortgaged our collective future.

And Rae knew those practices had destructive effects, acknowledging even as he berated Native American cultural failure that “[t]he white man robs their woods and waters of the stores with which nature had replenished them” and “may be truly said to have been the greatest enemy of the Indian.” He knew that “[t]he settlement of their country by the European race, has … gradually diminished, or entirely destroyed, the political importance of their tribes.” He grasped that white men had been “the bearers of unspeakable calamities or utter ruin” for Indigenous Paraguayans.

But this awareness did not diminish his exasperation with Native peoples’ refusal to learn from “the white man,” whose colonial, land-transforming concern to “provide for … some remote and uncertain futurity” they saw as the result of a “selfish spirit.” For in Rae’s theory, this destruction was defensible as part of a providential civilizing process: A high level of security and abundance, he argued, had stunted Native Americans’ regard for futurity, and by creating a situation of scarcity, white men helped them develop the arts of self-governance history demanded. The serious student of history, Rae wrote in 1849, grasped the “comparative insignificance of the immediate present” before “the real government of an Omnipotent hand whose workings pass his ken.”

Colonizing Europeans saw destruction of Native ways of life as necessary in a providential historical narrative headed toward universal civilization—where “civilization” was defined by material attainments. What Rae saw as European foresight in managing resources was allied to this future-oriented vision of history as a story of continual improvement in which Britain played a providential role. This notion emboldened Britons from the era of the philosopher John Locke in the 17th century to claim that those who showed no evidence of enclosing and improving the land forfeited claim to it and to human fellowship.

John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, assured that settlers could take land freely on these very grounds, concluding from the decimation of Native people after the smallpox epidemic in 1634, “The Lord hath cleared our title to what we possess.” By the 18th century, the spread of pathogens was integral to colonial biopolitical warfare against Native peoples. War itself, in this view, was only an “apparent evil,” ultimately bringing progress and “much of real good,” as Rae put it.

Indeed, the idea of necessary evil was central to this historical imagination; hence the need for continual reassurance as Europeans’ ordinary ethical compasses rebelled. Liberal philosophy counseled tolerance of moral discomfort in the face of destruction, promising future vindication by history. Thus, the imperial bureaucrat John Kaye’s expiatory history of the brutal crushing of the massive Indian rebellion of 1857 explained British “errors”—Britons’ “reign of terror,” “wholesale confiscation” of land, and “great war of extermination”—as the result of “strivings after good” and “over-eager pursuit of Humanity and Civilisation” (while also denouncing the “heap of platitudes about Humanity and Civilisation” that sustained empire!).

FDR Churchill WWII poster liberators of the world
FDR Churchill WWII poster liberators of the world

A poster showing the portraits of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill with the title “Liberators of The World” from the World War II era. David J. Frent/Janice L. Frent/Corbis/Getty Images

After that epochal conflict, protests of paternalistic motives yielded to stoic admissions that history demanded that “the cheaper peoples” (such as “American Indians”) be destroyed by “the dearer,” as the Liberal politician Charles Dilke put it in 1868. Extinction of the “inferior races” was “not only a law of nature, but a blessing to mankind.” In 1937, as an imperial policymaker and historian, Winston Churchill insisted that no “great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America … by the fact that a stronger … more worldly-wise race … has come in and taken their place.”

The racism on which the economics concept of regard for futurity was founded depended on a future-oriented vision of history in which the destruction such regard entailed in the present was itself a necessary sacrifice for the future.

Europeans thus sacrificed their consciences in the present. They destroyed landscapes, ways of life, entire peoples, with an eye toward future vindication. Earth’s bewildering variety was designed to drive man over time to find utility in it all, according to Rae, so that “[e]ven the barren deserts of Africa may, in after ages, be fertilized,” and water may “in time” be drawn “from the depths of the earth.” He held up as proof of Europeans’ particular regard for futurity the very ecologically and humanly devastating practices aimed at transforming the land—what the anthropologist and novelist Amitav Ghosh helpfully identifies as “terraforming”—that we now realize put the very future of life at risk.

What Europeans saw as Indigenous peoples’ careless use of “wild” terrain was in fact deeply knowledgeable and careful husbandry of land, forests, and water resources oriented toward perpetual mutual preservation of land and life. Today, climate and environmental experts advocate policies based on precisely such sustaining ecological practices as we confront a situation in which nations of the global north are, according to a 2020 study, responsible for 92 percent of all “excess global carbon dioxide emissions” and “have effectively colonized the global atmospheric commons.”


