The Banality of Climate Change

In the midst of this great extinction, with iconic species like tigers, leopards, orangutans, elephants, rhinos, and polar bears perilously close to disappearing, with glaciers retreating, ice caps melting, ocean acidification, historic wildfires, and with widespread impacts to humans just beginning, it is no stretch to suggest that greenhouse gas is the greatest evil ever perpetrated on the planet Earth.  Of course, immediately images of the Holocaust come to mind, and admittedly we have not even approached that level of horror yet with climate change.  But there is an important caveat here.  We must account for approximately a fifty year lag time between emissions of greenhouse gases and the impacts on climate.  The International Energy Agency foresees “mass mortality and mass migration” on the human horizon, and there are credible estimates that millions will die in Africa within the next couple of decades because of the lack of any proportionate responses thus far.

Whereas Hitler’s gas chambers were targeted at certain people and confined to ghastly concentration camps, we are now inhabiting the greenhouse gas chamber, and its early victims will be determined largely by geography, class (mobility), and species.  The worst scenarios feared by scientists – and it is useful in this regard to remember that all the scientific models keep proving to be too conservative – are that once climate change really gets going, feedback loops and cascading effects will render it irreversible.  We humans tend to think in linear terms, with tidy and predictable one-to-one relationships, while nature tends to unfold exponentially, more like chains breaking or bubbles bursting.  And if you’ve ever looked at one of those pictures of Earth taken from space, with our atmospheric film visible, it really does look like a rather fragile bubble.  So taking into account what we are already seeing and accounting for the fact that no matter what action we take now, the situation will continue to deteriorate on a global scale for at least another fifty years, the idea of an eco-holocaust suddenly rings true.

America’s Dream Becomes The World’s Worst Nightmare

The Holocaust analogy is instructive in another sense.  Anyone who sits through Margaretthe von Trotta’s brilliant movie Hannah Arendt cannot help but see Arendt’s psychological insights into the Holocaust as an allegory for the planetary holocaust that is presently punching huge holes into the delicate and miraculous web of life.  One of the leading political thinkers of the twentieth century, and author of the seminal work The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt became infamous for her controversial coverage of the 1961 trial of “the man in the glass cage,” Adolf Eichman, during which she coined the phrase “banality of evil.”  Arendt, a German Jew forced to flee Nazis twice herself, was aghast at how someone as mediocre as Eichman could be responsible for something as monstrous as shipping Jews by boxcar to concentration camps for elimination.  Commenting on his apparent inability to think critically about what he was doing,  Arendt speaks to us from the grave about our own complicity in the climate crisis: “Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence.”

What could be more standardized in America 2013 than driving SUVs, maximizing our income, shopping at strip malls and box stores, eating meat and processed foods, drinking bottled water, and filling whatever discretionary time we have left with meaningless distractions like American Idol, YouTube, and Facebook?  When challenged to consider the consequences of our chosen lifestyles, to think critically for ourselves, we typically respond with socially acceptable clichés and stock phrases, along the lines of “I’m just one person,” “you only live once,” “it’s all we can do to get by,” the ever-popular “lighten up, dude,” “whatEVer,” and perhaps the most cynical of all, “it is what it is.”  After all, if everyone is equally responsible, as myopically appears to be the case with climate change, then nobody is really culpable.

This was exactly the situation in Nazi Germany, of course, and Obama’s America has adopted a similarly authoritarian, if not totalitarian, order.  If an individual dares to think for themselves and blow the whistle on obvious war crimes or blatantly unconstitutional government programs, they are demonized, pathologized, and persecuted with extreme prejudice.  If that is the case for war crimes and pervasive surveillance, how are Americans expected to react to something as complicated as global climate change?  And so we go along to get along, good consumers all.

Again, with shocking foresight, Arendt observed that modernity entails the “loss of the world.”  She characterized this loss as forfeiting our participatory rights as citizens, such as authentic political action and speech, in exchange for the privilege of becoming consumers and job holders dominated by an elite class that packages our political thinking and severely limits our avenues of participation.  Contemporary clichés like “if you don’t vote, you don’t have a right to complain” and choosing “the lesser of two evils” reinforce this non-participatory form of democracy.  As Adam Curtis documents at length in the award-winning “Century of the Self” (worth watching on Vimeo), the roots for this devil’s bargain actually go back at least to the 1939 World’s Fair, when Corporate America began pushing back against FDR with the propaganda of “Democracity,” in which what is good for General Motors is good for America, and continued after WWII when our government itself decided that participatory democracy was unwieldy and dangerous, and thus began working with the likes of Anna Freud in packaging the “American Dream” as a means of social engineering and control.  The key to all this was to replace the satisfaction of real needs with the satisfaction of artificial desires.  And it is those very greedy desires that now consume entire species.

