When it comes to the climate crisis, what nobody wants to talk about is precisely what everybody needs to be talking about. Up until now, the climate debate has been premised on a false dichotomy between climate science deniers and everyone else. What the Paris accords have revealed is that this overweening emphasis on the science of anthropogenic climate change fails to answer the real question: Why the disconnect between what we know to be the threat and how we are choosing to respond to it?
Let’s face it. When it comes to climate change, we are all in denial.
If it were simply a matter of recognizing the scientific consensus, as the signatories to the climate accords clearly did, then we would not have been put in a position of celebrating an accord that puts us on the path to a 3-6 degree Celsius average temperature increase — a virtual death sentence for tens of thousands of species and billions of humans.
As Bill McKibben points out, we are leaving an uninhabitable planet to our progeny.
Let’s face it. When it comes to climate change, we are all in denial. The very term codifies denial. CHANGE? Really? Weather changes. In fact, everything changes. Change is good! Our climate is not simply changing; it’s in turmoil. The scientific term is “climate disruption,” not climate change. To characterize the climate crisis as mere change is like calling a Bengal tiger a “kitty cat” as it is leaping through the air toward your throat.
The science is settled. The issue is not denying science. The issue is ignoring the scientific imperative — our collective dissociative behavior.
“Dissociation” refers to a psychological defense that reflexively occurs when we’re confronted with an overwhelming threat — we dissociate ourselves from the experience of the situation as much as possible. Witness the disconnect between the stated goal of the Paris climate accords — limiting the increase in average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius — and the much more detailed commitments agreed to, which will ensure at least a 3 degree Celsius rise. In fact, we know that 2 degrees Celsius is already “baked in” to our climate, because of the amount of greenhouse gases already emitted which have yet to be taken up by the climate (a process that takes 30 to 50 years).
Dissociative behavior is a natural, emotional reaction to present trauma. It is also a pattern of behavior that results from past traumas. And there’s the rub. Our collective dissociation from the natural world, which enables the objectification and commodification of nature as something apart from us, is the root of the climate crisis. At the same time, even thinking about the magnitude of the threats from climate chaos is traumatic in itself, preventing us from seeing collective trauma as inhibiting our ability to act, and prompting us instead to reflexively find something to take comfort in. One way of avoiding the unsettling feelings that are induced by considering mass mortality, migration and extinction is to take refuge in some sense of scientific certainty.
That may seem counterintuitive, but we humans crave certainty about the future. Where else can you find any certainty about the future in a world that is suddenly imperiled? One reason it’s perversely comforting to focus on the science of climate chaos is that it reinforces the divide between our heads (intellect) and our hearts (feelings). This Cartesian split is what gave rise to modern science — the monstrous idea from René Descartes that we humans are separate from our environment, that the subjective world we experience “in here” is somehow split off from the objective world “out there.”
You can appreciate how “scientific materialism” — which is the closest thing to a consensus worldview in the modern age — provides some comfort when contemplating climate chaos. We gain the sense of being removed from the threat, like watching it on The Weather Channel, or enjoying yet another dystopian movie.
In a paper in the professional journal Ecopsychology, Benjamin White points out that the “residue of traumatic experiences from our [past becomes] present when we encounter anything that may be traumatic or threatening. As such, trauma is quite alive in our relationship to nature itself and to climate change.” What we need to be talking about is not how all the pieces of the climate puzzle fit together into our objective model of scientific externalities, but rather how the cycle of trauma and dissociation implicit in our exploitive relationship to the natural world is preventing us from collectively responding to climate chaos like rational inhabitants of earth, implementing readily available, rational solutions.
What might such a conversation sound like?
It’s called truth and reconciliation. It is only when we overcome our fear of vulnerability to examine the deep, open wound from past traumas that reconciliation, a form of cultural healing, becomes possible. To engage in this at the collective level, we must learn to appreciate what social psychologists call “cultural trauma.”
Cultural trauma refers to a dramatic loss of identity and meaning associated with an unhealed wound in the collective memory of a social community. For example, 9/11 gave rise to cultural trauma. When such a wound is not healed, and is instead covered over by aggressive acting out, then it festers and grows, and can result in the kind of loss of cultural identity that would prompt a nation of immigrants to seal off its borders and ban a fifth of the world’s population from entering our country — especially if they lost hundreds of friends in the World Trade Center attacks.
“When an inner situation is not made conscious,” Carl Jung said, “it appears outside as fate.”And with unresolved trauma, the victim can eventually become the perpetrator. Witness Israel’s current oppression and dehumanization of the Palestinian people.
The United States is built on a foundation of trauma: from Jamestown to Valley Forge; from slavery to genocide; from the Civil War to the Great Depression sandwiched between two world wars; and from assassinations, the repression of the civil rights movement and Kent State to 9/11 and the endless war on terror. Our dissociative behavior is broadly labeled the American dream — the same consumptive fantasy world we find consolation in when confronted by the overwhelming threat of climate chaos.
It is entirely possible that the reason we have not been able to rouse ourselves to collective action is because of our failure to recognize how traumatized we’ve become as a culture. Once we become collectively aware that the real “denial” of the climate crisis is our own psychic numbing, whether through endless distraction (including electoral politics) or through the use of alcohol or drugs, then perhaps we will be in a better position to reconnect with our own human nature. In his encyclical on the climate crisis, Pope Francis says we must begin a conversation to reconsider what it means to be human — that’s the “truth” component. By resuscitating human nature, we will be able to reform social values and “reconcile” our lifestyle with the natural world. Truth and reconciliation.
Then the appropriate responses to the climate crisis will become “second nature” — because in the end this is a crisis of relationship: the way we relate to one another and to the planet. Solutions like growing food naturally, and wondering why we ever accepted anything less. Solutions like “humanely” acting on our natural compassion for farm animals, and greatly reducing the meat in our diet in exchange for ending the mass murder of animals. Solutions like insisting that rain forests be allowed to recover, along with the soils, savannas, wildlife and oceans. And, of course, leaving fossil fuels in the ground, and decommissioning nuclear power plants.
We know all this in our heads, but we still don’t feel it in our hearts and in our bones. We do not act on this simple, natural knowledge, because we’re numbed to our own human nature. When suffering from trauma, the cure can be found close to the wound — which takes courage. The first step is simply to acknowledge that we in the United States are currently contributing more to global climate disaster than any other country. That is the kind of American exceptionalism the rest of the world is ready for.
It is time for us to talk about our unnatural way of life. It is time to remember who we are, and decide what we want the world to look like in this, the Anthropocene. The Human Age. We have broken the world. Now is the time to own up to that.
Note: An excerpt of this article previously appeared in the Idaho Mountain Express.