Climate depression

by Milan on November 1, 2010

in Climate change

In November 1960, Norman Mailer wrote a piece for Esquire on the national convention of the Democratic Party in the United States. One little passage from it made me think about climate change policy, and the people trying to reform it:

Depression obviously has its several roots: it is the doubtful protection which comes from not recognizing failure, it is the psychic burden of exhaustion, and it is also, and very often, the discipline of the will or the ego which enables one to continue working when one’s unadmitted emotion is panic.

Should we be panicked, in these apocalyptic times? Probably. Panic should be at the back of our minds, to remind us of why we must struggle energetically against long odds. We must, after all, continue working.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan November 4, 2010 at 2:34 pm

I can’t say whether we “should” be panicked, or depressed – probably we “should” be however is most useful for averting or mitigating the worst of the disasters which our humanity’s current direction will bring on. That said, it’s not clear exactly how normative demands can apply to states-of-mind, or emotions, since feelings are already normative (and applying normativity to normativity as such seems to create an infinite regress).

One thing I can say is that, personally, I am deeply panicked. The current situation is already a catastrophe for much of the world’s population (and things get much worse if you include non-human animals). What I see in the future is more of the same, with overall conditions worsening, especially in psychological terms, for more and more people.

In the past, I always found myself on the side defending people’s decision to bear children – I tried to give all sorts of reasons as to why the moral decision to not have children was plagued with all sorts of inconsistencies etc… But, I no longer see this as a moral problem. I simply don’t want to have children. I don’t trust the future. As much as I want to to believe Stewart’s cry: “We live in hard times, not end times”, I don’t. Sure – I think there are a lot of wonderful people, and the best thing we can do now is ally with them and work towards positive change. And incremental changes do matter, and some are achievable. But, unless humanity undergoes a deep spiritual revolution, something as important and pervasive as the appearance of liberalism, I don’t trust that we can avert the slide into ecological catastrophe and fascism. Or to be specific, I don’t trust it enough to subject a child to that risk.

Milan November 4, 2010 at 2:42 pm

I don’t think a deep spiritual revolution is at all likely. I think people have basically behaved in similar ways for all of history. That said, I don’t think such a revolution is necessary to solve this problem. People just need to accept that the risks are real, options exist for reducing them, and implementing those options won’t be ruinously costly.

That said, there does seem to be a good chance that humanity will choose to plunge straight over the edge of the cliff and produce catastrophic or runaway warming.

Tristan November 4, 2010 at 3:10 pm

” I think people have basically behaved in similar ways for all of history. ”

I don’t want to get into an argument about this, and I desperately don’t want to be rude, but I believe this is false, or at least results from a misinterpretation of what I mean by “spiritual revolution” (although, I could be accused of obscurantism, since I don’t exactly know what I mean by it). I think at least it can easily be proven that people act in vastly different ways in different parts of the world, and even in different decades of recent history. I think that what people believe has huge implications on how they behave, and what people believe changes – and it is able to change more and more quickly as the world becomes more connected with itself. It’s even more obviously true if we look into the history of religion, perhaps specifically the birth of monotheism and the implications that had for the development of civilizations, but I’m not convinced that such examples provide useful guides for where we are today.

For instance, people in America are responding very differently to the current economic recession than they responded to the Great Depression. Strangely enough, people are much less hopeful, even though conditions are not nearly so dire. That is the victory of a fear-mongering media, and of a 60 year campaign to make you hate the government.

You’ve argued yourself that the discussion about climate change is radically different in Chinese politics as it is in US politics. These differences matter – for denialism to disappear and be replaced with serious discussion about how we can best address the dangers facing us would, from our perspective, constitute a spiritual revolution.

Milan November 4, 2010 at 3:22 pm

I think at least it can easily be proven that people act in vastly different ways in different parts of the world, and even in different decades of recent history.

To be more precise, I agree that people behave differently in different circumstances. Furthermore, I believe that within human populations, there are always people who will respond differently to any particular circumstance.

Some people give money to a beggar in the street, some refuse, some smash the beggar over the head with their umbrella. If you change the laws, you will change how people choose to behave (by changing the circumstances). The same is true if you randomly substitute one person for another.

What I question is whether the whole population of humans can really choose to behave in substantially different ways. Perhaps that is a pointless question, and we should be focusing on changing the circumstances in which people make choices (by doing things like changing the electoral system, for instance).

Milan November 4, 2010 at 3:24 pm

It would definitely be interesting to be able to experiment on accurate models of humans in large numbers. If we took people who believed what people believe today and dropped them all into a feudal society, would they choose to perpetuate it or to replace it with something more like today’s society?

The Stanford prison experiment suggests that there is some chance that modern people randomly assigned to be peasants would just decide to be peasants, and the same would go for the aristocracy and those who enforce their power.

Tristan November 4, 2010 at 5:29 pm

“What I question is whether the whole population of humans can really choose to behave in substantially different ways. Perhaps that is a pointless question, and we should be focusing on changing the circumstances in which people make choices (by doing things like changing the electoral system, for instance).”

I don’t know if your position is coherent, or different from mine. You seem to want to say people act the same in the same context. But, everything I referred to as spiritual difference can be cashed out as different contexts. And then you express doubt that we can choose to act differently, in the same breath as you say we should work to change the context. Well, I’m not sure whether I agree with you or disagree – because I’m not sure if you are actually saying anything different from me. But I am giving a different emphasis – an emphasis on our ability to work together to change the context.

If you want to look specifically at the “giving money to a poor person in the street”, I don’t think it’s a terribly meaningful example – but it’s connected to one. Look at what kind of social welfare structures are considered de facto required in different societies. Why are they so much more extensive in Europe than North America? Well, that’s got to do with the history, actually quite a long history – the fact that North American societies are essentially colonial and based on immigration and the extermination of the local populations give them quite a different default social context than European societies based on the overcoming of feudalism.

