Extending an Insight into Climate Denialism
I am writing this during the "lunch break" on the last day of FIYAHCON. Reading my own story at the virtual "tea house" last night was a blast, but for me, the greatest benefit from this online literary conference—one that incorporates the entire world and front-and-centers the marginalized—is the insights into human behavior. Ask a question to someone not often asked, and you'll get answers worth pondering.
In a panel on climate change, the moderator asked Sri Lankan writer Yudhanajaya Wijeratne about climate change denial, and he pointed to trauma. Not to ignorance, not to propaganda, not to narrowness of worldview or to a pervasive corporate ethos or to force, but to trauma. This SF writer and data scientist asked the audience to imagine the traumatized screaming out, "I've had enough, I don't want to face anything else, just let me be."
It immediately struck me that trauma might be an explanation for the appeal of anti-science politics in other contexts, too. I recently attended a local school board meeting (over Zoom) in which one participant threatened to shoot the board members and the cops that protected them because they wanted to impose a mask mandate on her children. After indulging her outburst, they shut her mic off and escorted her out of the room. Yeah, you guessed it: she was white. Major national media personalities sent the clip out over social media, but I'll bet the FBI ignores her. White privilege and all.
She wasn't the only one at that meeting. A veritable rogues' gallery of the insufficiently medicated paraded their hate for science and anyone spouting it. Variations on this scene have repeated throughout the United States but primarily in Republican-controlled areas.
I now find myself asking to what extent these folks can be looked at as trauma victims. The speakers at this meeting overwhelmingly appeared to be working (and not-working) class. Most sported tattoos. None dressed up—hey, if I wanted to convince a generally right-wing group of government officials that my idea had merit, I'd likely put on a jacket and tie. They didn't.
These folks saw local home values plummet with the 2008 collapse, forcing many of them into foreclosure, and then saw rents skyrocket. Many are veterans—fresh from two decades of an utterly useless occupation of Afghanistan, still stubbornly defending a murderous indulgence of the last vestiges of our empire delusion as honorable. Many are still without health insurance. "Christian" health insurance is especially popular here—they pay a fee for "insurance," but then they march into doctors' offices, asking to be billed, and send the bills for crowdfunding. Other Christians on the network will pay their bills. Supposedly. This system works when it's a bill for a child with the sniffles. It collapses completely when someone needs a liver transplant. The true believers will conclude they didn't pray hard enough—certainly, Jesus still loves them, even though he just sat on his celestial butt while Mom suffered and passed away. None of the people I've spoken with have even suspected this to be the in-progress Ponzi scheme it clearly is.
Capitalism has fucked these people. The ultra-rich are laughing their asses off at their gullibility. But when they finally glimpse the outer contours of their oppression, who do they see as Satan incarnate?
Sure, greedy multimillionaires and billionaires, the politicians they own, and the news networks that obfuscate help keep these people in the dark. The standardized-test-driven education system that awards billions to well-connected purveyors of exams, test preparation software, and for-profit charters (please say, "hi," to your brothers, Neil Bush) has done its best to discourage critical thinking. And our national character has always pushed the Horatio Alger, pull-yourself-up-from-your-own-bootstraps ethos. Indeed, one hundred years ago, H.L. Mencken opined that "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." Racism and other bigotries certainly also play a role.
Still, maybe, the anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers are also trauma victims yelling out that they just can't process any more bad news?
So, given that the voting behavior of the traumatized threatens to defeat warding off the worst of the climate catastrophe, how do you win over these folks?
For the young, we have public schools, which wrestle, often imperfectly, with the mission of attending to students' socio-emotional health while also attempting to teach critical thinking and the rudiments of science necessary to function as part of a democracy. For those a little older at traditional universities, you have the questioning process accompanying that part of life. It still works. There's a reason why the vast majority of educated American young people now consider themselves to be socialists—it takes some reading and thinking to realize how badly capitalism and imperialism have failed and collapsed. A recent poll showed 98% of college-educated, registered Democrats are vaccinated—these aren't the people with the knee-jerk questioning of science.
But what about the largely (but not exclusively) white, non-college-educated adult population? The political behavior of many of them threatens any action on climate change, and that will undoubtedly result in hundreds of millions of unnecessary deaths in this century if not countered.
I'd say focus on the young and wait for the reactionaries to die—the approach that ultimately desegregated the United States—but that's too slow to combat the climate catastrophe. Education and civic engagement can be glacial as far as the pace of change goes.
I don't see any evidence for the proletarian consciousness that would support a revolution. And the more radical types of American religiosity tend to be regressive. Consequently, an entire planet suffers.
Through the effects on American politics, this trauma is getting in the way of Sino-Amero-European leadership away from the climate abyss. Because this segment of the American population can't process their trauma, the suffering will continue and ramp up.
My conclusion: they must be bypassed. Power must be snatched from the hands of the politico-military-media-billionaire complex. Their minions may bleat, but like good sheep, they will be led by whoever holds power.
How to usurp this power? That would be a topic for another blog post.