Saturday, June 25, 2011

Climate Inside: Roots of Resentment, Overcoming Denial

I’d hoped this post, the last one on this topic for awhile, would be shorter than the rest. Probably it won’t be, but I’ll try to suggest and define rather than fully explain or explore.

Not everybody who seems to deny the Climate Crisis is motivated chiefly by ideology, politics or religious dogma. Nor are they all people getting wealthy from fossil fuels, or getting wealthy by working for people who are getting wealthy from fossil fuels and related industries.

There are skeptics—not so much of the science itself but of scientists. And there are especially people who see this as a class issue, though they might not define it that way.

Americans have been of two minds about scientists and their technology since the dawn of the industrial age. That was especially true during the first decades of thermonuclear threat, when we had Einstein and Doctor Strangelove. It was true in medical science over the years ( Doctor Salk v. Doctor Mengele.)

But in particular ways it also was a religious and class issue. Some historians believe that the fundamentalist Christian opposition to Darwinian evolution in America began with the Eugenics movement of the late 19th through the early 20th century, which used Darwinian evolution as its basis. Civic Biology, the textbook that was at issue in the 1925 Scopes Trial for teaching evolution, included the suggestion that if insane, retarded and epileptic humans were lower animals, “we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading.”

There were eugenics laws on the books and others proposed in several states, including one to prevent couples with incompatible Rh factors from having children. Some eugenicists went so far as to advocate certain races and nationalities as inferior and a drag on human development—so Hitler wasn’t crazy all by himself. Immigrants, even the poor (undesirable because of their possible dependency) might justifiably have felt threatened.

Even today some conservatives see abortion and birth control, population control and by extension environmentalism (because it is argued that it values other life over human life, and because environmentalists are concerned about overpopulation) as modern eugenics.

So there is perhaps a sense that science is a tool of the educated and wealthy to oppress the less educated non-wealthy. In any case, wealth and class do enter into the Climate Crisis debate.

That seems essentially to be what’s behind the sneers aimed at Hollywood stars who try to increase awareness of the Climate Crisis. The message they get is that these “superior’ people are telling them that that the Climate Crisis is caused by what they do to live their own lives. By their cars, their electricity, the accoutrements of their hard-won lifestyles. All that has to change. But what does that mean?

What a lot of non-wealthy people in non-Hollywood hear is that they’re supposed to get rid of the vehicles they’ve built a life around, and buy a hybrid, which they can’t afford. They also can’t afford to install solar panels or any of the other costly changes to their homes that would reduce their carbon footprint. And to give up their cars and their big screen TVs is giving up about all the relief they’ve got from arrogant moronic bosses and stupid hard work. Yet if they don’t, those Hollywood people will look down on them from their shiny new Priuses—which they’re driving to their private jets.

There are several reactions here. First, a lot of people are helpless to make such major changes on their own. And second, they see people advocating such changes as hypocrites in their own lives. All of this came down on Al Gore like a ton of bricks after he joined with Hollywood to make a glossy movie of An Inconvenient Truth. His energy use, his travel, and the money he made from his advocacy were subjects of political invective, which spoke to even those who didn’t care that he was once the Democratic candidate for President.

Add to the perceived call for people to make such radical changes in their lives the current lack of obvious impact of this “theoretical” crisis some time in the future, and some people see the Climate Crisis as the self-indulgent hysteria of those loony Hollywood liberals, so out of touch with what ordinary lives are like.

This image has recently been extended with high absurdity to climate scientists, who are supposedly advocating climate change for the money. In a sense it’s a class thing (though academics are typically on the low end of professional incomes) for there’s probably a residual sense of smart people as being stuck-up and superior. (Rich industrialists avoid this because they advocate the “American” lifestyle that people are pursuing, that depends on fossil fuels, and therefore is what is making them rich.)

Still, all of this is grist for the political mill of FOX and others who turn class resentment (which they of course would never call it) against advocates for action to address the Climate Crisis (along with a grab-bag of other associations, including the attempt to make labor unions appear to be among the privileged. Now with a black President, the race projections can adhere to the federal government, as well as those pushing from underneath—immigrants taking jobs away or any minorities "living free off taxpayer money.")  It all plays into the conviction, common to both the religious right and the otherwise far right, that the facts these scientists and environmentalists etc. assert are only expressions of their political point of view, meant to persuade (or trick) people into supporting their political side.  Any assertion of a scientific process or sincere observation is dismissed.  It's all us vs. them. 

All of this makes people more susceptible to related political arguments such as the reputed cost in taxes to address environmental concerns, and the predicted bad effects on business and therefore jobs. But it all especially makes denial possible—both the comforting denial of the Climate Crisis science (grasping at every reassurance by any putative scientist or expert) and the psychological denial that narcoticizes doubts about the effects of one’s politics or lifestyle, let alone the future of one’s children and grandchildren and the planet itself.

copyright 2001 by Melo-D
 Psychological denial is a natural human tendency that can be healthy and useful, but can also be suicidal. The antidote is to know that denial is a natural response of the unconscious, and it is up to the conscious mind to decide when it is useful and when it is harmful.

