Margaret Klein’s insightful analysis of Climate Denial impressed me.
Our society is living within a massive lie. The lie says, “Everything is fine and we should proceed with business as usual. We are not destroying our climate and, with it, our stability and our civilization. We are not committing passive suicide.”
The lie says we are fine—that climate change isn’t real, or is uncertain, or is far away, or won’t be bad enough to threaten humanity. The lie says that small changes will solve the problem. That recycling, bicycling, or closing the Keystone Pipeline will solve the problem. The lie allows people to put climate change in the back of their minds. To view it as someone else’s issue—the domain of scientists or activists. The lie allows us to focus on other things. To proceed with business as usual. To be calm and complacent while our planet burns.
By delaying action, we are playing round after round of Russian Roulette. Instead of recognizing the gruesome danger and inevitable outcome, we comfort ourselves with the fact that the bullet might not be in the chamber this time.The lie says that there is no crisis. That business as usual is fine. That our species is not marching towards its doom. The lie is our enemy, and our survival depends on fighting it. But knowing the truth isn’t enough. To beat the lie, we have to do more than know the truth. We have to live the truth.
We must honor our truth by becoming politically and socially engaged. [emphasis mine]
We can learn from the experience of the Czeck people's overthrow of Communism, she exhorts.
In his 1978 essay, the Czeck political writer Vaclav Havel argued that Czechs were largely cynical about the State, but hid their feelings and acted compliant, in order to avoid trouble. Havel wrote that much more important than what you believed about the State and its ideology was how you lived. By living “within the lie” of the State—by displaying communist propaganda, voting in phony elections, and not speaking your real opinions—people supported the lie and maintained the system, even if they privately believed the state was corrupt. One persons’ living within the lie put pressure on their families and neighbors to do the same. Havel introduced the concept of resisting the states’ lies through “Living in truth,” meaning refusing to take part in rituals or displays that one did not believe in, that one should speak one’s mind and pursue one’s goals and activities with the truth in mind, whether the State will approve or not.
Havel saw that living in truth offered the possibility for a rapid change in society—that a revolution could occur simultaneously in many sectors of society.
In 1989, Czechoslovakia had a non-violent revolution—“the Velvet Revolution”— in which massive protests and general strikes caused the Communist government to relinquish its power. During this peaceful transition of power from totalitarianism to democracy, Havel became the first elected President of Czechoslovakia. Enough people were living in truth, the lie could no longer breathe. Havel was right—when people stopped living within the lie, the lie simply collapsed. [emphasis mine]
The United States in 2013 may seem nothing like the Soviet Bloc in 1978. In some ways, the situations are very different. But the crucial commonality is that both systems are built on lies, and are sustained by people living within the lies.
Because Americans do not live in a totalitarian system, our lie is a lie co-created by the government, corporations, the media, and the people. These organizations encourage the lie, but it only exists because we, the people accept it and choose to live within it. The lie exists in different forms in different segments of society. But the basic lie is “We should continue with business as usual, for everything is fine. There is no impending climate collapse. There is no need for a massive social-political movement. There is nothing I can do; climate change doesn’t concern me.”
The lie itself is different in content, but it operates in the same ways as the Communist totalitarian lie–through conformity and collectively reinforcing the lie. [emphasis mine]
Her chief contribution, for me, was enumerating the forms denial takes.
Most Americans are aware that climate change is a near-term threat to humanity. But what they believe doesn’t matter. How they live matters. By proceeding with business as usual, by living and working within the current system rather than fighting for a major social and political change—they live within the lie, prop up the lie, and maintain the collision course we are on.
There are three major ways that the Climate Lie operates: Intellectual denial, emotional denial, and environmental tokenism.
When people reference “Climate Change Denial” they are referring to intellectual denial. People who refuse to believe that climate change is really happening, or really caused by humans, or so forth.
Most people who “believe” in climate change do not “feel” the affects, emotionally, of what they know. They deny their own emotional response. They do not feel terror, anger, grief, or guilt. They do not feel the pull to organize with their fellow humans and fight back against climate change.
Much of this emotional denial is borne from feelings of helplessness.
Cynicism is a common expression of emotional denial. Many of the well-heeled, erudite, people whom I speak with about climate change tell me that “we are fucked.” Cynicism pairs intellectual belief with emotional denial and renunciation of personal responsibility and the social contract. Rather than work together to solve our shared problem, cynics declare climate change hopeless, a foregone conclusion.
Cynics blame those who are in intellectual denial.
Environmental tokenism plays a major role in maintaining the Climate Lie. Tokenism asks that you reduce your carbon footprint, recycle, bike, and turn off the lights when you leave a room. This is the dominant discourse on climate change. When people think: “God, climate change is terrifying! What should I do to stop it?” the answer they usually find or is supplied for them is to reduce their individual emissions.
This approach is a-political, even anti-political. The “solution” takes place individually, in private. It is not organized and shared. It does not challenge existing power structures.
Further, it belies a fundamental misunderstanding of human civilization. We are not merely a collection of individuals. No man is an island; we live in a web of complex systems, which are bigger than us. No one of us created this mess, and no one of us can end it. Individual consumption decisions can never create a carbon tax, they can’t build public transit systems, and they can’t make a city more resilient to hurricanes. Voluntary individual actions can’t do much, really, they are a drop in the bucket.
And that is why individual attempts to reduce consumption are tokenism. They substitute insignificant action for significant action. They give the feeling of making a difference without really making one.
They serve as an act of symbolic cleansing. Letting us say, “I have done my part. My hands are clean.” These actions serve a magical function, psychologically, like a lucky rabbits foot.
But Environmental tokenism will not save us. It is the wrong scale.
Environmental tokenism encourages us to live within the lie. It assigns responding to the ecological collapse to the individual realm, thus allowing public business to continue as usual.
How to Live in Climate Truth, Politically
The best existing advocacy group, in my knowledge, 350 is an organization that lives in truth, but they lack a comprehensive plan for victory—focusing on relatively small goals, such as stopping the Keystone Pipeline.
[bold paragraph titles are hers, bold withing paragraphs is mine]
Very good article ... changes need to be made
I'm kinda stuck in the tokenism stage. I belong to 350.org and contribute a little, but I don't organize. The most I do is sign stuff or send email to politicians, which is really almost useless. They don't listen to the 90%, they "listen" to the 1% who pay for their campaigns. I've never held a meeting at my house or participated in a mass protest.
Powerful! She writes clearly and doesn't mince words. Thanks for sharing.
May I Twitter with attribution to you Ruth?
Problem: If I Twitter an entire article, I have three choices.
1. Twitter from the site of the Discussion.
2. Copy to my "Politics, Economics and Religion" site and Twitter from there.
3. Go to the original article and Twitter from there.
If you have an opinion about - what are the pros and/or cons of these choices? Does posting from your site create any problems for you or for Atheist Nexus. I have noticed that many who respond to my Twitter or Facebook posts join Atheist Nexus.
In case anyone who is not aware, if I post from my Twitter, it goes automatically to Facebook and Athiest Nexus.