… Renee Lertzman, a psychologist who studies the thought processes behind climate denial and whose research suggests the emergence of new and better ways of breaking through to skeptical minds.
For many climate skeptics, Lertzman says, “denial is a defense mechanism: It’s people trying to protect themselves, to keep themselves from experiencing the stress that goes along with coming to terms with our situation.”
Skepticism and even outright denial aren’t always based on politics or ideology, Lertzman stresses. In fact, she says, they’re often manifestations of cognitive dissonance,… . People … can’t imagine their lives without the benefits that have come with industrialization and fossil fuels.
…“we need to be better about addressing the anxiety underneath people’s positions.”
As I see it, people can’t imagine new lives outside of Hierarchical Fossil Fuel Civilization, because of the way we’ve been conditioned to seek respect and validation. It’s not starvation or freezing in Winter that we fear so much as it is self-loathing for failing to impress authorities and peers. We inhale consumer culture like fashion, fancy cars, impressive smart phones, and fine dining to keep fragile egos afloat. If we look too poor, we risk public mockery and ridicule from friends, loved ones, co-workers, even random strangers. Not being Ghandi-like, for most this would be unbearable, literally unthinkable.
Breaking fossil fuel addiction requires us to raise to consciousness of our internalized class-based invidious comparison (often tied to race-based or nation-based “superiority”). Self esteem based on feeling superior to others is foundational to all social hierarchy. It has genetic roots in dominance/submission instincts that we even share with reptiles. This worked well enough until now, among groups of animals or people competing for natural resources on a stable planet. It’s not as if there was something evil about such societies, or that it’s an inherently self-destructive social template. What’s wrong is that hierarchy stopped working well when resource limits changed at global scale.
In nature, an individual at the top of its hierarchy can’t consume a billion times as much as a bottom rung member. In nature, hierarchy just controls distribution of limited nature-provided resources, it doesn’t permanently reduce the resources. As human society took full control of nature, modifying global ecosystems to meet our needs, changing Earth’s chemistry, air composition and jet streams, temperature and currents of the oceans, etc, Hierarchy became increasingly obsolete and dysfunctional. Having taken control of our planet, we have no choice but to develop the skills to manage it. Our species has entered adolescence and must transform to a mature cooperative civilization.
To do this we must face deep anxieties about seeming not-superior, and find self-respect and self-worth outside of social competition and status displays. Boys are especially socialized to taunt and fight, to establish social status, so men have a greater challenge to reinvent themselves as respectful cooperators instead of proud warriors. They also have the steeper challenge to treat women with respect, as equals and co-inventors of our new sustainable culture, since hierarchies in power are male dominated.
Only discovering the painful inner limitations of Dominator Culture class and gender roles will make it easier to face the horrible truth of climate destabilization. Among our human limitations is that when we perceive ourselves in competition, we value loyalty over truth.
As long as people frame the climate crisis in terms of competing nations or races, fighting over ever more precious limited resources, it will be difficult to face our personal and collective guilt. It will be difficult to face the true severity of our danger.
We teeter on the brink today. The latest positive feedback climate science indicates that even 2°C rise could pass the threshold where control slips from our hands toward civilization-ending climate destabilization, while the Republican Administration tests outright nihilism to justify paving the way for self-extermination.
Let's face our anxieties about this together, the way women have been facing their sexual assault histories. Or create support groups. Face our pain to embrace our truth.
Consider how a Dominator culture identity shackles our capacity for climate action through self-loathing, not just anxiety over status affirmation.
Nathaniel Rich's review of William T. Vollmann’s latest book, brought this home to me.
The story of climate change hangs on human behavior, not geophysics. Vollmann seeks to understand how “we could not only sustain, but accelerate the rise of atmospheric carbon levels, all the while expressing confusion, powerlessness and resentment.” Why did we take such insane risks? Could we have behaved any other way? Can we behave any other way?
Vollmann admits that even he has shied away from fully comprehending the damage we’ve done. “I had never loathed myself sufficiently to craft the punishment of full understanding,” he writes. “How could I? No one person could.”
His “letter to the future” is a suicide note.
Allowing himself to fully comprehend climate destabilization is a punishment which requires self-loathing, Vollman laments.
If your understanding of society is hierarchical, self-worth depends upon either your being superior to others, or at the very least of others being worthy superiors to whom you submit. In the language of Transacational Analysis, either you're proudly "I'm OK, you're not OK", or you're at least a good helper/sidekick "I'm not OK, you're OK". But realizing at the gut level that both you and everyone you admire has been and is destroying everything implies "I'm not OK, you're not OK". That's the self-destructive existential position for drug addiction or suicide. Nobody is worthy, nobody deserves good outcomes. That's the poison people already taste through a thin veneer of climate denial/token action.
Partnership culture supports "I'm OK, you're OK". Let's give up that brain-devouring self-loathing.