Friday, February 26, 2010

Environmental Vow: Part Six

The Emotional Response


The preceding description of the crisis that we face is not primarily meant to convince the sorts of folks who would be interested in reading this essay that an environmental problem exists. That shouldn't be necessary because any intelligent, sensitive, well-read person who has been reading the newspaper, listening to the news, or, conversing with friends already knows that something is very deeply wrong. Instead, it is meant to be a recapitulation of commonly-known facts plus some logical inferences aimed at inducing a specific emotional response. I want you to take a moment and observe the sorts of feelings that you are experiencing as a result of reading the above. I suspect that you are pretty depressed. More to the point, I would suggest that after years of learning about global warming the feelings of most sensitive, engaged people has passed beyond mere depression and gone into the realm of despair. To be blunt, a large and increasing number of people simply cannot see any hope for the future and have no reason to believe that anything that they can do will avert catastrophe.

This is the same process that happens when a person is repeatedly confronted by beggars. One destitute person is someone we can help---scores or more are simply beyond our resources. And if it becomes clear that even that one has psychiatric or substance abuse problems beyond our ability to help, then even helping her becomes impossible. In this situation it is just an exercise in self-flagellation to spend any more than the minimum energy contemplating the situation. Avoiding painful thoughts is a normal and healthy response to a hopeless situation. If people don't do it they run the risk of becoming incapacitated by the horrors of human existence. They would become like soldiers who suffer from battle fatigue.

Feeling despair is not “just” a mental state. It is an actual feeling of pain. And sane people turn away from pain and follow strategies designed to avoid feeling it again. Just like the child who learns not to touch the hot stove, many people have learned to avoid paying any attention to the news casts, television documentries and lectures that tell them how bad things are in the world. Even worse, these people have taught themselves the trick of not thinking a lot of things through to their ultimate conclusion. What does, for example, a young parent of today honestly think the world is going to be like for her children? This creates real problems for the earth, however, because it means that large numbers of people who could potentially be doing a great deal to make things better are instead following strategies aimed at lessening their personal pain instead of working to solve the collective problem.

Unfortunately, some environmental activists simply do not seem to understand this human mechanism. Instead, they see society's innaction as being primarily because of ignorance about the state of the earth. For them, the way to mobilize the public is simply to explain how bad things are and how quickly they will soon be getting worse. Unfortunately, for people who are in the grips of despair, this usually has the opposite effect and encourages people to divert their attention even more.

Another misread of the situation is to think that the general public is apathetic. This fuels anger on the part of activists, who simply cannot understand how ordinary people can be so immoral as to continue to support “business as usual”. This anger sometimes manifests itself in the form of sabotage, but more often just bitter rhetoric. Unfortunately, however, this also just serves to alienate the public from the issue. If contemplating the future is so depressing that people choose to turn away and look at something else, violent words and violent action are not going to do anything more than reinforce that avoidance strategy.

Many people do realize how debilitating bad news can be. This is why there have been so many books and magazines devoted to “telling the good news”. Usually this consists of reporting the heroic efforts that one individual or small group of people are making to live in harmony with nature. But this is not helpful because these sorts of news stories are not much more than trying to create a false sense of cheerfulness----whistling past the grave-yard. Global warming is not an individual problem but rather a collective one. That means that if a small group of people do even an extra-ordinary amount to reduce their footprint the result is totally irrelevent as long as others are not stopped from ramping up their attempts to increase theirs. For example, if a large group of people totally swear off the automobile in favour of the bicycle, all this means is that the price of gasoline will go down fractionally---which will allow others to burn even more of it in their SUVs. This “Tragedy of the Commons” means that there simply cannot be private solutions to this sort of public problem. If you point this out to the people who are trying to follow the “good news”approach, they will often agree but then ask “what else do you suggest?” There may not be any easy answer to that question (this essay is an attempt), but false bravado is a very poor response to despair.

Despair is something that existed long before the threat of global warming. It has existed as long as human beings have had any sort of consciousness of the future, the world around them, and, their place within it. When a human being thinks about her death her rational mind collides with the instinct for self-preservation and the result is anxiety. Indeed this feeling was the inspiration and key theme of the oldest piece of literature that still exists: the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Beyond the issue of personal death, many people have felt enormous anxiety about the people they love: children going off to war, to the sea, to emigrate and so on. Men worried about their wives dying in childbirth. Entire families starved to death in winter, villages were pillaged by the Vikings, rampaging soldiers destroyed entire countries. At one time it was common on sea voyages for half the sailors to die of scurvy. In many ways these people faced dangers as awful, on a microscopic scale, as any we face on a macro scale through climate change.

What sustained these people? What kept them from suffering from debilitating battle fatigue and giving up? Why did they continue to have children, go to sea, march off to war, and so on? If you read the books that they wrote about themselves two answers immediately come forth: faith and honour. These two concepts motivated people in a way that most modern people cannot even begin to understand, let alone emulate. And, it is my opinion that part of the reason why society has not developed anything like a concerted approach to our environmental crisis is because it has no sort of similar unifying cultural force left that would similarly push people towards dealing with the challenges we face as a species. There are very good reasons why these two terms have become debased currency in people's minds. But, I suggest, doing away with them without creating any sort of substitute has sapped our civilization of a great deal of its vitality and has made us incapable of dealing with this most critical of problems. I believe that a key part of any substantive program to deal with global warming---and all the other environmental problems---will be to find some sort of meaningful substitute for these ideals. Not only will it motivate people to overcome their despair, it will also help overcome the instinctual resistence that people feel when their “sacred cows” are threatened.


Martin P said...

I was rather struck by the following quote from

"our present environmental difficulties are not solvable problems, but are inseparable from our current way of living. When confronted with problems that are insoluble, however, the most useful response is not to await disaster in the hope that the difficulties will magically disappear. It is to do whatever can be done, knowing that it will not amount to much."

(my italics, as it does express, sort of, the way I feel about this).

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Yes, I agree with this sentiment. But as it is expressed, it is pretty thin gruel. What I believe is that there needs to be collective action, not individual. And to do that we need something like the old appeal to faith or honour.

I have raised this with my friends in the environmental movement and they did everything but make the sign of the cross and back away from me out of the room. In contrast, the religious people I meet are so controlled by ecclesiastic structures that they simply do not see environmental issues as being religious in nature. Finally, I have met people who still believe in honour (mostly soldiers), but most of them go even further than the religious people and dismiss environmentalism as socialist propaganda.

It is this weird way our society has split up that I am trying to address in this essay.