–E. M. Forster
If we were to consider the recent election and its aftermath as a dry run or a sort of stress-test for the way the more liberal half of America will respond to the emerging climate crisis, the outlook is mixed, at best. Of course the election was entirely about other issues, many of them with dire need of all the attention they received and continue to receive. We have, after all, elected an openly misogynist and racist man, who whipped his crowds into a frenzy by appealing to the fear of Mexicans and Muslims. One of the most disturbing aspects of his victory, at least for me, is the license that closeted bigots now believe themselves to have to openly express their hostility in public, though it is good, at least, to know where we as a country are in this respect. Educators, meanwhile, have overwhelmingly reported a distinct uptick in expressions of hate and acts of intimidation towards LGBT students, minorities in largely white areas, as well as immigrants. The election of Trump is indeed a tragedy for the ongoing struggles against racial and sexual discrimination, as well as our waning traditions of political civility and public reason.
It is true that there have been some very positive responses to the terribly misguided election of Donald Trump, especially efforts at solidarity. I’m thinking, for instance, of Universities that have pledged to be “safe havens,” or compassionate individuals who are renewing support for marginalized people, whether through large acts or simple kindnesses. I have also been impressed by some of the efforts of journalist to understand the new dynamics of the American electorate, and who have started introducing concept like the “liberal bubble,” while adding dimensions to the portrait of “the” Trump supporter.
But I have also been troubled by the large number of liberals who, as a response to Trump, have adopted a pose resembling a sort of mirror image—not in content, but certainly in format–to some of the worst sides of Trump or some of his supporters. Because we will need additional doses of political resiliency in the future, this unhinging of the center-left does not bode well. I’m thinking, here, of the many disappointed Clinton supporters who now are openly spewing their own hate and are unabashed not only at declaring their own moral superiority to Trump supporters—now lumped into a single homogenous monolith of the sort used to justify racial or ethnic prejudice—not to mention the open season, in some liberal hotspots, on anyone not willing to join in on this frenzy of despair and vilification. Attempt to broaden or deepen your understanding or measure your response, and you should expect a chorus of people to tell you that you just don’t get it—as if there is only one thing to understand.
This does not bode well for the future for the very simple, but rarely acknowledged, fact that the climate crisis will not appear as a climate crisis, at least not to most people in the U.S. Rather, it will appear as a political crisis, often precipitated by economic upheaval. It will come in the form of migration, of course, but also in the form of poverty and a growing underclass of people uprooted from their old livelihoods, with little support from a government and society stretched too thin by mounting crises. Very likely it will have racist component, which doesn’t mean that there will all of a sudden be more horrible and bad people. Rather, it means that when ecological and thus economic crises squeeze people, trust horizons shrink, fault lines widen, and people (good enlightened urban liberals, we are seeing, as well) become more tribal. As Trump so clearly shows, these shrinking trust horizons are exceedingly easy to manipulate.
My hope, as the disheartening election results rolled in on that nightmarish night in November, was that more people would use this moment to take stock of the fact that our political system has become dysfunctional and would look for a way to rise above it, rather than double-down one of the two positions within it. For such rising-above will become increasingly necessary in the years to come, as the conditions which made Trump possible will be enflamed by a climate in uproar, as the costs of dealing with it spin out of control.
For the remainder of this piece I’m going to discuss a few specific kinds of thinking— or what my mentor Herb Blau used to refer to as dispensation–necessary to deal with the coming climate crisis, and to foster political resilience in its face. But first, to begin with, a word on blind-spots. We all have them; it is a necessary part of having a perspective. I have mine too, some of which my readers may be pleased to point out. The fact that we all have blind-spots should also lend itself to humility—or if not that, a sense that yours or mine is not the last word, that there is no last word. Nevertheless, one of the liberal justifications for its current excoriation of the other side is their blindness to a variety of important issues. Among these are race, class, and gender—and also a will to bully–and the unfortunate fact that Trump is a fraud who likely has little to no sympathy for the people whose piper he has become. The way he is packing his cabinet with Goldman Sachs alums and other business leaders suggests that at best we can expect a steroid enhanced financial and economic business as usual.
