Thursday, March 05, 2009

Ordinary and Human


Over at Grist, Ken Ward says that environmentalists are in denial, and it's driving them crazy, which is why they haven't made more progress on climate change:

If we accept the worst, or precautionary assessment, then U.S. environmentalists have perhaps a year to avert cataclysm, and nothing we are doing now will work. We are dealing with this terrible situation in a very ordinary and human way: by denying it.

Our denial comes in a variety of forms: we believe that President Obama can and will solve the problem; we ignore Jim Hansen's assessment and timeline; we concentrate on our jobs and organization agendas and pass over the big picture; we focus on the molehill of climate policy rather than tackle the mountain of climate politics; we assess our efforts by looking back on how far we have come and do not measure the distance still to be traveled; we scrupulously avoid criticizing each other, lacking conviction in our own courses of action and not wishing to invite criticism in turn; and we are irrationally committed to antique approaches that are self-evidently inadequate.
That's one way of looking at things, and there's surely some truth to it (though the idea that environmentalists, or leftists generally, "scrupulously avoid criticizing each other" is so bizarre that it calls Ward's overall judgment into question).

Although Ward makes some good points, he seems to me to be mired in typical rationalist oversimplification: If something terrible is happening, and we're not doing everything in our power to stop it, the problem must be that we can't truly accept that something terrible is happening. Otherwise, we'd act rationally, in our own self-interest, and do something about it. That's just common sense!
Caught in a bind, we act unconsciously to ease our psychological burden in two ways: (1) by reducing the sources of conflict, and (2) by avoiding, rejecting or denigrating new information that would increase dissonance.
Plausible or not, this theory doesn't provide an actual explanation for the "failures" of environmentalism. There are countless internal and external obstacles to effective action, no matter which serious global problems you're talking about, which makes it kind of silly to single out "denial." Having a good grasp of the problems can lead to apathy, too. Or to wallowing in the pleasures of the apocalyptic sublime. To some people, disaster may seem like the only conceivable path to social change. To others, it's a sort of justice, at long last.

Freud claimed that dreams are "the guardian of sleep"; in the same way, the function of most political rhetoric is to avoid responsibility, or at least to push the lion's share of it onto someone else, which amounts to the same thing. If this is correct, then Ward's invocation of the Awful Truth may not serve as a wake-up call, but as an invitation to doze a little longer. "Realism" can be a strategy for avoidance, too. Anything can.

I agree with Ward that it's difficult to think of catastrophe per se, without the consolation of blaming someone else for it, or aestheticizing it, or being "proved fucking right," and without a secret hope that we'll actually survive to see the transformed landscapes that fascinate us in apocalyptic books and movies. It's hard to think about it not because disaster on this scale is unthinkable — we're actually very good at picturing the worst that could happen — but because of the unbearable burden of responsibility it places on us, as individuals, to accomplish the impossible. It's not the scale of the threat people are balking at, in my opinion; it's the scale of the commitment. And nothing Ward proposes changes that, as far as I can see.

Which is not to imply that he proposes anything particularly concrete. After affirming that "we are the custodians of the only true solution," he suggests that we should convene "a general conference of environmental leadership to consider what to do," and perhaps even "experiment with new approaches." (Great idea! And this time, let's not "scrupulously avoid criticizing each other." Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend!)

I know very well that hope is not a plan. But it's also true that hope is a measure of our openness to change. Most Americans didn't lift a finger to end slavery, either, but the fact that doing so became first thinkable, then desirable — even if only from the comfort of an armchair — was not entirely irrelevant to the larger struggle that continues today. It's not enough, of course; nothing is. But it's necessary.

In saying all this, I'm ignoring the central fact that Ward himself ignores: countless people are doing what needs to be done, selflessly, in defiance of the perfectly rational fears that hold the rest of us back. And that effort is not made ridiculous by its probable failure, any more than its success would be made ridiculous by the eventual death of the sun.

