The challenges presented by climate chaos and the Covid-19 pandemic have both elicited cultural responses that superficially appear to be opposed to one another, but that end up working hand-in-hand to bolster a status quo that’s intrinsically harmful to everyone. Both succeed by appealing to wishful thinking.
In the case of anthropogenic climate chaos, the two clusters are centered around denialism and what we could call technophilia or perhaps techno-hopium. Climate chaos results from industrial-scaled agricultural civilization, so seriously addressing it would entail significantly changing that system, and—if we’re going to be honest—ultimately phasing it out. Avoiding such change is the shared motivation of both parties, so Team Denial shrilly insists that climate chaos is not real, or if real is “natural” rather than “man-made,” so there’s nothing we have to change about how we live. Team Technophile smugly assures us that it is real, but that “green energy” (so-called “renewables” like solar, wind & hydro) will solve the problem, so… there’s nothing we have to change about how we live.
In both cases, it’s wishful thinking: the former insist there’s no problem to solve, and the latter that science alone can do it.
Two sides, same coin.
It’s the same for Covid, with two corresponding response clusters. Stopping or slowing the spread of this airborne viral disease that is sickening, killing and disabling people all over the world—and now mutating into new variants that are potentially even more harmful, and so far evading immune response from previous infection—requires a public health approach that would entail significantly changing the priorities of the capitalist system. Avoiding such changes is the shared motivation of both parties, so Team Denial shrilly insists that Covid is not real, or if real is “mild” so there’s nothing we need to do to stop the spread. Team Technophile smugly assures us that it is real, but that vaccination alone will solve the problem, so… there’s nothing we need to do to stop the spread.
Again, wishful thinking on both accounts. Yes, Covid is real. No, a vaccine-only policy doesn’t work.
Here we must note that, although these opposing response clusters are presented as popular movements—including by their own adherents—they are in fact both media-manufactured narratives, with big money and powerful interests pushing them. Behind the climate and Covid denialists you’ll find Big Oil and Koch funds, for example, and behind the technophiles, corporate greenwashers and Big Pharma, among others.
These profit-seeking interests provide the broad strokes of the perspectives as well as particular talking points. If you pay attention, you’ll see when a new term or concept is dropped into the discourse and how suddenly everyone is saying it. With Covid, for example, we had “immunity debt” from Team Denialist and “pandemic of the unvaccinated” from Team Technophile. In the first case, the Wall Street Journal misrepresented and amplified a concept from a European researcher, and in the second case, the Biden administration knowingly overstated their case with a misleading catch phrase. It’s no accident that complex situations are grossly oversimplified by dichotomies like maskers vs. anti-maskers and vaxxers vs. anti-vaxxers. Such divisive discourse suck all the oxygen out of a room, leaving no space for honest discussions about what would comprise actually effective public health policy if we were willing to think outside the capitalist box.
Meanwhile, in the cases of both climate chaos and Covid, “third” or alternative responses and policies also exist—which I would call “realist”—but which are marginalized because they explicitly focus on systemic factors that the elites who control the us vs. them narratives prefer to ignore.
A realist take on climate chaos is that we must first and foremost reduce consumption. We just use too much, as in make too much and waste too much, whether it’s fuel, land, water, forests, fish, etc. Priority number one should be shrinking our collective footprint before we construct any new energy infrastructure whether “green” or not. A realist perspective points out that generating “renewable” energy has its own environmental costs that are not minor. Such projects can inflict damage on ecosystems that have so far escaped from being ravaged very much, like the deserts where corporations are siting solar and wind farms with the support of government subsidies. Yeah sure, maybe—maybe—there’s a potential to shrink our “carbon footprint” with these megaprojects, but there’s a certainty that we’re expanding our wildlife-killing footprint. The desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) has lived in the area that is now the Mojave Desert for at least fifteen million years. Will we drive this amazing creature to extinction for “green” energy? Fuck that noise.
A realist approach on Covid might center on a well-funded national policy of masks and indoor air filtration for prevention of spread, testing and contact tracing to track spread, and quarantine and treatment for those infected, with—crucially—none of it at individual expense. Key to this would be a social safety net that guarantees housing, food, and healthcare to every single person no matter what so that nobody loses out by doing what must be done in a moment for protection (such as self-quarantine, or putting a business on hiatus). A safe and effective vaccine could also play a role in a realist approach, though it’s worth recalling that China was able to contain Covid in 2020 before any vaccinations existed. Regardless, the point is to make public health decisions based on what works best, not what’s most profitable. The US could hardly do worse on such criteria.
