The Flight from Nature

December 20, 2018

A couple of weeks ago one of my readers pointed me to an op-ed piece on climate change by Canadian journalist David Moscrop, titled “It’s time for climate change defeatists to get out of the way.” If you’ve watched the slow-motion train wreck of climate change activism for more than a year or two, you already know Moscrop’s song well enough to sing it in the shower, but I think the attitudes enshrined (or, better, embalmed) in this piece and its many equivalents are worth another look.  There’s something moving down below the surface of the rhetoric; follow where it leads, and you come close to one of the deep roots of our present predicament.

Moscrop’s essay contains all the usual ingredients, and all the usual omissions, of a good standard tub-thumping climate change diatribe. He starts out sounding like a Puritan preacher—sinners in the hands of an angry Gaia!—but shifts almost at once to talking about feelings: his feelings, of course, and those of the people who agree with him. They’re anxious, he tells us. They’re grieving. They’re depressed. They’re despondent. And of course it’s all the fault of those horrible people over there, those “cowards or selfish monsters or wretched social liabilities willfully closed off to the reality of imminent doom,” who are deliberately keeping climate change activists from saving the world.

Then, of course, comes the call to arms—to “ignore, marginalize, and defeat” those horrible people over there. “That means protests,” he tells us. “That means lawsuits. That means trying to convince deniers or holdouts with our reasons. That means shouting them down at town halls if giving reasons fails.” It means, to be precise, exactly those things that climate change activists have been doing over and over again for the last twenty years, with a noticeable lack of success. There’s a helpful saying about that—“if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten”—but apparently Moscrop thinks otherwise; the only alternative he can see to yet another round of the same failed tactics is rolling over and waiting for death.

The things that got left out of Moscrop’s diatribe are even more indicative than the things that got put into it. The first one, as I’ve already hinted, is any sense that climate change activists might learn a lesson or two from their movement’s many defeats. Successful movements for social change constantly learn from experience, abandoning tactics and strategies that don’t work and building on those that do. Attempting to ignore, marginalize, and defeat “deniers and holdouts” hasn’t worked—quite the contrary, there are more people today who dismiss the reality of anthropogenic climate change than ever before.

I should probably mention here, to avoid unnecessary confusion, that I’m not one of those latter people. I learned enough about energy flow and the laws of thermodynamics many years ago to realize that if you dump billions of tons of infrared-trapping gases into Earth’s atmosphere, you’re going to play hob with the delicate energy balance that maintains Earth’s climate in its present condition. The fact that Earth’s climate has changed drastically in the past, without benefit of human interference, simply shows how stupid it is to tamper with a system so obviously vulnerable to destabilization. (Readers who want to know more about my take on climate change are welcome to consult my books The Long DescentThe Ecotechnic Future, and Dark Age America, which all discuss the subject at some length.)

That is to say, I agree heartily with Moscrop’s claims that anthropogenic climate change has become an everyday reality, and that it can be expected to get much, much worse so long as modern industrial civilization keeps bumbling on its merry way, ripping through half a billion years of fossil sunlight to prop up a few short centuries of absurd extravagance. Yet it remains the case that twenty years of strident yelling by climate change activists have not succeeded in convincing either their opponents or the undecided of the rightness of their cause and the urgency of change. Quite the contrary, the more vociferously climate change activists have pursued the program that Moscrop has summarized, the more numerous and more vocal their opponents have become. That deserves much more attention than it’s gotten so far.

To some extent, the failure of climate change activists to convince others to agree with them follows from the sort of thinking Moscrop himself puts so vividly on display. As far as he’s concerned, again, the people who disagree with him are “cowards or selfish monsters or wretched social liabilities willfully closed off to the reality of imminent doom.”  Last I checked, shrieking insults at people is not an effective way to get them to reconsider their beliefs.  Nor is it going to help if your response, when they don’t accept whatever talking points you happen to offer, is to shout them down at town hall meetings or the like.

If you want to change people’s minds, you have to address their needs and wants, their hopes and fears and dreams.  This means you actually have to listen to them, and not just decide on some arbitrary ideological basis what their needs, wants, hopes, fears, and dreams ought to be.  You have to treat them as people, not ciphers, whose point of view also has to be taken into account—and of course doing this brings with it the risk that you’ll not merely have to change your tactics or your strategies, but may possibly be forced to reconsider your own beliefs as well. You can refuse that risk and treat them as objects to be manipulated, sure, but if you do so, your chances of changing anyone’s mind drop like a rock.

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So that’s one very obvious thing that’s missing from Moscrop’s take on things. The other will be familiar to readers of this blog: nowhere in his essay does he breathe even a hint of the idea that people who want industrial society to stop flooding the atmosphere with greenhouse gases need to start leading by example, and make the same changes in their own lives first.

