Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Emotions of Climate Change.

Forget the economics and the science ... it’s all about emotion. The science is absolutely clear ... we are responsible for global warming and climate change and the longer term consequences of failure to mitigate are too ghastly to think about. The economics are also in the realm of the bleeding obvious ... the cost of mitigation is nowhere near the cost of the damage that will be caused by destructive climate change that will smash agriculture worldwide and wreak more storm and tempest damage to our vital technology and infrastructure. 

So, what about the emotions? How can emotions explain the types of responses we see today? Given that the emotions are primary factors generating action or inaction in humans, (‘emotion’ is derived from the Latin ēmovēre to disturb, and movēre to move), it is most likely that they will be implicated in issues that invite action (or inaction) such as climate change.

Modern humans evolved within bioregional contexts only 200,000 years ago. In the last ten thousand years, the Earth’s climate has been relatively stable and cultures have sustained themselves around the predictability of the seasons and other solar system regularities such as the tides. Our perceptual and emotional development was tied to survival in often difficult environments where scarcity usually prevailed over abundance.

Survival in a time of scarcity was contingent on aggressively defending home territories from human rivals. Men, especially, in the context of a hunting and gathering economy, also required the emotional attributes required to hunt and kill animals that, in many instances, could kill or injure them. In addition, detailed knowledge of the home environment was vital and relationships to places and things of sustenance and the human cooperation needed to sustain family and clan must have been foundational to the emotions.

With internal place-based emotions mainly tied to cooperation within home territories and families and external place-based relationships mainly based on defence and aggression, at least two clearly opposed sets of emotions have become part of our biological and cultural evolution. Many authors (see, for example, Parrot 2001) have built complex typologies of the emotions, however, in this short essay I wish only to highlight the contrast between emotions affiliated with cooperation (love, care, joy) and conflict (anger, hostility, fear).

In the last two hundred years (especially) humans in Capitalist, industrialised and technologically complex societies have created a social and cultural environment based not on scarcity but abundance. In such circumstances, the emotional typology produced in the previous 200,000 years becomes confused. The ‘external’ emotions connected to competition are harnessed to maximise corporate growth and dominance in a global market place while the ‘internal’ more cooperative emotions are increasingly tied to making the corporate body more efficient and productive.

Particular place-based emotions have been transcended by more global connections and increased alienation from the natural systems that once sustained us. In addition to artificial habitats supported by technologies that deliver virtual experiences (of people and place) we have built a globally connected economy that has removed the threat posed by outsiders and ‘others’ to only a few (but occasionally effective) terrorists and cultures that refuse to be part of the global ‘corporate family’. Now, it is mainly those who pose a threat from the inside to the institutions that deliver the abundance that all enjoy,who are perceived to be ‘outsiders’ and a threat to the integrity of the whole system.

In the C20, it was ‘the Left’ that held the place of 'outsider' and opponent of market-based modern societies where the ‘Cold War’ for right libertarians was (and still is) all about victory of free markets, individual freedom and Western institutions (democracy) over communist/socialist forms of social organisation based on collectivism and authoritarianism.

In the C21, in the new ‘Green War’, the enemy has now become those who suggest that there are limits to material growth in any aspect of human life. Given that the ultimate basis of Capitalism is infinite growth, such advocacy of limits is seen as threatening the very basis of the material abundance that has come to characterise a modern society.

The emotional choreography of hunting and gathering societies is revealed when those who argue for unlimited freedom and unlimited growth use ‘outsider’ emotions to defend their position. Their emotional landscape is based on hostility to the ‘other’, and aggression towards opposing views and people that espouse them. These people are fighting a ‘Green War’ because ‘greens’ represent that which is most anathema to them ... the restriction of individual freedom in the interests of any collective good. Even rationality and science, if used to support forms of limitation, including limits to greenhouses gases in the atmosphere, become enemies of the so-called free and open society.

It is then quite explicable to see the expression of emotions in the hostility and ad hominen attacks on climate scientists and environmentalists made by climate change denialists, anti- limits-to-growthers and green sceptics. Their total world view is being challenged by climate and environmental science and in order to preserve their own coherence, they must oppose every piece of evidence that suggests the need to change and respect limits. If this now means opposing the very scientific traditions on which their own abundant world was erected, then so be it.

By contrast, the climate scientists and environmentalists who see the need for restraint and self limitation are able to use the insider emotional choreography of the hunters and gatherers to establish and reinforce their own position. They can clearly see that humans have re-entered a world of scarcity and that there is a need to give expression to relictual communal emotions of care, responsibility and collective good that enable sustainability within the imposed limits. That they have to confront those who oppose them and who do so via the opposing emotions of hostility and aggression only makes for the drama of the emotions to be played out in the most difficult of circumstances.

What is strange is that we have not paid sufficient attention to the emotions of climate change and environmentalism. As with the emotions of denial of the harm of cigarette smoking, centred on personal freedom, addiction and lifestyle, the similar emotions of climate change denial are powerful enough for people to oppose science, be blind to evidence and be thoughtless about how others now (intragenerational ethics) and others in the future (intergenerational ethics) can sustain themselves.

It must also be noted that the drama of the emotions is also substantially being played out within the context of a privately owned media that has a vested interest in profit-making by selling the trappings of an infinite growth model of an economy. Be it in the service of new motor vehicle images or big glossy advertisements for new mining employees, the commercial media must employ journalists who are able to give expression to the emotions of infinite growth insiders and oppose them to the emotions of limits to growth outsiders. That they do so to protect the interests of those who profit from infinite growth models of economic activity should come as no surprise to anyone. In doing their job they also ensure that they themselves continue to have one.
If, after receipt of information about the real threats to life, we oppose untrammelled human development and are concerned about the fate of future generations, then our emotions are primed to urgently mitigate the causes of climate change. If we want to accept climate change but continue with business as usual, then we are emotionally disposed to support adaption to any change. If we are emotionally tied to a world view (ideology) that cannot co-exist with limitations to individual and corporate freedom, then we will oppose any action that will constrain economic growth including 'costly' adaptation to climate change.