Defeatism, Climate Denial, and Climate Insouciance
The sources of climate defeatist attitudes are and will be diverse though one vast supply of defeatist sentiment will originate from those in the climate denial camp who must now concede that the climate has been changed, probably for the worse, by human activity. For instance, Rex Tillerson, Exxon CEO has attempted to spread an attitude of climate defeatism in some of his public utterances, when he is not acting as if climate change doesn’t exist in his role as Exxon CEO. It is perhaps not completely accurate to apply the “defeatist” label to those who have always worked for the defeat of climate action for a variety of personal, economic, and political reasons. “Defeatism” suggests that the person has in some way struggled on the side of the good and righteous and then decided to give up; those in the climate denial camp have always been against climate action. Still there are many in this camp and they can insert themselves into the broader discussion as “honest brokers” who pedal a message of defeat that reinforces their pre-existing worldview.
The climate denial camp, mostly shills for fossil fuel industries or dye-in-the-wool believers in neoliberal/libertarian ideas about the fallibility of government action, can in part be viewed as also a range of political factions tailored for cynical people, who believe that their opposition to others’ good intentions is always and only a sign of a tough, realistic attitude to life rather than an almost complete failure of moral imagination and commitment. These cynics think that defeating good intentions is their “job” because they may find entertaining hope an intolerable strain on their psyches or they don’t believe that specific good intentions will result in anything good for them or their patrons. Some are paid to be such cynics in the media or on the Internet but they are also probably predisposed by their characters and upbringing to be contrarians first before engaging in reasoned thought and proactive engagement with the complex problems that face us.
So the transition to stoking doubts about our ability to face anthropogenic global warming and quiescence in the face of climate catastrophe is a natural for those who have always adhered to climate denial. Their climate denial was often only about right-wing contrarianism and opposing the implementation of well-intentioned programs by governments to help people, in the case of climate action help people survive as an organized species. This source of climate defeatism then comes from the same “episteme” (mental framework) as climate denial and those, in a choice of narcissism over human survival as a species, who are committed to their mental framework over reality will continue to choose the former.
There is another camp that seems to position itself between denial and advocacy for climate action, that is largely comprised of people who now call themselves “eco-modernists”. Eco-modernists are not opposed to government action in general and many of them acknowledge that climate change is a real problem or see themselves as advocates for climate action. They however prioritize energy-driven economic growth over cutting emissions. Eco-modernists present their form of climate action as shorn of ethical demands and also any lifestyle changes associated with addressing the climate crisis.
Ecomodernists evince a “climate insouciance” or nonchalance. They think of themselves as coolly rational and immune to the emotions associated with ethical concern and ethically-motivated action. Many of the pioneers in this line of thought seem to be trying to be the “cool kids” when it comes to environmental and climate issues though in excising ethical concern they raise persistent doubts about their sincerity and real interests. Ecomodernists divide their time between criticism and attacks on other climate activists and advocacy for innovation funded by government as the key to climate action. Eco-modernists believe, like climate denialists, that having a “good Anthropocene” is the point of what they believe to be climate action and that energy use will continue to expand as will consumption.
While ecomodernists do not seem intent on “defeat” of climate action, they seem to want to spread a lassitude about climate change that undermines concerted climate action. As with denialists, their motivations often seem to be contrarian rather than seeking constructive engagement with people of good will. Again because they have never really shown a passion for climate action, they are technically not defeatists themselves though they would form part of a defeatist cultural spectrum, if we accept (and I accept) the critical role of ethical urgency backed by science as the sine qua non of effective and timely human self-rescue.
The “We Tried” Camp, Didn’t and Doesn’t Try (Climate Action)
Two years ago an English environmental activist and writer, Paul Kingsnorth, made a small media splash when he declared himself a climate defeatist (and he would earn such a title), when he said that he was done with saving the planet, done with hope, and done with sustainability. He claimed to have had two decades of environmental campaigning behind him and I have no reason to doubt his environmentalist credentials. He was interviewed by Grist and there were a couple responses in smaller-audience websites.
Kingsnorth’s interviewer at the environmental website Grist and then a couple years later a friendly response to Kingsnorth by a fellow left-environmentalist writer attempt to accord to Kingsnorth all possible dignity and sincerity. But ultimately the small disturbance in the media landscape that was “the Kingsnorth affair” was about Kingsnorth’s personal feelings that may or may not be representative of a certain portion of the environmental movement that in my view hasn’t really come to terms with climate. In my view, climate activism is not really traditional environmental activism on steroids but far more of an engagement with society and technology than is the taste of traditional environmental activists, who generally seek solace in relatively undisturbed nature. These moments of solace, by the way, are facilitated by the use fossil fuels, particularly petroleum products to enable nature fanciers to easily have access to more remote areas of the world. Kingsnorth’s feelings are, in the end, his private affair, though the episode earned him and his writing group publicity.