Angry liberals have very rightly and acutely identified these, and other, blind-spots among populist American conservatives, and because their hypertrophied bulls-eyes make for such easy and satisfying target practice, by and large forgotten has been the very possibility of any liberal blind-spots. Other than the attention given to strategic blunders in the elections, I am not witnessing all that much liberal soul-searching. One blind-spot, which has in fact received some valuable attention, is a sort of economic indifference that urban professionals have towards the rural poor and for a rural middle class on the decline. Perhaps we are beginning to admit that we use the cultural wars to cover our indifference towards (or ignorance of) the blight eating away at the midsection of our nation. We are too ready, I think, to assume it is all self-imposed by people who might better themselves were they only to become more progressive. Who among us has not referred to someone or some belief as a “hick,” nor thought of someone else’s home as “bumblefuck” or the middle of some nowhere? “Backwards” country people have yet to benefit from the sensitivity to others that has been one of the liberal tradition’s most enduring qualities.
But the most glaring blind-spot maintained by liberals has to do with the currently unfolding climate crisis. That the other side shares this blind-spot, and even exaggerates it into a virtue, is one of the reasons the climate, and our ecological peril, has been kept off the debate table. Irony of ironies, the climate has no powerful constituency, nor can it as long as our politics follows and receives motivation from its current liberal/conservative split. On a more fundamental level, though, I am repeatedly struck with how ignorant the average well-educated, politically-involved, often graduate-educated membr of the liberal elite is about issues having to do with the climate and the magnitude of the crisis that awaits our inaction. (Though until I rather accidentally tripped into the world of sustainability, I have to admit, I too was ignorant.) For these liberals, the climate remains an abstraction, one that “we” are “better on” (“we don’t deny climate change, they do!”), which is apparently enough for now.
But the facts speak well enough for themselves, the problem is almost no one bothers to learn them, nor has the university or powerful centers of journalism taken a lead in mainstreaming ecological awareness. So, for the sake of review, here are just a few (or many) basics. Even the best case scenario has us on a path to warm the globe by around two degrees centigrade, though our actions and expectations are aiming at a place much warmer than that. The damage that this alone will cause—never mind all the other ecological disasters occurring simultaneously—will ravage our way of life. There is little reason to expect our current world order to survive the climate crisis unless we make drastic changes, especially in our consumption. For climate change is not only about it getting hotter, it is about unravelling the web of ecological connections that maintain life as we know it. To this end, I think most liberals remain oblivious to the delicate nature of ecological equilibriums and to the extent to which nature provides us with irreplaceable “services,” like clean(ish) water, soil, pollination, air, relative weather predictability, a balance among species (including pests and pestilence), a check on the spread of disease, and the list could go on. As it is, we have already begun to supplement these services out of pocket, as it were, at an expense that is rarely considered or figured into our long-term economic stagnation, nor the economic upheaval that is undermining political stability today.
(A graph like this exists for nearly every aspect of our natural environment
As all this unravels in ways that have already begun (note, only the deforestation of the mountain west by fire and by Pine Beetles, or the fires of Tennessee very recently), it will undermine our economic and political stability in ways that will make the Great Depression look like a ripple in a child’s wading pond. As I mentioned before, most of us, at least in North America, will experience the climate crisis as a political crisis, and like all high-pressure situations it will result in all sorts of enhanced divisions and overheated hostilities. How we deal with the Trump travesty will foretell how we will deal with the far worse conditions of a growing climate crisis and the political splits it will encourage.