The astonishing thing, to me, is that he comes so close to talking about that crucial point, and then veers away from it so sharply. He talks about ways people distract themselves from the reality of climate change, and mentions that trips to Las Vegas are one of the ways he does this—and then acts as though the only problem with those trips to Las Vegas is that they distract him from pursuing climate change activism and make him feel sad about the future. That each flight Moscrop takes to and from Las Vegas dumps a big plume of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—the very thing he thinks we should all stop doing—finds no place in his essay, or apparently in his understanding of the cosmos.

More generally, that’s the vast and gaping hole in the entire strategy Moscrop sketches out—the strategy, please note, that has fallen flat on its face so reliably over the last twenty years. One of the main reasons so many people refuse to take climate change activists seriously is that the activists so consistently don’t walk their talk. Al Gore’s extravagant energy-wasting mansion and bumper crop of frequent-flyer miles did immense damage to the cause he thought he was supporting, and that damage has been multiplied, squared, and cubed by countless other climate change activists whose attitude, in practice, has been that everyone else should stop using fossil fuels so they can keep on doing so. As one of the iconic underground comic strips of the Sixties put it, “hear the sound of my feet walking drown the sound of my voice talking…”

It’s bad enough that this failure to take their own arguments seriously has handed a wickedly sharp weapon to their opponents, who have been quick to say, “See?  They just don’t want the rest of us to get any fossil fuels.” Worse still is that this whole debate comes in the midst of a crisis of legitimacy driven by the hard fact that these days, far too often, believing the experts has turned out to be a very bad idea. Think of Barack Obama insisting that if the Affordable Care Act was passed, health insurance premiums would go down and people would be able to keep their existing plans; think of all the medicines approved as safe and effective that turned out to be neither, or all the economic policies that were supposed to bring jobs and prosperity and did neither—and examples like this could be multiplied almost endlessly these days.

During such a crisis of legitimacy, people who want to work toward social change have to prove their good faith to those whom they’re trying to convince. The most effective way to do this is to follow Gandhi’s excellent advice: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” This is exactly what climate change activists have refused to do. The great majority of them embrace lifestyles that directly and indirectly dump tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It’s not surprising, given this, that their cause hasn’t gotten much traction.  How can climate change activists expect to convince anyone else to stop dumping greenhouse gases when they so obviously can’t even convince themselves?

Watch the excuses that fly whenever this gets pointed out, and you’ll have an entertaining time of it. For example, climate-change activists these days often insist that it’s unfair to ask them to use less carbon, because industries, not consumers, are responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions. And what are industries doing to emit all that carbon dioxide?  Why, the vast majority of industrial production these days goes to manufacture goods and services for consumers—and a disproportionate share of those goods and services, of course, get consumed by exactly those middle and upper middle class demographics so heavily represented in climate change activism.

All human beings are not equally wasteful of carbon, after all.  Counting the fossil fuels burnt to provide consumer goods and services and other amenities as well as direct energy use, a single upper middle-class adult in the US or Canada has a carbon footprint considerably larger than an ordinary working class family in the same countries, or three or four working class families in Europe, or the residents of a block in an ordinary neighborhood in Ecuador or Malaysia, or an entire village or two in the poorer parts of the Third World. Thus a middle- or upper middle-class Canadian or American who cuts their carbon footprint drastically, and encourages others to do the same by example, has a much greater effect on the problem of anthropogenic climate change than a working-class person in the same country or a resident of some less extravagant nation.

Thus I want to ask again why climate change activists haven’t done the obvious thing, followed Gandhi’s advice, and enthusiastially taken up in their own lives the changes they say they want everyone else to make. Part of it, no doubt, can be credited to common or garden variety hypocrisy of the “do what I say, not what I do” variety. The Left in particular has become very well known in recent years for its passionate willingness to pursue its goals by spending every penny of other people’s money and, if need be, spilling the last drop of someone else’s blood.  Thus it’s not too surprising to see climate change activists behaving like those fundamentalist preachers who take breaks from writing sermons about the evils of homosexuality to schedule hot dates with their boyfriends.

Part of it, too, comes from middle-class snobbery. Like social primates everywhere, members of the middle and upper middle classes in the industrial world like to parade their status, and that puts them in a really awkward bind once environmental issues enter the picture. On the one hand, they know that burning fossil fuels is pushing the world further the world into climatological crisis, and the more they burn, the worse it’s going to get. On the other hand, in modern industrial society, the conspicuous consumption used for status display involves either burning a lot of fossil fuels, or buying goods and services that depend on burning a lot of fossil fuels.

Thus if you want to signal that you belong to the middle or upper middle class, and distance yourself as far as you can from those unbearably declassé working class people who vote for Donald Trump south of the Great Lakes and Doug Ford north of them, either you burn a lot of fossil fuels or you get industry to burn them for you. Since snobbery is by and large a more potent motivator of behavior than ecological idealism, a very large number of climate change activists keep on using fossil fuels and the products of fossil fuel consumption to show off their status and compete with their peers, and then try to convince themselves that demanding that someone else stop using fossil fuels will somehow cancel out the resulting carbon footprints.

