Published online 27 June 2012.
This topic is stuck in a psychological double bind — if we could face up to it, we’d recognize that the problem of avoiding total doom for the human race is multidimensional — there are sociological, anthropological, psychological, meteorological, and numerous other-dimensional aspects of planetary disaster and how to avoid it. But the topic of possible doom itself inspires walls of psychological denial, because it’s too scary to think about. So there’s the double bind.
In this post I am going to examine the most-talked-about of impending disasters, the disaster predicted due to global warming. I’m not going to say a lot about the specifics of this disaster — I’m going to let the video below do most of the talking for me — but what’s important to remember is that scientific forecasts of planetary global warming now predict a disaster on the order of the Permian-Triassic boundary, 251 million years ago, in which nearly all life on Earth was forced into extinction. So the curious thing about the public discussion of global warming is that we can now read and hear pronunciations of doom, of the possibility that the human race may be altogether a hopeless case because global warming will completely overwhelm our ability to cope.
At any rate, in my previous post I argued:
The political reality in which we traffic today is one of emergent and compounding disaster.
Now, my previous post discussed the optimism of a writer named Rebecca Solnit, who argued in her book that in disaster situations people will drop their internalized social attitudes and develop what Victor Turner called “antistructure,” a space outside of social structures where people can create society anew in solidaristic fashion. We can hope, then, that the “antistructure” that emerges from the coming disasters will inspire a revolution in human thinking, that will make our world-society’s disaster tendencies a PRIORITY and something we ought to fix.
Here I’d like to address the possibility that the sort of compounding disaster that’s coming down the pipe is something that will overwhelm the human race. Thus the title of my diary: “We’re doomed.” I mean to discuss the idea that “we’re doomed” as a species of argument, with origins, effects, and destinies of its own.
This post is more-or-less intended to address recent discussions such as this one, from Alex Pareene in Salon Magazine: “Earth Still Probably Doomed No Matter Which Way Court Rules.”
Even if, against the odds, the Roberts court manages to uphold the ACA, or even to find the individual mandate unconstitutional while preserving the rest of the bill’s reforms and subsidies, there is still a pretty good chance that the country and the world will face mass droughts, floods, famine and extinctions as this century draws to a close. With the global average temperature already .8 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, it is exceedingly unlikely that humanity will manage to keep the planet from warming by less than 2 degrees, which most scientists predict would be fairly disastrous for many people, even if Antonin Scalia writes a very strongly worded dissent to their models.
This argument brings us into the realm of priorities. Oh, sure, the ACA may save a few lives if upheld, based on the supposition that the insurance companies will cooperate with the law and actually grant people CARE rather than just mere “coverage.” This, in turn, is based on the assumptions that health insurance in 2014 under the ACA won’t be too expensive and won’t meet up with (possibly illegal, but unenforced) insurer failures to pay and won’t be priced out of the patient’s ability to pay with prohibitive copays and deductibles. But the ACA “solution” as such will at best be trivial compared with the health care nightmare which global warming will bring to the world.Pareene’s idea, then, is that the band-aid approach to the health care crisis as championed by the ACA is at best a diversion — the real health care catastrophe coming down the pipe is the one that global warming will bring us.
Now, I suppose this isn’t an either-or matter — we could have both a health care solution and a global warming solution. The problem, of course, is that the particular solution chosen for health care was one which enriched insurance corporations with public funds. No special interest is enriched by a genuine solution to global warming. Oh, sure, a genuine solution to global warming would help the human race and the planet, but do politicians care about such things? A genuine solution to global warming will help no industry which can offer sweet think-tank jobs to retired politicians.
None of the “serious people,” then, in Washington DC is discussing global warming solutions. Perhaps it is only to be expected that the discussion about global warming entertains a degree of alarmism about near-term human extinction because of climatic doom — what do they have to say before any of the “serious people” pays attention? So in general the question the climate scientists are asking this month is one of whether or not we’ve “reached a tipping point” — has the problem gotten so bad that there is really no going back, and we can just kiss the human race goodbye?
But perhaps these links are not enough, and my audience here still needs a good simple oral explanation of the “we’re doomed” global warming scenario. For those of you in that category, please take a look at this video by David Roberts of Grist Magazine:
“If we keep doing what we’re now doing, we are screwed. This we know now.”
That’s the rhetoric at its core.