And yet anyone who tries too hard to assert the importance of climate issues or suggest that ecological destruction has to do with real human beings and their suffering is accused of being insufficiently concerned about other pressing issues that are already on the table. Anyone who forefronts climate destruction, I have heard it said multiple times, is simply writing from a race, class, and gender subject-position that makes him or her insufficiently aware about the real problems affecting real people. Unaware of the also basic fact that Americans (6% of the world population) consume about a quarter of all natural resources and create about a quarter of all emissions, these same “informed liberals” still cheer-on a rising U.S. GDP, while preparing to participate enthusiastically in this year’s “healthy retail season.” This is not a blind-spot; this is an eclipse. Liberal America, at least the part of it that makes a “decent” income, it bears mentioning, is also a greater squanderer of nature than less affluent rural America, the latter’s transfixion with NASCAR and ATV’s, and our membership in the Sierra Club, notwithstanding. A couple of airplane flights, not to mention a second home in the country, is all it takes to send your own carbon footprint into orbit. But such entitlements remain a third-rail of political discussion today.
One of the difficult lessons of the Trump victory is, or should be, that liberals have played a substantial role in the creation of the conditions which made it possible for his lunacy to catch fire. I’ll say it again: we are part of the problem, or, rather, the system—and, as liberal elites, have likely benefitted from this system. It is of course more difficult to come to terms with this fact of our own complicity than it is to exclaim the moral inferiority of the other side. And while its bigotry, and its willingness to excuse Trump’s groping of women is difficult to fathom, much less accept, it is necessary to try to understand what is going on here at the system-level.
When I talk about understanding, in this context, I’m thinking about the reckoning that many liberals (though certainly not enough) performed in the wake of 9-11, asking with all due sincerity, what kind of humiliation leads people to hate the United States? Where does it come from, and what of our actions may be aggravating a difficult domestic reality for increasing numbers of people dedicated to taking arms against the U.S? How should we respond to this long-running humiliation? This was the right thing to do—asking questions and performing a difficult reckoning. And its rightness was made manifestly obvious as neo-con America did the opposite, plastering its cars with “We Will Not Forget” stickers, eliminating French Fries from the Capital cafeteria, and indiscriminately attacking the Middle-East. Here, the belief was that this was simple evil, and simple evil requires no curiosity. It just is. Period. And it must be wiped out. To doubt this, to understand in other words, was to be unpatriotic.
Curiosity and the desire for real answers yield something much different. A meaningful answer to these questions about the attackers’ motives is not too difficult to find and has a lot to do with the fact that about a third of the world’s oil production comes from OPEC, and that the people who live in OPEC nations have seen their way of life sacrificed to a global oil politics ruled by the United States and its interests. Because we in the United States use a quarter of the world’s oil, grave responsibility comes with this knowledge—knowledge that the global economy and its supporting political and military alliances, international law, and the intrusion of American forces around the world are all part of a system, and sloganeering for peace does not extricate one from it. Or to put it another way, without America’s oil addiction, which, in turn, is indistinguishable from the consumption habits of all Americans, including tasteful liberal consumption, 9-11 would never have happened. Nor would all the oppression that led up to it. The relationship of American elites—the professors, lawyers, physicians, financial service “workers,” software engineers, and small-business owners—to poverty (rural and urban) is connected with the same sort of barely visible strands of this great web in which we live.
When I talk about systems, then, I’m also thinking about the sort of dynamic of responsibility tied up in something like structural racism, a dynamic most informed liberals are familiar with. Here, of course, racism can occur without the intention of racism because the system is aligned (whether intentionally, by dint of unconscious evolution, or some combination of the two) to help some and hurt others. Similarly, as this election should have revealed, a global trading and financial system has provided a slight growth in high-paid management jobs for the urban college and usually graduate school educated, while at the same time decimating a broad sector of industrial work in America.
We kale-eating knowledge-workers (whose wages have risen by 95% since 1979) did not try to make things like this—quite the contrary. But we are beneficiaries of a systematic change in the American economy that has an even greater number of losers, especially the poor who have gone from industrial work to “service jobs” and the rural middle class who sees which direction the bus they have been thrown under is heading nonetheless. This is no different from the way that, I as a white male with considerable cultural capital have also been a beneficiary of our racist and patriarchal systems. The sort of mental connections required, even when the content of the privilege changes, are similar. Perhaps I am lucky because I have been practicing admitting my own status as the beneficiary of our systems since my first intimidating days of graduate school, many years ago.
