Mass psychology explanations of global warming denial

Published online 8 March 2012.

What prompted me, initially, to write about this topic was don mikulecky’s diary “The Climate Wars: can the human mind deal with this struggle?”  don mikulecky suggests, toward the end of a narrative about framing and global warming deniers:

The human mind seems to be  rational on rare occasions if at all.

I suppose one might feel moved at some point to grab the whole of the human race by the shoulders and shake it back and forth, yelling WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?  Is there really something wrong with the human race, such that it appears doomed to pollute its atmosphere with enormous quantities of carbon dioxide, destroying its ecosystems and bringing its “civilization” into a new Dark Ages.  Such would be the King of Irrational Outcomes — billions of participants in the most extensive and intensive of civilizations, all for nothing.  Sure, we can blame the problem on the deniers and their successful framing of the problem of global warming, arguing to ourselves that if we only framed the debate correctly, the deniers would be discredited and we’d be on our way to a solution tomorrow.  But we know there’s something more to it than that; something’s wrong with us.Below the fold, I am going to look at some explanations, lodged in mass psychology, for why humanity would place itself upon a course of action that will predictably end up in a self-destructive environmental catastrophe.  First, though, I am going to discuss the narrative of destructive, scary global warming, and of why it so deserves our attention that we would change ourselves as a species in order to deal with it.

Such a catastrophe certainly appears as a possibility — careful climatologists such as James Hansen have suggested that Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide endowment is already beyond safe limits, while greenhouse gas emissions continue to accelerate.  Meanwhile, as don mikulecky notes, there is really no mainstream political initiative to do anything about the problem.

A good summary of the climatologists’ worries about the atmospheric accumulation of carbon dioxide is to be found in Mark Lynas’ book Six Degrees.  Here we can read about the ultimate denouement of humanity’s burning of all of the fossil fuels — huge bursts of methane arising from the clathrates at the bottom of the oceans, resulting in a toxically-hot planet Earth.  It is hard to envision what sort of civilization would survive such a catastrophic outcome — perhaps a few survivalist colonies would survive in the area around the Arctic Circle or something like that.  Lesser outcomes (as described in Lynas’ book) are also quite scary: famines and heat waves will kill millions, oceans will turn acidic, new deserts will form, water sources will dry up.

The social thinker Sing C. Chew imagined a new Dark Age coming from human activity in this era, though there are certainly a number of negative critical reviews of Chew’s books which fault the cavalier nature of his attempt to graft historical data on ecology onto world-systems theory.  (Here’s one from the geographic perspective; here’s another that faults Chew’s use of historical data.  The review of one of Chew’s volumes in the Journal of World-Systems Research is not kindly either.)  Regardless of Chew’s methods, his project is itself directly relevant to our understanding of what is in store for us. If history is indeed guided by the social relations of a world-system, and if the world system is just going to let carbon dioxide accumulate into the atmosphere until our global ecosystems crash (as they did 251.4 million years ago), then we are certainly headed for a new dark ages.

Generally, such dire warnings are dismissed by the mass public as mere scary stories.  As regards the actual content of the stories, however, the science is inflexible — increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide result in increases in average global temperature, and here I’d refer the skeptics to Coby Beck’s online encyclopedia of responses titled “How To Talk to a Climate Skeptic.”  Beck’s approach is on-target because there is really no counter-narrative advanced by the skeptics which convincingly explains how a 40% increase in Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide endowment is going to result in no significant temperature increase.  Rather, denier discourse is a jumble of disputations: the scientists are conspiring, the change isn’t that drastic, it’s not getting hotter, the sun is causing it, there is no proof.  All of which reveal a spirit of denial, such as that which don mikulecky reported in Virginia in his diary of February 25th.  There is no real disputation of the narrative, that of global warming resulting in a vast simplification of both nature and humanity — just a series of ineffectual roadblocks to our general adherence to its contours.

Denial, however, goes far deeper than that stratum of society which argues against the reality of global warming.  Denial is also promoted by those forces which argue “there’s no real solution so let’s just ignore it,” or those who propose solutions which will obviously not work — and if we can pretend hard enough that they will work, our duty to “do something” as good liberals will have been rightfully discharged.  “Alternative energy” will not, in itself, prove to be anything of a solution to global warming — it will merely supplement fossil energy, because the capitalist economy will simply soak up whatever energy resources are placed on the “free market.”  The capitalist growth imperative, however, is the reason the world-system consumes such incredibly high levels of energy to begin with.

If we are to stop consuming fossil fuels, i.e. burning them into the atmosphere, we must stop producing them.  The alternative, which is promoted today as “carbon capture and storage,” appears to be full of perils and will probably appear too costly anyway.  At any rate, to stop producing fossil fuels means to take said fuels out of the cycle of commodities — to refuse to grant them value (in the sense of exchange-value).  To make “crude oil reserves” into something that is no longer a commodity is to go against the current political order and its economic centerpiece, the global “free market.”  The denial of this truth is the more common species of denial.

So how can we confront a world in denial?  Here I will have to speculate a bit, and imagine a discussion of global warming based on ideas of mass psychology which themselves say nothing about global warming.

Let me suggest three main mass-psychology explanations which, with a little effort, could be put to service in understanding what’s wrong with us, why we don’t look for a solution to global warming:

1) Neo-Gramscian.  The idea here is that there is a set of hegemonic institutions which promote denier values.  The public is then led to believe that the denier values are natural values, congruent with common sense.  Our economic and political institutions are run by a group of people, a “jet set,” whose lifestyles are dependent upon enormous ecological footprints.  For the neo-Gramscians, in between the ruling class and the workers is a managerial class, who has been tasked with solving ecological problems but who must do so in line with the wishes of the ruling class, who are their employers.  The managerial class must respect environmentalism, then, but they must do so in a way that keeps everyone respecting the capitalist system, because their jobs depend upon it.  So we continue to believe that our current institutions are okay, and that all we need to do is to add environmentalism to them and they will be good to go.

2) Frankfurt school.  In the Frankfurt school variation, humanity is compulsively attached to capitalist and consumer life, and so denial is simply an outgrowth of that compulsion.  Since capitalist economic growth is dependent upon ever-upward increases in mass consumption, consumer society can never deliver satisfaction, and must instead promote compulsive consumption.

From this theory, we might speculate, the current consumer society is likely to find refuge in acts of consumption (of, perhaps, “alternative energies”) as perceived solutions to global warming, when what is needed is a supreme act of collective non-consumption, non-consumption of fossil fuels.

3) Neuropsychological.  Here I am taking a clue from Cordelia Fine’s “A Mind Of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts And Deceives.”  One central idea underlying Fine’s examples of mental self-delusion is that minds are made up through notions of self-interest rather than of what is real.  The reason why this works, Fine surmises, is that the unconscious mind is really in charge, and the conscious mind is merely fulfilling the programming of the unconscious mind. The “self interest” ideas, then, reflect what the unconscious wanted anyway.

So are we unconsciously programmed to consume fossil fuels?  This brings us back to the other two mass psychologies.  What in our environment refuses to let us go, when what we really want to do is find a solution to global warming?


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