Climate denialism among progressives

Climate denial is the preserve of god-fearing, right wing nutters right? Certainly, the denial of climate science is favourite pass time of shock jocks on the right. But what about climate politics?  That is an entirely different matter. It cuts both ways. For instance on the progressive side, there is an enormous amount of bullshit and tech-hocus-pocus to the effect that we can have our cake (modern dentistry, antibiotics, consumer culture, highly progressive technology, ‘progress’) and eat it also (i.e. that we can do all the above ‘sustainably’). There is an almost complete denial of the fact that institutional and ideational forms of social emancipation which, in the West, we have  [quite rightly] naturalized and made effectively ‘non-negotiable’ – have an intrinsic and ‘inelastic’ relationship with energy/material throughput; that social complexity is a low entropy phenomenon and expensive.

Think for example (a) of the idea of human rights and the complex social/institutional structures needed to give it substance;  (b) of all the nuts and bolts of the Keynesian welfare state (KWS); (c) of all the dominant forms of feminist thought and practice that centre on access to the capitalist labour market; (d) of the very specific forms of emancipation associated with a universal right to independent living and autonomy for people with disability —  these are undoubtedly great achievements! They are even ‘non-negotiable’ – in the sense that the very suggestion of trade-offs in these areas (bar perhaps the more extensive manifestations of the KWS) is increasingly taboo in mainstream political culture. Even right wing conservatives, feel the need to suggest that reducing state expenditures on disability provision will clear the way to better provision, greater autonomy, and more independence through well-functioning markets (clearly a stupid idea). They don’t have the bollocks  or honesty (usually) to reject explicitly or overtly, the goal of independent living in itself. But at the same such welfare  provisions do depend upon economic growth. The state and the market are co-evolved and co-dependent. You can’t have one without the other.

In the world of capitalist-welfare economics, all consumption is good – because all economic transactions, all movements of people, goods and capital, and all transformations of nature directly or indirectly, generate fiscal transfers to pay for public infrastructure and services. There is no ‘trivial consumption’ in this sense. And because of this, at such time when biophysical limits to growth begin to undermine the growth machine, these non-negotiable cultural and political priorities  will be ‘negotiated.’ Precisely because ‘nature bats last’ resources are limited and the enduring focus for political conflict. However taboo such a conversation may be right now, in the face of systemic resource constraints, we will negotiate our priorities, choices will be made, incommensurable interests and experiences will be compared and traded-off against each other.

It is disingenuous or self-denying for liberal academia and the sustainability industry to suggest otherwise. It is precisely those laudable social commitments that form a kind of climate denial.  They [religious conservatives and neo-cons] deny the science. We [progressives] deny the social-political implications.  How do these forms of climate denial relate to each other?  If we are to find a sustainable political economy that might nurture some kind of global civilization for, let’s say, one or ten millennia, then it seems likely to me that SOME aspects of land-based, family-based, traditional conservative thought and practice might have to come into the conversation – might have something to offer. I am thinking of : (a)  the resurgence of indigenous practice and ‘traditional knowledge’ [which separate from an instrumental alignment with diversity politics within liberal capitalist states, is not in itself necessarily ‘liberal’ in the sense of being aligned to rational / moral individualism, (individual) human rights (as opposed to say a ‘land ethic’) etc; (b) conservative traditions associated with Aristotelian/Thomist virtue ethics – Macintyre, William Ophuls’ most recent works, Adrian Pabst and John Milbank (c) the social-catholic tradition of distributism (d) any kind of bioregionalism – if taken seriously ….all of which would be well placed to have an interesting conversation with   (e) certain anarchist traditions, some (f)  libertarian ideas (e.g. Kevin Carson’s Homebrew Industrial Revolution) ,  (g) Wendell Berry (a tradition of his own),  (h)William Morris etc.