Climate protestors march New York City
Climate protestors march New York City

Protesters hold a banner during the Climate Justice March in New York on Nov. 13, 2021. KENA BETANCUR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

A redeemed attitude toward the land and the nonhuman beings we live alongside requires abandoning the notion of future-oriented sacrifice in a consumption-centering paradigm of “civilization.” “Sacrifice” implies giving up something to which we are objectively entitled, something actually desirable; it’s about martyring our needs for the future. But this is a time to question our assumptions about what is desirable, to recover from a consumption-driven, hyper-individualistic way of life to which we were never entitled and that has depended, from the first, on enslavement, genocide, ecological destruction, and alienation from ourselves, the land, and other beings. It is a way of life that would not be good for us or future generations even if the climate were not at stake.

Far from sacrificing consumption we ideally would indulge in, the climate crisis offers an opportunity to give up what we had no right to in the first place: not sacrifice, but redemption, from a way of life that we now know has been destructive of the Earth but have also long suspected was destructive of our humanity.

Indeed, the crisis is more about our humanity than the Earth, since, in historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s helpful phrasing, “There is no ideal form for the earth as a planet.” The Earth is indifferent to our existence; it will go on, on its own timescale, beyond human history, and likely recover from the damage we have wrought. There is nothing morally at stake in our continued existence—other than to ourselves.

Many economists persist in believing in a universal systematic tendency to underestimate future wants, but others suggest that how we assess intertemporal trade-offs varies with our ability to imagine the future. Now, finding ourselves in a situation in which we must imagine both the future and human nature differently, we might question consumption as the font of meaning. The assumptions of selfish, morbidly individualistic, time-discounting human nature on which liberal political economy is founded are assumptions, propagated so vigorously by liberal economists and in modern literature that we came to mistake them for, and thus make them, true.

But history is littered with evidence of empathetic, cooperative human nature, and, as Ghosh argues in his 2021 book The Nutmeg’s Curse, today’s writers and artists might help us anchor human existence in such values instead.

This is precisely the recovery from the colonial mindset that anti-colonial thinkers have long insisted was necessary to prevent colonialism from morphing into ever new guises. Thinkers as varied as Mahatma Gandhi and Frantz Fanon warned that the mere transfer of power was not enough; decolonization of the mind was necessary for both former colonizers and the colonized—a shift in consciousness, a recovery of ethical (as opposed to instrumental) ways of thinking about our relations with one another and the world.

For Gandhi, the problem with colonialism was primarily its establishment of a civilization that centered material desire as the key to progress. Freedom was thus not about expelling the British but about recovering values of mutuality. An India free of British rule but persisting on the same political-economic path would remain unfree precisely because such a path precluded the ethical outlook demanded by planetary habitation: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West,” he wrote in 1928. “If an entire nation of 300 millions took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”

The coming of the locusts today demands a more radical shift in outlook than that implied by “sacrifice” of some consumption. Such language appeals because it resonates with the default morality that liberalism has become (which keeps even Western leftists prey to an individualistic culture of virtue-signaling), ensuring buy-in from those unable to countenance more radical change.

But it is time to recognize how much we have already sacrificed in the relentless striving after material progress and to stop sacrificing moral peace in the present for some exalted but chimerical historical end: to allow ourselves to see one another and our kinship as part of Earth’s abundance; to experience the intersubjective solidarities central to existence rather than valorize, in Fanon’s words, “a society of individuals where each person shuts himself up in his own subjectivity”; to indulge sustaining quotidian practices of love heedless of supposed laws of nature, history, market, nation, or any other illusion.

It is time, in short, to stop sacrificing our humanity. Consuming less is no sacrifice in this perspective, but a profoundly self-loving act. Human civilization as we know it should expire. History has been a nightmare from which we all must awake.

Our present, with its cyclones, wildfires, and rising shorelines, has already been consumed by our predecessors. But this does not mean we are doomed to carry on as they did, hoping only to dial down the pace. Our values might change as the Earth has. By clinging to the framework of sacrifice, we perpetuate the instrumental attitude toward the Earth and its resources that has long been embedded in liberal political economy. Instead, we might commit to the everyday ethics of mutual care, whose irrepressible ghost made European colonialism such a guilt-ridden enterprise all along.

Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance professor of international history at Stanford University and the award-winning author of Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East and Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution. Her most recent book is Time’s Monster: How History Makes History.

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