Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Scorching Weather and Complacent Media

John Buell is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and a faculty adjunct at Cochise College. His most recent book is Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.

Like sports broadcasters citing new homerun records, local forecasters are now excitedly reporting new temperature records. But noxious chemicals have induced these records, like many of the homerun feats. Nonetheless, juiced weather evokes less alarm than inflated homerun totals. If mass media mention climate change at all, it is only to reassure us that no single weather event can be explained by climate change.  The science of climate change, however, casts this claim in a different light. That scienceand why we fail to address its implicationsought to be front and center.

Silence on climate change is strange, given developments within the field. Though some details are disputed, climate scientists have come to near unanimity as to the seriousness of the problem. Moreover most have concluded that a high degree of further warming is irreversible. Typical of their views are comments by Princeton geoscientist Michael Oppenheimer: "The link between [recent] extreme events and the build-up of the greenhouse gases is best represented by the 'loading the dice' analogy"—as the world warms, the likelihood of occurrence (frequency), intensity, and/or geographic extent of many types of extreme events is increasing. The events are individual data points in a broader pattern, akin to pixels on a computer screen. You can't say much from any one pixel, but a picture emerges when you step back and look at the pattern. That said, for a few types of extreme events, particularly heat waves, it is sometimes possible to connect the pixel to the bigger picture more directly. According to computer simulations of climate, the likelihood that [the 2003 European heat wave] would occur was about doubled by the buildup of the greenhouse gases. As statistical techniques for doing such 'fingerprinting' studies as I mention above improves, scientists have become more confident in making such claims, which is to be expected.

Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species is a timely and provocative analysis of the role our culture and political economy play in climate science denial and evasion. The role of money in politics and the willingness of wealthy fossil fuel interests to deploy that money are prominent. But other factors are significant if less often noted. These include inordinate inequality, faith in markets, worship of technology, and outlooks on death and dying.

It is not accidental that the world’s most inegalitarian industrial society is also the most recalcitrant on environmental issues.  Even David Cameron’s and Angela Merkel’s environmental records put Obama to shame. In the US, just as many of the wealthiest citizens believe they can isolate themselves from squalor and crime by living in gated communities, some also feel they can escape extreme weather through their choice of where to live. Milton Mayer, long time senior editor of The Progressive, once quipped: “The rich don’t know how to live, but they know where to live.”

George Bush surveys New Orleans from the sky, September 2005.

How much longer communities gated in a literal or metaphoric sense will be able to escape nature’s tribulations remains to be seen, but many wealthy citizens remain either insensitive to these problems or confident they can evade them. Such lives grow out of and help nurture a sense of entitlement.

New York Times columnist Timothy Egan has captured their hubris and their shock amidst early summer’s unprecedented wild fires: “We plant villas next to sandstone spires called the Garden of the Gods, and McMansions in Virginia stocked with people who have the world at their fingertips. Then, with a clap, a boom and a roar, fire marches through a subdivision on a conveyance of 60 mile an hour winds. A platoon of thunderstorms so loaded with energy it has its own category name - derecho - cuts a swath from east of Chicago to the Atlantic. The pines flame and hiss, shooting sparks on the house next door, a fortress no more. Almost 350 homes burn to the ground, and nearly 5 million people lose all electricity in sweltering heat. Lobbyists and congressmen curse at mute cellphones and sweat through their seersucker. The powerful are powerless.”

Other widely shared cultural beliefs play a role as well. Faith in technology accompanies a faith in free markets, with each belief strengthening the other. That government played a major role in R & D for pharma and in subsidizing the computer and the Internet is conveniently forgotten. Nationalism also reinforces this collective confidence in technology and markets. US power and prestige in the world are attributed to our free markets and our technological acumen. These faiths are in turn strengthened through portrayal of liberal or radical skeptics as wimpy or devious.

For many working and middle class Americans, environmentalists become the new bogeyman. Their concerns and demands are blamed for economic turmoil. Hamilton suggests that they serve as the “other” against whom the current system and its values of hard work and consumption are validated. I would add that the failure of liberals throughout much of the last three decades to deliver stable employment only added to this vulnerability.

Of course, faith in free markets has hardly been without some challenge. Yet as Hamilton points out, for much of the US Left faith in technology, albeit under more state direction, remains supreme. Or environment is regarded as a “distraction” from the real issues of economic power, as though we are the only animals on which nature has no hold.