And that's what bothers me about Ward's position. The "unrealistic optimism" he's complaining about is all we have, really. He concedes as much when he says that "the odds of success are vanishingly small." In that situation, optimism is unrealistic by definition, just as it is in most other really serious human endeavors. It's crazy, in a word. It always has been.

Ward seems to feel that we've been failing to communicate the necessity for change for many years now. He seems to think that what was missing, all that time, was the right message...as though there could be a "right" message, or a "sane" one, when it comes to turning society upside down.

This is why, when Ward worries that environmentalists are going crazy, I'm inclined to suggest that they're not yet crazy enough. If it's sane to fixate gloomily on "the distance still to be traveled," in whatever time remains to us, then stark insanity may be our only hope.

(Illustration: "The Collapse of the Tower of Babel" by Cornelisz Anthonisz, 1547.)

7 comments:

noel said...

Who's optimistic? We're in a boat that might be sinking. Some of us are bailing; some aren't. I figure the others will, at some point, start bailing, too. Will it be too late? Maybe; how should I know? But bailing faster when few others are, doesn't really help.

Phila said...

I figure the others will, at some point, start bailing, too.

See? That counts as "unreasonable optimism," these days...

Jazzbumpa said...

Could it be that progress on reversing climate change has been limited because there are powerful forces with a lot of money pushing in the opposite direction?

Soul searching is fine, but one of the commentors at Grist hinted that things don't happen until people are ready to change. This is true at both the personal and societal level.

Society won't be ready until most people believe that climate change is actually real. There are factions in this country that will still be denying global warming when the North-West passage is open year-round to commercial shipping.

It's hard for me to accept that environmentalists are the ones in denial, and that that is a problem in search of a solution.

What am I missing?

WV: fative. Hmmmmmm . . .

Phila said...

Could it be that progress on reversing climate change has been limited because there are powerful forces with a lot of money pushing in the opposite direction?

Yeah, there is that minor detail...but why march on ExxonMobil, when I can loll around in a hair shirt for another year or two?

It's hard for me to accept that environmentalists are the ones in denial, and that that is a problem in search of a solution.

If they're in denial about anything, IMO, it's the impossibility of separating our environmental problems from the basic assumptions of capitalism. But I'm old-fashioned that way.

Jazzbumpa said...

One thing* I don't get is why free-market enthusiasts have such a religious faith that marketeering will give rise to the best answers to all human choice situations.

To me**, it is plainly obvious that some sub-set of human problems have solutions that are highly unlikely to ever be optimized, if the only avenues available are via the "free" market*** or any other manifestation of the the profit motive. Health care and any environmental issue you can think of come readily to mind.

The conflict is between the greater good of society, as opposed to the specific benefit accruing to an individual or relatively small group. Perhaps one can generalize to other situations where the payoff is to the population at large, rather than a small group, and especially if the payoff is not immediate.
____________________
* E pluribus unum.
** An old man with bifocals.
*** As if there were such a thing.

bright lines network said...

Hi, Ken Ward here. 2 points. First, I was writing about environmental leaders (that's the "we"), who I think should perhaps be held to a different standard, don't you think? I'm mean, we've been raising money and promising to solve the problem for 20 years now. Second, I do have a fairly long list of proposals, contained in the paper "bright lines" available on Grist. Thanks for the review!

Phila said...

Hi Ken, and thanks for your comment.

First, I was writing about environmental leaders (that's the "we"), who I think should perhaps be held to a different standard, don't you think? I'm mean, we've been raising money and promising to solve the problem for 20 years now.

I appreciate your frustration, absolutely, and share it (although I haven't actually heard any promises to solve the problem).

Still, the idea that environmental leaders, as a class, are in denial just isn't convincing to me. Other than that, I think your points are well taken.

Second, I do have a fairly long list of proposals, contained in the paper "bright lines" available on Grist.

I'm sorry I wasn't aware of that at the time of writing this post. It sounds interesting, and I'll definitely take a look.

Thanks for the info, and thanks again for your comment!