Nothing could be more natural in response to the threats that the Climate Crisis poses: the quick degradation of the world we have known, and perhaps even its end. Who would want to face that? Who has the psychological strength to face it head on, constantly?

I’ve read a lot on this subject and related works about energy and environment, particularly by Mark Hertsgaard, Bill McKibben, David Orr, Jim Kunstler, Jane Jacobs, Stephan Faris, and on and on. None of it has been easy to read or absorb. Now I’m working my way through Paul Gilding’s The Great Disruption—generally billed as a comparatively optimistic book that nevertheless assumes global apocalypse. I’m taking it slow with lots of breaks for walks in our June green loveliness, and old David Tennant Doctor Who episodes.

But even as I let myself respond with denial for awhile, I know what my ultimate responsibility is. I also know that just because this information hurts—and I wish it weren’t true so much that I can barely allow myself to accept it—this response doesn’t mean the information isn’t true. And the science behind it is profound and unforgiving.

Here’s my way of seeing all this: humanity has been a successful species largely because humans have the ability to think about the future. Like other intelligent species—perhaps all species, in a way—we are on the lookout for two things: danger and opportunity. Our survival depends on anticipating danger before it overwhelms us, and on perceiving, imagining and acting on opportunities that enhance our survival. Keeping out of the lion’s mouth and finding new sources of food and water are the templates of our survival.

We can see that other animal species are also keen on sensing and avoiding danger, and on seeking out and taking advantage of opportunities. But humanity developed a kind of consciousness that made it incredibly adaptable.

Consciousness has another particular function for us, that serves these purposes. We can identify our own impulses and to some extent control their expression according to whether they will have a desirable effect. This causes more trouble for our unconscious, but it is a tremendous advantage for our species.

The Climate Crisis is the greatest test we’ve had so far of our ability to think about the future with a complexity that matches the complexities governing that future. Thinking about the Climate Crisis, even as an abstract problem, is difficult. It involves such arcane concepts as lag times, feedback effects, tipping points. (Though I suspect it is a crisis that aboriginal humans would grasp in general without these concepts, simply by applying their observations of relevant experience in nature.)

It is a test as well of our psychological and social intelligence. It is perhaps our ultimate test.

Gilding and others note that there is a record of human societies facing and overcoming a crisis, though as Jared Diamond has chronicled, there is also a record of human societies collapsing because they could not see or face a crisis.

So we have a chance. And there are ways forward--to doing our best to deal with the effects while we do our best to attack the causes and prevent the worst from happening, if that's still possible. This has to be the message. It will require leadership. That’s why for all I admire about President Obama, I think it’s healthy that Al Gore called him out in his Rolling Stone article (published today.) After noting all of President Obama’s accomplishments in reducing greenhouse gases and seeding American green energy, Gore is direct:

“Yet without presidential leadership that focuses intensely on making the public aware of the reality we face, nothing will change. The real power of any president, as Richard Neustadt wrote, is "the power to persuade." Yet President Obama has never presented to the American people the magnitude of the climate crisis. He has simply not made the case for action. He has not defended the science against the ongoing, withering and dishonest attacks. Nor has he provided a presidential venue for the scientific community — including our own National Academy — to bring the reality of the science before the public.

Here is the core of it: we are destroying the climate balance that is essential to the survival of our civilization. This is not a distant or abstract threat; it is happening now. The United States is the only nation that can rally a global effort to save our future. And the president is the only person who can rally the United States.”

(Gore was also measured and specific, unlike the inflated and deliberately offensive charges by Joe Romm at Climate Progress. Yet it must be said that Gore didn’t make the Climate Crisis central to either of his presidential campaigns, and the progress while he was vice-president was even less impressive than Obama’s.)

Denial can’t blind us. That’s profoundly self-destructive. The media’s habits are well known—as Jon Stewart says, the so-called news media of our era fixates on the sensationalistic, and on simplistic presentation—what Stewart calls laziness. Gore goes after them as well on the Climate Crisis issue.

George Soros (in the New York Review of Books of June 23) applies the concept of denial to the public dialogue in our putatively free and open society. He notes that the American public is generally averse to facing harsh realities. “When reality is unpleasant, illusions offer an attractive escape route. In difficult times unscrupulous manipulators enjoy a competitive advantage over those who seek to confront reality... The two trends taken together—the reluctance to face harsh reality coupled with the refinement in the techniques of deception—explain why America is failing to meet the requirements of an open society. ”

As for the class component, given my own background and current income (which would have to double for me to make it up to the “low income” category) I can understand some of these feelings. But while I’m sad that I can’t afford a Prius, I don’t feel guilty about it, and certainly don’t feel hypocritical for driving my old Volvo, though I don't drive it much. I believe that a lot of working people would respond to leadership on this issue, though it might take a pretty clear crisis. Still, a crisis relatable to global heating in itself is not enough—leadership is still required. The time may not yet have come in a political sense, but it won’t wait much longer.

