Climate Denial And The Roar Of The Universal Ape
Even as negotiations in Copenhagen go down to the wire, the thoughts of many people seem to be turning to the psychology of what is sometimes called climate denial. BBC blogger Richard Black notes that virtually all the deniers are male, a pattern that ultimately leaves him stumped. Over at the admirable Skeptic North, John Abrams – a former denier himself – argues that “people do not accept global warming because it would negatively impact their desire to consume” and that many libertarian types are especially resistant because they find economic regulation unpalatable. Faced with arguments that imply the need for bureaucratic impositions like carbon pricing, they glower and insist there’s no problem to solve.
The article that really caught my eye, though, was by the ever-provocative George Monbiot. His analysis perhaps started from a perspective similar to Abrams’, but ended up going much further. As Monbiot sees it, denial is the consequence of primal impulses that are out of place in the modern world:
The meeting at Copenhagen confronts us with our primal tragedy. We are the universal ape, equipped with the ingenuity and aggression to bring down prey much larger than itself, break into new lands, roar its defiance of natural constraints. Now we find ourselves hedged in by the consequences of our nature, living meekly on this crowded planet for fear of provoking or damaging others. We have the hearts of lions and live the lives of clerks.
I suppose there’s something to this. Canada and other nations can no longer spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere without even imagining destructive consequences. In that sense, we are indeed hedged in. Canadians perhaps feel this hedging more acutely than most, considering that we are so unhedged in other respects. After all, we have abundant resources and a population density of less than four souls per square kilometre. On the face of things, we should have every opportunity for demographic and economic growth, but it may be difficult or even impossible to realise much of this growth while also cutting back on our greenhouse emissions. I suppose Monbiot would say that voluntarily restraining ourselves from breeding like rabbits and founding great new cities upon the newly unfrozen tundra is a form of living meekly.
However, Monbiot also seems to think that a revolutionary new need for meekness now applies across the board. As he puts it:
The vicious battles we have seen so far between greens and climate change deniers, road safety campaigners and speed freaks, real grassroots groups and corporate-sponsored astroturfers are just the beginning. This war will become much uglier as people kick against the limits that decency demands.
What makes Monbiot’s piece especially interesting is that he actually sympathises with the impulse to kick against limits. “I lead a mostly peaceful life,” he says in a wonderful line, “but my dreams are haunted by giant aurochs.” How often do aurochs – huge extinct relatives of domestic cattle that feature in cave paintings, although they survived into the 17th century – make it into the opinion pages?
I would contend that the idea of Copenhagen as a great watershed between an age of heroism and an age of meekness is flawed in two respects. First, our ancestors were hardly as unconstrained as Monbiot seems to imagine. People have always been “hedged in” by ritual taboos, by social and political relationships, and indeed by customs intended to conserve natural resources.
Second, and more importantly, the need to accept some constraints on our greenhouse emissions hardly implies that Canada must enter an Age of Constraint affecting every aspect of society. It’s a bit odd that Monbiot mentions road safety campaigners in the same breath as “greens” trying to get the world to tackle climate change. Health and safety is a logically independent question, as are respect for religion, political correctness, animal welfare, the silly emergent issue of robot welfare, and all of the other standard justifications for setting fresh limits on our behaviour (often, ironically, in the name of some form of “rights”).
Like the aurochs hunters of ancient Europe, 21st century Canadians need to discriminate between genuine dangers and harmless shadows, between storms on the horizon and tempests in teapots. Personally, I’m willing to accept that climate change is a problem that will require us to make some difficult changes, though admittedly I’m less sure about the vast financial transfers being discussed in Copenhagen. In many other areas, however, I think we should not only kick against the limits but kick them aside and live more freely, boldly, and unflinchingly. Let’s not hang up our aurochs spears just yet – the aurochs themselves are extinct, but there are still plenty of sacred cows to kill and butcher.