Signs of Failure
Two phenomena of this 21st century American moment stand out as exemplary of what our valueless values have wrought. I consider them the natural effusion of materialistically centered culture aided by the expediency and opportunism that reside so comfortably in that material domain and that help it along. Its implicit theme, the doctrine for which it lives, might be phrased as “More is…uh, More and More is Good,” where the idea of social benefit—the Goods of community—has lost credibility, where “More for…?” has no answer except $$. Some have denoted ubiquitous advertising as “capitalist realism,” counterpart to “socialist realism,” the former acting as propaganda for the American way of life, a way whose beating heart is economic growth, while the latter corrupted Soviet art, culture, and politics during its unhappy tenure propagandizing a Communist way of life.
The two phenomena that I refer to are the American response to climate change and the prevalence of truthlessness in public discourse. The first raises a question about motivation and the possibility, functionally, of an unconscious suicidal impulse—societal self-destruction as a likely result of choices made for other reasons but which implicitly carry forward a suicidal impetus. The second points to the truth of Mishra’s conjecture about American nihilism in the essay I cited above. The two are twinned forces as the denial of climate reality requires comfort with lies, and lies enable progress toward the probability of civilizational suicide (when they aren’t doing their duty deceiving for other purposes). Tobacco smokers with lung cancer are typically more honest with themselves about their condition and its causation than Americans are about climate change, but on the road to catastrophic illness smokers too could pretend when they wanted to. (Not to inject partisanship, but truth requires that we notice the great majority of climate change deniers are Republican, and that this party, in obeisance to its current President, has also embraced truthlessness.)
The evidence confirming anthropogenic climate change is overwhelming and widely available. There’s no need to repeat it. A majority of Americans now claim to believe in the science. Yet the Republican Party, which controls the federal government and the majority of state governments, officially continues to deny the reality, their President calls it a “hoax,” and they raised no objections to his withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate accord that intended to bring world-wide cooperation to solving the problem. From this I surmise that those who believe do not believe strongly and/or do not appreciate its seriousness. They could also feel helpless or hopeless since there is good evidence from political science that special interest concerns always take precedence over those of citizens on any issue in which the special interests are seriously invested, democratic substance having gone off in the same direction as truthfulness. Although many states and cities along with foundations and environmental organizations see the facts and are acting on them as they are able, the reality for the country is that no unified effort that matches the scale of the problem exists, no national solidarity for confronting the deniers’ lies and distortions and demanding action to protect precious Earth.
Naomi Klein begins her book on climate change, This Changes Everything, with a citation from a 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science report that will help make the point I am after here.
Most projections of climate change presume that future changes—greenhouse gas emissions, temperature increases and effects such as sea level rise—will happen incrementally. A given amount of emission will lead to a given amount of temperature increase that will lead to a given amount of smooth incremental sea level rise. However, the geological record for the climate reflects instances where a relatively small change in one element of climate led to abrupt changes in the system as a whole. In other words, pushing global temperatures past certain thresholds could trigger abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes that have massively disruptive and large-scale impacts. At that point, even if we do not add any additional CO2 to the atmosphere, potentially unstoppable processes are set in motion.
The short version of that goes this way: either slowly over a century or two or swiftly within the present century serious disruptions may occur, some of which put civilization at risk and others—unpredictable, catastrophic—theoretically could make human life itself problematic. This is what I had in mind when I suggested the possibility of civilizational suicide. Russian roulette with a weapon that has an unknown number of chambers containing an unknown number of bullets but whose trigger we haplessly pull repeatedly every day that we cling to denial. (Note: As one committed to an ecocentric value system as well as to an animal rights philosophy, I do not consider the loss of natural beauty or integrity and the accelerating loss of species diversity any less important than the prospect of lost civilization; in fact, they are more important and worthy of concern for being innocent and foundational to human existence, which has as a whole ungratefully passed over their gifts to eudemonia, spirit, and meaning, each right there for the taking by those with sufficient care and receptivity, perhaps most palpably in the natural world.)
It sounds almost preposterous to suggest that a society, a nation, especially one as rich and powerful as the U.S., could be suicidal. If the assertion has validity I assume it is an unconscious drift, more of the “oh, whatever” variety (immortalized in teen-speak and meaning “who cares?”, “leave me alone, I’m occupied with other things,” “fate will decide”) than deliberate. Like a speeding drunk, society would assume safe-landing while knowingly risking the opposite. It would have to have grown flaccid in its strivings toward meaning and happiness, perhaps even forgotten how to address the questions striving would raise, accepted substitutes, distracted itself, lost confidence that it could identify and achieve the good or make changes that would entail, slumped into busy ennui and helplessness. Dramatic, life-threatening climate change would feel too complicated to fathom, too obscure and far away, too contrary to present experience and recent history, and so too easy to avoid contemplation of its scientifically assured impacts. Speaking as a former psychotherapist, if a patient presented with this symptom picture, which looks a lot like depression, I would surmise at least tacit acceptance of self-destruction and would worry. Doesn’t the continued existence of nuclear weapons, the lack of effort to abolish them, and the present commitment to spend a trillion dollars plus over the next thirty years “modernizing” them manifest the same dynamic? One way or the other, the patient will almost surely die.
It has to be said that citizens tend to be a complacent lot concerning issues of this nature and will generally follow where they are led when the direction is familiar and reassuring, as it is with the everyday reality to which they have accustomed themselves. When leaders, even those who enjoy as little respect as do most of our traditional authorities, speak in conflicting voices people will gravitate toward the place of familiarity and comfort, which in the present instance is toward business more or less as usual, even though when asked they report belief that dangerous things may be afoot. Astonishingly, we still hear prominent voices assert that even if ameliorative adjustments should be made they cannot be allowed to jeopardize economic growth. I think again of that lung cancer patient dragging his oxygen bottle around wheezing and hawking blood. Economism, self-centeredness, greed…commodity fetish, ideological hatred of government, fragmentation away from community solidarity: denial is over-determined and among the afflicted more powerfully driven than the reality principle.
Which naturally raises the puzzlement of truthlessness and its growing popularity as a way of moral and cognitive life, a way to deny reality and avoid self-reflection and hard choice. There is evidence that a national propensity toward self-deception and flights of fancy (paranoid, religious, racial, etc.) has been endemic from the beginning. Even so, the ethical collapse inherent in such propensity seems to me its most alarming aspect. Aristotle considered intellectual and ethical excellence the keys to good lives, lives well imbued with eudemonic character. Truthlessness fails at both forms of excellence. This seems so obvious that elaboration may be superfluous. Intellectual integrity relies on a love of truth and willingness to follow its trail, regardless the thickets it goes through, as well as self-awareness of internal thickets blocking objectivity. And ethics relies on love of moral goods and consistent effort to act on their behalf. Truthlessness says that neither of these considerations is compelling and both are disposable when competing interests intervene. Interests in facile psychic comfort, in believing without thinking, in conformity with authority or identity group, in anything other than responsibility. This is a scandalous form of thought and behavior and carries within more than sufficient psychological antibodies to ward off recognition by its carriers so it’s hard to imagine a remedy.