Richard Gale & Gary Null
Progressive Radio Network, November 29, 2018
Phyllis is a very conscientious environmentalist. She goes beyond the call of duty to spread the word about climate warming through the organizations she belongs to and her social media network. She travels long distances to join climate marches and to demonstrate against tar oil pipelines and hydrofracking projects, and against Monsanto’s agenda to destroy the world’s agricultural base. Like many of her educated younger adult friends, she has schooled herself about the consensual science predicting that humanity’s time on earth is rapidly dwinding down, and she has the skills to communicate this message. Yet, Phyllis also has an enduring faith in her generation’s capacities and rebellious spirit to turn the tide against accelerating climate change. In her mind, relying upon human ingenuity to apply cutting-edge science and technological innovation to the climate crisis will solve everything.
There is a slight problem, however, that Phyillis overlooks. While she makes fierce demands that the government, the big fossil fuel polluters and the Wall Street investor class make radical changes to save the planet, her own lifestyles mirors the same belief system held by the major climate destroyers. She continues to abide by a meat based diet while disregarding whether its Cargill’s beef or Purdue’s chickens. She is also hooked on buying and consuming more and more stuff beyond her personal means. Her charge card balances are a small reflection of the nation’s addiction to piling up debt.
Phyllis is not alone. This is a familiar ethos shared by many intellient and conscientious people who are fullly aware of the problems our species faces in the future and who implore others to change while they refuse to do the same. They are unwilling to do it themselves. And simply dabbling with making small changes in our lives is ultimately trivial and fruitless.
Taking a deeper look, we discover that Phyllis’ cognitive dissonance — the mental state of holding inconsistent beliefs and attitudes that are in conflict with our personal behaviors and a lack of motivation to find balance and harmony between thoughts and action — was also evident in the results from the US’s recent mid-term elections.
While the Democrats pride themselves for their commendable victory to retake control over the House, the future of the planet and the US environment did not fare as well. Although five newly elected freshman Representatives ran on climate change platforms, and nine others are scientists who oppose the GOP fantasy of global warming denialism, state measures to address climate change will have to take a back seat, at least for the time being.
With the Trump administration ravaging regulatory safeguards to protect the air, water and environment, and opening the floodgates wider for the world’s largest corporate polluters and greenhouse gas emitters to rise to higher prominence, we have to rely upon state and local governments to pass and enact effective climate policies. Unfortunately the mid-term elections proved we are failing dismally in that direction. Climate-related initiatives on state ballots, which may have helped usher a New Green Deal, took a beating. A Washington Post article headlined it succinctly: “Voters Rejected Most Ballot Measures Aimed at Curbing Climate Change.” This occurred unexpectedly in some of the least likely states. In progressive Washington, a bill would have divided revenues from a carbon emission tax to invest in clean air and energy, improve water resources, preserve forests, and protect the health of rural communities that are most negatively impacted by climate change. Washingtonians voted against the measure by siding with the $20 million spent by the fossil fuel industry to defeat the initiative. In Colorado a measure to reduce fossil fuel drilling on nonfederal land in close proximity to residential homes failed. In Arizona, residents voted against the state speeding up its shift to renewable energy. Montana voters disapproved requirements for mining companies to provide convincing structural assurances that pollute water resources would remain unpolluted nor drain into the natural environment before new permits are granted.
This disparity between electing Green Deal Representatives to Washington’s federal citadel, legislators who realize climate change is a national priority, from the populace denying the same is indicative of the cognitive dissonance that pervades the American landscape. This psychological incongruity is a bargain with the Devil. Americans’ delusional sense of entitlement that they deserve whatever they want in order to perpetuate the status quo so as to avoid making difficult life-saving decisions is the dry tinder that reassures living conditions will worsen. Consequently this cultural impasse has made the nation inept in responding to the growing threats of extreme weather events–such as wildfires, drought, superstorms, heatwaves and flooding– that are increasing annually.