Beyond Good and Evil
Because our biosphere is the mother of all other systems, in whose destruction almost everyone has a role, usually unintentional, addressing it and its fallout will require more system and structural thinking than even the most well-informed Americans have been unable or unwilling to perform–even ones with expertise in this sort of thought. This is an especially pressing issue when we keep in mind, it bears repeating again, that climate disruption will often be mediated by economics and politics and if we do not remain intellectually vigilant, will all to easily be apprehended as simple malfeasance, ignorance, or hate, erupting without any deeper cause.
In other words, the pressure a deteriorating climate exerts on human communities will come in the form of people appearing to act out of malice: trust horizons will shrink, people will lash out, become indifferent to the suffering of others, while old fault lines will appear with renewed vigor. One of the few growth industries will be for demagogues, making all these systematic and structural changes appear very personal, both for their followers and their scapegoats. This situation will, I fear, seem no different than our current one, which is already straining from resource, ecological, and demographic pressures that are insufficiently understood. It will be all too easy to ignore the large changes in our system—its elimination of the surpluses that use to cushion our lives from each other’s inescapable imbecilities—and write off the other side as evil or dumb.
It is difficult in the heat of political battle, or indeed as your own trust horizon is shrinking, to adopt a position with empathy and forgiveness. But one way of encouraging empathy is to keep constantly in mind the fact that we do live in a large planetary system in which we all participate, that we do share an economy, and, for better or worse, a political process, and that the roles we play, and the way rewards and punishments are meted out, are not entirely intentional. Both the behavior we and the other side are exhibiting are highly predictable from a sociological or anthropological perspective. But because we have been given the great and wonderful gift of sociology and anthropology, of history and philosophy, we can pursue, to use a value that has gone out of style, some sort of wisdom. Wisdom, in this context, may mainly be a matter of pausing, and looking for perspective, prior to acting on our more visceral reactions. It may require one to imagine life lived in a different place, with different pressures and obstacles. It may require us to listen carefully and openly to people with views we find repulsive, while scanning our own views for blind-spots or prejudice,
Of course, as I suggested above, one of the most difficult obstacles to this sort of self-checking is the belief that you have nothing substantial to check or that denial is something that you have overcome. This, I think, is the position of liberals and conservatives alike, but for me most poignantly among liberals regarding the environment and our planet’s ecology. Liberals, after all, have a self-image of having demystified themselves and following the latest science. Liberals think they are on the right side of history and that the world improves as everyone becomes more like them. And yet all this insight skids to an abrupt halt when it comes to making any connection between our own consumption and the destruction of the planet’s natural systems. It is an uncomfortable position, this, for liberals, many of whom consider themselves the global seat of modesty, care, and concern for others. It is far outside our self-image to imagine ourselves among the greatest ravagers of the Earth. But we are. If we divided all the planet’s the productive land equally in a mathematically rigorous but imaginative exercise, each human would get about 4 acres. The average American lifestyle requires about 20 of these idealized acres, while people with incomes nearing $100,000 require 40 or more—to provide the minerals, fuel, fiber food, and waste processing necessary to supply all the accoutrements and mobility of normal middle-class life.
The sort of humility and empathy that I am urging thus comes in handy if you need to apply it to yourself. We moderate and normal-feeling middle class people are not evil, or even bad. We are just doing what we were taught, following the expectations that we received from our formal education and informal socialization. We certainly are not trying to make the planet uninhabitable, in fact many of strive to do just the opposite. But the numbers do not lie and as history will someday be told, Americans led the charge towards the climate-cliff, cheering themselves on with great enthusiasm and little self-doubt. It is far easier to put your own consumption and expectations about it into an accurate global perspective if you are not in the habit of dividing the world into good vs. evil.