“Maybe it's just easier, psychologically, to swallow the lie that these scientists who devote their lives to their work are actually greedy deceivers and left-wing extremists — and that we should instead put our faith in the pseudoscientists financed by large carbon polluters whose business plans depend on their continued use of the atmospheric commons as a place to dump their gaseous, heat-trapping waste without limit or constraint, free of charge,” Gore writes. “The truth is this: What we are doing is functionally insane. If we do not change this pattern, we will condemn our children and all future generations to struggle with ecological curses for several millennia to come. “

Gore and Soros and others have identified political and social factors. I’ve tried to add two other considerations: in this particular post, a suggestion that class is part of the puzzle, and in this series, that concepts exist to explain some of the psyche’s role, and even more importantly, suggest conceptual tools for  understanding what’s going on within us. By making these responses conscious, they are available for us to evaluate and to take into consideration, as we decide how we are to act to address this mortal challenge.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Climate Inside: Varieties of Denalists

Before I get to the reasonable concerns behind some Climate Crisis denial, a few other reasons why some people are Climate Crisis denialists.

The word "denial" in this context is a bit tricky, since it denotes a psychological response but also a position on the issue by people who deny that global heating is happening, etc.--but not because they are "in denial."  They've got other reasons, though in the end, those reasons are "inside."

The first group of denialists are those who maintain their position (global heating isn't happening, or it isn't all that bad, or it's not caused by humans and we can't do anything about it, at least not without wrecking the economy etc.) because it is in their economic self-interest to do so.  These range from the fossil fuel industrialists to those they hire to doggedly and often viciously promote this line, to others who simply work for these companies and others related to them, who more distantly and more modestly depend on them economically.  They are in the situation famously described by Upton Sinclair, who said "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."  

Though they adapt to the latest media, the propaganda approach driven by these corporate zealots and their hired p.r. guns is time-tested, and yet both the public and the media seem always to fall for the same program.  It is most familiar in its present form from the massive campaigns run by the tobacco companies just a decade or two ago to convince us that scientists were biased in claiming that smoking is bad for your health, and anyway the economy and America's freedoms couldn't survive regulation of smoking.

 But as Paul Gilding reminds us in The Great Disruption, their basic attacks on Climate Crisis science were on view in the 1960s attacks sponsored by big chemical companies against Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, her landmark book on the dangers of DDT and other pesticides: she was hysterical and not acting as a scientist, and if her warnings on pesticides were heeded it would mean economic ruin and "the end of all human progress."  There were even snide observations that her warnings about extinctions were disproven when there seemed to be plenty of birds still around.  Recall of course the snide observations that the globe can't be heating with all these snowstorms.  (Here's an interesting blog post on the war against Rachel Carson and its similarity to the tobacco company strategy.)

The second group, related to the first, are those who are dependent on an ideology and political affiliation--often financially supported by fossil fuel and related corporate interests--that has made Climate Crisis denialism an article of their faith.  They tend towards the most virulent and mendacious forms of "it's all a hoax," that is, an insidious, deliberate and systematic deception by their political opponents: one more way of demonizing their enemies and making their supporters afraid so they'll close ranks.

  They are nourished by what has become a powerful network of institutions and relationships.  Their roots are in the late 60s and 70s, as chronicled recently by Eric Alterman in The Nation (March 28, 2011), as "a series of right-wing institutions to undermine the bipartisan establishment and recast its view of reality"  Along with far right "think tanks" there were political organizations that found and fostered young talent, and nurtured several generations of right wing activists from the 1980s forward.  Then came right wing talk radio, and Rupert Murdoch's newspapers and FOX news.

The Climate Crisis became a political issue for a variety of reasons, I suspect: mostly at the behest of corporate financiers of the right, but the political label became easier when Al Gore, the Democratic candidate for President, became the foremost voice on the Climate Crisis.

In any case, it has become a very political issue for the right, and the insulated world of right wing ideology has stepped up its rigidity and discipline on this issue as well as others.  The virulence of all of this, I am convinced, has been further strengthened by the Internet.  Right wing blog sites were early adopters, and in many ways set the tone for current Internet behavior: a tone of fanaticism, of bullying and attack with no boundaries.  They were also early in instituting a hive mind on their sites, a Borg-like sense of  membership and self-absorption, a contagion that some lefty sites have caught.