Roberts’ conclusion: “To stabilize temperature, global climate emissions must peak within 5-10 years and decline rapidly every year thereafter.” Last I looked, no such option was even in the planning stages for my November 2012 voter ballot — in fact, practically nobody in American society is even TALKING about such a plan.
Let’s switch focus, now, to David Swanson’s most recent blog entry, “The End Is Near.” Swanson, here, is arguing that the failure of the “summit” in Rio is a pretty ridiculous echo of a conclusion that world leaders could have drawn eight years ago, when the 30-year edition of “The Limits To Growth” came out. As Swanson says:
If we wait for Wall Street to decide that destroying the Earth is a bad idea, the basic systems of life on Earth will collapse in shortages, crises, and widespread suffering. Instead, we have to enforce change as a society, and we have to do it now.
At any rate, admitting the possibility that we could just be completely lost as a civilization means getting past the denial of such a possibility. But acceptance of the possibility of doom might threaten the possibility of one’s even caring about the future at all. If we’re doomed, well, then why bother? If we’re doomed, then why bother with any sort of preparation for abrupt climate change at all? Crank up the Hummer and turn on the AC! Tell your kids to kiss their rear ends goodbye! Live for the moment! Party like there’s no tomorrow! And by all means stop talking about serious stuff. It depresses the hell out of us, and life is short!There are plenty of different species of denial at work in an inspection of opinions about global warming. The famed Republican denial that it’s happening is only one of them. Also in the bidding for the denial sweepstakes should be “Global warming is happening but it won’t be disastrous,” “global warming is happening but there’s no solution,” and “global warming is happening but we can’t deal with it effectively because (name your excuse).”
In fact, the only real escape from global warming denial is a proactive solution to the problem. Without the possibility of such a solution, we might as well be deniers, or at least ignorers.
You should be able to see, then, how the psychological double bind works. As collective hope for a proactive solution fades with the continued acceleration of greenhouse gas emissions, the psychological tendency to deny the possibility of such a solution increases.
First off, it cannot be overstated that global warming is not the sort of problem that will be solved through individual responsibility. Global warming is essentially a social problem, and it requires a collective solution. The tipping point is when world society imposes a phase-out of fossil fuel extraction, not when we buy Priuses.
Secondly, we can observe that solutions to global warming will become a priority when other priorities are dethroned. Knowing this underscores the idea of what a priority is — if collective survival means more to the human race than anything else, then all of the “anything elses” must take second place.
The most important of these priorities is what I’ve been calling capitalist discipline. Capitalist discipline is what motivates us to pursue “careers,” to work for “wages” or “salaries,” and to obey the fundamental dictates of the capitalist system and the governments that keep it in place. As a replacement for capitalist discipline, we will need to imagine a sort of “ecological discipline” — a discipline that impels people to seek out sustainable ways of life and to maintain those ways through an increased sensitivity to the relationships of the natural and social worlds.
An interesting take on the psychology of rational responses to the current world-situation (and here I’d like to avoid terms like “radical,” “progressive,” and so on — survival is a human impulse, not that of someone with a particular political stripe) is offered by Bruce E. Levine in this piece for ZCommunications: “Liberation Psychology for the US: Are We Too Demoralized To Protest?” I feel that this is an important piece because Levine gets to some of the psychological “climates” that can be found in the United States which discourage people from being activists. Levine’s point of connection for our purposes, here, is in his observation about something Noam Chomsky said:
In the question and answer period that followed a Noam Chomsky talk (reported in Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, 2002), a somewhat demoralized person in the audience asked Chomsky if he too ever went through a phase of hopelessness. Chomsky responded, “Yeah, every evening…. If you want to feel hopeless, there are a lot of things you could feel hopeless about. If you want to sort of work out objectively what’s the chance that the human species will survive for another century, probably not very high. But I mean, what’s the point?…. First of all, those predictions don’t mean anything—they’re more just a reflection of your mood or your personality than anything else. And if you act on that assumption, then you’re guaranteeing that’ll happen. If you act on the assumption that things can change, well, maybe they will. Okay, the only rational choice, given those alternatives, is to forget pessimism.”
Pessimism, then, leads to denial, which forms the double bind. I think that it’s safe to say that once world society can break the psychological double bind, and make a proactive solution its priority, the world will itself look different. Until then, we get doom and denial.