Until about ten years ago, I was as fervent a partisan as they come. I had even outlined a book I was to write about the wholesale simplification of complex issues in the rhetoric of contemporary conservatives. Like many others I put a great deal of hope and faith into a progressive politics. The Democrats may have disappointed me, but I had little doubt that a true liberal (Howard Dean for instance) might fulfill Jefferson’s hope for an empire of liberty (if only we could get him and his policies past all those retrograde Republicans). I of course knew politics was far stickier than this, but that was how left-liberal politics made me feel. Beyond that, it was a source of my identity, gave me meaning, helped me make sense of the world and locate my own place within it.
Liberal politics, in other words, performed many of the same roles that religion plays for people, and I don’t think this was unique to me. Consider only the way we elevate the nominee to something like a prophet, cover our cars and lawns with his or her name, cheer and scream like children at the rallies and speeches, give not only time and money, but a piece of ourselves. And for what? A human being—some impressive, some not, some downright despicable–who may or may not be good at managing a complex nation and responding to crises and threats. I know it is more than this, given the symbolic import the office of the Presidency has been imbued with, but imagine what you’d think of this sort of jubilation and worship (or despair) at the presence of a new boss of your company—someone who would have far more impact on your day to day life than this distant object of mystified celebration.
I am tempted to say that the religion of partisan politics is like a fundamentalist religion (and Christian Fundamentalism does play handmaiden to the Republican Party). But I think partisan politics performs a religious role much closer to that of a sports team. We wrap our emotion and commitment around a political victory, and mourn its defeat, in a way that is entirely reminiscent of, in my own experience here in Wisconsin, with the Green Bay Packers and the unquestioned devotion they command. I think we know this about our political commitments, but of course, at the same time, the issues are real, occasionally a matter of life and death, and the identification may run deeper to more essential parts of our beliefs and desires. Because it also contains a good amount of serious stuff, then, it is easy enough to overlook the part of the devotion that verges on the erotic. But I don’t think we should overlook this.
I am not suggesting that being politically invested is not an important part of living in a democracy; rather I’m arguing that when we are invested in a side of a debate—and a truncated debate that excludes issues central to our collective wellbeing—with a sort of passionate intensity that gives few alternatives beyond the annihilation of the other side, then we will have reached a political dead-end. The only way out of this dead-end is to partially divest, which does not, in fact, mean one stops caring about the issues. Rather it means that we care about them differently, perhaps more effectively. Whereas politics as usual means you have to change other people so that they are more like you, if everything is connected the way the whole-system approach confirms, then you may be able to exact change by changing yourself—a far easier thing to accomplish, in fact the only thing that may actually be possible.
The dream of structuralism has typically been to cleanse ourselves of all religiosity, suggesting that a whole-system approach is best apprehended with cold scientific rationality. The way I have been urging fellow liberals to take a step back from hand-to-hand (or nose-to-nose) political combat and lift ourselves above the mire may seem to suggest this sort of clinical approach to politics. But this is not actually the case. With Paul Tillich, I believe that having some sort of “ultimate concern” is an inevitable part of human existence. Only seeking redemption through partisan politics, especially in the U.S. today, will not get us far.
My own current and personal predilections lead me towards a broader, sometimes less specific, ultimate concern, perhaps best summed up in the Permaculture credo of “Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share.” I try to use it to guide my other political investments and divestments. It is no wonder to me, anyways, that most deep sustainability movements have as one of their central practices some sort of mindfulness, or rituals of inclusion and of forgiveness of self and others. The whole system thinking that obliges one to admit our own complicity, and requires one to understand, to try to engage with the feelings and beliefs that people very different from oneself might have, to have sympathy for other’s with whom we may appear to have irreconcilable differences, puts us very close to the teachings of most religions. I say this as someone without a single supernatural bone in my body, but as someone who has been watching and trying to learn where true resilience and sustainability come from. Ecological sustainability, leaders of deep sustainability movements seem to intuitively realize, will mean little without political sustainability, and thus political resilience, as well.
Photo credit: By Jakub Hałun – Own work, GFDL, Dazaifu Komyozenji Temple