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Pathological Climate Deniers


Chris Bunny, who according to Facebook is in the process of manifesting Bunnygoat Farm in Brewton, Alabama posed the following questions:

Q: What pathology causes people to deny the growing evidence that we are on the downward slope of an ecological collapse? 

A: Hi, Chris. Thank you for the questions, I promise to answer all three of them, but first I want to tell you about a pet peeve of mine that you have just triggered. I object to the creeping pathologization of thought and behavior.

I went to public school, and I know from first-hand experience that much of what goes on in public school is mind-numbingly tedious for the students. So if some school administrator were to tell me that one of my children was having trouble paying attention in class, my first thought would be, "No shit, Sherlock. That's because class is boring." But increasingly the received wisdom is not that children, particularly young boys, are justifiably bored sitting in a chair all day doing busy work so that both parents can spend those same hours languishing in corporate cubicles or stocking the shelves at Walmart. These days, the received wisdom is that these children are exhibiting neurological disfunction. They're not bored. They have Attention Deficit Disorder and need to be "treated" with prescription stimulants. I also remember school being a totalitarian environment, and I got pissed off at the capricious exercise of authority by teachers and administrators upon the students. These days my righteous anger would be a disease; ODD or Oppositional Defiant Disorder. And yes, there is a billion-dollar pharmaceutical racket for that one too.

So, rather than asking what pathology causes people to ignore the evidence of climate disruption, which flows organically into asking what sort of "treatment" will best "remedy" this "disorder," I would encourage you to ask why so many people remain unconvinced by the mounting evidence for climate disruption. I think there's a pretty good answer to that question.

Recently, Albert Bates, the lovely Olga K, and I attended the ASPO-USA conference in Washington D.C., where we saw a presentation by Chris Martinson. Chris is a fast talker, and his presentation was dense with content, but what I managed to scribble down in my notebook is that people act according to their beliefs; not according to data, that stories are very important to us, that our stories are fundamentally political, that stories lead to action, and that with the right story to motivate them, people will do extraordinary things. Applying Chris Martinson's line of reasoning to the re-formulated question, I would say that many people have not yet heard the sort of compelling story that will prompt them into the extraordinary action of which they are capable and which our global climate predicament will require of us. 

I'm also reminded of a recent episode of the Extraenvironmentalist Podcast that Olga, Albert and I listened to on our recent road trip. In that episode, the dynamic podcasting duo of Justin and Seth interviewed  Steve Volk about his recent book Fringeology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable And Couldn’t. Volk explained in the interview that when we experience what we judge to be a threat to our bodily organism we reflexively go into a fight or flight response. Or to use two dollar academic jargon, bodily threats activate our sympathetic nervous system. What's more, explained Volk, humans have come to include their belief system as part of their identity so that a threat to our belief system elicits the same neurological response as a threat to our body. Many people hold a belief system which includes the following items:

  • America is a great nation
  • Hard work is virtuous 
  • Commerce and industry make America great,
  • As an American I share in the greatness of American commerce and industry 

By their lights, anyone who is hostile to these ideas is hostile to them.

Millions of people listen to Rush Limbaugh on the radio every day for reinforcement and validation of this belief system which they regard as part of their identities. Rush Limbaugh, and many like him, have told people that the notion of global warming or man-made climate change is part of an insidious system of indoctrination which is contrary to their dearly held beliefs about themselves and their identities as Americans. Rush tells them that people who talk about global warming are against business, against hard work, against virtue, and against America. People who have had this association reinforced for them time and again hear the phrase "global warming" or "climate change" and respond internally as if they were being physically attacked. That neurological conditioning is a fait accompli. It is a fact of life. I'm not saying that it is a fundamental or unalterable fact of life, but it is one element of our current predicament, and denigrating people who hold this belief system or suggesting that they are pathological, backwards, stupid or racist makes the situation worse. It is incumbant upon people of good will who are concerned about climate change to take this into account when crafting the stories they tell to people who believe that America is great.

Crafting stories which work with existing belief systems and prompt extraordinary action from this hard-working, resourceful, and diligent segment of the population requires that the story-crafters feel empathy for hicks, hayseeds, rednecks, hillbillys and teabaggers. As a first step in developing this required empathy, I would suggest that you move to Alabama and start an organic farm.

Q: Is there a greater pattern between historical episodes of economic collapse/ecological disaster; example dust-bowl/depression?

A: Absolutely. Jared Diamond wrote a fabulous book on this very question called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Suceed. I can't reproduce all of Diamond's points from memory, but shortly after I finished reading the book, I did present my own distillation of his conclusions and prescriptions in C-Realm Podcast episode 74: Big Hat No Cattle. A couple of things I do remember off the top of my head: numerous failed societies adopted a habit of resource extraction that allowed for growth and prosperity for a time, and by the time it became obvious (or by the time that it seems to us, looking back with the benefit of hindsight, that it SHOULD have become obvious) that that mode of existence couldn't continue indefinitely, the pattern had already worked its way so far into that culture's sense of identity that their unsustainable lifestyle had become non-negotiable. Anyone who said otherwise wasn't being helpful or stating the obvious. They were attacking the identity of that culture and would have been delt with as attackers.

Q: Are the oft touted and much feared urban hordes that will roam the countryside after collapse just a symptom of ingrained racial stereotypes, or will people actually find thier way out of the city and into the rural parts of America with enough energy to still be a threat? Can they reach rich and operating farmland, or will they just starve and dehydrate before they find any farmers wife to rape or silo to commandeer?

A: Rarely is anything "just" anything else. If someone makes an assertion that takes the form of "X is just Y," I would encourage you to consider the possibility that he or she is experiencing an episode of thought stoppage or that they are trying to induce one in you. As to the specific content of your question, I think Gynne Dyer put it compellingly in his book and accompanying CBC radio documentary Climate Wars, in which he warned, "People always raid before they starve."

Is Gwyne Dyer a racist? Maybe. I didn't get that vibe from him when I interviewed him for C-Realm Podcast episode 164: Climate of Conflict. But then maybe I'm a racist, and Gwynne and I bonded over our closeted racism. I can tell you that the US Military has devoted considerable resources to forecasting and trying to prepare for the conflicts that global climate change is likley to spark. And it isn't just racism that motivates their concern.

When it comes to city dwellers raiding the country-side, they won't likely be looking for operational farms. First, people with no farming experience will not be able to feed themselves by commondeering silos or raping farmers' wives. Getting food from farmland requires skill at farming, something hungry refugees from the cities are unlikely to possess. What these dreaded urban hoards will seek will be stockpiles of food, something they're unlikely to find on working farms, which in the US mainly produce things like feed corn, wheat, and soybeans, none of which are edible straight from the field. Any raiding that does take place will probably be short-lived, as raiding assumes mobility, and the urban hordes are unlikely to have gasoline to fuel their vehicles, much less horses, or the skill, experience, or temperment needed to care for horses should they find any. Also raiding is not a very sustainable activity, particularly if the raiders are seeking Meals Ready to Eat, Ho-hos, or tins of imported Norwegian kipper snacks, none of which are produced on American farms.  

Seriously though, to me your questions imply a cultural animosity toward people living in the middle of the country, and that will be a serious hindrance to you if you actually intend to move here. The best suggestion that I can think of, short of taking MDMA with a group of Tea Party activists, would be to read Joe Bageant's autobiography, Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir


KMO is the host of the C-Realm Podcast and the author of Conversations on Collapse.

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