A much more widely publicized outbreak of public climate defeatism occurred earlier this year, when the well-liked novelist Jonathan Franzen published a poorly substantiated diatribe in the New Yorker against the Audubon Society for emphasizing the effects of climate change on birds. A bird fancier, Franzen expressed views, against all scientific opinion and data, that action on climate change, for instance building solar farms and wind turbines in unpopulated areas where birds might be, was more of a danger to those birds than climate change. Because of his fame as a novelist, Franzen was allowed to publish this shoddy piece in the usually more scrupulous New Yorker.
Franzen’s expressed views hover somewhere between climate denial and defeatism. He is a denialist because he really doesn’t understand climate change and its effects on most species including birds, yet he attempts to hold forth on the subject. And he is a defeatist because he partially admits to consciously choosing a relatively self-serving goal: his fantasy scenario of protecting birds from a physical confrontation with a wind turbine or other structures erected to deal with climate change.
Both Franzen and Kingsnorth do not understand that climate action really hasn’t been tried very seriously but they are already tired of it or opposed to it. It seems to me that their fundamentally aesthetic relationship to the world has been exposed by the stress, for them, of contemplating human-caused global warming and the effort to turn around society to address climate change. Of course many people pay to experience at least Franzen’s expounding upon his experience of the world. But to address climate change, we need to get beyond a perhaps superficial aesthetic experience of the world and engage with the reality of the world in a new way.
As I maintain, above, climate action hasn’t really been tried, a climate movement is only in its nascent stages. So to become bored with it or be exhausted by it, tells us more about the individual expressing those views than the prospect and project of effective climate action.
The Washington Post Plays with Climate Defeatism
One recent public example, though by no means the most egregious form of climate defeatism around was published in the Washington Post. The long-time climate campaigner Bill McKibben penned an op-ed in the Washington Post on June 9 (which only came to my attention in late June) that was titled “How mankind blew the fight against climate change”. I was quite shocked to see such a title on an editorial by one of the leaders of the climate movement, so I tweeted out:
Naomi Oreskes @NaomiOreskes
How mankind blew the fight against climate change http://wpo.st/kuvN0
Shortly thereafter, McKibben, who probably doesn’t count me as one of his favorite people because of my recent criticisms of his approach, obliquely disowns the title of his op-ed:
I have every reason to believe that McKibben would pick no such title for his piece, given his full-time efforts to exactly not “blow” the fight against climate change. In fact, if you look at the URL for the piece on the WaPo website, it contains the phrase “perils of engagement” which is probably closer to what McKibben had wanted.
The choice of title seems to be a petty and short-sighted distortion by the Washington Post editors of McKibben’s first paragraph in which he states:
If historians someday need to explain how mankind managed to blow the fight against climate change, they need only point to last month’s shareholder meeting at Exxon Mobil headquarters in Dallas.
In the course of the op-ed, McKibben describes Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson’s climate denial via his speech to shareholders as well as his company’s continued investment in fossil fuel extraction and ignoring investment in non-carbon polluting sources, like wind and solar. McKibben then concludes that shareholder “engagement” is not the way to persuade the fossil fuel companies of the wrongness of their ways but instead that divestment is the only way to get the message across, as happened in the struggle against South African apartheid.
Before I get to the injection of a climate defeatist message into the title by the WaPo editors, I want to point out as an aside, McKibben’s mistaken notion about where he believes the central climate fight is supposed to take place. McKibben seems to think that persuading or not persuading fossil fuel companies or their current leadership that they should change their ways is a significant or central battleground of the climate fight. While McKibben in the course of the op-ed, being a smart man, gives some reasons why one, in fact, shouldn’t be waiting with bated breath for what the leaderships of fossil fuel companies do or don’t do of their own accord, in the end he returns to the disempowering notion that the actions of fossil fuel companies, via either their corporate leaderships or via pressure from capital markets, are the lynchpins in the fight against climate change. Thus McKibben ties the climate movement to a self-defeating standard of success or failure. Contrary to the drift of his op-ed, what matters now and will matter is what governments in combination with the peoples of the world and the non-fossil fuel sectors of the economy think and fundamentally set into action to make the fossil fuel business obsolete.
I am not sure the confusion in McKibben’s position registered with the Washington Post editors and whether it played a role in their snide choice of title. It is hard to reconstruct how this editorial malfeasance might have happened but here are some speculative ideas:
- right-wing and neoliberal leaning editors want to “dispose of” the nagging climate movement by “claiming” that the movement is admitting that it has lost the fight. Schadenfreude is second nature in American right-wing political culture as regards the perceived “Left” and is part of their strategy of bullying the Left.
- careless and sensationalistic editors want to “spice up” their editorial page with a shock headline
- Some combination of “1” and “2”.
If Schadenfreude might have played a role, in declaring the climate movement “dead”, really, in essence, this joy at “others’ pain” dooms the editors of the WaPo themselves and their children to a world of hurt. Should they really celebrate such a petty “victory” over their editorial guest? This particular injection of misinformation and despair into our public discussion of climate action is not worth much more speculation.