Environmentalism: "frustrated, angry and confused"

by | May 15, 2008

Over at the Daily Kos, and European Tribune, blogger ‘Johnnyrook’ attempts to connect ‘denialism’ with an ideology. The piece itself is an answer to a blog post elsewhere by Joseph Romm, The denialists are winning, especially with the GOP. David Roberts tried this approach on the Nation blog back in February:

Long-time greens are painfully aware that the arguments of global warming skeptics are like zombies in a ’70s B movie. They get shot, stabbed, and crushed, over and over again, but they just keep lurching to their feet and staggering forward. That’s because — news flash! — climate skepticism is an ideological, not a scientific, position, and as such it bears only a tenuous relationship to scientific rules of evidence and inference. 

We replied that environmentalism used ‘science’ as a fig leaf. Environmentalism is an ideological position, whereas scepticism encompasses a range of objections to it, some of which are, in fact, perfectly valid on scientific grounds.

What Johnnyrook writes in Why Climate Denialists are Blind to Facts and Reason: The Role of Ideology is, frankly, unmitigated and unimportant crap. But it does offer some insight into the ‘thought processes’ of grass-roots Environmentalism. Johnnyrook whines that

Anyone who has tried to discuss Climaticide with a climate change denialist knows just how frustrating it can be. No matter how well informed you are, no matter how many peer-reviewed studies you cite, or how many times you point out the overwhelming agreement based on the evidence that exists among climate scientists that global warming is real and is principally caused by human fossil fuel use, you will get no where. Your adversary will deny the facts, cherry pick the scientific evidence for bits of data that, taken out of context, support his/her denialist view, or drag out long-debunked counter-arguments in the hope that they are unfamiliar to you and that you will not be able to refute them. If you succeed in countering all of his arguments he will most likely reword them and start all over again. 

Climaticide? Climaticide? Is it even possible to kill a climate? But moving on, Johnnyrook clearly believes himself to be in possession of a faultless argument. So it must be the rest of the world that’s wrong. Who said environmentalism was emotional, arrogant, and infantile?

After a couple of hours of this, you end up frustrated, angry and confused. You give up and storm off vowing to study and learn even more so that next time you will be better prepared and able to convince the denialist of the error of his/her ways. 

Our advice to little Johnny is that perhaps his tantrums would be easier to manage if he reflected on why his arguments aren’t convincing, rather than sought to find other reasons to explain his failure. But Johnny’s tantrums are characteristic of the environmental movement as a whole – a movement that is unable to take responsibility for its own failures.

No, the true climate change denialist is an ideologue. Understanding this fact is key to comprehending the denialist mentality and to knowing how to respond to denialist arguments. Ideologues are adherents of closed, ideological systems, in which all problems are ultimately attributed to a single cause: original sin (Christianity), the accumulation of private property (Communism), restrictions imposed on a superior race by inferior ones (Fascism), the destruction of “freedom” by “Big Government” (Conservative/Libertarian).  

And here Johnny gives us some insight into why he fails to make convincing political arguments. First, he doesn’t recognise his own perspective as ideological, and that it is, in his own terms, about a ‘single cause’. Perhaps we can help him – spell it out for him, in fact – with the aid of some emphasis to illustrate our point:


Environmentalists see society as intrinsically, fundamentally, inextricably linked to ‘nature’ – manifested as the ‘environment’. To the Environmentalist, all moral actions are transmitted through the biosphere. Your wealth, relative to another’s poverty is not seen in terms of the political, sociological, or historical background to your circumstances and those of your counterparts. It is instead seen in terms of biological and geological processes. You buy a big car, and the consequence is that it rains too much/doesn’t rain at all on the poor, starving child in Africa. So, instead of addressing the poverty of the poor child through developing a critique of the socio-political relations throughout the world in order that we might begin to help, the Environmentalist just wants you to withdraw from your evil lifestyle. This moral framework is unchallengeable, according to the Environmentalist, because the causal chain between your consumer choice and the plight of the child in can be explained in ‘scientific’ rather than social terms; the car, the combustion, the CO2, the greenhouse effect, the warming, the climate change, the drought. (Forget any sense of proportion between these steps).

This perspective takes poverty as a given. Indeed, it needs poverty. Without poverty to designate a moral absolute, Environmentalism’s moral calculations would cease to have meaning. Its objectives are, therefore, not to abolish poverty, but to make it ‘less bad’. And, of course, the abolishment of poverty is, according to Johnny’s maxim, ‘ideological’. Thus, we are prevented from approaching the problem of poverty – or even the effects of climate change – through politics. In other words, poverty is not seen as a political problem. After all, poverty is natural. Just ask Malthus.

