Industrial promises: effective but counterproductive
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Industrial promises: effective but counterproductive

What are contemporary promises worth?

At a time when the 6th report of the IPCC has been released and when many announcements will rain – “pledges” and other commitments on the part of industrial groups and governments – the question is burning.

What is an industrial promise?

A promise is a commitment to a person or a group, formulated by a speech act, and whose performance must take place in the future. It is a complex object:

  • it is both a statement (i.e. speech act, discourse) and a set of practices (from belief to the realization of the action),
  • the promise most often binds two people, yet it is possible to promise oneself to oneself or to a group,
  • finally it connects the present (the statement) and the future (the realization) putting the will to the test in time.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Hobbes and Hume, among the first philosophers to think about the social contract, made the promise a central stone in their theory of human societies. The question they ask themselves is: “How can the state exist? How do human beings manage to collaborate in such large numbers, over great distances and time periods? The promise provides an answer to this question: whether it is to help each other harvest wheat (example used by Hume in A Treatise on Human Nature) or to build large infrastructures and launch rockets into space, it must be able to rely on the word of another (and many others) to successfully coordinate. Promising and keeping promises is necessary for the creation of human collectives.

While Hobbes and Hume were interested in the role of the promise in understanding how the existing society was constituted, our contemporary promises tell us of a future society. Here are two typical examples:

  • Innovation promise – these promises accompany the announcement of the emergence of future technologies (regardless of their actual realization): 5G will allow us to navigate faster, space travel and terraforming will allow us to go live on Mars, etc.
  • Ecological promise – this category corresponds to the “environmental pledges” for 2030 or 2050 which no large company, no more than the States, can do without today: amounts of carbon emission reduction are affirmed, the cessation or modification of certain activities, etc.

So what are these promises worth? It is important to note first of all that they go beyond the legal framework: companies are required to respect the law of course, but when a company talks about an action, or a product, that is going to perform in the future, the law can only serve as a mediator if these actions have been the subject of a contract in good and due form. This is not the case for innovation promises and ecological promises. These promises present the future as a horizon, that is to say a “tomorrow will be better”, which makes them morally binding but not binding objects.

The question that every consumer would like an answer to is then: are they going to be kept?

Until the 20th century, it was always considered that time going by puts the promise in danger: this is the phenomenon of the weakness of the will. The will is maximum in the present moment, but gradually crumbles. Thus, I intend to do what I announce when I promise, but the passage of time is testing my will and I may change my mind. The one who promises changes his interests, his abilities, his desires and ultimately his ultimate decision to keep his word or not. With such a vision, it is legitimate to wonder how contemporary promises could be kept: innovative and ecological promises have a horizon of several decades, they are pronounced by institutional entities (companies, laboratories, public representatives) and given to an equally vague and changing entity: society. Such a time horizon should make these promises extremely uncertain and difficult to keep.

Why then do we see a proliferation of this form of discourse, a constant renewal of promises with such a distant time horizon? What is the interest of the actors concerned in making them, listening to them and believing them, if these objects are so fragile? The question that arises is not so much whether they will be held, but what purpose they serve.

How our promises shape the world, whether they are delivered or not

In the 20th century, Hannah Arendt made the promise one of the two pillars that allows man to act in her theory of human action, Condition de l’homme moderne (1958). Arendt describes the “stabilizing power proper to the faculty of making promises”[1]. In a world where it is impossible to “predict the consequences of an act” just as it is impossible to “guarantee today” the continuity and stability of individuals, that is to say a particularly uncertain and unpredictable world that is impossible to control, it becomes very difficult to act. Everyone felt it during the health crisis: without knowing what awaits us in terms of confinement, displacement, etc. making decisions can be very complicated. However, the world in which we live, beyond the health crisis, is very uncertain, which could prevent us from acting (how do we know what are the right actions when nothing is controllable or predictable?) or lead us to the search for “security based on domination” of oneself and others (it would be possible to act only if everything is under control, thus leading to an authoritarian drift). For Arendt, the promise allows us to get out of these two extremes: it allows us to evolve in a world that remains uncertain, while preserving our freedom for humans. Indeed, the promises provide for men “islands of predictability” or “certainty” within an essentially unpredictable universe. It is because we are absolutely sure of our promises, of the fact that the word given will be kept, that we can act and sail almost on sight in the ocean of uncertainty that is the future.