Tristan November 4, 2010 at 5:33 pm

As for the Stanford prison experiment, it seems to have been done entirely with Stanford undergraduates. How can you conclude the experiment would produce the same result if done with 14th century Aristocrats, or 18th century factory workers? Or a combination of people from different cultures and different periods?

And besides – all the example shows is how people alter their behavior to fit a context. The important thing is to change the context. There is nothing “inner” about a spiritual revolution, even thought religiously religion is an entirely external phenomenon (it’s reality is exhausted by the practices, the social life, the buildings, the artifacts etc…). Zizek goes as far as to argue religious people can not “believe” in their religion – belief in this sense is restricted to atheism.

Milan November 4, 2010 at 5:34 pm

The distinction between circumstances and the internal thought processes people have may not be a clearcut one.

There is certainly a distinction that can be drawn between how people respond to types of situations and how they respond to very specific circumstances. People respond in very predictable ways when they are afraid, for instance. But what people are afraid of depends on what they believe.

Certainly, the beliefs of the population need to change. I think most people assume that humanity will not suffer serious consequences from climate change, even if we do nothing about it. Perhaps the biggest question is whether people can become sufficiently aware of the risks without having to witness the effects directly.

Tristan November 4, 2010 at 5:35 pm

This “belief” as internal/external might be quite important – maybe the reason we find “spiritual revolution” so difficult is because we think about it internally. We think its a matter of changing people’s minds. But in reality, belief was always Marxist – objective social reality. It’s out there in social reality. So the inward turn in modern society, where we are individualized and compartmentalized into “selves” is the reason why we find the idea of transforming society impossible.

Maybe we should look at the Tea party from this perspective – where are the beliefs? Why does social transformation look easy, or at least doable, to crazies? Is it perhaps because they don’t think it’s a battle of hearts and minds?

Milan November 4, 2010 at 5:38 pm

Another question is why people accept the need to make sacrifices. They do so when forced by someone powerful, though those may not be ‘genuine’ sacrifices. They also do so for the good of a group they care about, such as their family or perhaps their state during wartime.

Is there anything that can motivate the great majority of people to voluntarily sacrifice the benefits of fossil fuels, at least during the span of time required to develop renewable alternatives?

Tristan November 4, 2010 at 5:43 pm

“Perhaps the biggest question is whether people can become sufficiently aware of the risks without having to witness the effects directly.”

Quite clearly it’s logically possible – people believe lots of things they don’t experience. The trick is – how do we create the conditions such that this belief becomes dominant.

Annoyingly, Che Guevara might be important here – his opposition to improvements of conditions due to its pacifying effect on revolutionary consciousness is coherent with an external model of belief. You don’t have to agree with his politics to see the potentially disastrous effects of social consciousness which is not radical enough with respect to real threats.

Tristan November 4, 2010 at 5:48 pm

“Is there anything that can motivate the great majority of people to voluntarily sacrifice the benefits of fossil fuels, at least during the span of time required to develop renewable alternatives?”

The creation of a social movement, or other social reality in which this requires no argument. In which such beliefs are the norm, not the deviation. And it’s hard to see how such a norm of “sacrifice” can come to be within a context where the accumulation of capital is the final goal of power’s every move.

I live in a 300 person co-op, and people don’t like voting for rent-increases every year, but they do it because there is an overwhelming feeling that it is necessary for the survival of the co-op. That it’s not only in “my personal interest”, but it’s in the interest of the organization. I feel that with North American politics (ignoring the NDP perhaps) there is no corresponding feeling of duty to something that exceeds my own personal desire to have as many speedboats as possible.

I don’t mean to say that our co-op is perfect, or that it doesn’t even engage in the manufacture of consent (like states) on small-scale level. But, I think it’s closer to democracy than Canada – and I think that there is more community – more of a sense of “life in common”, which can impose duties.

Milan November 4, 2010 at 5:54 pm

I don’t know why people in the Tea Party believe what they do, but here is a clarification of what I believe about climate change and why.

Milan November 4, 2010 at 6:00 pm

Regarding the co-op example, it is easy to see how people who are members of the co-op can feel as though they are part of a joint venture. They see other co-op members often, and there will be direct consequences for them if the co-op fails.

By contrast, most of those who will be affected by the climate change we are creating are incredibly obscure to us in a way that runs in both directions. Just as we cannot easily imagine what people in the distant future will be like, those who live then (if anyone does) will have largely forgotten about us.

Thankfully, climate change isn’t going to take 1000 years to manifest dangerous effects (if it did, humanity would probably have a 0% chance of solving it). There are clear dangerous effects already, and there will almost certainly be far worse over the course of the lives of our generation, as well as those of their children and grandchildren. James Hansen’s book is aptly named.

Tristan November 6, 2010 at 1:54 pm

I appreciate the post about what you believe, but the issue in this discussion that interests me most is the more basic marxist-y questions about how objective conditions produce consciousness, and what kinds of interventions are possible and can have real effects on people’s beliefs.

I find myself continuing to ponder a seemingly simple, yet deviously impossible question: “How do you change someone’s mind”?

Milan November 8, 2010 at 11:03 am

When it comes to issues where people are already aware of the existence of a debate (however ill informed), one thing that can definitely change someone’s opinion is making an effort to overcome their objections.

I have encountered plenty of intelligent people who came across some plausible objection to the idea that climate change is a big problem (like: ‘increased plant growth will remove the CO2 from the atmosphere’) and then carried on treating climate change as a non-problem because nothing effectively challenged that objection.

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