Hamilton unfortunately includes unnamed “post-modernists” as contributors to climate science denial. These mystery Frenchmen believe: “the truth of modernism is socially constructed and the real truth is always contestable.” Yet rather than contesting all truth, a range of philosophers from Nietzsche to Deleuze have posed their own counter truth, a nature characterized by pluripotentiality and surprises.  Modern climate science can and does provide evidence "though not proof" for such a view and can draw on such an understanding in its model building. Like Hamilton these so-called postmodernists point to the limits of linear causal models and highlight the psychic needs mainstream conceptions of a mechanical, clocklike world serve. Far from undermining environmental activism, the emphasis such so called "postmodernists" as William Connolly place on self-organizing systems in many domains and their complex potentially catastrophic interactions adds urgency to the need for policy intervention on several fronts. In addition, Hamilton’s sensitivity to the ways in which environmentalists are demonized in order to secure the modern consumerist identity could itself be read as reflecting that late Frenchman Derrida’s attunement to the ways the quest for secure identity leads to injustice to difference.

The very perils to which climate science points deepen the political challenge. We have already passed a tipping point. No matter what we do now, our children will live on a more inhospitable planet. This is hard to acknowledge in a land drenched in technological optimism. The temptation to repress and return to business as usual remains strong.   Nonetheless, what we do still matters. Cutting greenhouse emissions dramatically now will mean less severe and rapid climate deterioration. And we can plan, design, and build on a large scale for a world of expected floods, droughts, and heat waves.

Jeremy Brecher has called for an international human preservation movement. Brecher is surely correct in recognizing the need for transnational collaboration. Existing nation states and the materialist/nationalist identities expressed in and through them are a large part of our ecological dilemma. Brecher points out that in the late fifties and sixties activists came together across borders, religions, and ideologies to fight for atmospheric test bans.  Yet such a sense of a common survival interest that can override nationalistic or fundamentalist religious creeds and identities is hardly automatic. The partial successes of the anti-nuclear movement depended on more than shared survival instincts. They also required some lessening of Cold War era ideological and nationalistic rigidities at least among some activists.  These efforts might have achieved more had that process gone further.  

Commentators often say that Americans will never give up their consumer lifestyle. We can buy many different autos for transportation, houses for access to good schools, vacation packages to get away from the grind of daily life. But the consumer lifestyle and the culture that sustains it are not inalterable or invulnerable. We cannot buy public transit, clean air, universal access to good schools or quiet neighborhoods. And as we purchase private goods like cell phones, fancy auto, houses in affluent neighborhoods and braces for our children so they can get ahead our neighbors and co-workers make similar purchases. Each is caught on a treadmill of endless work and consumption, which often ends up being disappointing. It is no wonder that survey research shows that beyond basic comfort, more and more affluence does not increase human happiness. There is an opening on which a more ecological politics premised on expansion of opportunities for qualitative choice might develop.

Such seemingly unrelated issues as immigration and end of life care (voluntary euthanasia) also have a large bearing on our planetary future. As Hamilton recognizes, cultural attitudes to death underlie as well as are intensified by these frightful risks and challenges. Our faith in technology and our sense of ourselves as a special people can be read as compensations for a finitude we cannot bear. Thus ethical/ religious questions must also be in play. Is or must death be in God’s hands? Viewing death as punishment or even as an inadequacy of the human condition to be perpetually resented only intensifies the urge to find compensation is techno wonders and belittling others. (Usually some combination of both.)

A new maturity about both death itself and consumption can become more widespread.  This new sensitivity might help us cope with this more dangerous world we have created. Quality of life may matter more than number of years. There may be more joy in a relatively short life spent in contemplation of nature and the wild than in eight decades of the work/consumption treadmill.  New understandings of nature that are neither mechanistic nor updated forms of medieval teleology may help evoke such sensitivity in many of us.   These portray a nature that amidst its periodic order displays moments and realms of stunning and sometimes terrifying surprises. (See, for instance, Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter:A Political Ecology of Things.)  Exposure to other cultures and lifestyles, aiding in the survival of our neighbors and our families can convey meaning and satisfaction. Concepts of economic “growth” that emphasize environmental quality and increased leisure to develop new interests and sensibilities are keys to this transformation. As Juliet Schor and Benjamin Hunnicutt have emphasized, such concerns are hardly un-American. They are a forgotten part of our labor history and a continuing goal of many downshifters in both urban and rural settings. Broadening the opportunity for such life style choices should be a central environmental goal. 

Movements for international survival often depend on efforts to reduce the psychological, economic, and even religious pressures to secure collective and individual identity by demonizing those who differ in religions, ethnicity, or ways of life. Cultivating a capacity latent in many to appreciate a world of growing diversity in religions, languages and backgrounds, family structure, sexual orientation, music, dress, food preferences will be crucial if we are to survive.

In this regard, the politics of immigration is itself a central environmental issue. The Pentagon is preparing for war against the immigrants sure to be displaced by floods and draughts. Environmental and social justice advocates need to prepare now for a different future by collaborating across borders to provide subsistence for all in developing nations while slowing the mindless and self-defeating growth compulsions in affluent societies. In the process ideally community amidst those who hold different religions, histories, and ethnicities can be achieved and validate itself.
Here in the US activists can demand that our vast military establishment be reprogrammed to provide disaster relief so that, as one of the Navy’s ads says, it can truly become a global force for good.



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