Consuming Planet Earth

Of course, what Arendt could not have possibly foreseen fifty years ago was that this “loss of the world” could become much more literal, that the “banality of evil”  would one day threaten life as we have come to know it here on planet Earth.  It is most unfortunate she did not live to hear George Bush go on national TV before the dust had even cleared from the fall of the Trade Building towers in 2001 to issue a grieving country its marching orders:

“Americans must shop.”

That presidential injunction signaled the completion of the decades-long conversion of citizens to consumers.  Little did we know that planned obsolescence included making our participation in governance obsolete in the short term, and consuming our shared life support system in the long term.  We have progressed from consuming disposable products to consuming celebrities and politicians to consuming the planet, from a throwaway society to a throwaway world.

“Banality” means that collective evils can be perpetrated without corresponding individual motives: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil… the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which [can] not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was a perhaps extraordinary shallowness.”  In exactly the same way, no wickedness is found in a soccer mom’s driving her child to practice.  It is not pathological for a father struggling to make ends meet to take his family to McDonald’s for dinner.  And rare is the shopper at Walmart who is motivated by an ideological agenda.

Collectively, we seem capable of the worst desecrations of life imaginable, eliminating entire species, perpetuating child labor, supporting factory farms.  Germany gassed millions of Jews, and America is gassing an entire planet.  But how many of us would actually choose to kill the last polar bear?  How many would knowingly enslave children or sell them into prostitution?  For that matter, how many of us would, given a choice, take a job in a slaughterhouse?

American’s have good hearts, I am quite convinced, but our government and industry is rotten at the core, and our education system has failed us.  Unfortunately, we have for the most part become shallow materialists, incapable of deep, critical thinking, and too easily distracted by soul-numbing media and mindless activities.  With a 30-50 year lag time between greenhouse emissions and their impacts on our oceans and atmosphere, and with our impotent government overrun by greedy bankers and corporate overlords, the prospects for averting the collapse of the global ecosystem appear rather bleak.

Hope & Change, ca. 2013

Of course, just as a whole country can be swept up in the banality of evil because of its aversion to deep thinking, so can moral and ethical standards suddenly shift to create entirely new habits and customs based on the currents that run through society, as Arendt herself emphasized in discussing the phenomenon of personal responsibility.  While it may be too much to expect Americans to drastically reduce their dependence on cars, it may not be unrealistic to hope that Americans might suddenly change their diets to significantly reduce their meat intake, especially since we now are beginning to appreciate the health impacts of red meat and the cruelty of factory farming.  Unfortunately, most Americans still don’t make a direct connection between their diet and the climate crisis.  This remains the most glaring failure of climate activism.

There are two related problems that need to be acknowledged here.  Both have to do with human nature, and both suggest a radically different approach to the climate crisis.  First, as Al Gore has proven convincingly, we can not rely on fear to motivate action.  Second, given the deplorable condition of our current political system – chronically dysfunctional and at the same time awash in corporate cash – we need to empower people to solve this problem, not impose on them the near hopeless task of prevailing upon our so-called political “leaders” to solve it for us.  At this critical point in time, when time itself is most certainly not on our side, political action is a defensive posture that in no way suggests a proactive solution.

Fortunately, there is a surprisingly simple solution to this crisis that honors both of these principles.  All great success is built on failure.  By carefully considering the reasons we are failing to effectively act, let us turn this adversity into the path of recovery.

Fear turns out to be a terrible motivator for broad social action.  Studies show that simply scaring people about dystopian futures will not work.  Such appeals, which are rather pervasive in the alternative media right now, only serve to create feelings of helplessness and powerlessness.  Fear triggers ‘barriers to engagement’, such as denial, which are easily fortified in this age of perpetual distraction.  Similarly, studies reveal that appeals to guilt backfire, because challenging our sense of identity as good, moral people reflexively elicits a range of justifications and rationalizations for our behavior.

Don’t get me wrong.  We have every reason to be very afraid, and it would be immoral to downplay the threats posed by runaway climate change. I am simply pointing out that, collectively, we have these “Chicken Little” and “Boy Who Cried Wolf” defense mechanisms built into our psyche, while on the other end of the spectrum, despair is debilitating.  So while education is a necessary first step, it is irresponsible to sound the alarm without offering people something more empowering than to write their faux-representative in Congress a letter.

By now, most Americans know that our situation is serious enough to require urgent action.  Sadly, we also know that our government is hopelessly broken – and thanks to the Supreme Court’s twin pillars of democratic destruction (corporations are people and money is speech), there is no easy fix in sight.  What good does it do to ask the American people to appeal to their broken government to fix their broken climate?