Far from being fragile, we seem to rely on our promises as sure and strong pillars that let us know how we should act and what choices we should make in our lives. We act according to what we have been promised, considering that it is real: they promise to pick me up at the station, and I do not reserve a car to move myself; or else I hear this promise made to someone and then I know that on such a day at such a time the enunciator cannot be anywhere but at the station. I can use this information to act, and in general we do not deprive ourselves of it. This is because, to use the words of Arendt, those who are able to promise have the “capacity to dispose of the future as if it were the present”. When I believe in a promise, I act as if the world in which I found myself was the one where this promise is actually kept, and as long as nothing proves the contrary to me, it is indeed in reference to this world that guide all my decisions.

Those who are able to give their word are not only in control of the future, they also set the tone for our behavior today. Thus the promise, whether it is kept or not, has an effectiveness.

The counter-performance of the industrial world

Not everyone can activate this efficiency. Innovation promises and ecological promises cannot be made by just anyone. A major industrialist like Total can talk about its ability to reduce its CO2 emissions thanks to the development of carbon capture technologies. If a private individual holds this speech, it will not be credible since it is not able to develop these technologies. We place our trust in very specific players for this type of discourse: the vast majority of manufacturers. Historian François Jarrige reminds us that trust in innovative promises is less than 200 years old [2]. Two centuries ago they were greeted with great skepticism: faced with the ecological (deforestation), political (fear of the people) and social (pauperization and rising inequalities) crisis, the fact that technological innovation could provide answers to problems experienced was not obvious. However, “Science opens up a new regime of promise” says François Jarrige. It tells us that we no longer turn to religion or the state, that “politics” in general has been “powerless” and that is why we expect science and technique to meet our current challenges. This is what he calls the “reactivation of scientific promise”.

Knowing who has the right to speak about the future comes down in part to knowing who has the right to author it. Those in whom we place our trust by listening to their promises are today those who have the most real power over the future. Of course the legitimacy of speech is rooted in rational reasons, but that is not enough. The book Trust, Belief, Credit in the industrial worlds under the direction of Bernard Stiegler, shows us that the actors perceived as legitimate to promise, and that we will believe, are not necessarily the best able to keep their promises. but those in whom we trust and of whom we have a good perception [3]. Beyond technical capabilities, it is community buy-in that makes pledges effective. It is therefore not because Total can develop a carbon capture technology (which is by the way not certain) that we believe it can, but because we believe it that we decide to trust in the future that is proposed to us, and that we give power to the promise by acting today as if what was promised was assured. The promises allow the actors who state them, for themselves but also for all those who believe in them, to act today as if they could bend the future according to their wishes.

However, the promises of future technical solutions such as carbon dioxide capture technologies are a dangerous trap that push us to further increase our consumption and our CO2 emissions, warn us climate scientists [4]. While the promise will not necessarily be kept, it is devilishly effective: all the players who believe in it do not change their consumption habits, since a solution will come, that’s for sure! By doing so, what was thought to be avoided (an increase in CO2 in the atmosphere) is precisely what happens [5]. Contemporary industrial promises are effective, but they are often counterproductive: they achieve the opposite of what they promise.

Faced with our environmental emergency, can we content ourselves with accepting the promises that are made?

Those who do not have the power to promise today, who do not participate in the promises of innovation and ecological promises, that is to say the citizens, are both in a situation of vulnerability, at the mercy of those who promise, and of political powerlessness since their inability to be the enunciators sheds light on their lack of power. How to take back this power?

We could outline a beginning of the way forward to reclaim the future: give citizens the means to make and keep these promises, whether they are innovation promises or ecological promises. The democratic debate must spill over into our discussions of the future and of technical choices.

[1] Hannah Arendt, Condition de l’homme moderne, 1958, Editions Pocket, p.310-314, as well as for all the quotations in quotation marks that follow.

[2] François Jarrige is a historian, lecturer in contemporary history at the University of Burgundy and author of “Technocritics: From the refusal of machines to the contestation of technosciences”. The quotes are taken from the Atécopol conference of 20/03/2019 available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0tUBJXHsjLs

[3] Confidence, Belief, Credit in the industrial worlds under the direction of Bernard Stiegler. See in particular Chapter Five, Trust and Political Economies written by Laurence Fontaine, historian.

[4] Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap, James Dyke, Robert Watson, Wolfgang Knorr, April 22, 2021, The conversation, https://theconversation.com/climate-scientists-concept-of-net-zero -is-a-dangerous-trap-157368

[5] On the ineffectiveness of the commitments made by large companies, see in particular Overselling Sustainability Reporting, Kenneth P. Pucker, May-June 2021, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2021/05/overselling-sustainability -reporting

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