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Is it Time for a Quantum Leap?

Is collective change possible? Can we really work together to make a difference?  More and more people seem to be convinced that humans are incapable of individually and collectively responding to a challenge that is as big and complex as climate change. Given current social structures and systems, including constellations of power, politics, interests, values, behaviors and needs, many argue that there is very little that we can do to avoid dangerous climate change, at least not without first “overshooting” our targets, then relying on bioenergy and carbon capture and storage to recover. There is seemingly little possibility for (most) individuals and groups to influence systems, since power sits in the hands of relatively few people and organizations with strong interests, agendas and resources.

With limited possibility of changing systems, a dangerous consensus seems to be developing — a consensus that we had better just adapt and make the best of it. Or, as Joe Nocera writes in the New York Times, “Instead of hoping that humans will start reducing their carbon use, maybe it’s time to at least consider using technology to keep climate change at bay.” He is talking about geoengineering, or the intentional technological manipulation of the climate system. But as Clive Hamilton writes in Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering, sucking carbon and regulating sunlight raises some deep ethical issues. Is this really the best solution we can come up with?

Quantum reality
If we want to effectively engage with climate change and invoke successful transformations to sustainability, we may need to dig deeper, listen harder, and be willing to get uncomfortable, because questioning our foundational beliefs about change – our personal and shared realities about how the world works– is anything but easy. It means questioning understandings of causality and human capacities to influence larger systems. This includes the capacity for intentional transformations — not just through technology or behavioral change, but by using collective agency to influence systems in an ethical and sustainable way.

“A lost number in the equation. A simple, understandable miscalculation. And what if, on the basis of that, the world as we know it changed its matter of fact? Let me get it right: What if we got it wrong?”
(Lemn Sissay, What if?)

Most understandings of social change consider humans to be situated in a classical world that follows the rules and laws of Newtonian physics and Cartesian science. Although this scientific paradigm has been the foundation of modern civilization, it leaves little role for humans to consciously change systems. In fact, many contend that consciousness is merely an illusion, and that humans have no free will to change anything. Are these assumptions really true? Maybe it’s time to challenge the dominant paradigm and take a quantum leap.

Quantum mechanics has led to some dramatic changes in physics over the past century, and new findings are announced every day suggesting that we may not be as sure as we thought about the way that the world works. A recent article in Nature, for example, draws attention to experiments in quantum physics that challenge our understanding of what is really real. Quantum mechanics is a mathematical formalism based on the idea that elements can exist as both waves and particles. It allows physicists to predict the probability of observing different outcomes in experiments on sub-atomic systems, and it is the most successful theory of physics, at least for describing small-scale systems. Everyday objects such as alarm clocks and LED lights rely on quantum physics, and both quantum computing and quantum cryptography are growing areas of research.

The idea that quantum phenomena, characterized by entanglement, non-linearity, non-locality, and potentiality, are relevant to macroscale systems has been dismissed in favor of classical models. Yet the use of ‘quantum-like’ statistical models to study probabilistic-dynamical systems has been increasingly applied to cognition, perception, decision-making, game theory, and other realms of the social sciences. And there is a small yet growing body of theory and research suggesting that quantum entanglements are more than just a metaphor, but an essential property of the macroscopic world. In other words, it has been argued that the divide between the quantum and classical worlds may not be as fundamental and fixed as assumed – this can be seen in bird navigation, photosynthesis and sense of smell. If quantum physics were a macroscopic phenomenon, what would the be implications for society, and for human responses to climate change?

What if?
In Quantum Mind and Social Science: Unifying Physical and Social Ontology, international relations professor Alexander Wendt considers how social life would be explained from a quantum perspective, i.e., viewing humans as “wave functions” of possibilities and potentialities that are entangled and nonlocal. He discusses how and why metaphysical assumptions of the classical worldview — which include materialism, determinism, locality, individualism and atomism — would be challenged by a quantum social science that is based on panpsychism and quantum brain  theory. In other words, a social science that emphasizes nonlocality, indeterminism, and holism. Importantly, Wendt considers what this would mean for understandings of the relationship between structure and agency. He argues that from a quantum perspective, both agency and intentionality matter.

Wendt’s radical thought experiment is based on a review and assessment of a wide body of literature, including the latest research within philosophy of mind and philosophy of science. In reconsidering how humans relate with each other and with systems, Wendt joins Karen Barad in challenging both classical notions of causality and subject–object dualism, i.e., our relation to the external world. In  Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Barad emphasizes that “boundaries do not sit still” (171) and that matter is not a fixed essence, but rather something that is always ‘becoming’ through intra-actions between the material and discursive.

What does this have to do with climate change? I would say everything. If the goal is to avoid dangerous climate change, we need unprecedented collective action to transform the systems and structures that currently legitimize and reward activities that increase risk and vulnerability.  Research on quantum social science, including quantum game theory and semantic non-locality, suggests that human cooperation is actually easier than classical approaches to collective action problems would suggest.  Whereas a classical view diminishes the significance of humans,  quantum social theory gives them individual and collective agency, as well as free will and possibility. The “quantum leap” needed to bend the emissions curves and hold global temperature increase below  2°C may be less about technological innovation and behavioral change than about letting go of the constraints to collective action posed by classical thinking.

Suspending disbelief
To move forward in a time of crisis, it helps to convey a clear message about what is possible. However,  if the message that we are sending is a disempowering one, denying people of the potential of agency and failing to recognize that individual action is collective action, is it surprising that we don’t see more action? Quantum social theory suggests that our thoughts and actions ‘matter’ much more than we think, challenging the belief that we are nothing more than classical machines. Ironically, suspending our disbelief  in human capacity to collaborate may call for a real quantum leap.

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