I've mentioned before the propensity of right wingers to stick with the media that always reflects their views: the Limbaughs of radio and Fox News primarily.  (The difference is that non-wingers might gravitate towards advocacy sources on the left but also read or watch other sources, especially for news and other content.  But then, the pure right winger believes that everything from the New York Times to Scientific American  is intently spewing left wing propaganda.)  But according to Eli Pariser in his book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You,  as reviewed by Sue Halpern in the New York Review, another feature of the Internet may mean that variety of information sources is less accessible for everyone than we might believe.

Pariser notes that Google searches are now personalized, so that your searches yield results ranked in part according to searches you've previously made, similar to how Netflix and Amazon come up with titles they think you will like. As Halpern writes "In other words, there is no standard Google anymore.” It’s as if we looked up the same topic in an encyclopedia and each found different entries—but of course we would not assume they were different since we’d be consulting what we thought to be a standard reference....Among the many insidious consequences of this individualization is that by tailoring the information you receive to the algorithm’s perception of who you are, a perception that it constructs out of fifty-seven variables, Google directs you to material that is most likely to reinforce your own worldview, ideology, and assumptions.

Pariser specifically relates this to climate change.  "Pariser suggests, for example, that a search for proof about climate change will turn up different results for an environmental activist than it would for an oil company executive and, one assumes, a different result for a person whom the algorithm understands to be a Democrat than for one it supposes to be a Republican."

But Helpern makes a larger connection, covering the entire phenomenon of information by means of ideology, whether deliberate or as a byproduct of  Internet algorithms or social networks:   "Why this matters is captured in a study in the spring issue of Sociological Quarterly, which echoes Pariser’s concern that when ideology drives the dissemination of information, knowledge is compromised. The study, which examined attitudes toward global warming among Republicans and Democrats in the years between 2001 and 2010, found that in those nine years, as the scientific consensus on climate change coalesced and became nearly universal, the percentage of Republicans who said that the planet was beginning to warm dropped precipitously, from 49 percent to 29 percent. For Democrats, the percentage went up, from 60 percent to 70 percent. It was as if the groups were getting different messages about the science, and most likely they were. The consequence, as the study’s authors point out, was to stymie any real debate on public policy. This is Pariser’s point exactly, and his concern: that by having our own ideas bounce back at us, we inadvertently indoctrinate ourselves with our own ideas. “Democracy requires citizens to see things from one another’s point of view, but instead we’re more and more enclosed in our own bubbles,” he writes. “Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead we’re being offered parallel but separate universes.”

There is another category of denialists, both political and ideologically related to both the self-interested industrialists and right wing political ideologues.  That's at least one politicized wing of Evangelical Christians.

Perhaps all of us are guilty of not consciously understanding where our assumptions come from.  But I know that I need to be reminded of how differently some people think about public policy issues--and in this case, how stringently dogmatic their views are, regardless of how they seem in the public arena.

Michelle Golberg's piece on Michele Bachmann in the Daily Beast is the latest reminder of this mindset.  Just how an anti-gay convinction is justified from the contradictory record of the Bible, let alone what the Bible has to say about climate change, is really beside the point.  The point is that these issues have incorporated as dogma, often due to the influence of particular charismatic clergy-- in Bachmann's case, of Francis Schaeffer:

  A key moment in her [Bachmann's] political evolution, as for many of her generation, a was the film series "How Should We Then Live" by the theologian Francis Schaeffer, who is widely credited for mobilizing evangelicals against abortion, an issue most had previously ignored. A Presbyterian minister, Schaeffer argued that our entire perception of reality depends on our worldview, and that only those with the right one can understand the true nature of things. Christianity, he argued, is "a whole system of truth, and this system is the only system that will stand up to all the questions that are presented to us as we face the reality of existence." Theories or assertions from outside this system—evolution, for example—can be dismissed as the product of mistaken premises.

This accounts for some of the bafflement that occasionally greets Bachmann's statements. "Michele Bachmann says certain things that sound crazy to the general public," says author Frank Schaeffer, Francis Schaeffer's son and former collaborator. "But to anybody raised in the environment of the evangelical right wing, what she says makes perfect sense."

The dogmatism of the true believers, most obvious when linked to religion but also part of the glue for  the hordes of social networking ideologues, seems as impervious to factual information and ethical arguments as do the perhaps cynical but self-interested positions of fossil fuel corporatists and their propagandists.  Probably most of them will never change, and it's fruitless to think they can be reached with fact and argument.

 But some among all these groups may be reached,especially when some of their legitimate concerns--the concerns as well of denialists outside these categories-- are explored.  Now for sure that's next time.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"In the generations of thought, man's sons
And heirs are powers of the mind,
His only testament and estate.
He has nothing but the truth to leave.
How then shall the mind be less than free
Since only to know is to be free?"

Wallace Stevens

--Happy Medicare Birthday, Joe K!