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It seems to go against common sense--not to mention the prevailing rational self-interest economic dogma--that very rich people can count on almost-poor people to support the interests of the rich against their own. But it's an age old alliance, older than democracies, though it's a particularly bedeviling feature of electoral politics in America.
But there is a formula that explains it: greed manipulates fear. The greedy rich use their vast influence to foment fear among the almost-poor, that the little they have is about to be taken away by...another race, immigrants, liberals, the government, an amazing conspiracy.
This is clearly at work in global warming denial. The greedy fossil fuel magnates and those whose fortunes depend on them (including of course lots of political officeholders) prey on the fears of the mostly white among the almost- poor, which is most of the almost- poor. There are several levels to these fears. First, global heating as part of the liberal conspiracy explained to them on talk radio and Fox News. But more directly, fear of the climate crisis itself. I mean, what if it's true?
That fear is especially potent because, let's face it, it's much more realistic than the other stuff. The climate crisis is scary, and most people who are honest with themselves are frightened by it. We all wish it weren't true, there are times we all wish we could forget it, ignore it, even not live long enough to have to deal with it. (Too late now though.)
The role of greed is not a pretty sight to see. We've just seen it big and bold in the statements of Republican Senators threatening to shut down the government this year to prevent the EPA rules limiting power plant carbon emissions from going forward.
The White House called them out on doing so to protect "big polluters," but the really humiliating, really telling event was a few days later when four former EPA chiefs for four Republican Presidents--Nixon, Reagan and both Bushes--went before a Senate subcommittee (in the words of one story) " with a message about climate change: It's real, it's bad and the United States should do something about it."
So no empathy whatever for greed or how craven it makes them look. But fear is something else--fear is an understandable emotion. The problem becomes how that emotion is handled, by individuals and by the polity.
It is really the basic test of individuals in our time, and of our civilization: not only do we have the intelligence to figure out ways to address the causes and effects of global heating, but what do we do with our fear. Do we deny it by denying that global heating is real? Do we take every possible opportunity to not think about it, think about something else, like the latest conservative/liberal outrage or celebrity misdeed? Do we latch onto every doubt expressed, even if that doubt is manufactured by the corporations of the greedy, so we don't have to think about it?
Do we despair, because our politics, our country, our world can't possibly confront it, for any or all of a dozen or more reasons? Or do we acknowledge it, deal with its emotional power, its power to overcome other emotions and rational thought? Do we use it to motivate our search for solutions, our support for those who want to address it, our own commitments in our own lives?
As President Obama said at UC Irvine, these are particular questions for the young, with the energy, starting out on their paths. But it is really a question for all of us. Not guilt-tripping, but being real. This is the latest test of our civilization and in many meaningful ways it is the most profound one. It is also shaping up to possibly be the final one.
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