Second, Johnny gives us a particularly ignorant description of ideologies. Christianity is all about ‘original sin’, apparently. But can we comfortably say that Christianity is an ideology? It may well offer us an account of creation, but not necessarily to the exclusion of other ideological ideas. Can a Christian not be committed to free trade, on the one hand, or the abolition of private property on the other? There are interesting moral arguments for both. But why should Jesus be bothered, either way? And isn’t that a problem for Christians, rather than political scientists? Communism, apparently, blames all problems on the accumulation of private property. Actually, Marx’s contention was that the accumulation of private property is necessary to create a working class in an industrial – rather than feudal – society. In this sense, the accumulation begins to solve many of the problems of oppression and inequality. And Johnny is very much mistaken with his conception of Fascism, which he confuses with nazism. Nazism is indeed a racialised form of Fascism. But Fascism itself isn’t a necessarily a racist ideology, and there is no consensus amongst historians about how fascism can be characterised; it is an issue of much debate, somewhat clouded by the fact that, at the time of fascism and Nazism, ideas about race such as eugenics were mainstream and orthodox – dare we say, the subject of a consensus. Finally, Johnny confuses libertarianism with conservatism. Yet conservatism, as the name suggests, seeks to use the state to preserve social orders, traditions and cultures, while libertarianism is a broader term, in that a libertarian would generally object to the state’s intervention in such matters. Johnny’s grasp on political ideologies is weak. No wonder then, that he fails to recognise
his own.

He continues, oblivious,

Once the initial conclusion is reached (often after a long, complicated chain of deductive reasoning–Marx’s Capital, the writings of Ayn Rand, etc.) that factor X is the source of all of society’s ills, all debate outside the ideology’s framework ends.

Hmm. Hasn’t Johnny opened his story by telling us that carbon is the source of society’s ills?

One may deduce new positions from the ideology’s fundamental principles, but the fundamental principles can not be questioned because such questioning might undermine the entire ideological system and the psychological security that it provides, leaving the true believer in that most urgently to be avoided of states: UNCERTAINTY. Ideology is thus, inevitably, by it’s very nature, anti-empirical. 

We repeat:


Moreover, is it not precisely uncertainty that blights the environmental movement? Isn’t it the environmental movement that needs to tell us that ‘the science is in’? Wasn’t it Johnny who was, just a few paragraphs ago, evincing his own sheer and absolute rightness? Isn’t the entire momentum of the environmental movement predicated on a ‘scientific consensus’?

Johnny borrows from Naomi Oreskes’ critique of the “tobacco strategy”, which we discuss – at some length – here. Oreskes’ thesis is that doubt has been manufactured against the scientific case that smoking causes cancer and that global warming is caused by anthropogenic CO2, out of an ideological conviction. This forgets two things:

1. That, whatever the scientific evidence that smoking causes cancer is, and whatever the evidence that humans are influencing the climate is, our response to that evidence is necessarily political. Only a lack of response – indifference – is apolitical. In the case of smoking, the possible political responses to such information are many: we could put out the information that smoking causes cancer; we could restrict the sale of tobacco; we could ban it altogether; or we could even decide that we should all smoke more and die horribly. But all options are political.

2. That any objection to a political argument in favour of a course of action, founded on a scientific case, will necessarily ‘doubt’ that the scientific evidence is sufficient to warrant the political action to which one objects. To point that out is to state the obvious.

Johnny’s uncertainty and Oreskes’ ‘tobacco strategy’ hypotheses are meaningless. They say no more than “objectors doubt the proposition”. But Oreskes and Johnny have convinced themselves that scientific evidence exists in some separate, apolitical space, from where it can make scientifically sound political arguments; they hide their political ideology behind their scientific fig leaves.

He continues with another mischaracterisation…

The Soviets understood this way of thinking perfectly because Marxism too is an ideology, only in Marxism the great enemy is not the State but private capital. 

Actually, the state is the ‘enemy’ in Marxism. For Marx, communist society is a stateless society, and the state is the apparatus of the bourgeoisie; it maintains the conditions in which the working classes are oppressed. Marx explicitly seeks the abolition of the state. Johnny is completely wrong.

He goes on to argue that it is pointless to argue with people who hold an ‘ideological’ objection to climate change alarmism, because ‘facts’ are not important to them. He offers a psychological account of his political opponents:

ideologues find psychological safety from an uncertain world in the certainties of their ideology. What you think of as an argument about global warming, they perceive as an attack on their entire world view. And they’re right of course, even though it’s not your intention. 