An excellent place to go for a realist take on Covid is the “Death Panel” podcast, which focuses on “the political economy of health.” The leftist hosts are unabashed critics of capitalism, US government policy, the healthcare system and they take Covid seriously. They are intelligent, well-spoken and principled. Their programs are deeply researched, clearly presented, and pleasantly peppered with four letter words. I have learned more that’s useful about Covid from the Death Panel than from any other single source. Listening to their year end episode, “Covid Year Three,” is what inspired me to pen this rant, actually. Of special note is their emphasis on examining what they call “the sociological end of the pandemic,” the media-driven effort by elites to declare Covid over regardless of all the facts to the contrary. This truly diabolical campaign, it must be emphasized, has been directed by the Biden administration and their liberal allies, the ones who said they would “follow the science.” They utterly betrayed that promise.
A common critique of realist views is that they’re not, well, realistic. As if the goal of survival rather than extinction is too much to ask for. I mean, what exactly is “realistic” about pursuing a path that leads to more damage to the planet—as does the continued growth of industrialized civilization—or to more deaths and disability—as does the continued, uninhibited spread of Covid?
But the cultural boundaries of “what is possible” are shaped by the same elite institutions that inflict us with the team-based narratives, rather than by, say, science and philosophy and art, or even just what the masses might want—I mean really want if they were offered the full range of choices available, such as non-capitalist societies where necessities are not monetized and day-to-day life is not just about struggle.
Defining these boundaries is arguably the core work of the media. As Chomksy famously put it: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum….” The denialists and the technophiles both fall very comfortably within that spectrum, as much as some of them might try to deny it.
Because a realist perspective falls outside the narrative framework of both teams, it is incomprehensible to most people, who frequently misidentify it as the other team, just because it’s not theirs. So, a realist critique of industrial solar farms in Nevada as being environmentally harmful to desert wildlife is accused of supporting the fossil fuel industry by technophile “green energy” proponents. Or, a realist pointing out that multiple layers of protection against Covid are necessary because breakthrough cases (when a vaccinated person catches Covid) made up over 50% of Covid deaths during several months in 2022 is called an anti-vaxxer. Likewise, denialists wrongly assume that anyone with a realist message such as, “masks are effective at slowing the spread of an airborne virus,” is a technophile in cahoots with the WEF or whatever.
Denialists and technophiles in the US largely overlap with conservatives and liberals respectively, and hence with the Republican and Democratic parties. These institutions are are totally gung-ho for capitalism, hierarchy, and human supremacism (among other vile things) as has been exhaustively documented. Over the last forty years, they have been shifting to the right together, towards fascism. So, in 2023, both denialists and technophiles are carrying water for a system that’s more oppressive by the day, to the detriment of everyone and everything. Frankly, I resent them for it, both of them.
I admit I have moments where I want to scream. “No you’re not being a free thinker! And no you’re not being sciencey! You’re both just getting led around by your nose! You think you’re smart but you’re just obedient!” But I understand that the propaganda machine in the US is arguably the most sophisticated in human history, and its ubiquity, thanks to portable tech, means that most people are being subjected to it every waking hour, through both news and entertainment. I am certainly not immune to it myself, which is why I just boycott most of it. I know I’d just get taken in by all of it too.
I also understand the conundrum of trying to figure out what’s really going on when the discussion is almost completely dominated by these two teams. With big global issues like climate chaos and Covid, we cannot, as individuals, know for sure what’s going on. We do have to make choices about who we will trust and who we won’t. This is challenging and it’s understandable to gravitate toward voices who appeal to us emotionally. But this is dangerous because it is precisely with emotions—not facts—that most propaganda operates.
One of my teachers once said, “When I don’t like something, I know it must be true.” She was referring to how the facts of life in the natural world can unpleasantly challenge our personal beliefs as inherited from society; put another way: the bubble of our illusion is burst by exposure to authentic, the substantive, the real. She was spot on.
Cliche declares that in a disagreement between two sides, “the truth lies somewhere in the middle.” But in the conflict between Team Denialist and Team Technophile, the truth will never be found in that narrow, constricted space between them. Rather, it is somewhere outside. That’s where to go for answers.
Teaser photo credit: Closeup of desert tortoise at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, 2020. By Thomas Farley – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=89120879