How dare it snow, and mess up our plans? What went wrong?
Okay, you and I know that nobody is to blame. No human, anyway. So why do we call it bad weather?
The photo is of me and one of my daughters in 1982. It was taken by a local newspaper, the Ashton Reporter. I had recently become a vicar for the first time, and I wrote in the parish magazine that when it snows there is nothing wrong with the weather. It may mess up our plans, but it isn’t the snow that’s at fault. Build a snowman.
I was inexperienced. I had no idea how much I would be adding to the stormy weather in Ashton. I was condemned from all sides.
That time, the snow didn’t threaten anything I wanted to do. This time it does, because I want to travel to a meeting in a couple of days. But I still think I was right. To call the weather bad is to imply that something is wrong with it and it shouldn’t have happened.
This post argues that our assumptions about how things should work are a jumbled mixture of contradictions. We have inherited our expectations from different, conflicting, worldviews. Because we rarely question our worldviews, our assumptions leave us with unanswerable questions.
To keep things simple, I shall describe four different worldviews.
Worldview 1: friendly gods make good weather, enemy gods make bad weather
I don’t know anyone who believes this today, but it was common in the ancient world. I include it because if you want to make sense of the idea of bad weather, this is the gold standard. The weather is bad because it was caused by bad gods. Naughty gods. Gods who oppose our well-being.
Worldview 2: the varying weather adds up to a coherent whole provided by a good god
This is classic monotheism. The weather we are given is good for us. For the purposes of this post we have to bracket out human alterations of the weather like global warming. Apart from those, the weather is part of the essential background to our lives. If it stops us doing what we want to do, perhaps we are wanting the wrong things.
Worldview 3: we can’t control the weather, but we’re working on it.
Environmental philosophers point out how, round about the seventeenth century, European intellectuals developed instrumental attitudes to the world around us. The most commonly cited proponent of this idea is Francis Bacon, an English politician who looked forward to controlling the natural environment by means of science and technology. It is very common now in the industrialised West. Many industrial activities and government policies presuppose it. Bad weather, on this account, is weather that resists society’s attempts to run the world as it wishes.
Worldview 4: we have evolved to live with the weather we have got
In secular circles this is the main challenger to Worldview 3. Using science and technology to create an artificial environment may benefit some people for some purposes, but we humans have evolved to live in the environment that evolved with us. The evolutionary process takes millions of years. When our desires conflict with the state of the environment, we should ask whether we need to change our desires before we try to change the environment.
Complaints about snow usually focus on travelling conditions. Roads are closed, trains are cancelled, people can’t get to work.
This makes sense within Worldview 3. The assumption is that our normal daily lives, driving or catching the train to work, and whatever else we normally do that presupposes the absence of snow, is the way things should be. Within this assumption, when our expectations are undermined by snow, society as we know it is in conflict with the state of nature.
Yet I don’t hear anyone following through the logic of Worldview 3. I don’t find people expecting a future when roads and railway lines will be kept open however heavy the snow. Few expect that we (whoever ‘we’ are) will ever domesticate the weather so much that it never interferes with our plans.
What happens instead is that we grumble about the weather as though it had done something wrong. This doesn’t make any sense at all within Worldview 3. Where it makes sense is within Worldview 1. If Worldview 1 is dead, it is still refusing to lie down. Worldview 1 still gets invoked to disguise the absurdities of Worldview 3.
Worldviews 2 and 4 have a great deal in common. It is possible to believe both at once, as I do, but it is also possible to believe in 4 without believing in God.
In these cases there is no such thing as bad weather. The weather, including snow where it falls, is an important part of our environment. Our bodies have developed the way they have in order to fit within the actual environment, not the imaginary environment of our ambitions. Some people may live in parts of the world that are not suitable for human habitation, but if that makes life unpleasant it is not the weather that is to blame.
So if we have made ourselves dependent on fast motor transport which doesn’t work in snow, perhaps the fault lies with our lifestyles. The alternative is to do less travelling, like most other societies.
As individuals, most of us are not in a position to make that decision. The decision would have to be made by society, with appropriate planning policies.
Worldview 3 shouts that this would reverse progress. Worldviews 2 and 4 tell us it’s the obvious way forward. Less motorised travel would also mean fewer deaths on the roads, less pollution and less global warming.
I’m still hoping to catch my train to my meeting. My lifestyle, like everyone else’s, has to fit within the society we’ve got.
But our society could, if we wanted, change its desires and look for ways to live more in harmony with our environment.