To try to better understand this bipolarity regarding the climate that is now embedded into the cultural narrative of the American psyche, we had an opportunity to speak with Prof. Per Espen Stoknes at the Norwegian Business School, Europe’s second largest business college. Prof. Stoknes is the Director of school’s Center for Climate Strategy. He also studied at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich and has written extensively about the psychology of climate change, economics and money. Having a profound understanding of depth psychology and possessing an ecological and spiritual sensibility, Stoknes has been able to probe into the hidden recesses of our Western culture’s psyche that very few legislators and climate activists have been able to diagnose clearly.
Climate change, says Stoknes, should force us to rethink who we are as individuals, as human beings, and about the cultural stories and communities we identify with. The obstacle is that our entire culture has bought into a belief system that is fundamentally self-destructive. Our predominant egocentric view about American exceptionalism, and about ourselves as the planet’s supreme species, has prevented the vast majority of Americans from recognizing and acknowledging the larger picture behind the reality of the changes now underway.
Stoknes has identified four primary narratives that characterize the dominant belief system now crippling constructive and determined efforts to lessen humanity’s detrimental habits and behavior upon the planet. First, an over-reliance on individualism, our sense of entitlement to extract all that is necessary to maintain a comfortable lifestyle, is simply out of alignment with the way the Earth functions. He notes we are not individuals isolated from nature; we are not independent from from the air we breathe nor other species we co-exist with and depend upon to sustain our lives and health.
Second, our reliance upon reason and rationality is remarkably limited. In fact, our dependence upon reason is irrational. Referring to the latest research in the neurosciences and psychology, New York University’s Jonathan Haidt eloquently lays out the case in his The Righteous Mind that we are all intrinsically irrational creatures. Nor can we reason ourselves into being unwavering optimists about our human genius to solve climate problems. When attempting to predict the future about climate change, pure optimism, writes Stoknes in his book What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming, consistently fails.
Third, Western culture has become abnormally anthropocentric. In other words, humanity hoodwinks itself into believing we are the sole and final measure for determing the purpose of life on earth. This irrational dogma, which underlies the radical free-market capitalist agenda, also flies in the face of reality. Humans aren’t the center of everything. Many religious creeds, particularly the literalist and fundamentalist interpretations of the religions of Beni-Israel, which also wallow in climate denial, hold only to the belief that human beings alone are sacred. Such religious vanity is also anthropocentric and fails to perceive the sacred inherent throughout nature.
Finally, the belief that winning trumps all other ethical norms, or what Stoknes calls “heroism,” is the engine that is driving our civilization towards a systemic, climate-generated collapse. Government policies and corporate activities are based upon acquiring the most benefits in the least amount of time. Yet this self-destructive ethos completely ignores humanity’s co-existence with nature and therefore the dire need to find long-term solutions.
We might also add a study published by Sweden’s Uppsala University that identified and defined the primary characteristics driving climate change denialism and people’s anemic efforts to change their behavior in order to adapt to the new world of climate change. The study is particularly noteworthy at this time when the nation is violently divided between left and right, liberal and conservative, religious and non-religious, and is shredding the fragile threads for national cohesion apart. Repeatedly we hear people stating that within the past several years they feel the US has descended into a directionless state, a Tower of Babel imbued with chaotic uncertainty. It also explains why the Trump administration, the GOP and the goons in the alt-right movement are unconsciously determined to follow the current trajectory leading to humanity’s demise and extinction rather than tackle the challenges of global warming. According to the Uppsala researchers, climate change denial is strongest in people who accept hierarchical authoritarian social structures, value toughness and dominance over empathy and compassion, are exceptionally closed-minded and fearful of new experiences, and are predisposed to experiencing unhealthy emotions. Climate denialism is also far more prevalent among men who embrace a “social dominance orientation (SDO)” that pits themselves into an emotional warfare against others. It therefore follows that these are the same people most likely to experience unfortunate psychological conditions once they become victims of a climate catastrophe.
