Our climate problem/solution is narcissism

10 August 2012 – James Hansen, the world’s most well known climate scientist and director the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, regretfully reports he was too optimistic in his climate forecasts of 1988.

In an article from the Washington Post on 4 August, republished in Australian media, he says the latest scientific surveys of weather patterns of the past 60 years show the wild fluctuations in temperature from extreme heat to extreme cold are no longer random throws of the dice. Get used to them.

As the green and climate movement sinks into a funk of depression about the ascendancy of the climate deniers (The Monthly August 2012 issue https://www.themonthly.com.au/how-vested-interests-defeated-climate-science-dark-victory-robert-manne-5853) it’s little comfort that the deniers will increasingly look foolish at best and at worst, dangerous, short term narcissists protecting their patch.

The Monthly author of A Dark Victory, Robert Manne, quotes Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker: “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”

But it’s never about the science or logic or truth when humanity takes massive wrong turns. It’s always about the politics and that’s the word that goes hand in hand with the other big “P” word, power. Unfortunately the controllers of these weapons of mass destruction tend towards the narcissistic in life.

Manne captures it: This “determination” to get it wrong is in part psychological, he says: the incapacity of a society of consumers to accept the need to sacrifice even a part of material prosperity to ensure the wellbeing of the Earth.

“At another level, the determination is political – the willingness of large numbers of people to listen to those who are telling them that the group of experts upon whom they customarily rely, the relevant cadre of trained and published scientists, have comprehensively got things wrong.”

That’s the power and the narcissism kicking in. Like all narcissists, the view is short term: how can I improve my personal standing right now, at the possible and usually inevitable, consequence that my dear ones will desert me eventually because I am so self-obsessed?

Everything in our culture tells us to be self-obsessed. Westfield in its ad campaign for landfill shopping: “because you’re worth it”.

Presumably others are not.

Our 60s counter culture revolution was all about throwing off the shackles of control, the control by others, through the straitjacket of etiquette and social and family mores that caused so much psychological damage for so many; and the self-control that came with these influences.

It all went too far.

Now the mere notion that we should “do without” a bit or for a bit brings visions of fire and brimstone, of great deprivation and collective memories of repressive regimes. Why should we do without? It’s my right to enjoy and consume?

Developers constantly spruik “choice”. What a joke!

There is no choice when the only affordable house is a flimsy brick and tile thing miles from anywhere useful, which will cost a fortune to stay warm and cool in.

Manne pinpoints the origin of climate denial to a group of US scientists, chiefly, Frederick Seitz, S Fred Singer, William Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow.

This group, the Union of Concerned Scientists, engaged in battles with those they believed were part of the “anti-capitalist scientific left”.

Their battles? On tobacco, Star Wars, “nuclear winter acid air and the thinning of the ozone layer” issues they considered “socialism by stealth”.

Here’s politics again.

Their position? No prizes for guessing: protection of those with an interest in these matters. Narcissism again.

Manne goes on to describe the techniques of sowing doubt by exploiting the scientific open mind, which always retains a willingness to be questioned and proved wrong.

Hansen, in his Washington Post piece, likens the odds that the deniers cling to as similar to giving up your job on the chance of winning the lottery.

But the biggest player in this war, the biggest weapon handed free-of-charge to the deniers is the media.

Phony scientists start the doubt and journalists forget the original source is discredited because they are under so much pressure from media ownership based on profit (it’s a business just like any other business; not a public interest charity).

Manne also fingers the power of the internet. This is a potent formula for mass political change consisting of  highly trained spin doctors masquerading as, and mixing it with, the army of regular bloggers.

Now there’s nothing wrong with blogging. The big problem is that many are untrained in any form of empirical analysis, or even scepticism; they don’t have to research and check facts; there’s no editor or a critical body of readers to fear if they make mistakes, just some comments or feedback they can delete or ignore.

Yet narcissism could actually be the thing that saves us, the narcissism that truly wants to live long and well and be loved and love.

Which paradoxically requires the opposite of narcissism, care and nurture the things outside the self.

Strange isn’t it?

Now shouldn’t that test be applied to all those we hand power to?

It really is all about us, in the end.