Can we avoid the catastrophe of indifference?
This is a slightly modified version of an item I wrote for Paul Handover’s Learning from Dogs blog; first published yesterday under the title ‘Avoiding the catastrophe of indifference’. As well as being a summary of the raison d’etre of this blog (i.e. “On the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all environmental problems”), this also provides a summary of the reasons why many formerly-placid scientists think that widespread civil disobedience now may be the only way to prevent a permanent reduction in the ecological carrying capacity of planet Earth, and significant extinction of species, before the end of the 21st Century.
In 2010, the Australian social anthropologist Clive Hamilton published Requiem for a Species: Why we Resist the Truth About Climate Change – one of the scariest but most important books I think I have ever read. Reading Hamilton’s book was one of the reasons I decided, as part of my MA in Environmental Politics, to base my dissertation on climate change scepticism in the UK. In the process, I read much but Hamilton’s book was one of very few that I actually read from cover to cover – I simply did not have time to read fully all the books for my research. However, because I have a background in geology and hydrogeology, my greatest challenge was learning to think like a social scientist.
Having said all that, I must also admit I have also learnt a whole load more cary stuff as a result of subscribing to Learning from Dogs; Lester Brown’s World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse being just one that comes to mind! Then, of course, there is what David Roberts himself says, which is just as scary. I think we have good reason to be scared.
However, as Hamilton points out, we must move beyond being scared, which is simply debilitating, and channel our frustration into positive action. Because if we do not, there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence to suggest that civilisation may well fail. If that means engaging in acts of civil disobedience, as it has done for James Hansen and many others, well, so be it. I suspect that nothing worthwhile has ever been achieved without someone breaking the law in order to draw attention to injustice: The abolition of slavery and child labour; the extension of the right to vote to all men (not just landowners) and – eventually – to women also.
This is the conclusion Hamilton reaches; that civil disobedience is almost inevitable (p.225): Just as turkeys won’t vote for Christmas, our politicians are not going to vote for climate change mitigation unless we demand that they do so.
So it was the steer from my dissertation supervisor that lead me to read David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory Has Shaped Modern History, and much more about psychology. All of which guided the Introductory section of my dissertation, which summarised the philosophical roots of scepticism, the political misuse of scepticism, and the psychology of denial; as summarised on my blog recently (starting here). This then is an elaboration of the last of those topics, the psychology of denial. Indeed, it formed the preamble to the concluding chapter of my dissertation (not previously published).
To help me research this (to me unfamiliar) subject, my dissertation supervisor sent me a PDF copy of a paper written by Janis L. Dickinson in 2009 and published in the Ecology and Society journal. It was called ‘The People Paradox: Self-Esteem Striving, Immortality Ideologies, and Human Response to Climate Change’ and dealt with a challenging, almost taboo subject, namely our own mortality. Despite my initial reluctance to learn about psychology, the more I read the more I realised just how central psychology was to explaining why we humans have failed to address the problem of climate change. As such, I eventually summarised the work of Dickinson, together with other sources of material, in the following manner:
In considering reasons for the collective human failure to act to prevent anthropogenic global warming (AGW), a number of authors appear to have been influenced by Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death (1973). For example, Aaronovitch proposed that we try to avoid the “catastrophe of indifference” that a world devoid of meaning or purpose represents (p. 340). Hamilton suggested that climate disruption “has the smell of death about it” (p. 215).Janis Dickinson elaborates a little more, exploring what she describes as “…one of the key psychological links between the reality of global climate change and the difficulty of mobilizing individuals and groups to confront the problem in a rational and timely manner”, then referring to what psychologists call terror management theory (TMT) – Dickinson also categorises denial of climate change; denial of human responsibility and immediacy of the problem as proximal responses (Dickinson 2009).
Furthermore, as referenced here, both Dickinson and Hamilton suggest that other distal TMT responses, such as focussing on maintaining self-esteem or enhancing self-gratification, can be counter-intuitive and counter-productive. Dickinson summarises the recent work of Tim Dyson by saying “[b]ehavioral response to the threat of global climate change simply does not match its unique potential for cumulative, adverse, and potentially chaotic outcomes” (ibid).
Based on my research into the most frequently used arguments for dismissing the scientific consensus regarding climate change, I eventually summarised my findings (in the Abstract to my dissertation) as follows:
Having analysed the output of such UK-based Conservative think-tanks (CTTs), along with that of scientists, economists, journalists, politicians and others, it would appear that the majority of CTTs dispute the existence of a legitimate consensus, whereas the majority of sceptical journalists focus on conspiracy theories; the majority of scientists and economists equate environmentalism with a new religion; and politicians and others analysed appear equally likely to cite denialist or economic arguments for inaction.
As I find myself saying quite frequently, the most persistent arguments against taking action to mitigate climate change are the economic ones.
However, as all the authors mentioned have suggested, or at least inferred, I think it is undoubtedly true that the most potent obstacle to people facing up to the truth of climate change is our psychological reluctance to accept responsibility for something that is obviously deteriorating – namely our environment!
Nevertheless, all is not yet lost. We do not all need to go back to living in the Dark Ages to prevent societal and environmental collapse but we do need to accept a couple of fundamental realities:
1. Burning fossilised carbon is trashing the planet. Therefore, fossil fuel use must be substituted in every possible process as rapidly as possible. Unfortunately, it is not substitutable in the most damaging process of all; aviation. That merely increases the urgency of substituting where we can (i.e. power, lighting and temperature control).
2. Poor people in developing countries have a legitimate right to aspire to having a more comfortable life but the planet definitely cannot cope with 7 to 10 billion people living like we do in the “developed” countries.
Once we accept these realities, we will learn to use less fossil fuels and, if we can become self-sufficient using renewable energy sources, we can have a flat-screen TV in every room and leave them on standby and the A/C on full power 24/7 and still have a clear conscience. However, we must get off fossil fuels ASAP.