We have seen attempts to profile the psychology of ‘deniers’ before. Here, for example.

What is interesting here is that Johnny, who, as we can see, fails to recognise his own ideology as an ideology, now makes an attack against all ideology – against all political perspectives. Ideology is now a symptom of a pathology, in much the same way that religion is seen as a pathology by Richard Dawkins et al; it is a comforting delusion, with a biological basis. This scientistic nihilism allows Johnny to diminish his opposition, rather than confront them. Isn’t this what the Nazi’s do, according to Johnny’s account of ideology, to other races? Aren’t other races, by virtue of this pathology, not only morally and intellectually inferior, but biologically inferior too? Johnny has just diminished his opponents to sub-humans, who do not have the right to engage in political discussion or to raise political objections. Disagree with Johnny and you are persona non grata. Johnny isn’t even capable of identifying the opposition – of which he is evidently utterly ignorant – to his ideas. He doesn’t need to know what ideas in an ideology might commit an ‘ideologue’ to an objection to Environmentalism, and it would seem that he doesn’t care. All he can see is that convictions to ideas appear to stand in the way of his own beliefs.

Johnny’s claim to empiricism belies his blatant anti-intellectualism. He too wants ‘facts’ but only in the sense that a caveman wants a club. He says that “one should generally ignore the denialists and concentrate on persuading the open minded”. But anyone who is open-minded has to agree with him, or they are suddenly closed-minded. Johnny finishes:

For those of us in the reality-based community, understanding the role that conservative/libertarian ideology plays in determining Climaticide denialist behavior, whether sincere or simulated, can be very useful in making sense of the denialist position, a position which, ultimately, is rooted not in facts and critical thinking, but in political and psychological needs. 

For Johnny to tell us that ‘denialists’ are blinded by ideology seems as reasonable as, say, somebody who wants to completely reorganise society around a principle of, ohh, let’s say, ‘harmony with nature’, telling us that they are against reorganising society around a particular principle. Of course Johnny has an ideology – Environmentalism. And of course he is an ‘ideologue’. Why then, does Johnny protest so much about ideology?

Johnny’s inability to reflect on his own ideology, his poor grasp of politics and his disregard for others all go some way to explaining his frustration, anger, and confusion. This is a symptom of the environmental movement. We have written before about the many different ways that Environmentalists have tried to diminish their opponents by questioning their psychology and moral character, and by trying to locate a conspiracy – in every way, in fact, other than through careful, honest, political argument. Johnny’s emotions characterise the shrill, impatient, self importance of the environmental movement, which prefers trantrums to debate, and panic and alarmism to convincing arguments. It prizes emotion over intellectual engagement. Environmentalism isn’t so much a cause to fight for, than a symptom of belonging to nothing. It is, nonetheless, an ideology – one that needs to be challenged.


  1. dover_beach

    Excellent post but one quibble. You say, “Yet conservatism, as the name suggests, seeks to use the state to preserve social orders, traditions and cultures,…” I disagree. Conservatives would simply prefer the state desist from actively modifying or destroying existing “social orders, traditions, and cultures”. This has certainly been true of English conservatives from Burke to Oakeshott.

  2. Robert of Ottawa

    It appears that Johnny is describing his own condition.

  3. Jeff Clarke

    Johnny is like all warmers and most enviroes. They suffer from a deep self loathing.
    they attribute everyone else’s motivations to what motivates them. They therefore see in everyone else (those who disagree with them) the same faults that they possess. They don’t want so much to save the world as to destroy mankind. To them Man is the evil destroyer of nature and anything he does is evil. Nothing will change their minds. Sound like a religion to you?

  4. Kevo

    Ben and Stuart

    The quality of your writing – both thought and prose – is brilliant and humbling. I wish I could achieve what you do.

  5. john a. bailo

    One reason that it’s hard to fight the AGWers is that they put the “Denier” in the state of the defender. My own preference is the inaction of the status quo…but that’s a hard sell for most people. Almost anyone can get up on stage with a megaphone, shout “the end is near” and make people shell out money. Even the most skeptical person buys insurance.

    Therefore, I wish that whatever it is that we — who are not AGWers — believe in, turn it into an equivalent “movement” — one that is not in opposition to the Greens, but which is a complete ideology of its own.

    The best strategy is to come up with something that ignores them completely but at the same time prevents them from picking our pockets.


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