American Psychosis

We’ve got to confront our collective denial concerning climate change

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I recently concluded that whether you drink like Charles Bukowski in his prime or are as sober as a Mormon, you should spend at least two months attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Not only because practicing AA’s 12-step program will dispel any notions that the world can or should revolve around your daily plight—but also because the future of the planet may well depend on whether or not a majority of us can wrap our brains around the central precept of step one: that our lives have become unmanageable.

It is not an easy thing, this act of relentless honestly. Just consider the trajectory of the “debate” over climate change science, which the popular media irresponsibly legitimize (see “Hot Air” on p. 58). According to 2009 data analyzed at The Green Grok, a blog hosted by Bill Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, a majority of Americans still believe that climate change is occurring. But that number is down between 8 and 15 percent from 2008, depending on which polls you read.

In a recent Gallup survey, 48 percent of Americans said the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated, compared to 41 percent a year ago. Most tellingly, George Mason and Yale universities found that 41 percent of those who disbelieve the scientific consensus became “much more sure” during the same period. “If climate were determined by public opinion,” Chameides writes, “it might seem that a global cooling trend ruled the day.”

It doesn’t. “The world is undoubtedly warming,” the Pew Center on Global Climate Change says on its website (www.pewclimate.org). This will cause a “sea-level rise that will . . . increase beach erosion and flooding from coastal storms, changes in precipitation patterns, increased risk of droughts and floods, threats to biodiversity, and a number of potential challenges for public health.”

“I feel like I’m living in a gigantic insane asylum,” Santa Barbara–based activist Fred Branfman says when he is asked to grapple with all of this data. “Not only because there’s a high percentage of people in the general population who simply can’t face reality, but because most of those who do accept the overwhelming evidence are still acting as though humanity isn’t at stake. It’s as if we’re all living in a trance.”

There are a number of theories, most of them generated on the left, as to why some citizens, a majority of whom identify themselves as politically conservative, go out of their way to refute climate change. Some believe it’s simply ignorance, evidence of a failed educational system. Others believe it is a product of blinding greed. Recently, a number of environmentalists have pointed to psychological research indicating that for some, fear of death simply trumps rationality.

“When people are confronted with things that remind them of death, they respond by shoring up their worldview, rejecting people and ideas that threaten it, and working to boost their self-­esteem,” activist George Monbiot writes in Conservation magazine (Jan.-March 2010). Monbiot—referencing the work of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker in the early 1970s and some 300 studies in 15 countries on the fear of mortality—worries that in “seeking to defend the symbolic, heroic self we create to suppress thoughts of death, we might expose the physical self to greater danger.”

Even worse, he reports, “there is already experimental evidence suggesting that some people respond to reminders of death by increasing consumption.”

It’s tempting for those of us who think we’re courageously staring down our future to write off those who are obsessed with their own demise as dense, deluded, or, worst of all, self-obsessed. Yet, save for a cadre of hardcore conservationists and vibrant activists, most of us who do believe a reduction in CO2 emissions is essential to our species’ survival are not doing nearly enough to reverse the trend. Sure, more of us have mastered the goodwill gesture: equipping our homes with digital thermostats and fluorescent light bulbs; proudly taking the bus to work or riding our bikes to the grocery store. We even throw money at politicians who pay lip service to the cause.

Too few of us, however, are willing to fully accept the notion that addressing the climate crisis demands fundamental, systemic change, which will take place only when we’re willing to radically alter our lifestyles, economic expectations, and level of political engagement.

In other words, we have yet to accept that our lives have become unmanageable.

 

Another reason to spend a couple of nights in a church basement with your friendly neighborhood AA group is that you will be encouraged to commit the following stanza to memory: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

Whether you are a born-again believer or a devoted atheist, it’s hard to deny the wisdom inherent in the Serenity Prayer. It is simply a reminder that some things deserve your energy and some things do not. And when you confuse the two, all hell breaks loose.

For much of the past decade, self-serving pundits and politicians across the ideological spectrum have encouraged us to confuse uncivilized debate with civic engagement. Instead of working to forge common ground on middle-of-the-road issues ranging from health care to privacy, we obsess over demonizing the extremes, which both wastes time and encourages people to choose teams.

“One of the big mistakes that we’re all making right now is that we’re paying too much attention to the left- and right-wing media, who are telling us what Ann Coulter or whoever has to say about climate change,” Branfman says. “I don’t care. It’s all meant to build an audience. It’s simply a distraction.”

Partly in anticipation of last Decem­ber’s climate conference in Copenhagen, environmental author Bill McKibben cofounded 350.org to create a new sense of urgency and of possibility. The way he sees it, “If you’ve spent your life marinating in Rush Limbaugh every afternoon, the odds of getting through to you are pretty low.”

“But look,” he tells me, “the status quo always has the advantage in cases like this. People who want real change are always going to have to shout louder. But even 10 percent of the populace would be more than enough to create forward movement, if those people are properly motivated and well organized.”

 The central question, then, is how to get like-minded people to leave their energy-efficient homes and pamphlet their neighborhoods, attend city council meetings, and put pressure on local industry. In a piece titled “Do Our Children Deserve to Live?” first published in the Sacramento News & Review (Dec. 3, 2009), Branfman argues that the only surefire way to force a reckoning with reality is to get out of the moment and focus on the fate of future generations.

“If a new ‘human movement’ working beside today’s environmentalists can help more people see that we are the first adults in history to pose the single greatest threat facing our children,” he writes, “there is much reason to believe that human civilization can still be saved.”

Branfman knows his strategy involves appealing to our worst fears. Yet he and McKibben both believe that if enough people finally accept that life on this planet is untenable they will begin to act. Once they see that changing their behavior
results in even the smallest of differences, a powerful movement will be born.

In the article “Psychology, Climate Change, and Sustainable Behavior,” published in Environment (Nov.-Dec. 2009), researchers Alexa Spence and Nick Pidgeon write that trying to motivate people through fear “may play into the hands of climate skeptics claiming that such messages are ‘alarmist’ and increase laypeople’s perception that climate change is exaggerated in the media.”

But, Spence and Pidgeon say, there is also “substantial evidence” that scare tactics can motivate action if “individuals feel that they have some degree of control to act in response to the problem.”

So, once again, it seems the best way for us to prompt change is to embody our values and lead by example. Or as they say in step 12: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”