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.
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?
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|
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.
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.