That said, I think there’s more going on here than ordinary hypocrisy and the snob value of conspicuous (fossil fuel) consumption. At the heart of the bizarre disconnect between what climate change activists call on everyone to do, and what they’re willing to do themselves, lies the simple fact that most people in the modern industrial world have never really grasped that they themselves are part of nature.

That’s not accidental, either. Nearly everything that frames a middle- or upper middle-class lifestyle in the industrial world today can be described, without too much difficulty, as a way to avoid dealing with nature. You’ve got the houses, condominiums, and upper-end apartments hermetically sealed against the natural world, with furnaces to keep them from getting cool in winter and air conditioners to keep them from getting warm in summer. You’ve got the cars, glass and plastic bubbles isolating the passengers from the world, rushing down concrete freeways from one climate-controlled venue to another, and you’ve got the airplanes that are designed to maintain the same isolation over longer distances.

You’ve got the televisions and the other media technologies to keep your mind full of scenes that never happened, concocted by scriptwriters and acted out by people who make a living pretending to be things they’re not, where they’re not simply computer-generated images of things that never were and never will be.  You’ve got strawberries in January and ice in July, reflective windows to keep the daylight out and electric lamps to do the same thing to night’s darkness, streetlights to drown out the stars and keep us from noticing how insignificant we are by comparison—well, the list goes on. If that’s your lifestyle, the thought that what you do in your own daily affairs might have any affect on that mysterious, distant thing called “nature” must seem distinctly unreal.

Nature seen from within such a lifestyle isn’t the umwelt, to borrow a useful German word—the world-around, the totality in which we live and move and have our being—much less the whole of which each of us is a tiny, temporary part. Nature seen from within such a lifestyle is an amenity, something that belongs in whatever place we assign it—a park here, a garden there, a carefully manicured bed of flowers edged in concrete to walk past on the way to and from the front door. The people who live the way modern well-to-do people in the industrial world are supposed to live interact with nature when they want to, on their terms, and then hurry away.

And when nature doesn’t do what it’s told, and intrudes into this artificial existence?  If a living thing shows up in the house, it’s time to rush to the phone in a panic and call the exterminator. If a garden bed sprouts a plant we didn’t put there or attracts insects who want to make a home there, out come the chemical poisons.  If a human body does something that the personality inhabiting it doesn’t like, quick, call the doctor, so that drugs and surgery can force the body to behave. Our middle- and upper middle-class families, for that matter, have created environments so sterile that they’re helping to drive soaring rates of autoimmune diseases—the immune systems of children raised in such environments have so few microbes to react to that they start reacting to the body’s own tissues instead.

I’ve come to think that this, more than anything else, is what drives the shrill anger in Moscrop’s diatribe and its many equivalents. It’s not that something awful is happening to other species—if that was the issue, I’d expect to see more of a willingness to abandon the current fad for absurdly extravagant lifestyles powered by fossil fuels. No, I think what’s going on is akin to what you’d hear if a suburban householder spots a cockroach on his kitchen floor, calls around to each of the local exterminators, and discovers that all of them have full schedules for the rest of the month. As call follows call and the cockroach sits there gnawing on a stray crumb of artisan bread or something, the householder gets angrier and angrier, and ends up shrieking insults into the phone because nobody will come and get rid of this intolerable intrusion on the part of nature.

Nobody is going to come and get rid of anthropogenic climate change, either—not without putting a full stop at the end of the entire galaxy of extravagant energy-wasting habits that are treated as normal by modern industrial society. That this obvious conclusion is far from obvious to the people who do most of the talking about climate change—that it is in fact unthinkable to them—is, I think, a direct result of the way that modern lifestyles distance people from nature, and especially members of the well-to-do classes that play so central a role in climate change activism. The fact remains that a conclusion can be unthinkable and still be quite true.

Thus one of the things that I want to explore in posts to come is how we got into ways of thought that treat modern industrial lifestyles as normal and desirable—how people in the industrial world, that is, got caught up in a self-defeating attempt to escape from nature, when human beings are at once inescapably dependent on nature and inescapably part of nature—and how that frankly bizarre habit might be swapped out for something saner. In the coming year, starting from that discussion, I want to start moving the conversation on this blog to the project I had in mind when I founded it: the first steps in the development of ecosophy, a way of philosophical thought and spiritual practice that takes our place as small temporary portions of living nature as its starting point.

John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer is a widely read author and blogger whose work focuses on the overlaps between ecology, spirituality, and the future of industrial society. He served twelve years as Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, and currently heads the Druidical Order of the Golden Dawn.

Tags: American politics, climate change activism, connection with nature