What we must come to understand, and the sooner the better, is that the solution to our climate crisis is personal.  The solution is surprisingly simple, increasingly obvious, and well within our grasp.  Change our diet and we will save – not just change, but actually save – the world we live in.  It is our last realistic chance, it is not all that difficult, and it does not even require a super majority. We will solve lots of other problems in the bargain, and best of all, this solution appeals to our highest sense of selfishness.  It also capitalizes on another trait of human nature – we love simple solutions to complicated problems, and the triumphant feeling this can produce is also addictive.

The Final Solution

If you had asked me thirty years ago whether smoking would become so taboo in my lifetime that people would have to step outside their own homes in wintertime, their workplaces, and even taverns to have a smoke, I would have laughed.   According to the CDC, only 18% of us smoke cigarettes today, down from 42% in 1965 and 29% only 25 years ago.  That represents a sea change, and the only real motivation for it is to live longer, healthier lives.

One in ten Americans at this time are either vegan, vegetarian or follow a “vegetarian-inclined” diet, with nearly as many motivated by the environmental impacts of their diet as by the health benefits.  This suggests that if as much effort went into constructive appeals to Americans to reduce meat intake as goes into trying to brow-beat them into taking political action, we would have a much better chance of timely responding to the current crisis than if we wait for our corrupt leaders to take action, which seems like a losing proposition from any angle.  In fact, if America became a vegetarian nation, it would have the same impact on the climate as if we were to simply stop driving entirely.  While that isn’t going to happen, the point is to put our lifestyle in an activist, engaged perspective.  If, instead, we were all to agree to only eat meat once a week, it would be the equivalent of closing down every power plant in the country!

Again, this isn’t really a matter of converting meat-eaters to vegetarianism, veganism, or getting them to donate to PETA.  It’s about everyone becoming more mindful about what they are eating, where it came from, and what the impacts are.  Some of my most climate-conscious, environmentally engaged friends in Montana are meat-eaters, but the impacts of their diets are negligible because they take their meat from the land.  They are hunters who refuse to buy packaged meat or eat fast food.   If we can just increase the “mostly vegetarian” category from one in ten to three or four in ten before 2020, America will stop being the world’s worst nightmare and instead become the world’s leaders in solving the climate crisis.  All without writing a single letter to our Congressperson!  Let the politicians follow, or at least get out of our way.  They may not care about our children’s future, but we do.

So here’s the selfish appeal.  According to a recently completed twenty-year study of more than 100,000 people, just giving up red meat alone significantly reduces your chances of premature death from leading killers like heart disease and cancer.  In announcing the results of the study, U.C. San Francisco researcher Dr. Dean Ornish noted that “[e]ven small changes can make a [big] difference.”  Tellingly, he also pointed out that “[w]hat’s good for you is also good for the planet.”

While this connection between diet and climate has yet to be fully appreciated by climate activists, a recent commentary by the NY Times lead food columnist points out that if we “reduce the rate at which we consume animal products, produce them better and substitute plants for a large portion of them” then “[w]e’ll improve our health, animal welfare and the state of the environment.”  Ornish himself was compelled to submit an editorial along with the release of the dietary health study in which he pointed our that shrinking the livestock industry, the single greatest contributor of greenhouse gas, would alleviate global climate change and halt the destruction of rain forests to support the cattle industry.

Simply put, the more plant-based our diet becomes, the healthier we will feel and the longer we will live.  This point is driven home in spades by a leading heart specialist and a medical researcher, both raised on dairy farms, in the documentary “Forks Over Knives,” which combines results from the largest dietary study ever conducted (the “China study”) and the rather shocking anecdotal stories of “curing” advanced coronary disease through dietary changes (and without surgery or drugs) to make a thoroughly convincing indictment of both dairy products and meats in heart disease and all forms of cancer.  It is impossible to watch that widely available documentary without being profoundly motivated to change your diet.

So just as Arendt hoped to avoid a future totalitarian debacle like the Final Solution by pointing out the banality of evil, so the point here is to suggest a more effective course to follow in addressing the climate crisis by pointing out the banality of climate change.  But until climate activists confront the social realities they face, and stop butting their heads up against the political wall that is our broken government, we will continue to be doomed by our unthinking actions.  Simply stated, climate activists need to become health activists, because in this wholly interconnected, interdependent global village, there is no longer any distinction between global health and individual wealth.  We are what we eat, and as compulsive, unthinking meat-eaters, we are no longer just destroying our own health, we are destroying our planet’s health as well.

It’s time to wake up and smell the methane.


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