The problem we have now is not simply or even most importantly the denial of climate science. It is a discourse that aligns denialism versus truth/facticity, with right versus left, and good versus bad. A conversation across the lines can’t take place when the choice is Clinton versus Trump; and it will never take place when liberals think that they have all the answers, that the science of climate change doesn’t pose terminal/existential questions to both the consumer economy BUT ALSO cosmopolitan diversity politics AND social democratic redistributive projects. As far as I can see, with regard to climate, Trump, Clinton, Obama and Trudeau are on the same side. I am with Paul Kingsnorth on that.  Look at Trudeau! – Could there be a more attractive poster-boy for progressive politics? – He just signed off on pipe-lines for big oil!  Clinton/Obama – global free-traders on steroids.  In what way is he, or are they, more progressive than a pro-life conservative Catholic distributist who would at the same time challenge the market economy and wants a more embedded but culturally conservative form of political economy involving substantial aspects of livelihood, gift economy, reciprocity – and a definition of the good life that centres family over wealth/acquisition and consumption?  Both sides are in denial. Self-preservation might lead me to side with the distributist…without any illusions. But there may be really interesting possibilities that we can’t see for want of a conversation across the tracks.

Some references:

The Manifesto


A few thoughts from reading Elias, White, and Levinas


In reading Norbert Elias (whose work I have just started to read, starting with The Symbol Theory) and re-reading the Lynn White thesis, I’ve been thinking about the role of religion, worldview, culture, and language in the ecological crisis.   I’m integrating this with past thinking I’ve done about why nonhuman others have been excluded from ethical consideration in the modern world.  Why do people categorize nonhuman others as objects rather than potentially other persons?  Why is modern industrial civilization so anthropocentric?  Lynn White Jr. suggests that Christianity is to blame.  Elias’ work suggests it goes much deeper than that, to the development of language and the first human cultures.  Elias’ work may afford some useful refinements in thinking I’ve done before about Levinasian ethics (Davy 2007).

White sees ecology as what people think about how they are related to their environments, which is fundamentally informed by religion.  He points to the switch from pagan animism to Christianity as “the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture.”  When there are no more genius loci, no more divinity in nature to placate, nature is reduced to a resource to be exploited.  He presents Christianity as anthropocentric – more so than any other religion – and a driving impetus of scientific knowledge until recently in the West.  The Christian sense of nature as not animated by spirit continues to inform scientific/secular understanding of nature, as having no intrinsic value, no rights.  White argues that we need to reject the Western Christian idea of nature as mere resource to be exploited.  He says that because the roots of the ecological crisis are religious, “the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not.”  This is the origin of the idea that we need to change our worldview to remedy the ecological crisis.

White’s area of expertise was technological innovation in the Middle Ages (Elspeth Whitney “Thesis of Lynn White (1907-1987)” in Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, Ed. Bron Taylor.   vol 2 p 1735).  He found that the pursuit of technology, and mastery of nature, are core values of Western culture (and that they are rooted in Western Christianity).  Mastery came from wanting to be like God, with science was seen as a way of coming to know the world as God does, and the goal was to master it, to have dominion, as God gave humans in the creation story in Genesis.

Core values are often not conscious, but are inculcated by religion (I could just as easily say “worldview” or “culture” as religion).  Religion sometimes makes such values explicit, or they can be “read” in ritual if not myth or doctrine.  What the religion and language arguments for the causes of the ecological crisis come down to is that our worldview, our discourse, religion, language/epistemology structure how we relate with others in the world – as resource vs. as more than human world (David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous), as gakina gegoo (Anishnabe for “everything”), through etiquette of respect for other than human persons (animism or “pan-psychism”).  Put “language” in place of Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion, and we see that the words we use are crucial to how we understand the world and our place in it.  Geertz:  a religion is

(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. (Geertz “Religion as a Cultural System” The Interpretation of Cultures.  1965.  p. 90-91)

Language is a system of symbols that establishes a sense of what is real.  It’s not as though we can shed our cultural blinkers by shedding Christianity and becoming secular, despite what many scientists, and more particularly advocates of science replacing religion suppose.  Our language continues to exert force on what we know and how we know it – most obviously about what is real and what is imagined.

Language is key to how we understand the world.  The words we use to describe and understand things matter:  having a word for “environment” tells us something about how we perceive the world and our position in it.  If we don’t have a word for something, we can’t talk about it (Elias The Symbol Theory 6).  An example not in Elias’ book, but one I’ve come across before:  in English, all shades of blue can be called blue; in Russian, and a number of other languages, there are separate words for light blue and dark blue.  While we can say cyan blue and royal blue, we are not that great at distinguishing shades, and in fact speakers of Russian are much better at discerning shades of blue than English speakers are (though this is changing as cyan is used more and more in discussion of colour for computer screens and flat panel tvs).

