In States of Denial, Stanley Cohen writes about Germany and the denial of the Holocaust. He talked about a state of knowing and not knowing that arises in ongoing traumatic situations. This "willful ignorance" occurs when information can't be totally denied, but can't be processed either. That's the state I think we're in now when we try to deal with global climate change.
We live in a culture of denial. A Pew Research Center poll in September 2011 revealed that, in spite of increasing evidence, belief in climate change was at its lowest level since 1997. In fact, belief had decreased from 71 percent to 57 percent in the previous 18 months. Even the manner in which we discuss climate change is odd. We don't talk about "believing in" the laws of aerodynamics, the DNA code, or faraway galaxies. By now the evidence for global climate change is solid and the scientific community is united. So why do we speak of believing in it as if we were speaking of belief in extraterrestrials?
Partly these poll numbers reflect a well-funded and orchestrated misinformation campaign by the fossil-fuel industry. Robert Proctor at Stanford University coined another new word, agnotology, for the study of ignorance or doubt that's deliberately manufactured or politically generated.
The poll results also can be explained by what Renee Lertzman called "The Myth of Apathy." She interviewed people about global climate change and found that they actually care intensely about the environment, but that their emotions are so tangled up and they're so beset by internal conflicts that they can't act adaptively. They aren't apathetic, but rather shut down psychologically.
All cultures have rules about what can and can't be acknowledged. This reminds me of an old joke about the Soviet Union. Two KGB men were walking together down the street.Â One of them said to the other, "What do you think of this system?" "I don't know," said the other one. "I probably think about the same as you do."Â "In that case," said the first, "I'm going to have to arrest you."
Social and environmental studies professor Kari Norgaard writes, "The denial of global warming is socially constructed. In America it is almost as if relevant information about our climate crisis is classified. Our national policy towards the devastation we face is, 'Don't ask. Don't tell.'"
We all have a healthy and understandable desire to avoid feeling pain. We want to savor the occasional shrimp cocktail without thinking about the ruined mangroves or read a book about lions to children without wondering how many are left in the wild. Yet we cannot solve a problem we will not face.
Once we face the hard truths about our environmental collapse, we can begin a process of transformation that I call the "alchemy of healing." Despair is often a crucible for growth. As we expand ourselves to deal with our new normal, we can feel more vibrant and engaged with the world as it is.
We can be intentional when we're shopping, planning a trip, or working in our communities. We can be citizens of the world, rather than consumers, and we can vote every time we hand over our debit card.
We're all community educators whether we know it or not. Everything we say and do is potentially a teachable moment for someone. So appoint yourself a change agent, engage in participatory democracy, and help yourself, your country, and your world. Belief often follows action. The harder we work, the likelier we are to experience hope and to improve our situation.
Amazement is another antidote to despair. Author Hannah Tennant-Moore wrote, "It took me a long time to learn that being miserable does not alleviate the world's misery."
After a rough week, I felt compelled to drive to Spring Creek Prairie, about 30 minutes from my home. I joined a group of birders doing a winter bird count. It was a grand experience, with long lines of snow geese overhead, woodpeckers in the burr oaks, and a mink ice-skating in the little pond. However, at some point, I wanted to be away from people, even the birders I normally enjoy.
I walked alone to a sunny patch of prairie, lay on the ground, and looked at the sky through the waving big bluestem. I imbibed the prairie. I felt the warm earth beneath me. I smelled the moisture, the dirt, and the cereal-like aroma of the tall grasses. I looked up through the golden seed heads at the blue sky and the geese. I heard their calls and the wind rustling in the grasses. As I lay there, I thought, "I'm getting what I most needed today."
I'm lucky to have a prairie nearby, but we all have green space available to us. We all can look at the sky. As my friend Sherri said, "I've never seen an ugly sky."
Another day, Margie brought her dog over for a walk around the lake. When we returned to my house, Leo began rolling around in the grass. First, he rolled on his back; then he lolled about on his stomach, trying to have every possible inch of skin touching the grass. Margie said, "If you want to know the time, ask a dog. They always know, and they'll tell you the correct time, which is now, now, now."
Transcendence can come from work, bliss, or an expanding moral imagination. I define the moral imagination as the ability to understand how the world looks and feels to another person. It involves motivation, heart, and imagination. My respect for the moral imagination leads to a simple value system--good is that which increases it and evil is that which decreases it.
I believe that the purpose of life is to expand our own moral imagination and to help others expand theirs, so that our circle of caring, which begins with our families, eventually includes all living beings.
One day, I played my grandchildren a song called "Hey Little Ant" by Phillip and Hannah Hoose. This song is a conversation between an ant and a boy on a playground with his friends watching. He wants to squish the ant just for fun. But the ant sings that he has a home and a family, too. He sings to show the boy that his life is as precious to his ant family as the boy's life is to his human family. The song ends with a question for the listener to ponder: "Should the ant get squished? Should the ant go free? / It's up to the kid, not up to me. / We'll leave that kid with the raised-up shoe. / Now what do you think that boy should do?"
When 9-year-old Kate heard it, she said, "Nonna, I'll never squish an ant again." Aidan, who was 7, also promised to let all ants run free. But 5-year-old Claire said, "Nonna, I still like to squish ants, but I won't kill any talking ants." Sigh. She'll have a growth spurt soon enough.
Poet Pablo Neruda wrote, "We are each one leaf on the great human tree." I hope we can extend that to include all living beings.
Dealing with our global crisis is essentially an ethics problem. If we don't expand our moral imaginations, we'll destroy ourselves. Healing will involve reweaving the most primal of connections to this sacred web.
Interconnection can be seen as a spiritual belief, especially in Buddhism. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, "we inter-are." But it's also a scientific fact. Economist Jeremy Rifkin writes, "We are learning that the earth functions like an invisible organism. We are the various cells of one living being. Those who work to save the earth are its antibodies." At its core, interconnection is a survival strategy. Gregory Bateson said it best, "The unit of survival is the organism and his environment."
The next great rights battle will be a fight to rescue our beleaguered planet. It'll be about air, plants, animals, water, energy, and dirt. We have a right to a sustainable planet and a future for our grandchildren. And the meadowlark, the fox, the bull snake, the mosquito, and the cottonwood also have this right.