Climate-related catastrophes are already fueling an epidemic of adverse mental health disorders. The American Psychological Association sponsored a study through the College of Wooster to evaluate the impact extreme weather conditions are having on Americans’ behavior and psychological health. “Due to trauma and distress due to personal injuries, loss of a loved one, damage to or loss of personal property or even the loss of livelihood,” rates of PTSD, mood and anxiety disorders are increasing. This too will have a further economic burden upon governments and families. It is another indication that we need to urgently learn to perceive climate systemically and as a threat that will have profound negative consequences upon every aspect of our lives and our communities. Since the scientific consensus affirms the climate crisis henceforward will get bleaker, so will people’s mental and physical health conditions. As the Australian public ethics scholar Clive Hamilton remarks in his Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, “If not every human is responsible for bringing on the Anthropocene, every human is destined to live in it.”
In an earlier article, we noted how the environmental and humanitarian crisis being ushered by climate change is an economic crisis. But we should further expand upon this and identify the deep spiritual crisis in Western civilization as well. The destruction of the climate and environment is also a collective cancer, says Stoknes, that is encoded in our civilization. Clearly, the message most commonly used to warn others is not being communicated effectively. Stoknes argues this is the failure of the pro-climate and pro-environment movements to create and propogate stories that will induce enthusiastic change instead of apathy. Therefore he offers four archetypal narratives to more deeply personalize the climate change narratvie.
First, we must communicate the need to revision a new healthy economy that is green, resilient and regenerative. This is something everyone should be able to relate to. Yet this story must emphasize the mobility to reach zero fossil fuel emissions and a sustainable agricultural system that will be more resilient to the droughts and floods. The agro-chemical industrial model of the Monsantos and Bayers of the world cannot promise this and there is no sound independent science whatsoever in Big Ag’s favor to suggest it will be able to solve the demise in food security. Therefore the new narrative must convey assurances of stability while at the same time diversify. Social and ecological values need to be sown and grown to balance natural capital with the financial capital of economies and the market.
Second, Stoknes argues we must change our narrative about what defines a true quality of life. This story would reorient us towards our co-existence with the Earth, and the satisfaction and joys such a relationship brings. At a national level the fallacy that GDP is any indicator of the health of the American population ought to be trashed and replaced with an equation that recognizes the quality of the average person’s life. It would also include metrics to monitor the health or disease conditions of the environment and the quality of its capital that civilization depends upon.
Third, since religion shows no signs of going away, the faith-based institutions can still serve as a vehicle of inspiration to reorient ourselves towards protecting the earth and climate. Pope Francis’ encyclical for greening Catholicism is one example that shifts humanity’s self-infatuation with itself as the earth’s ruler to becoming the stewards who protect nature. Stoknes remarks this means we need to also be the voices of those who have no voice in the animal and plant kingdoms. Such a shift will strengthen a sense of spiritual connectedness that will cut through the conflict between theist and atheist humanism. All beliefs can find common ground in the desire for self-preservation. Even an evangelical fanatic such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who preached fire and brimstone epistles to fill the ranks of the Medieval crusades, experienced a deep co-existence with nature when he wrote:
“What I know of the divine sciences and Holy Scriptures, I learnt in woods and fields. I have had no other masters than the beeches and the oaks.”
Finally, Stoknes suggests we develop biophilia, a love for nature that is sensitive towards the balances within nature that have undergone many epochs of evolution, and to witness the beauty permeated throughout nature. This ethic of “rewilding” ourselves, will enable us to work in greater harmony with nature’s cycles and currents rather work against them that is now the norm of our capital-driven society.
Stoknes blueprint is certainly a step in the correct direction. We have few other options to stave off accelerating global warming. Inevitably, we all must begin to prepare ourselves for unpleasant and socially disruptive times ahead. Perhaps if more of us collectively make the committed effort to give up the destructive narratives inherited from our death culture and adopt narratives that bring us into closer harmony with nature and our world, there will be a realistic glimmer of hope.