Similarly, if I believe in land wights, and live in a culture that has words for them I’m more likely to be aware of them and perceive them.  In a culture that lacks such concepts as land wight or genius loci, one can only suppose such ideas are fanciful, projections of “spirit” into nature.  Similarly, who is morally considerable in a given society is governed by who can be perceived as a person – in Western civilization, only humans.  For new animists, some nonhumans might be met as persons because they are classed as persons.

Without language, the world is undifferentiated, unthematized – no subject-object divide, no culture-nature divide, or human/environment divide.  To say knowledge rests on the subject-object divide misses that language structure how we know the world, not that we can’t know it without making that particular distinction.  I agree with Elias here.  He presents a post-structuralist understanding of language and knowledge.  Elias questions Lévi-Strauss’ idea that the human mind is structured in binary oppositions (see pg. 8-9, 87).  But Elias uses the distinction between living and inanimate objects as an example of the development of reality-congruent knowledge (9).  He would not share my interest in reviving animism.

Elias says that the words we use to talk about things can create resistance against new knowledge about the world, and ideas about it.  We get stuck in familiar patterns of thinking, and the words we use to conduct that thinking limit what we can think about the topic thought about (though not fully determine it – otherwise we’d never have new ideas).  To think, to speak, to know are not really distinct (85).   Elias notes that language does not completely determine knowledge/experience – we can question, as Elias does (91), and, I would add, the other can put us in question, as in Levinasian interruption.

Elias seems to have an evolutional idea of civilization progressing from magical explanations to more “reality-congruent” ones (see 94-95).  This would be problematic for those of us critical of the idea that Western civilization as more advanced or better than previous and other civilizations.  But I think he means we have evolved from our ancestral ideas, becoming more reality-congruent, without putting a positive valuation on us being “more evolved” or better than our ancestors.  I’m not totally clear on this.

Elias explains that coming to know the world is a process.  We use experimental fantasies to try out ideas, and work towards reality-congruence (96).  Thinking of them as fake or false is not helpful he says, because innovation and reality-testing are both necessary.  Also, humans have a great need for collective fantasy.  While individual fantasy can be dangerous, the human need for enactment of fantasies is basic and urgent (98).  Elias argues that fantasy knowledge filled gaps in reality-congruent knowledge for our ancestors.  While they didn’t know that a volcano was dangerous because of lava and shifts in the earth’s crust, it was important for them to know something about it to keep themselves safe.  Supposing that it was a dragon, or a demon’s smithy made them respect the danger (93).  I’m inclined to playfully question how much more useful our scientific knowledge is.  Aren’t we more likely to respect a dragon than a scientists rambling of statistics and probabilities?  We certainly don’t show any signs of respect for the dangers of climate change as a society.  Maybe scary monsters would work better.  Humans learn better through narrative than numbers.  Maybe we should personify the dangers.  Focusing on the plight of people and animals who will be harmed does not seem to be motivating unless we put a face on them, and tell the story of specific individuals.  A picture of one boy drowned at sea, or Cecil the lion, garner more attention than any number of statistics, as we recently discussed in the PhD seminar class.

An important implication of Elias understanding of language and the civilizing process, I think, is that Levinas’ description of being chez soi is not innate to humans but an artifact of a particular mindset that has become dominant.  It is not human nature to want to master the world, but a particularly pernicious way of thinking about human nature.  The idea of the rational individual is still powerful, along with associated privilege, mastery, rights, and consumption – pulling all into the realm of one’s own (being chez soi, in Levinas’ terms).

Privileged humans are taking over the whole planet, drawing everything into ourselves and transforming it into being chez soi.  It too often seems like sustainability is about how to let everyone have their household and maintain it, not about how the rich need to open their door to the poor, and stop consuming, incorporating, everything and everyone into themselves.  People who work in sustainability, like Robert Gibson, and restoration ecology, like Steve Murphy at the University of Waterloo, are actively doing something to fix the ecological crisis.  The work I am and doing, and Stephen Quilley, is more about arguing about the causes and how to get more radical change.  Ironically, though we desire deeper change we are doing less actively to get it.  The sort of change I am advocating for, at the level of language and culture, occurs at the rate of cultural drift.  (I think I heard it described that way first by Adrian Ivakhiv, but I don’t recall where.)  The question is will it be fast enough, and what can we do to speed it up?  One avenue is through religious innovation, and attempts to develop contemporary Paganism as a shallow basin of attraction, something I aim to explore in my current research with Quilley.