Our Intransigence

In the face of global warming

Giesen hikes with his daughter Erika.

Individualism is the antithesis of communalism and cooperation. It is a powerful idea, mostly a male notion, and it permeates our society. We are very likely the most individualistic society on the planet or in history. This essay is about the ways individualism works to prevent the mitigation of global warming.

Various explanations have been offered for the failure, in the U.S. and elsewhere, of efforts to mitigate global warming by reducing emissions. Despite campaigns by global warming deniers to question the science of global warming, that science is increasingly accepted today. Citizens tell pollsters that they wish to lower their consumption habits, which are related to our high levels of energy use. However, there is no credible broad-scale movement to enact legislation or enforce existing regulations to get serious reductions in energy use, and hence CO2 emissions, in the short term.

We are simply failing to act to significantly reduce emissions.

Andy Fisher, in an essay from Ecopsychology: Science, Totems and the Technological Species, briefly outlines our culture:

The dominant interpretation of human nature today is probably that of Homo Economicus. In this view, humans are individuals with limitless wants, nature is “scarce resources” to be exploited, rationality is the maximization of self-interest, and our moral responsibility is to consume.

That appears at first glance to be a harsh, poverty-stricken view of human possibility.

On the other hand, Apple just sold nine million new iPhone 5s in just three days, with many if not most of those just replacing an older iPhone which had a few less features. At the replacement price, that is $6.3 billion worth sold in just three days.

Six billion dollars would buy a lot of lobbying for mitigation. Instead, a huge campaign is being waged by the oil, coal and gas industries against the validity of the latest IPCC Assessment Report — a report which argues that cooperation, joint efforts and coordination are required for aggressive broad-scale mitigation — now!

But cooperation, joint efforts and coordination are not attributes of Homo Economicus. Being a “rugged individualist” is what is admired.

Humans, in our culture, are not seen as part of nature, but instead as superior to nature, dominant over nature. The purpose of nature is to be available to humans: Nature is our shopping mall, where we often take whatever we want and pay nothing.

This god-like view we have ignores and/or denies the obvious unity of all life-forms, a unity clearly visible through observations of evolutionary processes. Life is priceless.

Individualism breeds exceptionalism. Humans view ourselves as unique, unprecedented, invincible and hence exceptional: entitled to act as we please. Those delusions produce an orgy of self-indulgences: unjust wars, corrupt financial market manipulations, arrogance toward other nations, creating markets for trivial or worthless objects/devices, shopping as recreation, the denial of valid science and so on. Those are all part of a testosterone-fueled imperative to acquire and use more and more power and wealth — acquisitions gained at the expense of the non-renewable resources of the planet.

These delusions make it impossible to address global warming.

To address global warming means to stop using fossil fuels and accept the consequences: much lower energy availability; the end of growth; its replacement by contraction in economies, population and many other resources now taken for granted, e.g., easy transportation, food security, potable water, heating and cooling of residences, etc.

It is not, however, the diminution of the resources enumerated above that makes it seem impossible to address global warming. Adjusting to less seems very difficult but possible.

What is not possible, I suspect, is the loss of the myth of the invincibility of modern humans. Accepting the imperative to quit fossil fuels is experienced as similar to a self-castration/mutilation/lobotomy. Accepting global warming requires psychic adjustments that are foreign and unimaginable to us: Growth cannot stop and reverse itself — that’s impossible; it can’t and won’t happen!

So, while we say we want to accept science and reduce consumption, there is no general and effective outcry for change. We are stuck in the same ward as the deluded, and they are carrying the day. — Tom Giesen


Tom Giesen of Eugene is an adjunct research associate in the UO Public Planning, Policy and Management Department and has master’s degrees in both forest ecology (biogeochemistry) and creative writing. He has also been active in Citizens for Public Resources, the Native Forest Council, the Oregon Natural Resources Council, Iszaak Walton League and more.